Getting Around Apple’s AirPlay Limitations

Some of Apple’s (s aapl) technologies stop just a little short of greatness. That’s where third-party applications come in to complete the picture (and the sound). Airfoil helps extend Apple’s AirPlay on Macs and iOS devices, and a brand new app called AirView improves AirPlay’s video playback abilities.

Airfoil for Mac. At the core of this solution is Airfoil 4.0 (free trial, $25 full version). It’s a simple application that would probably do better as a System Preference pane.  The interface is quick to master: Just pick an audio source, and select where you would like that audio source to be heard.  In addition to supporting playback of your iTunes music library, Airfoil will also stream audio content from almost any application on either Mac or PC, including system audio and any attached audio device.  I tested this with the microphone attached to my Apple Cinema Display, as well as a Samson C01U USB Microphone attached to my Mac, and in both cases it worked well.

Airfoil Video Player. One thing you’ll notice right away when playing back video files is that the sound timing is off — way off. This is due to the buffering technology Airfoil uses to keep all audio outputs in sync. You can still play videos on your Mac and listen to them on your external audio system. Included with Airfoil is a custom video player that keeps the soundtrack in sync with the video playback.  It supports web-based content like Netflix(s nflx), Hulu and YouTube(s goog), as well as any most video file formats and DVD playback.

Airfoil to Airplay. Airfoil will transmit to any existing AirPlay device, like the Apple TV and the AirPort Express. It also supports any third-party hardware that uses AirPlay, like Denon’s new AVR-4311CI. You can select either one or many destinations, and Airfoil will ensure that audio playback remains in sync from room to room.

Airfoil Speakers for Mac, Windows and Linux. There are companion apps from Rogue Amoeba that turn any Mac, Windows (s aapl) or Linux machine into a destination that for Airfoil audio. Unfortunately, these apps can’t make any of these platforms AirPlay speakers, so playback only works using Airfoil as the source.

Airfoil Speakers Touch. The icing on the cake is this free App Store offering that enables all iOS devices to also become destinations for Airfoil audio.  Like Speakers for Mac, Windows and Linux, the Touch version doesn’t make iOS devices accessible through AirPlay, but it does allow for remote playback access to your iTunes music library, something you can’t do using Apple’s current AirPlay implementation. Using the Apple Remote app to control iTunes on your computer, and setting Airfoil to broadcast to your iOS device, you can have complete access to your entire iTunes library, bypassing onboard storage limitations.  Airfoil even supports background audio on your iOS device. Unfortunately, you need to be on the same local network as your Mac for this to work.

AirView. This one isn’t part of the Airfoil suite, but it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in the video side of AirPlay. It’s a free app that you can install on any iOS device, where it serves as a receiver for AirPlay video. So, for example, you could play back a video on your iPhone 4 using your iPad. It probably has the most potential as a way to stream your iTunes video library from your Mac to your iPad on a local network quickly and easily, though you’ll need to initiate playback on your Mac before you can control it in the AirView app. The streaming quality is fantastic, though.

Third-party solutions aren’t perfect, but once things are all up and running, everything sounds (and looks) just fine. One of the main hurdles is in initiating playback remotely. Reemote for Airfoil for $2.99 in the App Store provides a workaround for that solution, but an all-in-one solution would obviously be better. In any case, until Apple improves AirPlay itself, these apps are the best bet for fixing the feature’s deficiencies. Any other AirPlay-augmenters you’re using? Let us know in the comments.

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