Apple's AirPlay, a new feature arriving with today's release of iOS 4.2, marks a huge move into a (mercifully) wireless future, beaming music, videos, and photos to speakers and screens all over your house. Here's why it's so damn cool.
What you need:
• An iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch
• An Apple TV or Airport Express
AirPlay is Apple's way of letting you play your music and videos on bigger and better speakers and screens around your house, without plugging anything in. It's basically a new and improved version of AirTunes, Apple's protocol for streaming music from iTunes to AirPort Express-connected speakers, but AirPlay expands things on several fronts: the type of media you can stream (videos and photos, in addition to music); the types of devices that can stream that media (iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches) and the places to which that media can be streamed (Apple TVs and compatible third-party hardware, in addition to AirPort Expresseses).
As anyone who has an Airport Express will attest, being able to beam media around the house wirelessly is awesome. And while AirPlay is, in essence, little more than Apple's own proprietary version of DLNA, in this case "Apple's own version" means that AirPlay is seamlessly stitched into the software of Apple's products and works in ways that DLNA can't. Here's how you'll use it.
• To play music from your Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch over your AirPort Express-connected speakers.
This is a big one. Apple sells the AirPort Express for $100. Not too pricey but not all that cheap. I just bought a second, refurbished Express on eBay for $45. That's cheap—cheap enough, if you're willing to buy them second-hand, to have wireless music all over your house. Like even in the bathroom and stuff. Sweet.
Up until now, Apple's Remote app was pretty good for controlling that wireless music goodness from iPhones and iPads, but it required your main Mac to be turned on, serving music via iTunes somewhere in the house. With AirPlay, you're able to stream music directly from your iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Take out your iPod ears when you're walking into your apartment and instead of stopping the song set it to greet you through your living room speakers as you walk in the door. Yes...entrance music.
• To send videos from your iPhone or iPad to your Apple TV-connected television.
The second-gen Apple TV, as Apple described it, seemed pretty lame. Movie rentals are neat (maybe?), but even for a relatively cheap $99 it seemed like this thing didn't really do anything. Until we found out about AirPlay. Not only can the Apple TV receive whatever videos you've bought from iTunes or managed to wrangle into your iPad or iPhone's fussy Video app, it can play any video that plays through iOS's native video player, including YouTubes, Vimeos, Vevos, and whatever else.
Now, I know I can play YouTube videos directly on my TV through Panasonic VIeraCast, and I think I could figure out a way to pipe them in through my XBox, but I never do! Because it's a pain in the ass! And while it might seem decadent (moreso, even, than $45 second-hand AirPort poop-tunes), I think you could make a case for AppleTV solely as a $99 big screen Vimeo watcher. Sure, the YouTube cat video pantheon might not really need the TV treatment, but I find myself watching beautifully-produced, longer-than-bite-sized stuff on sites like Vimeo all the time. To me, short documentaries like this and music videos like this are far more deserving of my big screen real estate than whatever Kardashian hijinks E! happens to be showing.
• Some very neat things in between.
What's very cool about AirPlay (and a little surprising, considering the sometimes-restrictive tendencies of the company behind it) is that it works in some useful but not-so-obvious ways you might not initially consider. Say you're in bed watching a video on your iPad. You can use AirPlay to stream just the audio to your Airport Express-connected stereo, affording you some extra boom over the iPad's tinny speakers but keeping the video right up close to your face on your tablet.
While AirPort Express and Apple TV are a pretty affordable means to get your current speakers and screens AirPlay ready, Apple's also opened up AirPlay to third-party hardware, making way for stereos and picture frames and the like can receive media from your iPhone right out of the box.
Apple's already announced partnerships with companies like Denon, Marantz, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, and iHome to create AirPlay-friendly gear, and you can bet that countless other companies will follow. These products will range from the swanky, expensive receiver in your home theater to the cheap iPod speakers you bought at the Apple Store, and they'll function just like normal—you'll just happen to be able to send music to them wirelessly, too.
So even if you're not racing out to get an Apple TV, AirPlay is poised to bring about a gadget world in which you'll be able to play more of the stuff you like in a lot more places.
With AirPlay, Apple's taking a big step into a rad future, one in which music and videos and photos exist on mobile devices but can be enjoyed through better speakers and bigger screens. But we're not all the way there by any means.
OS X is one weak link. Though iTunes is AirPlay-equipped, meaning you can send music and video in your iTunes library to AirPlay devices, I can't remember the last time I watched a video through iTunes. That means that on your Mac, YouTube, Vimeo, and the rest are still imprisoned in the browser. Hopefully this will change with the next version of OS X.
The idea of AirPlay outside of your house is also still a question mark. Joel looked forward to the possibility of effortlessly throwing photos from your iPhone onto your friend's Apple TV, though it's unclear exactly how easy it will be to do so. And of course there's still the fact that amidst all this wireless nirvana, the media still has to exist on your iPad or iPhone, synced with that pesky USB tether. So there's still that to look forward to, the day when all the music you're listening to and the videos you're watching, whether they're on the net, your Mac, your phone or your tablet, can be beamed around via AirPlay. But I'm pretty damn excited about what we've got in the meantime.
Screenshot credit: Electric Nicholas