AirPlay Mirroring Looks Great if Your Network Is Pretty Enough
AirPlay mirroring is one of the most interesting new features in OS X Mountain Lion. It lets you wirelessly connect your Mac with an Apple TV to put whatever's on your display onto a television screen. The feature has big potential for entertainment and presentations, but performance depends greatly on the robustness of your WiFi network.
OS X Mountain Lion is crawling with tweaks, new functions and improvements, but for the most part, they're minor adjustments that smooth out the general user experience.
One new feature that does stand out, though, is AirPlay mirroring. It can be used to wirelessly connect your Mac with a television. Set it up correctly, and that TV is showing whatever is on your Mac's screen. It's like a wire-free version of an HDMI adapter, and its range is limited only by your wireless network.
The process takes plenty of gear, though. You'll need a decent WiFi router as well as an Apple TV. And the actual TV, of course. Also, your Mac has to be a 2011 model or newer due to requirements placed on the device's graphics chipset.
If you happen to have all of that, you're ready to go. What to use it for? Presentations, entertainment, possibly gaming, or any instance in which having a bunch of people crowd around the Mac's screen would be uncomfortable.
Mirroring adds a new degree of versatility to an Apple TV. By itself, Apple TV is not a universal media monster. It does iTunes, of course, along with Netflix, if you're a subscriber. It just snapped up Hulu. It might even buddy up with Amazon Prime, considering that service just hit iPad. There's YouTube, there are some sports-related channels, etc.
It doesn't do everything, though. For example, HBOGo is a brilliant service, but you can't get it directly through Apple TV. Also, Hulu Plus users sometimes get hit with a most unwelcome message when they bring up a show they want to watch -- something like "Sorry, you can't do that on television. You're going to have to watch this on your computer instead." Normally my reaction to that is to schlep the laptop into the living room, hook it up to the TV with an HDMI adaptor, play the show, and send a photo of myself doing it to Jason Kilar while making my best I-am-utterly-ashamed-of-what-I'm-doing face.
But that schlepping, it's so ... untidy. And my MacBook's battery won't last forever. Soon enough I'll have to dig the power cord out from under the desk and fight through that rat nest that's somehow developed behind the TV to find an outlet.
This is one shortcoming that Airplay mirroring will theoretically eliminate. If you can get content on your Mac, you can see it on your TV, and almost all online video is available via a browser or a player on a personal computer. Set-top boxes, tablets and smart TVs have restrictions here and there, but a basic computer is the common denominator with which just about all online video will play nicely. Make that computer's screen project to your TV, and your online viewing options are free from cumbersome this-screen-not-that-screen complications.
Finding the On Switch
Those who have Mountain Lion have probably noticed a few changes made to the upper menu bar. One is a rectangular box with a triangle at the bottom. Click that and you'll get a set of display options. Through here, you can turn AirPlay mirroring on, select the Apple TV as the receiver, and decide whether to use the Mac screen's size or the TV screen's size as the common aspect ratio. All you need to do with the Apple TV is have it turned on and waiting at the main menu screen.
That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. In my first few attempts, jumping into AirPlay mode didn't work if I did it through that menu bar icon. I'd have to go through System Preferences in the Dock, then to the Displays section.
Once you have it set, though, there it is -- your Mac's screen on the TV, no wires required. The image is mirrored on the Mac's local display as well, but the sound is sent directly to the Apple TV, not the Mac's speakers. There is some noticeable lag in regard to the trackpad and keyboard input. It isn't too bothersome if you're trying to track down a video on the Web or go through a Keynote presentation, but fast-paced action games are probably out of the question.
Mileage May Vary
While the interface used to kick off mirroring is simple and easy to figure out, your personal networking situation may be more likely to cause you problems. Slinging around signals the way mirroring does has the potential to create some big WiFi traffic jams.
Perhaps you have a pricey, heavy-duty WiFi system made for trucking industrial-sized data payloads all over the house. With that, you stand a good chance of pulling off a completely wireless setup with no issues.
But if you have a mid-line or cheap router, you might need to rethink your entire home setup in order to reduce the amount of data traveling over the air. Maybe you'll need to hook the Apple TV directly into the router via Ethernet cable. If your router is located too far away for that, maybe your Mac will need to have a wired connection. That's the solution I tried, and it actually sounded like the most convenient option -- the Mac stays at my desk, hooked up to an Ethernet cord, not to mention constant power. No schlepping there.
However, then you run into the issue of control. You'll need a mouse to control the Mac, even if it is four rooms away, but Bluetooth might not reach that far. It would be silly to walk to the other side of the house to hit the pause button. If you have an iPhone or iPad, consider the Mobile Mouse Pro app, which turns your phone into a keyboard and mouse for a Mac or PC. It uses WiFi to communicate with the computer, solving the range problem.
If wiring neither the Mac nor the Apple TV to the router is an option, and you don't want to spring for a top-of-the-line WiFi hub, there may be another way. Some middle-of-the-road WiFi routers are dual-banded. Try assigning the Apple TV to one band and the Mac to the other. This might eliminate much of the congestion caused by routing everything through a single channel. You may still see some jerkiness, but after setting up an unwired connection this way, I was able to make it through an entire movie with only two or three screen freezes, which lasted only a few seconds.
Mountain Lion's interface for activating AirPlay mirroring is simple to figure out, and almost nothing has to be done on the Apple TV side to kick things off.
But once it's running, performance depends greatly on your own personal home network setup. If you have the kind of equipment ready to take on some major WiFi traffic, or your home is arranged for easy Ethernet access, you're in business. Otherwise, you'll need to weigh whether spending time and money to fix the issue is worth it for a function that does essentially the same thing as a $4 adapter.