Diary Of My Switch To Internet TV – Part 12 – Forget AirPlay for Video

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Tim Higgins

We took the big step the other day and decided to cancel DirecTV. When I called DirecTV, though, I found out that you can suspend service for up to six months. Rather than face another two year commitment if Ms. SmallNetBuilder can’t stand life with Internet TV, I jumped at this option. But someone at the DirecTV control panel seems to not have gotten the memo yet because our service is still on.

Note that I’m not ahead of the game money-wise on this change. The deal I had to cut to incentivize my skeptical spouse was to pay her what we were paying DirecTV. But it remains to be seen how much hassle she will be willing to endure even for $100 or so a month.

I’ve been kissing a lot of frogs in search for an easy-to-use method to consume Internet TV and haven’t yet found a perfect solution, or even a great one. The closest we have come is a workable solution using the Roku, which provides the best combination of video quality and no-keyboard-or-mouse-required navigation.

Roku players

Roku’s current player lineup

The few buttons on the Roku remote were easily mapped into our HarmonyOne remote, the main controller of our media device collection. Except for an ongoing and very annoying intermittent sound dropout problem in HuluPlus (which I’ve been told is a Roku HLS bug), the Roku has served our occasional Internet TV viewing pretty well and earned a higher WAF score than any other method we’ve tried.

The downside of the Roku is that it’s limited to Netflix and HuluPlus for most of the TV content that we’re interested in watching, neither of which source CBS shows. Although Netflix announced a CBS deal in February, it’s only for old shows.

In the last post, I explored MediaMall’s PlayOn as a way to expand the Roku’s repetoire. But the Roku PlayOn app user interface is so awful that I know it will have a huge negative WAF, so I’m not even going there.

PlayOn says they could do a lot better with a properly-developed Roku app (the current one was done by a Roku / PlayOn enthusiast on his own). But Roku’s sales volume is miniscule compared to the Wii and iOS and Android devices, which is where MediaMall will be spending their app development dollars this year.

I’ve been waiting for Apple’s iOS 4.3, which finally was released last Tuesday. It allegedly has "improved" AirPlay support for video, but it’s hard to find out exactly what has been improved. The iOS 4.3 developer release notes, however, read to me like video format support is pretty limited.

I decided to try an iPad / AirPlay / AppleTV2 approach after being pointed to PlayOn’s built-in web interface, which is primarily intended for mobile devices. But if you point any browser to m.playon.tv and have a PlayOn server running on your LAN, you’ll end up at a screen similar to the one below that I took with Safari.

PlayOn web interface - channel listing

PlayOn web interface – channel listing

I first tried Firefox 3.6.15, but everything in the top navigation area unded up in a jumble overlapping the all-important back navigation button. Although this isn’t the most beautiful interface, it’s waaaay better than the Roku app interface shown below.

Roku PlayOn app channel listing

Roku PlayOn app channel listing

The show view reveals the AirPlay icon, but only when viewed with an iOS device. The screenshot below is from an iPad.

PlayOn web interface - show view

PlayOn web interface – show view

I had tried clicking the icon back when the iPad was running iOS 4.2 and was excited to see AppleTV as a choice. But when I selected it, only audio was transferred to the Apple TV. I’ve dutifully checked the Apple App Store for updates to the Netflix, HuluPlus and PlayOn apps and have so far only found a Netflix update, which I downloaded, tried and found only audio AirPlay support.

I’ve tried to find information about app support for AirPlay video. But all I keep seeing are articles that are regurgitations of Apple PR. I managed to find a Techradar article with a link that launched iTunes to show the collection of "AirPlay-Enabled Apps" below.

But the Discovery Channel HD app I tried yielded the same AirPlay result—audio only. So did a video podcast on CNN.com played with Safari, i.e. audio only. The only app I’ve found that supports video AirPlay is YouTube. According to this thread in the Apple forums, Vimeo is supported, too, but I have no interested in any content there (or on YouTube, for that matter).

Apple AirPlay "enabled" (whatever that means) apps

Roku PlayOn app channel listing

I know the iPad – AirPlay – AppleTV2 seems a roundabout way to get to something (PlayOn) that’s made to be watched on a computer anyway. But my initial tryout of having Ms. SmallNetBuilder use a wireless keyboard w/trackball or Hillcrest Labs’ Loop weren’t too encouraging. What’s going to work for us (or at least her) will be the HarmonyOne that she is used to.

We’re still in the very early days and there is a lot more experimentation to do. But if you’ve been thinking of using an iPad / AirPlay / AppleTV2 combination to get video onto your main flatscreen, that’s not a viable option right now. If you find more apps that work, however, please let me know.

For reference, here are the notes that are shown when upgrading a device to iOS 4.3

iOS 4.3 Software Update

This update contains new features and improvements, including the following:

• Personal Hotspot*
– Share iPhone 4 cellular data connection with up to 5
devices (combination of up to 3 Wi-Fi, 3 Bluetooth,
and 1 USB)
• iTunes Home Sharing
– Play music, movies and TV shows from a shared iTunes
library on a Mac or PC (requires iTunes 10.2)
• New AirPlay features**
– Play videos from the Photos app including the Camera
Roll album, iTunes previews, enabled third-party apps
and websites on Apple TV
– Play slideshows from Photos on Apple TV using
transitions available on Apple TV
• Faster Safari performance with Apple Nitro JavaScript
• HD video out using the Apple Digital AV Adapter***
– View 720p HD videos from Videos app, iPod app,
Photos, YouTube, Safari, Keynote, and enabled
third-party apps on an HDMI display
• Ping features
– Push notifications for comments and follow requests
– Post and Like songs directly from the Now Playing
– Parental controls
• New Settings
– Messages setting for number of times to repeat an
– iPad side switch setting to lock screen rotation or mute
audio notifications and sound effects
• Single tap conference call dialing with a pause to send
a passcode
• Bug fixes

Products compatible with this software update:
• iPhone 4 (GSM model)
• iPhone 3GS
• iPad
• iPod touch (4th generation)
• iPod touch (3rd generation)

*Requires iPhone 4 with tethering data plan
**Requires Apple TV (2nd generation) running software
version 4.2 or later
***iPhone 4, iPad, iPod touch (4th generation)

For information on the security content of this update, please visit:

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