Dec. 18, 2013 at 6:38 PM ET
There’s a cool new trick possible with a growing number of products: the ability to wirelessly send what’s on your mobile device (or computer) up onto your TV. Apple’s had this for a while with their products, and now Google, Amazon and others are getting into the act.
It’s a feature that’s still in its infancy, so it’s not perfect, but it’s getting there. The experience is also pretty different depending on what devices you’ve got/are interested in.
Let’s take a look.
Apple AirPlay Mirroring
Apple, with their closed ecosystem, was the first to do this kind of screen mirroring/sharing simply and easily. According to Apple, here’s what you need:
Depending on your device (instructions are in the aforementioned link), the setup is as easy as pressing a few buttons. The trick here, of course, is it’s all Apple, and you’ll need an Apple TV streaming media player. There’s also AirPlay mirroring with a Mac (or via iTunes on a PC). I use AirPlay to send music to my Apple TV over my network from my main PC to my home theater system, and it works great.
Sending images and videos from your Apple mobile device to your TV is the other big benefit. Since AirPlay has been around for a while, I’m not going to get too in-depth with it since if you own an Apple TV and Apple device, I’d be rather shocked if you haven’t played with mirroring already (though we’ll come back to it in the comparison section). It works pretty seamlessly, and as far as getting content from your device onto the big screen (what we’re concentrating on here), it’s really the benchmark.
If you read our review of the Chromecast, we mention how it can mirror the screen on your computer using a free browser plugin. This works OK, but it’s not seamless. After you’ve connected the Chromecast to your network and installed the Chrome plugin, you’re given an option to “Google Cast” any webpage. The quality depends a lot on your computer’s processing prowess. My Asus netbook, for example, tried valiantly and ultimately unsuccessfully to stream video. My aging but still more powerful desktop, however, had no problem.
Though primarily designed for webpages, you can drag some files into your browser, and have them sent to the Chromecast. This isn’t as seamless as AirPlay, but it generally works OK. Alas, not with all files. This isn’t really what the Chromecast was made to do, and it feels like it. Google lists this feature as in beta, so it’s not surprising it’s comes across as not fully baked. You can make it work, mostly, but it’s never as smooth an experience as you’d want.
Since our review ran, several new apps were released that don’t quite fill the gap, but do offer specific streaming features. Plex does video streaming, Avia streams all media from mobile and DNLA devices, and RealPlayer Cloud (who knew RealPlayer was still around?) from multiple sources including your phone. Plex and Avia cost money, which I guess is fine since the Chromecast is so much cheaper than the Apple TV, but it’s a little off-putting.
The RealPlayer Cloud app will send some of your videos to the TV directly, but some get a “bitrate too high” warning, and need to be uploaded to the cloud first, then played by the Chromecast. Those that do play, at least on my network, tended to pause randomly (like it was buffering, or something).
Right now, the Plex app costs $4.99, and requires the $3.99 a month ($29.99 a year, $74.99 lifetime). However, on the app’s page on Google Play, it says “The Chromecast feature currently requires a PlexPass, but will be free for all after the preview period.” So they’re saying if you want to use it now, you have to pay, but they’ll give it away for free for those who want to wait. OK, I’ll wait. Plex also requires the Plex Media Server to be running on the computer were all your content is. Not a big deal, as this is the PC-to-Apple TV connection too. Currently, Plex only allows video content to be shared with the Chromecast.
Avia costs $2.99 for Chromecast support (a one-time purchase after you install the “free” app). it supports pictures, movies, and music, from your phone/tablet, and pulled from any DNLA (Digital Living Network Alliance) gear you have. This latter function works about as well as DNLA ever does, which is to say, marginally, and not for the computer-impaired. If you’re looking for a “just works” device, get Apple (and that’s from a die-hard PC guy). It’s a slick looking app, though, not all files will run. Also, being DNLA, you never quite get the easy access to all your files as you’d hope.
Again, if you’re a PC person and want to spend time on setup and getting it to work, this might pass for a non-Apple alternative to AirPlay. However, if you’re not computer savvy, it’s only a fraction of the simplicity of Apple.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
The Kindle Fire HDX has a Second Screen feature, where you can send Amazon video up on your TV… as long as that TV is a 2013 Samsung Smart TV, or any HDTV connected to your Playstation 3. This frees up your Kindle to do other things, while the TV plays your chosen content. The main push for this is an ongoing content-specific datastream of actor names, facts from the show, and so on. On paper this all seems cool, in practice…
The first issue is you need to launch the Amazon Instant Video app on the PS3 for it to work. If I need to go to that hassle, why not just launch the video in that app to begin with? The info that runs during the show is mildly interesting, but poorly implemented and entirely superficial. You get an actor headshot, their name and a few credits, but there’s no way to dig deeper (like bringing up their actual IMDb page). I guess it takes out one step in the “who is that guy” process, but if what you recognize them from isn’t in the actor’s top highlights, you’re out of luck. You can’t even copy the name to paste into the browser. I watch TV all the time with my phone or tablet, and always look up show info, actor info, tangentially related crap on Wikipedia, so this all comes across as poorly implemented weaksauce.
The other new feature on the HDX is a traditional screen mirroring. It’s not quite as easy as the directions make out, but eventually I got a Samsung 6000 and the HDX to talk nice-nice. And then it works exactly as you’d expect. Everything you do on the HDX screen, is mirrored a moment later on the TV. Videos look about the same as they do on the HDX screen, though occasionally the image would stutter, break up, or show some macroblocking. Not a ton, but more than I saw on the HDX’s own screen.
Everything else seems to work too, though keep in mind the HDX’s screen isn’t 16×9, so some things (like web browsing) have black bars on the side. Also, it drains the battery as fast (possibly a little faster) than watching the show/movie on the screen, as you can’t turn off the HDX’s screen while it’s mirroring.
Comparison and conclusion
The Chromecast sort of works to mirror your device, but like the Chromecast in general, you’re better off spending a bit more on a Roku, which as a lot more features, like Amazon Instant Video (it also has a Plex app). In reality, the “mirroring” the Chromecast does is merely using your mobile device as a remote control.
If you have a TV that will work with it, the Kindle Fire HDX’s screen mirroring does work pretty much as it should. So if you’re tablet-centric, and occasionally want to watch a video on your TV (or show images to friends or whatever), it works well.
But as much as Apple haters are going to hate, AirPlay with an Apple TV really is the best option. It works perfectly, and exactly how you expect it to. There are options to do similar things with non-Apple gear, but they remain cumbersome at best and cloogy at worst. In the “what would I give my parents” test if they wanted this functionality, it’s AirPlay hands down. Yes, AirPlay doesn’t work with non-Apple-sanctioned files, but for the average user I don’t think this is an issue.
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