Hands on: AirPlay review

AirPlay is an evolution of AirTunes, the system that allowed Macs and PCs running iTunes to play audio through devices connected to either an AirPort Express or an Apple TV. While that functionality still exists, AirPlay expands it to allow the remote playback of video on the second-generation Apple TV. In addition, the iOS 4.2 update introduced AirPlay support on iOS devices, and a recent iOS 4.3 beta, released to developers, includes third-party access to AirPlay.

Currently, two different sorts of devices can send audio or video to an Apple TV via AirPlay. Macs or PCs running iTunes 10 will display the AirPlay icon if there’s an AirPlay-compatible device on the local network. In our initial testing, we were able to stream audio and video to an Apple TV from a Mac running iTunes 10 without any trouble.

An iOS device running iOS 4.2 or later can also send audio or video via AirPlay. To enable AirPlay, you must first select the media you wish to play back, and start it playing. Then you tap on the AirPlay icon (which appears on the right-hand side of the control pane) and select an AirPlay-compatible device. After a pause of about two seconds, the video you were watching on your iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) will appear on the HDTV attached to an Apple TV.

Choose where to play your video from the new AirPlay pop-over menu

On in the background
The most remarkable thing about streaming HD video from an iPad to an HDTV isn’t the act of playback, but what happens next. We pressed the iPad’s Home button and switched over to the Mail app, and the video kept playing. AirPlay works in the background, continuing to stream media remotely while you do other stuff. You can even put the iOS device to sleep and toss it in the corner; as long as it has battery power and a network connection, it’ll keep streaming.

You can control AirPlay playback from the iOS device, of course – the standard set of play and pause control buttons are available. But once the streaming starts, you can pick up the Apple TV remote and control things that way. Once an AirPlay stream is going, it’s really no different from watching a movie on the Apple TV directly. All the standard Apple TV remote commands work, so you can play, pause, fast-forward, and even bring up a chapter list and skip forward. The Apple TV buffers as much of the streamed file as it can, so fast-forwarding is smooth.

We tested AirPlay with HD and SD videos from the Videos app, and it worked well. We were also able to use AirPlay with the YouTube app. However, AirPlay didn’t work when we tried to play back a movie trailer from Apple’s trailers site through the iPad’s Safari browser. Nor is it possible to stream content from iPlayer, 4oD or any other web TV services via the Apple TV.

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