At last year's CES, Intel Wireless Display was one of our Best of CES nominees, standing out for its potential to bring streaming Internet video to an HDTV from a laptop over its own dedicated wireless channel, including audio. In fact, it was your pick as Best in Show, winning the People's Voice Award (as determined by a user poll).
Let's go back to early 2010: back then, connecting a laptop to a TV with a wired connection was still the best way to get Internet video content such as Hulu and Netflix without an additional set-top box. Despite having a slight delay in the video/audio signal, and requiring a $99 Push2TV box from Netgear plugged into an HDTV or non-HD television to receive the signal, the benefits seemed clear, and for those looking to make a laptop into a home entertainment solution, there was no better choice.
Hands-on with Intel's Wireless Display
Times have changed, indeed, although Intel Wireless Display really hasn't. The debut of Apple's iPad, and its support of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other streaming services, has changed the equation a bit, even if the iPad doesn't support Flash. Video game consoles now have Netflix across the board, and even (on the PS3, at least) Hulu Plus and Vudu. TV sets are including an ever-increasing number of Internet apps for accessing digital content, and set-top boxes such as the Boxee Box, the next-gen Roku box, and Apple TV offer a variety of solutions.
When it comes to methods of getting Internet or computer-stored video content on your TV, your options come to this:
1) Streaming video app-enabled TVs, game consoles, and set-top boxes/DVRs/Blu-ray players. The options here are numerous, including the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Apple TV, Roku XDS, TiVo, and a number of Blu-ray players. These all have limitations: each one only has certain apps, and, in most cases, no easy access to Internet streaming content. Two more Web-enabled boxes are the Boxee Box and the Logitech Revue/Google TV, but their built-in Flash-enabled Web browsers are less useful than originally envisioned because primo content providers (Hulu.com, ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, Comedy Central) are blocking streams to those devices.
2) DLNA-enabled boxes for streaming video from your PC to your TV. These include the Boxee Box, Blu-ray players with DLNA compatibility, the Sony SMP-N100, the PS3, the Xbox 360, WD TV Live Hub, WD TV Live Plus, the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV, and the Logitech Revue/Google TV. What you'll also need is a PC or server with content that's in a recognizable format for DLNA streaming, and software to enable your PC to act as a content server. This is for file hoarders who have lots of digital music and movie files on their hard drives--not for those looking to stream videos straight off the Web. (Apple TV can loosely be included in this category, but note that it can only stream files that are in iTunes--which means you'll need to do a time-consuming conversion process first for most video files that weren't purchased from Apple.)
3) Screen-mirroring technology. This approach uses a go-between wireless transmitter to throw whatever's on your screen onto an HDTV or monitor, mirroring everything that appears. This applies to Intel Wireless Display, but also to new technologies such as Veebeam and various Wireless HDMI products such as the Asus WiCast. While it requires a nearby laptop, it's the most flexible method of watching content online, since it's not susceptible to the aforementioned browser-blocking issue that's afflicted Boxee and Google TV in various ways.
Intel Wireless Display comes built into some laptops that have it and it's relatively easy to set up, but requires that $99 box (though you can find it for under $80 at some retailers). Veebeam is compatible with most full-size (non-Netbook) Windows PCs and Macs, and uses a USB stick to act as the streaming enabler to the included TV-connected box. Its resolution isn't quite as clear as Intel Wireless Display, and it costs $150, but it's a nice way to turn an existing laptop wireless. The Asus WiCast--a PC-friendly Wireless HDMI solution--offers higher-resolution streaming up to 1080p and can play back Blu-ray content, but it requires a large strap-on box to be attached to your laptop, and costs $200.
Intel Wireless Display has one restriction: it blocks playback of DVD and Blu-ray content from the Wi-Di-enabled laptop. That's not a deal-breaker, since we can't think of anyone who would use this who doesn't already own a DVD player, and Wi-Di's maximum resolution of 720p isn't ideal for Blu-rays, anyway. (The same restriction applies to the Veebeam.)
Intel Wireless Display's biggest perk is that it can turn your TV into a second monitor, streaming content to it while you browse the Web or do other work on your laptop. That's a huge plus, effectively freeing your laptop from being enslaved while streaming. WiCast does the same thing. Veebeam can mirror what's on your laptop's display, or it can send compatible video files directly to the TV--but that latter option won't work with Web video, which requires the screen-mirroring mode. (It works well, but it means you can't be doing other work on the laptop simultaneously.)
Apple has offered a competing type of solution with Apple TV: AirPlay. Unfortunately, the initial iteration of AirPlay is pretty limited. It can stream the audio from most iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad apps directly to your big-screen TV (via the Apple TV), but video streaming is currently only compatible with the Apple video player (iTunes content) and YouTube. It's impressive technology, but it doesn't accomplish what Wi-Di aims to do--namely, get any and all PC-based video, including streaming Internet content, onto your big screen.
The biggest hindrance to Intel Wireless Display's success is its limited availability, even a year later. A handful of very good laptops include Wi-Di, most notably the Samsung QX410, the Toshiba Portege R705, the Sony Vaio EA series, and certain Dell Inspiron R and XPS models, but finding which laptops have it isn't always easy. Even more frustratingly, no HDTVs include native compatibility for Wi-Di, which would be a lot more appealing than using the clunky and pricey Netgear box.
Come CES 2011, it won't be surprising to see Intel announce improvements to Wireless Display, perhaps higher resolutions and less lag. Is it worth waiting? Right now, we wouldn't go out of our way to buy a laptop with Intel Wireless Display inside--but it's still the least bulky and most convenient way to stream video to a TV. If you think you might use it, buying a laptop with Wi-Di isn't a bad bet at all. But there are also more good alternatives now than ever before.