How Apple AirPlay Works

The Pros and Cons of Apple AirPlay

Currently, your only option for streaming video to your TV with AirPlay is to have an Apple TV device connected to that TV.
Currently, your only option for streaming video to your TV with AirPlay is to have an Apple TV device connected to that TV.
Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Some tech experts tout AirPlay as a revolutionary technology that will change the face of home entertainment and network data sharing. AirPlay has the following advantages that give credence to that idea:

  • There continues to be an increasing number of Apple iOS apps (for iPad, iPhone and the iPod touch) that support streaming output using AirPlay.
  • When used with Apple TV, your Apple mobile device becomes a hand-held remote control for sharing music, movies and photos on your TV.
  • Even while streaming content from it, you can keep using your Apple mobile device for other things like checking e-mail, updating your Facebook status or playing "Angry Birds."
  • Audio streams carry track information, including artist and song title, which the receiver can show on its own graphical display.
  • When you've enabled AirPlay on each of your devices, the system works without any complicated configuring.
  • If the source you're playing from is streaming HD video, AirPlay can carry that HD quality to your Apple TV (version 2 or later).

Despite these great features, AirPlay also has its limitations. Most of the criticism around AirPlay cites the following disadvantages:

  • Multiple receivers streaming from the same application all play the same content. They cannot branch off to access separate content from that same source.
  • Only one app can use AirPlay at a time.
  • Video sharing is only available to an Apple TV device.
  • An Apple TV must have an Internet connection in order to play copy-protected video content.
  • WiFi network connections outperform Bluetooth connections, though the WiFi stream does tend to drop out occasionally while it's playing.
  • Despite the efforts of other manufacturers to produce AirPlay-enabled devices, it's still primarily an Apple-only feature.

In addition to these limitations, streaming to something other than a computer requires purchasing an Apple TV or AirPort Express, each available for $99 as of this writing, or experimenting with third-party AirPlay-enabled devices. This could be a hidden agenda to sell more Apple TV devices, or it could just be a revenue stream for Apple as they charge manufacturers a $4 licensing fee per AirPlay-enabled device they sell [source: Elmer-DeWitt].

So far, we've looked at Apple AirPlay with a focus on its use by other Apple products. Now, let's look who's partnering to offer AirPlay compatibility outside of Apple, and how AirPlay compares to other media-sharing technology.