Editors' note, May 1, 2015: This post was updated to reflect changes in newer iOS devices.
Sometimes, the swiftest way to get media on your TV is directly through your phone or tablet.
If you have home videos, photos or even video-streaming apps you want to see on the big screen, there are a few ways to get them onto your TV. The solution will depend on how new (or old) your device is, what video quality you're going for, and (as always) how much you're willing to spend.
Before you go out and buy whatever cable is compatible with your iDevice, take heed. Some solutions will surprise you with unexpected quirks worth knowing first.
AirPlay via Apple TV
Because it's wireless and offers video-streaming extras, theis the best solution. It's $69, and you'll most likely keep it in one spot, but freedom from fussing with cables make it the best choice. Plus, there's an awesome bonus for gamers.
With most iOS devices, the best way to get content on your TV screen is with mirroring. This puts your entire iDevice's display on the TV, giving you a big-screen view of everything happening on your phone. To do that, connect your iPhone or iPad to the same Wi-Fi network as your Apple TV. Then, swipe up from the bottom edge of the screen to launch the quick settings pane, tap AirPlay and select your Apple TV.
If you don't want friends and family seeing you navigate your phone on the TV while you search for a photo or video, the other option is to use Airplay to beam specific content from apps.
Now more than ever, developers are adding AirPlay compatibility to their apps. To name a few, Vevo, TED, Hulu (Plus), and PBS all let you beam videos from the app to the Apple TV. For most apps, you'll see the Airplay option right next to the playback controls (see photo).
Some games are AirPlay compatible, too, letting you use your iDevice as a controller while you play the game on the big screen. At times, you'll notice lag, and video quality isn't perfect, but Ducati Challenge and Metalstorm: Wingman are just a couple games worth trying out.
Mirroring is available only for the iPhone 4S (or later), iPad 2 (or later), iPad mini, or iPod touch (fifth generation). All other devices will still be able to utilize AirPlay, but only for "beaming" specific content to the TV. So, you'll find the photos, music, or video you want to view, tap the AirPlay button, and it'll begin playing on your TV.
for a complete guide to using AirPlay.
If beaming is all you're trying to achieve, life without mirroring is just fine. The only drawback is that you won't be able to view media from apps that don't support AirPlay. In that case, you might want to go with the Digital A/V Adapter.
Digital A/V Adapter
For a more portable, less-expensive solution, Apple's Digital A/V Adapter will do the trick. One end plugs into your iDevice, while the other attaches to an HDMI cable, and finally, into your TV (or receiver).
There are two versions of the A/V adapter, however -- one for lightning devices, and one compatible with older devices using the 30-pin dock connector. Both essentially do the same thing, but the video quality is slightly different.
Once plugged in, the Lightning adapter -- compatible with the iPhone 5 and later, iPad Mini, and iPad (fourth gen.) and later -- mirrors everything seen on your iDevice on your TV. Most times, it will be an exact reflection, but once in a while you'll notice that an app has been modified to work differently with mirroring. For example, Netflix will display a logo on the TV while you browse the catalog on your phone. Only when a movie or show is selected will it be mirrored on the TV.
Beware, though: after some testing and commentary from a purported Apple employee, Panic Blog discovered that the Lightning A/V adapter doesn't actually output a raw HDMI signal. Instead, chips inside the adapter compress the video signal before sending it off to your TV. That being said, video will look very good, but it will never be true 1080p.
For older iDevices, the answer is Apple's 30-pin digital A/V adapter. Here, however, compatibility and function isn't so cut-and-dried.
While iPhone 4S (and later) and iPad users will be able to mirror their screens like the Lightning adapter (see above), owners of older iOS devices can only use the adapter to watch slideshows, onboard videos, and compatible video apps. Good for some purposes, but that completely rules out music and viewing apps that don't support video-out.
For older TVs, the composite cable
This cable doesn't do mirroring, but it will route video-enabled apps, photos, and music to your older TV. It's compatible with just about every device that uses the old dock connector, but don't expect HD resolution -- video maxes out at 480i.