The connected home: now simpler than ever
Apple has updated the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone to make it easier to stream your music and films around your home and they aren't the only ones at it.
Apple gave iPad owners a treat this week, just in time for Christmas: a "completely new" iPad. At least, that’s what Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the iPad’s updated operating system amounted to.
Amid lots of changes - the ability to run more than one app at a time, new folders to make it easier to organise apps - were two big ones, named AirPlay and AirPrint.
These two features, also available to iPhone and iPod touch owners, represent Apple’s latest step in the process of connecting our home and our gadgets.
AirPrint allows printing, wirelessly, to a compatible printer and solves the problem of printing documents from one of Apple’s iOS devices, that is, from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.
Previously, documents had to be moved to a computer before they could be printed but this makes the process much simpler.
The only downside is that, so far, AirPrint is available only on a few printers made by HP.
However, Apple says it expects more manufacturers to add support soon and it’s likely that many existing printers will be upgraded, so you might not need a new printer.
AirPlay, meanwhile, allows music, video and photographs to be sent wirelessly from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch to a range of devices.
So, you can stream content to your television - but only if you have the €119 Apple TV - or to an AirPlay-enabled hifi, such as the Marantz Melody Media.
This means that if you’ve been travelling and are halfway through a film on your iPad, when you arrive home you can send it to your television and finish watching it on the big screen.
The ability to stream photos cuts out the traditional steps for showing your digital photos to people: first, forgetting you’ve got them, second, plugging your camera into your computer and transferring the pictures and third, gathering everyone around your computer screen or copying the images (again) to an external disc.
Flicking a slideshow from your handset to your television in seconds is a far more appealing process. And it doesn’t just connect your content, of course.
The same process will work at someone else’s house too, provided they have the requisite Apple kit.
But even if you aren’t an Apple user, the chances are that plenty of your gadgets are already capable of similar feats.
Microsoft’s Windows 7 includes Windows Media Centre, the part of Windows that is designed to manage your media content on your television.
All you need is an “extender” to get your content from your computer to your television and Microsoft has a very popular one in the shape of the Xbox 360 games console.
Some Windows 7 Phone handsets, meanwhile, support the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standard, which allows them to stream content to DLNA-compatible televisions or hifis.
Sony’s assorted gadgets can be connected to a home network too. Its VAIO laptops can stream content over your wifi network to your television, PlayStation 3 or hifi and so can its Blu-ray players and digital cameras.
Sony, Microsoft and Apple are far from the only manufacturers working on this problem.
There are thousands of DLNA-compatible devices from all kinds of manufacturers, including LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba. Apple's iOS-powered gadgets aren’t DLNA compatible.
Somewhat typically, Apple is going its own way on this technology. The advantage is that they make everything seamless and easy to use but the disadvantage is that you are required to use only Apple’s devices.
Being able to stream content wirelessly from one device to another is a great step forward in how we enjoy music, video and images.
It puts an end to the frustration of not being able to play your new CD in your kitchen or your bedroom, for example, because you only have a CD player in the living room.
However, this is still likely to be an intermediate step. At the moment it’s possible to stream a song or a film from one device to another only if the file is actually stored on one of the devices.
The next phase will see our media move into ‘the cloud’ and be stored on servers in some far-flung corner of the world.
Watching a film then will simply be a matter of streaming over the internet from the server to whatever device you want to watch it on.