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In which an Apple fan chooses a cheaper alternative for sharing iPad screens.

Simply put, there are times that I need to show content-related stuff to my class so we can engage material as a group. Call it lecture, call it discussion, call it whatever you like. When I first started teaching, that consisted of a chalkboard and my lame drawing skills. These days I’m much more of a tech geek, but even tech geeks have to experiment with what works for sharing material with the class.

For a long time I ran my classroom primarily with a standard setup of a laptop and an LCD projector that could project to a pull-down screen in the front of the class. A good setup, of course, but it requires the teacher to either be at the computer or use some sort of wireless mouse or controller to take over the computer if they want to walk around the room during discussions.

Enter the smartboard. I got one even though I didn’t request one. I learned to use it well enough but never fell in love with the software that came with it. What the smartboard does do reasonably well, though, is allow students and teachers to poke and prod the screen to make things happen. On the whole, I’ll overlook the software aspects of that particular tech fiasco and say that yes, the smartboard added some capability to the projection system.

Enter the iPad. Unlike the smartboard, I actually requested one of these, an iPad2. I also heard about teachers using AppleTV to mirror the iPad to their projector screen/smartboard so I requested and got one of those, too, the 2nd gen model that allows AirPlay streaming. At only $100, it seemed a cheap way to go to get some more functionality out of the iPad during class discussions. It works for that purpose, if you have an adapter for your old LCD projector to change the HDMI output of the AppleTV into something the projector can use. At first I used a HDMI to video converter box that worked through composite video. I was not too happy with the poor image quality, as might be visible in these pics:

AppleTV menu, composite videoiPad mirrored to AppleTV and composite video

I then upgraded to an HDMI to VGA converter box (with audio) that worked pretty well. Color reproduction was closer to the iPad and images and text were sharper:

HDMI to VGA adapter AppleTV menu with VGA adapteriPad mirrored to AppleTV with VGA adapter

My major beef with this setup was the shrinking of the screen. Why does the AppleTV menu take up the whole screen while the mirrored iPad, even in landscape mode, fills up only half of the screen? Text is just too small to see, both in the main menu and in several presentation apps. Sure you can pinch and zoom, but being crippled with a tiny screen area annoyed me. Plus, with this setup, the single VGA cable to the projector is occupied by the AppleTV, so the only way to share a laptop screen with the class (for the occasional flash site that doesn’t work with Puffin Browser, or some animations I use from a Windows XP virtual machine) is to use an iPad app like Splashtop that streams the laptop screen to the iPad and from there to the AppleTV. It works, but the small screen area was still a problem. Also, though I hate to admit it, I sometimes missed the smartboard functionality of tapping on the projected image. Since the laptop was mostly out of the loop, so was the connection to the smartboard, except in some amazingly convoluted smartboard-laptop-splashtop-ipad-appletv-projector chain of events.

Enter Airserver. Airserver software for the Mac has been around for a while, but apparently has only recently acquired AirPlay functionality and the ability to mirror an Airplay device (latest iPads or iPhone) to the screen of the laptop. There’s another Mac app, Reflection, that does something similar but in my hands it had some glitches with video playback and I never made it past the 10 minute trial period. Airserver on the other hand, has been a gem. Its only $12 for education types, a good start. It installs and fires up easily and my iPad quickly found my Mac on our school’s network. Basically, you connect the iPad to your laptop just as you would to mirror to the AppleTV. I set my Mac to not mirror displays and set the AirServer preferences so that it would stream to the second display (my LCD projector). This way I can have a set of resources open on the Mac screen that only I see (attendance, grades, email), a set of student resources on the projected display from the Mac, and, when I connect the iPad, a set of shared resources that are controlled from the iPad, all without switching any cables. The audio, video, and smartboard all run through the laptop, but I can take over the projection screen with an iPad at any time, including projecting student iPads when needed.

With Airserver, not only do I have the option to poke and prod my smartboard since the Mac is back in charge, but now the streamed iPad image fills the entire screen of the smartboard:

AirServer fixes the size issue in my iPad mirroring setup

In case you are wondering, the streaming performance of this Airserver setup seems pretty comparable to what I saw with the AppleTV in terms of framerate on streamed video and mirrored apps. I experienced a little audio lag every now and then with Coaster Physics, but haven’t noticed it with other apps. AirPlay-enhanced apps like Zombie Gunship work fine, too (after students have gone home, of course).

In summary, I traded a $100 piece of hardware for a $12 bit of software that allows streaming of iPad screens to my smartboard in a format large enough to read from the back of the classroom. This software-based solution, Airserver, seems to be superior in video quality to the AppleTV, particularly when used with an older projector without an HDMI input. Also, smartboard functionality is maintained by a setup that keeps a laptop as the primary driver of the projected image.

Edit: Another use for AirServer – If you are presenting iPad content, apps, etc. in a location with no network connectivity, connect the iPad to the Mac via Bluetooth to still allow the iPad screen to be projected to a large audience.

Edit 1/7/13: Your network infrastructure may need to be tweaked to get the best performance with either AirServer or AppleTV over WiFi. Both operate using AirPlay which relies on Bonjour technology to find devices on local networks. On our network the two devices (iPad and Mac or iPad and AppleTV) had to be on the same subnet, as Bonjour works best on the local subnet only. This means that if you have a big network with several subnets, as most larger organizations will, you will occasionally have the two devices pull addresses from different subnets, in which case AirPlay will not work. We got around this at my school by creating a separate subnet that is just for student iPads, a few AppleTV’s, and laptops that they connect to. This also solved a problem we were having with teachers using Doceri on the iPad where they could not connect to their laptop due to being on different subnets. If your network administrator doesn’t want to juggle WiFi subnets for you, a Bluetooth connection is your best bet.

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