AirPlay to the HDTV Is More Hot Air Than Play
Apparently, AirPlay is one of the coolest things Apple has ever come up with that nobody uses. The ability to mirror what's showing on your iPhone or iPad onto your HDTV sounds like a great way to share photos and videos, yet a new study says it's largely unused by those who have the feature. Why? Is it because of a buggy experience? If so, Apple should fix things and dress it up for its ecosystem if and when a new iTV is launched.
While screen mirroring solutions -- like Apple's AirPlay -- have reached a relatively high level of awareness, not a lot of people are actually using them, according to a new study by the NPD Group's Connected Intelligence team.
What is screen mirroring? It's wirelessly projecting what you see on your smartphone or tablet to show it on a TV screen. As it turns out, only 7 percent of U.S. smartphone and tablet owners are using screen mirroring.
Apple's Steve Jobs introduced AirPlay in the fall of 2010. So what gives? Is AirPlay a cool technology that's underappreciated or is it too much of a pain to be useful?
In my experience, it's both -- wicked cool and a royal pain -- but lately the pain has been overshadowing the shine. I thought I was alone in this, but the disparity between knowledge and use of the feature makes me wonder.
Using the Apple TV and AirPlay
To use screen mirroring, you need combination of software and hardware. The three primary solutions are Apple AirPlay, Samsung AllShare, and Xbox SmartGlass.
Apple's solution is used the most, according to NPD, but that "most" is just 3 percent of those surveyed. Why so low? First, you need additional products -- an Apple TV puck to connect to your HDTV. If you don't have the puck, you're out of luck. Awareness will equal zero use.
The same goes for the other manufacturers. You need no less than four pieces of hardware to make screen mirroring work: a smartphone/tablet, a WiFi router, a set-top box, and an HDTV.
Taken in this context, suddenly 3 percent seems bigger. It's hard to say how many Apple TV units are in use today -- maybe 12 million newer generation units, depending on how you add up the various reports.
I believe that the vast majority of Apple TV owners are also iPhone or iPad owners. This is an assumption, but it's hard to imagine otherwise given the makeup of Apple customers that I see.
It's quite possible that a high percentage of Apple TV customers use AirPlay. That leads to insight very different than what The NPD Group reports: You could have high awareness with low use over a large population of smart device owners, and still have a very active Apple TV install base using AirPlay. With a different set of questions, you could determine that AirPlay is wildly successful among Apple TV owners.
However, I'm not so sure that it is. In my experience, it's either handy and awesome -- or buggy and slow.
Big Wow or Big Fail
I've used AirPlay to good and bad effect. The very best usage of AirPlay comes from sharing home video and photos. In fact, the NPD Group says that of screen mirroring users, 75 percent used it for videos.
If you take a lot of photos and video with your iPhone, AirPlay is the coolest way you can quickly share your photos and video with your friends and family. Around the winter holidays, for example, my friends and family are pretty active, and usually sledding is involved. That means I'm taking photos and video with my iPhone.
When we get back to the house, everyone wants to see the photos and video, especially the grandparents who didn't risk breaking any bones in cold weather, but nonetheless want to experience the joy.
The first time I used AirPlay for this, it worked flawlessly. Lots of happy friends, family and kids all glowing as everyone gets to see their big jumps and crashes.
The next year, however, I couldn't get my iPhone screen to mirror to my HDTV. It acted like it was going to play, but then nothing. A room full of people waited. I turned off the WiFi on my iPhone and turned it back on. Nothing. I tried different videos. Again, nothing. I unplugged the Apple TV and waited for it to restart.
Family members are trickling off to eat veggies and dip. I'm irritated and sweating. Any mirroring? Nope. I'm logging in and out of my Apple ID, and my screen is going nowhere. Finally I go shut down my WiFi router and restart it. When I get back to the living room, a grandfather has fallen asleep, and most of the crowd has dispersed.
The more I try to use AirPlay, the more frequently I run into these sorts of problems. Sometimes everything is awake and talking, and sometimes I have to slap the various devices upside the head and keep trying.
Once my iPhone 5 videos took minutes to load. A 45-second video clip would take three minutes to finally load and play via AirPlay. This is all happening on my home WiFi network, where some sort of external connection to the Internet shouldn't be necessary.
Faulty router? Maybe. I've been half-tempted to buy an Apple AirPort Extreme just so I can hook up my Apple products to it. The hope is that they somehow keep in better contact with one another if they all come from the same manufacturer.
Is that an answer?
I hope not. That's not particularly consumer-friendly. The problem I see in consumer electronics is that the promise and vision is either an outright lie, or it's corrupted by wildly different home WiFi networks.
Even if this isn't Apple's fault, it doesn't bode well for the company because its world is becoming increasingly connected to iCloud and Apple IDs. Even if I'm not using AirPlay, I have to unplug my Apple TV a couple of times each month. That's the only way I can force it to reset. Sometimes turning my WiFi router off and on does the trick, but sometimes it doesn't. Similar results happen when I do the same thing to my MacBook Pro and iTunes.
I recently started an episode of The Walking Dead on my iPhone 5 but wanted to finish it on my HDTV while I had a sandwich. Good times, right?
No. I reset my WiFi router and unplugged my Apple TV. Tried again. They weren't talking. I restarted my iPhone 5, which did the trick. Picked up with AirPlay right where I left off.
By that point, I realized I should have just streamed everything from the Internet directly via my Apple TV and ignored AirPlay.
What It All Means
Most people's households have WiFi that gives a data stream to various devices pretty much all the time. I wonder, however, how well the Apple TV really manages to wake up and sleep under a wide variety of configuration situations.
To me, this is actually a signal that perhaps the fabled iTV (the next one) has a lot of work to do to go from cool idea to something that people will actually use. In other words, it has to be more than just as a prettier version of today's TVs.
If my experience with AirPlay and Apple TV is even close to the norm, it's clear to me that Apple needs to hammer out these usability details before it ships a spendy new iTV. It's one thing to pay US$99 for a puck and another to shell out for a full-fledged appliance.
Maybe Apple will ship preconfigured AirPorts with iTVs to ease integration and setup. Heck, I'd just be happy to see a reset button on my Apple TV. Pulling the cord out and jamming it back in in front of friends and family doesn't make for a great sales tactic.
I'm also assuming that if Apple controlled all the pieces and parts of AirPlay, I'd get a better, more robust experience. The problem? That's still settling for a lackluster and limited solution. I'll still need another set-top box so my Android-using buddies can share their videos, too.
Wait -- what am I thinking? Wouldn't it be cheaper and far easier to just leave an HDMI cable hanging out of my HDTV?