One of the gifts I received this year was an AppleTV. I had been wanting one since they came out, but was waiting on 1080P support. I was actually recommending it someone as something to go with the iPads he purchased, and he gave me one as thanks for the recommendation and help with technical support. Airplay Mirroring, for those that do not know, is the ability to show what is on screen on a 2011 or newer iOS device on your television.
I especially wanted one since Apple announced that Hulu Plus was being added to AppleTV given that I watch more television programing at home than movies, and NetFlix left a bad taste in my mouth with their negotiations fiasco and further missteps in restructuring. (I only wish CBS would join the Hulu party so I could catch The Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls, and Person of Interest more than once every few weeks.)
Now I knew that Airplay Mirroring was possible with iOS, but what I must have missed was AirPlay Mirroring was also available to Macs running OS X 10.8 (on 2011+ Macs). Apple is the only company in the world that doesn’t tout a few of the geekier features of their devices, so it was easy to miss this in the release announcement of 10.8. The thing is, this one feature, AirPlay Mirroring, is a game changer. It is the killer feature of the AppleTV if you own a Mac Laptop or iOS device. What this means is if you own a 2011 or newer MacBook running OS X 10.8 and an HDTV, you are $99 away from turning your HDMI-equipped HDTV into a very large monitor. Now if only Apple would offer MacBooks with Blu-Ray the circle would be complete. I know this is not likely considering they are trying to hasten the demise of all discs. Another unforeseen bonus was being able to use my iPhone to remote control the AppleTV using Remote, the same Apple app used to control iTunes on OS X.
For my first use of Airplay Mirroring, I played some ATSC captured video I recorded using VLC, and sent it to the AppleTV. My girlfriend and I were able to watch Person of Interest streaming from my MBP without a single glitch the entire duration of the program (and skip commercials in 10 seconds jumps). It is conceivable we could also both watch a show together but in in different rooms if one of us has to do housework (me) or make dinner (her, because she’s a MacGyver in the kitchen). Of course my WiFi is a dual band 802.11N system, so it had enough headroom to stream everything smoothly.
After setting up the device for streaming, I immediately noticed the picture quality of Hulu is much better than NetFlix. I was able to steam at 1080P with BluRay quality from Hulu using a large chunk of bandwidth. So, if your internet connection is below 4Mbps (~500KBps), you might not get the best picture quality. Netflix streaming looked like it was being played off a VCR or over-compressed DVD at best, while the AppleTV used all it had to deliver sharp vivid video via Apple’s iTMS and Hulu Plus.
The biggest flaw is the UI to switch user accounts to remote control the AppleTV from a Mac or iOS device using a different AppStore account. It is a very confusing mess of toggling “Home Sharing” which is misfiled under “Computers” off and on again. But instead of being able to select which account to use you have to reenter the password each time you change control. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to change it. If it takes me that long to figure out how to navigate the UI and through a process of trial and error figure out how the device is structured, then the average user will probably never realize the feature exists, or give up trying to use it. It is apparent that some of Apple’s UI engineers are stuck in a one user per device paradigm when most home users share their iPads and computers. I am almost positive no one at Apple tests using 2 accounts on any iOS device or it wouldn’t be such a pathetically bad experience.
After setting it up, and going through all the settings, playing a bit of iCloud music, I was somewhat pleased with this $99 box’s versatility. Given that the Airport Express is also $99 and also has Airplay (but only for audio so you can stream via WiFi to your home stereo), Apple is about 2 generations away from being able to introduce a thin client Mac. I already own a first generation Airport Express, and have it hooked up to the Stereo so I can send iTunes music to it. I plan on recommending AppleTVs to everyone with a OS X laptop newer than 2011. After using AV wireless steaming within the house the past few months, can see why Tesla was so gung-ho about wireless communications, and why wires are “so last century.”