OS X Mountain Lion and Airplay Mirroring: Time to Cut the Cord?

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David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Software Engineering for Apple Inc., announces the new Mountain Lion operating system during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, June 11, 2012.

With Airplay Mirroring now part of OS X Mountain Lion, you’re going to hear a lot of people claim that OS X is now a cord-cutting tour de force. The iPad and iPhone 4S already had it, and now your Mac does, too.

In reality, what Apple’s done is make it slightly more convenient to stream whatever’s on your Mac’s screen to your television, wirelessly, by way of an intermediary device. Think of it as PC Anywhere for TVs (if you remember PC Anywhere, that is). Those of you who already own an iPad or iPhone 4S, and who’ve been doing this for months now, may be less impressed.

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I’ve been doing the wired equivalent for years now using Apple’s relatively inexpensive HDMI adapter, and since my Mac happens to be a MacBook, my nightly “inconvenience” — usually watching a show over dinner, sometimes films on weekends — amounts to carrying the laptop a few dozen feet from my office to a chair beside my television in the living room, plugging in the HDMI adapter, and hitting play in Netflix, Hulu, or some cable channel’s web-based rebroadcast.

But I admit, having the ability to simply click an icon in OS X’s menu bar, select “Apple TV” and watch as, presto, my Mac’s display hijacks my television is impressive — the lazier and in that sense thoroughly appreciated version of a well-worn routine. It’s also as intuitive to initiate as anything else I’ve employed my Apple wireless devices for, clicking the same box-triangle icon in iTunes to bounce audio from my music library between the Apple TV or speakers connected to an Airport Express, for instance.

That said, Mountain Lion-based Airplay Mirroring has some caveats, not the least of which is that it requires that you have both a Mac and a $100 Apple TV box. If you don’t have one of Apple’s hockey-puck-sized television set-tops, your $20 Mountain Lion upgrade just morphed into a much pricier $120 upgrade.

Another concern I’m not seeing mentioned in Airplay Mirroring reviews is that you can’t easily control a Mac that’s using Airplay Mirroring, say your Mac’s a desktop or it sits somewhere out of easy reach of wherever you’re set up to watch the streaming content (like your living room couch). Before, using the hardline HDMI connection, I’d just walk a few steps from my couch to the chair near the TV I’d set the MacBook on to stop or start a show. Now, I have to leave the living room and go back to my office to make those adjustments. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m not sure about the net gain, mobility-wise, of walking from the living room back to the laptop, since before, I could just as easily bring the laptop to the living room (then again, there is the “no cords” perk).

Yes, Apple makes an Apple Remote that lets you control a handful of Apple apps like Front Row, Keynote, iTunes and DVD Player, but if we’re talking about cord-cutting — using streaming video services with proprietary controls that run through browsers like Safari, Chrome and Firefox — the remote is effectively useless. From an ease-of-control standpoint, the iPad and iPhone 4S, which not only have the ergonomic feel of remote controls but also include discrete apps for services like Netflix and Hulu, are clearly superior.

(REVIEW: Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Review: The Mac’s Lion Adventure Continues)

I’ve also noticed some inexplicable stuttering with Airplay Mirroring audio and video from time to time, and I’ve seen Airplay Mirroring drop the connection entirely at least twice. I thought this might be my AT&T combo broadband modem and wireless router, so I plugged in my Apple Airport Extreme, put it in Bridge mode, and gave that a try, but the problem persisted. The only other devices on my home network, besides the MacBook Pro from which I’ve been running Airplay Mirroring, are a couple video games consoles (turned off), my iPhone 4, a wireless printer and a MacBook Air, none of which were doing anything of consequence at the time.

I bought a copy of NetUse Traffic Monitor (since my copy of Net Monitor apparently isn’t supported in Mountain Lion) in hopes of determining if it’s something to do with how much data, color-depth and motion-wise, is being sent to the Apple TV. Casual tests indicate, as you’d expect, that simply grabbing a window and dragging it around the screen rapidly can generate traffic spikes upwards of 3Mb/s (up from a couple hundred Kb/s when the screen’s inactive) and watching a high-definition Netflix video full-screen seems to average around 2Mb/s, though you’d think that amount of data would be an afterthought, speed-wise, even for a slightly older (but fully updated) Airport Extreme. I’m going to run some more tests this week to see if I can’t isolate the problem.

The bigger question — “Is it time to cut the cord?” — has less to do with Airplay Mirroring, of course, than with what sort of content consumer you are. If you prefer to watch things as they air or to view channels that don’t offer subscription-free online streaming, then Airplay Mirroring probably adds little value to your home media setup (you could argue it still makes displaying photos and home videos easier, but it’s arguably simpler to just use the Apple TV’s native screen interface and remote control).

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be pretty enthused about Airplay Mirroring if I can get it to stop throwing audio/video glitches. I cut my cord four years ago. I don’t have a cable TV package, frankly never watched a lot of TV (preferring to watch shows as full season sets once they wrapped), have a Netflix streaming subscription, sometimes watch shows in rebroadcast through a browser and occasionally rent stuff from iTunes and Amazon.

That walk from the couch to the computer (in my office) is just a few more feet than the walk from my couch to the chair I used to set the HDMI-hardwired laptop on. I don’t have to eject my external backup drive or unplug the USB-powered fan running in my laptop cooler. And I can leave the laptop itself plugged in — no more worrying about hauling the power adapter into the living room because I’ve been streaming C-SPAN for hours and the battery’s about to die. So for me, it really is simpler to stream.

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