First impressions: Hands on with Apple AirPlay

I've had a couple of days now to play around with Apple's new AirPlay streaming system, part of the iOS 4.2.1 upgrade issued for the iPhone, iPad and Touch earlier this week, so thought I'd share my initial thoughts.

Downloading the software upgrade to my iPhone was a simple enough affair, just syncing it with iTunes and making it look for the update. It took a while to download and install on the iPhone, but did so without any hiccups.

Select AirPlay on Apple TV

Having recently bought a new Apple TV (see my earlier blog), that needed updating too, to software v.4.1. Again, it was a simple case of following the on-screen instructions and downloading the upgrade via my home wi-fi network.

Stream your digital content to Apple TV

Once done, I was ready to go. Music playback is a simple case of selecting a song on your iPhone and the AirPlay icon (a small rectangle with a triangle in it) should appear bottom right of the screen (highlighted below). Tap on this and the phone will find all AirPlay devices in your home network, which you select by tapping the relevant button.

The AirPlay icon highlighted in blue

The music will then start streaming to your Apple TV or any other connected AirPlay device such as an AirPort Express. So far, so simple.

While I knew music in iTunes would work through AirPlay (which is the successor to AirTunes), I was intrigued to see if other apps would work too. Spotify? I have a Premium account on my mobile which I use constantly, so was keen to see if it worked.

Initially selecting Belle and Sebastian's Calculating Bimbo track on Spotify, the album art came up on my iPhone with the usual controls, but no sign of the AirPlay icon. However, a quick tap of the 'i' icon top right and – hurrah – the AirPlay symbol appeared. Another tap on the Apple TV button and Spotify was streaming to my Apple TV without having to go anywhere near a computer. Result.

iPhone automatically recognises your AirPlay devices

Would other apps work? Well it seems some do and some don't. I can stream from the radio tuner, getting any number of stations with no problem, but when it comes to video it's more of an issue.

Videos from iTunes stream fine through AirPlay – downloads of Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2 came through with a clear picture and solid Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound – although there was some frame judder as I've previously experienced on Apple TV.

Iron Man: no problem streaming through AirPlay

And while videos from Apple's official YouTube app worked fine too, those played back through the Safari browser were only able to stream the audio to Apple TV, not the video. The same happened with BBC iPlayer.

And here's a strange one: any video you capture on the iPhone itself using the built-in video camera won't stream from the phone's camera roll to the TV. That seems a very odd omission, and one we hope Apple will rectify in its next 4.3 upgrade, rumoured to be due in December.

There's no such problem with digital photos; the standard photo app allows you to stream your pictures directly to your TV, flicking through them on your portable as they're displayed on the big screen. Very handy when your friends pop round to take a look at your holiday snaps.

One really neat aspect of AirPlay is that while you're streaming audio or video, you can still check emails, browse the web and use other apps on your iPhone or iPad thanks to iOS 4.2's multitasking capability.

Denon CEOL AirPlay mini system, on sale shortly for £599

But the real killer app for AirPlay as far as I'm concerned is its multiroom capability. I've already got my Apple TV connected to my Philips TV and Yamaha AV receiver via HDMI, and have an AirPort Express in the kitchen. With the latter, it was simply a case of connecting it to the Tivoli music system on the kitchen sideboard using a 3.5mm cable.

Now my iPhone recognises both the Apple TV in the living room and AirPort Express in the kitchen as AirPlay devices, so I can control both from my mobile and switch playback between the two, selecting whatever music I want to listen to from the palm of my hand. And if I want to play the same music simultaneously in both rooms, then I can select the multiple speakers option in iTunes on my iMac.

All I need now is a couple more AirPlay devices around the rest of the house (come on B&W, Marantz, Denon et al!) and I'm sorted. iTunes 10.1 will support up to six. I'm close to having a full multiroom system, all controlled by my iPhone, which means I won't have to save up for a Sonos.

iHome AirPlay-compatible speaker, coming soon

But is AirPlay perfect? No, not quite. While it's a very simple and convenient solution for an all-Mac household like mine, there are still lots of formats it can't handle (DiVX, Flash, Flac, WMV) and many third-party apps need to be upgraded to make them compatible. Plus it would be great to be able stream video directly from the website you're viewing on your iPhone or iPad to your telly, whichever browser you're using.

And it really is daft that video shot on your iPhone won't stream through AirPlay (unless you sync it with iTunes first). I'm sure lots of people want to be able to shoot those 'hilarious' family moments on their phone and play them back instantly on the TV. After all, Christmas is the perfect time for that.

So Apple has made a big jump from AirTunes to AirPlay, but there's still some work to be done. Give it a few months though, by which time there should be plenty more AirPlay-compatible products on the market, and Sonos could really have something to worry about.

Read our full Apple TV review

By Andy Clough

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.