Date: January 21, 2011
Type: Digital media
Release date: December 5, 2010
Note: Yes, I did have two software picks this week. The other was Eraser.
While Apple's digital media ecosystem is generally excellent, the company seems to miss important product features from time to time. One of these crucial features involves its recently-released AirPlay technology, which debuted in iTunes 10 on Macs and PCs and with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch in iOS 4.2. AirPlay is, roughly speaking, Apple's version of DLNA: It lets you stream digital media wirelessly between iTunes, Apple's devices, and remote speakers that are attached to AirPort Express base stations.
So if you have a video on an iPad, let's say, you can stream that video to your HDTV (via an Apple TV), using the iPad like a giant remote control of sorts. This functionality is somewhat analogous to DLNA Push, or what Microsoft calls Play To in Windows 7. But the reason Apple's proprietary take on DLNA is interesting is because of the sheer popularity of its digital media solutions. Good luck finding any Play To-compatible hardware, but Apple's stuff is everywhere.
The problem with AirPlay is that it doesn't provide some useful and semi-obvious features. While I can't imagine wanting to actually stream video from an iPad to a TV, I can imagine wanting to watch a video on the iPad. But iPads have relatively small storage allotments, and like many, I keep videos on my PC, not the iPad. Unfortunately, Apple doesn't provide a way to stream video (or other digital media content) from a PC to an iPad (or to an iPod touch or iPhone, though I wouldn't personally bother).
After investigating whether this could possibly be true, and discovering that it was, I then checked into whether there were any solutions. The one I recommended on this week's podcast is called Air Video, and it handles video only, not audio or photos. It's also not free--it costs $2.99--and requires both an app on the iPad (or other iOS device) and a service running on your PC.
Typically hidden, the PC piece is straightforward.
But it works, and works well, and while I'd prefer for Apple to simply offer this functionality through its iTunes app on the iPad, this seems like the next best thing. Air Video offers good performance, and can even work outside the iTunes ecosystem, offering on-the-fly conversion of video types (AVI, DiVX, MKV, and others) that iTunes and the iPad don't natively support.
Air Video running on the iPad.
I don't necessarily condone the use of this much Apple technology, but if you are an iPad owner you don't have to be completely locked into the iTunes ecosystem. And you should at least be able to use that big screen to watch PC-based video around the house. This is one good way to accomplish both.
Another option: AirView
After discussing Air Video on Windows Weekly, a reader pointed me to a different app, AirView, which offers some advantages compared to Air Video, but also some disadvantages.
On the good news front, it's free. It doesn't require you to install anything on your PC; instead, it makes your iPad an Air Play target, so you can "push" content from your iTunes library to your iPad just as you would if it were an Apple TV. And the developer says that support for photos (and presumably audio content) is coming soon.
The problem with AirView, however, is that it requires you to push content from your PC. You can't trigger playback from the iPad, which is pretty much what I was looking for.