The Apple TV product has slowly matured from a “hobbyist” product to something that might be useful to a mass audience. It’s a small box, about the size of a hockey puck, that facilitates the streaming of digital content from the Internet to your audio and video devices. The most common use is to stream Netflix movies to your television. But since many devices can do that, so far the Apple TV hasn’t seemed so special. The recent addition of Hulu makes it more appealing, but other streaming devices, such as those made by Roku, already have that – and many other services.
AirPlay is the game changer for the Apple TV. This technology permits you to “throw” audio or video from your Mac, iPhone or iPad, to your audio or video system. The logical use is to wirelessly connect to a television so you can share a slide deck with an audience. It’s also a terrific way to share digital photos with family and friends.
But dig a little deeper, and reframe a bit. What AirPlay does is turn your iDevice into a super remote. This is how I’ve been using it, and it works brilliantly (with a few limitations). Playing a YouTube video is a good example. Many other devices support YouTube playback. But good luck locating the right clip! With the Apple TV, you get the benefit of the superior Mac or iPad user interface. It’s much easier.
I’ve been using Apple TV to stream audio – such as XM Sirius, Pandora and TuneIn Radio – to my stereo system. I have transitioned to a post-CD audio lifestyle. Virtually everything I listen to is streamed, either from these services or from my iTunes library. Apple TV features an optical digital out (Toslink), so if you have a good digital-to-analog convertor and a high enough bit rate, it sounds excellent. While Apple TV lacks the polish of the Sonos audio system, it’s a perfectly acceptable substitute if you only need to send a signal to one room (if you’re doing a whole-house audio system, run out and buy Sonos – it’s wonderful).
Video is a bit more dodgy. Some apps – including Amazon Instant and HBO Go – have crippled AirPlay. This is one instance in which the audience is caught in between warring factions, such as Apple and Amazon. Hopefully customer complaints can help these companies see the light and restore this functionality. But you don’t have to be a genius to imagine the ultimate Apple television technology that was alluded to in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
Your iPad (or something similar) is the remote. The rows of icons on the screen are either live streams, recorded shows or programming services. You see something you want to watch, touch the icon, and it appears on your TV. You can group the icons according to your personal preferences. Delete the ones you never watch. Watch on the iPad or on the TV. Do a quad split and watch four at once. All of these activities should be possible.
This approach is intuitively appealing, but upsets the barriers between multiple industries: cable TV, networks, local affiliates, telecommunication companies and ISPs. This is one area where it would be a mistake to assume technological determinism, or the “if you build it they will come” approach. This is why, so far, integrated providers such as Comcast/Xfinity have the lead position.
What you need to use the Apple TV: Wi-fi or wired Internet access (more bandwidth is always good for streaming); HDMI connection to a high definition TV (cable is not included); AC power; optical digital out is available if you want to use it. Many services require free or paid accounts.
Cost: about $100.
You might also consider: Three different versions of Roku box (less elegant interface but more open architecture); Sonos (superior streaming experience, accommodates multiple rooms, but for audio only).
Gizmodo: AirPlay is Apple’s “sneak attack” on television