Apple AirPlay: 10 things you need to know

Wondering what Apple's AirPlay wireless streaming feature is all about? Here's a little primer to get you started.

Apple's AirPlay feature was announced back in 2010 but has been enhanced in recent months with new features. James Martin/CNET

Airplay icon

At some point you've probably heard about AirPlay, a wireless streaming feature found on your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or any Mac or Windows PC running iTunes. While some features had been available for years under the AirTunes moniker, Apple rolled out the AirPlay name and an expanded feature list in the fall of 2010. With the arrival of iOS 4.3, AirPlay has been further enhanced, and--perhaps most significantly--third-party consumer electronics manufacturers are adding it to their products.

Apple sums up the technology like this on its regularly updated "Using AirPlay" page, which has some troubleshooting tips.

With AirPlay, you can wirelessly stream videos, music, and photos from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to Apple TV (2nd generation) and stream music to AirPlay speakers or receivers, including AirPort Express. You can also wirelessly stream videos and music from your computer to Apple TV (2nd generation) and stream music to AirPlay speakers or receivers, including AirPort Express.

That pretty much tells you what it's all about, but here's a closer look at what you need to know about AirPlay and some tips for getting the most out of it.

  • Only a limited number of products are currently AirPlay-compatible: Right now, only a handful of products offer AirPlay compatibility (see slideshow, below) and they tend to be fairly expensive. The exception is the Apple TV, which only costs $99, and Apple's AirPort Express (also $99 list). The majority of early AirPlay products are speaker systems, plus a few AV receivers that offer built-in AirPlay support.

  • Video and photo streaming options are limited. At the moment, the Apple TV is the only product that allows you to stream video and photos to your TV from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. In the future, there will certainly be other boxes that offer AirPlay video support, and rumor has it Apple is talking to TV manufacturers about licensing AirPlay technology so they can build it into HDTVs.

  • The number of applications that support Airplay is growing. It's pretty easy to stream audio from nearly any iOS app to an AirPlay-enabled speaker. However, more apps with deeper AirPlay integration--such as streaming video to Apple TV--are beginning to appear in the App Store. For instance, the free Vevo app lets you play music videos directly on your TV. (Unfortunately, the helpful filter that once highlighted AirPlay-optimized apps on Apple's Web site no longer appears to be active.)

  • Wi-Fi is better than Bluetooth--but it's still not perfect. AirPlay works over your Wi-Fi network and, as anybody who uses Wi-Fi knows, it's not always rock-solid. In testing some AirPlay speakers, we experienced the occasional dropout and even a few complete disconnections. However, unlike with Bluetooth streaming, your music doesn't get compressed, so it should sound better, depending on the quality of the speaker you're streaming to.

  • Video app Vevo in AirPlay mode
  • Using your iOS handheld as a music source has limitations. When you stream music stored locally on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, you can only stream it to one device (such as a speaker or Apple TV) at a time. You connect to that device using an AirPlay-compatible app and it becomes a monogamous streaming relationship.

  • To stream to multiple devices, you have to use your computer-based iTunes music collection as the audio source. For whatever reason, running iTunes on a Mac or Windows PC provides more flexibility for AirPlay. Using iTunes on your computer, you can stream music to multiple AirPlay receivers or speakers throughout your network (say, an Apple TV in the living room and a Zeppelin Air in the bedroom), and control their volume levels independently as well.

  • The free Remote app can access and control those computer-based iTunes servers. Here's where things get confusing. Even if you're streaming audio from a PC- or Mac-based iTunes collection, you can still use an iOS device--iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch--to control the music you're hearing over the AirPlay speakers. Just download Apple's free Remote app. Once it's set up, you can choose iTunes songs and playlists and control volume levels (again, in multiple rooms) from the app itself. This is great if the computer running iTunes is in, say, an upstairs bedroom, but you're listening (and controlling) via Wi-Fi in a downstairs kitchen.

  • You currently can't stream different music to different rooms. True multiroom audio systems like Sonos ZonePlayer allow you to stream different music sources or playlists to different rooms simultaneously. Not so with AirPlay. Currently, you can only access and stream one source at a time.

  • Multiroom music streaming via Apple's Remote app
  • You can't use a Time Capsule or networked storage drive as an AirPlay source (unless the computer stays powered on). Many people have their music stored on a networked attached storage drive (NAS), such as Apple's own Time Capsule. Alas, even if your entire iTunes library is stored on the Time Capsule--or any other NAS--you can't access that music on an AirPlay device unless a host computer is running iTunes. Again, the Sonos system edges out Apple here; on a Sonos system, you can stream music files directly from some (but not all) NAS drives even when there's no computer powered up in the house.

  • Use the latest firmware and software to ensure the smoothest AirPlay setup. We'd say this goes without saying--except that it needs to be said. Before you get AirPlay up and running, you'll want to make sure you have the latest versions of the firmware and software on all applicable products. That means the latest version of iTunes (on your Mac or Windows PC); the latest version of iOS (on your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone); and the latest firmware on your AirPlay-compatible playback device (be it Apple TV, Apple AirPort Express, or any third-party device). You'll also want to turn on Home Sharing on iTunes.

 

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