Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter review: Beam your laptop or tablet screen to your TV
The Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter does exactly what its utilitarian name says. It provides a way to sling your screen (with audio) from a computer or Android device to a TV. The adapter is attached to your TV or projector using HDMI and is powered by USB. Otherwise, the device does nothing else. It has no apps of its own and requires a source device to be of any use.
This adapter uses Miracast, a technology which uses Wi-Fi Direct to communicate between devices. What this means is your PC and the adapter don't have to communicate through a common router, instead they create a peer-to-peer network. That might not sound like a big deal, but considering its diminutive size, the Wireless Display Adapter is pocketable and can easily be brought from the conference room to the hotel room.
At $59 in the US (international availability has not been announced, but UK and Australian pricing converts to about £40 or AU$70, respectively), Microsoft has some tough competition with similar devices such as the $35, £30, AU$50 Google Chromecast, and any number of Roku boxes, including the Roku Streaming Stick available for $50 or £50. However, thanks to its Miracast integration and Microsoft's push to pair this device with the Surface Pro line of tablets, the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter may have a place in your travel bag.
Design and features
The Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter is an unassuming rectangular device, similar to a USB stick. It's 3.5 inches (9cm) in length and weighs 1.2 ounces (33.1g). It has one HDMI connector and a short USB cable that is permanently attached to the body of the device. The adapter uses the USB for power. If your TV does not have a powered USB port (or one that is nearby), you'll need to get a USB extension cord and a USB power supply. Microsoft does not include those in the box. However, you do get a small HDMI extension cable included in case you need it.
Relatively painless setup
Hooking up the Wireless Display Adapter is pretty simple. Plug it into an HDMI port on your TV or receiver, then plug in the USB for power. Go to the matching HDMI input on your TV and you'll see a gray screen and a Microsoft logo with the name of your Display Adapter and a "Ready to connect" message.
For a Windows PC, you'll have to make sure your OS is up to date and then add a wireless display by activating the charms bar on the right edge, selecting Devices > Project > Add a wireless display. On Android, you'd go to Settings > Display > Cast screen, then hit the menu icon and enable wireless display.
It's connected, now what?
The Wireless Display Adapter is just that -- an adapter. It doesn't do anything on its own other than wait for something to send it content. It can display content up to 1,920x1,080 and outputs audio at two-channel stereo and 5.1 surround sound.
An up-to-date Surface Pro 3 found the adapter quickly. Once you follow Microsoft's directions to project to the Wireless Display Adapter, you'll see your screen appear on your TV in a few seconds. The Surface Pro 3's display becomes letter-boxed to match a standard 16:9 television.
There is the tiniest amount of lag between devices. Swipes and videos are slightly behind on the mirrored display, so this isn't ideal for gaming. The adapter is more about being able to present or share things on a big screen. Video and PowerPoint presentations are examples of content a device such as this is designed to share.
As the signal mirrors your PC, you're are not limited by specific apps. If it runs on your Windows 8.1 machine, you will be able to see it on your TV including DRM-bound iTunes videos. Additionally, you can use your TV as a second or extended monitor with your computer instead of just mirroring. In that case, you'll probably want a trackpad or mouse attached so you can control your things on the second display.
Since the adapter uses Miracast, certain Android devices can also mirror their displays. I tested this function with a Nexus 7 (2013). Screen mirroring worked quite well, although the different aspect ratios of the tablet and my television meant pillar bars around the mirrored output.
The closer you are to the Wireless Display Adapter, the better everything looks. Microsoft says you'll get a 23-foot range. In my small apartment, that range was definitely impeded by a wall and the connection between the tablet and adapter was lost at a distance of about 15 feet.
If you're worried about multiple devices being able to take over the Wireless Display Adapter, do not fear. The adapter is locked to whatever device is connected to it at the time. A second device cannot hijack your TV just because it can see the Wireless Display Adapter; you'd have to disconnect it from the original device first.
Against the competition
The main competitors for the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter are the Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, both tiny, gumstick-sized devices and both slightly less expensive.
The whole thing boils down to usage. If you're thinking about adding yet another device to your home theater, the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter does not make a lot of sense. A Roku stick or box can be purchased at about the same price and the Roku wouldn't need a second device to feed it content. Additionally, other Miracast-enabled devices like Western Digital's WD TV offer screen mirroring along with apps that stream online and local content for about $25 more.
If you use Windows 8.1 and want a quick way to get anything from your tablet to your TV, that's when Microsoft's dongle makes the most sense. A Chromecast provides similar functionality with its "Cast this tab" feature on the Chrome browser, but is limited to whatever is visible in your browser tab.
The Wireless Display Adapter appears to be best for use on the road. Other devices need to be connected to the same router to see each other, and if you bring a Chromecast on the road, you'll still need to bring a hotspot and create a network for your Chromecast and phone to both join. However, the Wireless Display Adapter uses Wi-Fi Direct to set up a connection between your devices, no extra router required. This is very useful for watching video in a hotel room or handling a presentation without having to set up too much extra equipment.
Microsoft doesn't promise you the world with its Wireless Display Adapter, the device simply allows you to mirror or extend your machine to an HDMI-equipped display. If you love living in a Windows world or need an on-the-go media companion to your Android or Windows device, this adapter is a winner. However, in the home theater space, it's hard to beat using a Chromecast with any computer or with the growing number of apps that support Chromecast. Alternatively, your living room would be better served by any number of Roku boxes that require no extra device to drive the content.