We've criticized the new Apple TV for its lack of streaming-media services, but we've always held out hope that AirPlay would bring the additional functionality we wanted. Today, Apple released the new 4.2 iOS update and an Apple TV update, which enables AirPlay functionality. We've had some time to play with it, and though it doesn't fully deliver on its promise yet, it's on its way to being one of the best features of the Apple TV.
What is AirPlay and how it works
The idea behind AirPlay is "pushing" content from an iOS device to your Apple TV, so you can watch on the big screen. It's designed to work with music, photos, and videos, although the video functionality is limited for now.
AirPlay for AppleTV
"Pushing" content to an Apple TV couldn't get much easier. You'll need an Apple TV with the latest software update and an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad running the new iOS 4.2 software, and they both need to be on the same home network.
Start playing back a media file, such as a song stored on your iPod, and next to the volume slider will be a "push" icon, which looks like a box and an arrow pointed up. You'll see another screen that let's you select your Apple TV and once you hit that, the content playback on your TV.
That's it. There's a very slight lag before it starts playing on your Apple TV, but otherwise it works exactly how you'd expect.
What's AirPlay compatible right now?
Pretty much anything that plays back in the iPod app is AirPlay-compatible. That means any music or videos you have stored on your iOS device can be push to an Apple TV. Photos can also be pushed, although we were surprised that videos taken with our iPhone 4 couldn't be streamed to an Apple TV.
In addition to music stored on your iPod, we also had success with music-based apps like Rhapsody and Pandora. Music played back without any problems, our only gripe would be that our Apple TV displayed "Unknown Artist" and "Unknown Track," from third-party music apps. Music stored on our iPod correctly transmitted artist and track information to the Apple TV. Still, Pandora access on the Apple TV is a huge plus, since it was one of the major apps we felt was missing from the Apple TV.
The only third-party video app that's we've been able to get working so far is YouTube. The Apple TV does have a built-in YouTube app already, but it's still a nice features since it's definitely easier to use an iPhone to find YouTube videos than browsing on your TV.
What isn't working with AirPlay?
While we had success with most of the music apps we tried, most video apps aren't working right now. Netflix, Hulu Plus, and MLB.TV didn't work, although the Apple TV did generally play back the audio of the videos. (Of course, the Apple TV already has Netflix, so this isn't a huge loss.) Web-based video like Vimeo also didn't work us. And in case you were wondering, there's also no support for games or other kind of nonmedia apps right now. (Not that we were expecting that.)
Does this make the Apple TV a better buy?
If you own an iOS 4.2 compatible-device, AirPlay opens up some much-needed functionality, especially Pandora streaming. We're also hoping this is only the first step AirPlay, with support for third-party video apps to follow. (Hulu and MLB.TV would be a great start.) On the other hand, if you don't own an iOS 4.2-compatible device, AirPlay doesn't add any value to your Apple TV.
That being said, if you're looking to drop your cable/satellite subscription, we still think that competing devices like the Roku XDS and Sony SMP-N100 offer a better suite of services, especially the powerful trio of Netflix, Amazon VOD, and Hulu Plus. The downside is, of course, that neither of those devices is nearly as capable of a network music player.