If you like TV, and you like the Internet, you’ve got some really good options for getting those two crazy kids to play nicely together. Even without a Smart TV in your living room, you can use an HDMI cable to connect your Mac or iPad directly to your big-screen HDTV (although that’s a bit of a mobility buzzkill). It’s easier to put something in the middle to handle that conversation, at least until Tim Cook and Jony Ive make all our big-screen dreams come true.
For most Apple-centric households, the natural middleman is the $99 Apple TV. Apple’s “experiment” delivers 1080p content direct from iTunes, subscription goodies from Netflix or Hulu, sports from the NBA, MLB and NHL, free video from Vimeo and YouTube, and of course your photos, music and videos from household Macs. The relatively recent debut of AirPlay mirroring for Macs in OS X 10.8 means that your computer can screen-mirror to an Apple TV just as smoothly as your iPhone or iPad can. If you’re inclined toward non-Apple boxes with more subscription and channel support, the Roku or Boxee hardware might be more up your alley.
One thing the Apple TV can’t do easily — at least not without the intervention of a mirrored AirPlay device or a jailbreak — is stream web videos from sources outside the approved/supported list. Even if you do use a mirrored device, it’s tied up for the duration of the stream; how are you supposed to chat with your vintage movie club while you’re watching? And what if you have friends with non-Apple gear who’d like to stream some videos your way?
There ought to be another path to video Nirvana, and the folks behind the PLAiR HDMI dongle think they have it figured out. The new $99 wireless video-streaming gadget is arriving in some customers’ hands today. I saw it demonstrated at the Engadget Expand conference, and while the company’s description of it as “AirPlay for everybody” may be a bit off-target with no true mirroring support, it’s still quite impressive.
The PLAiR device — one assumes that the lowercase “i” is not coincidental — is a smart adapter that connects to three things: power, your TV’s HDMI port, and your home WiFi network. Once it’s set up, PLAiR links to a Chrome plugin on your Mac or PC to let you hand off streaming video to it with a couple of clicks. iOS and Android devices can play too; both platforms have streamer apps available.
In the case of the desktop controls for PLAiR, you simply browse to the website for the video you want to see (scores of broadcast and Web video networks play nicely with the PLAiR, although big kahunas Hulu and Netflix sadly do not). A small overlay icon reminds you that you can stream to your TV; click it and the video hops over to the wider arena. Behind the scenes, the PLAiR unit is actually running its own streaming client via Flash or HTML5 and handling the video independently; your laptop is no longer needed, and in fact you can close the window and do something else — even sleep it or shut it down.
That’s not the case if you choose to stream videos or photos stored on your computer or iOS device, of course. In that situation, you can create a playlist of clips that you want to see, and PLAiR will play them all in order, but your device needs to stay online and awake to push the video to PLAiR.
iPhone and iPad users can jump into the fun via the free PLAiR iOS app. With the app, the same channels and sources should be accessible, and you can kick off a stream in similar fashion. Local content will play as well, although anything purchased from the iTunes Store will not play (the PLAiR doesn’t know how to deal with Apple’s FairPlay encryption for video). You also cannot mirror iOS apps to the PLAiR, but at least one common-use case for that is handled by a second companion app aimed at business users: the $0.99 OmniPresent will load and display PowerPoint or PDF decks via your PLAiR stick onto a projector or TV.
If your video needs don’t depend heavily on iTunes-purchased content or the premium offerings of Hulu or Netflix, you might get your money’s worth out of the PLAiR. It’s certainly a more graceful option for free-to-stream network content than rigging up an HDMI cable across the living room. Customers who pre-ordered the PLAiR hardware are getting theirs this week, but current orders are out of stock for the moment; if you order today you might see your unit by June.
Here’s a brief video intro to PLAiR. I’m afraid I will have to deduct points for continuity, as the Acer laptop pictured in the video appears to be running the OS X version of Chrome.
And here’s a video preview of PLAiR in action from Engadget Expand: