With a single attachment, you can turn your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch into a video player that mimics an Apple TV ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), Roku player ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), and other video players. And it even rivals those dedicated devices for quality.
Through a video adapter and the appropriate cables, your iOS device can output video to an HDTV (or other external display such as a monitor or projector). Download the right apps, and you've got yourself a video player that works equally well in the living room or hotel room.
Make the connection
By itself, your iOS device can't connect to a larger screen. You'll need a video adapter to complete the loop. The adapter you choose should be based on the inputs on the display you want to connect to.
Apple covers the gamut of input options. Apple's recently released $39 Digital AV Adapter ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) joins its $29 VGA Adapter, $39 Composite AV Adapter, and $39 Component AV Adapter. The Digital AV Adapter is for HDMI connections and also includes a USB port for power, so you can hook up your wall charger to the device as it performs its double duty as a video player.
Additional HDMI adapter vendors are sprouting up, too, such as Cable Matters's $36 HDMI adapter and HDMImyi.com's $59 HDMI adapter, though none seem to offer a great advantage in price or features over Apple's Digital AV Adapter.
Know your limits
Not all the connectors are created equal--the various adapters differ mainly in the video and audio connections they support. For example, the VGA Adapter doesn't handle audio; you have to also connect an audio cable to your Mac's audio output jack. And videos protected by DRM technology known as HDCP (high-bandwidth digital content protection) will not play over VGA because analog connections aren't supported by HDCP. This would affect movies and some TV shows purchased through the iTunes Store.
If you're looking to output HD, you'll want the Digital AV Adapter--Apple's component and composite adapters will downgrade any HD content to 480p and 480i, respectively. You'll also want to make sure your iOS device is capable of outputting the resolution you desire. The iPad 2 supports video output up to 1080p, while the original iPad, iPhone 4, and fourth-generation iPod touch can output 720p. But note that movie playback is limited to 720p on all those devices.
Once you've made your connection, it's all about the apps. The apps are what play or stream the video; the adapter just makes it nice and big. Apple's Videos app (or, on the iPhone, the Videos section of the iPod app) is a natural fit, of course. Any video you have on your device should play. Consider YouTube and Netflix ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ) apps as essentials, too, if you want access to more video than what's on your device.
Those apps don't mirror what's on the device (display the same thing on the device and the external monitor). Instead, you see the video on the larger display and the iOS device offers controls only. Once connected, volume is handled through the display.
Unfortunately, video out doesn't work on all apps. And that's the most disappointing thing--and one that prevents your iOS devices from being superior to other video players. Imagine having Hulu Plus, ABC's app, and other video streaming devices packed onto your device, and able to watch on the big screen. Alas, it is only a dream at this point. Several apps I tried, including ABC's app and Sony's Crackle, don't allow video out. All I got through the Apple Digital AV Adapter was sound through the TV and video on the iPad.
As an alternative, you can use an app like Air Video ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) or StreamToMe to stream video over your local network. You download the server software on your Mac and the app on your iOS device. Once you've got the pieces in place, you can stream videos from your Mac to your device--and video out works just fine.
Make the most of your experience
I was surprised at the quality from the iPad--HD videos from the iTunes Store look as crisp as HD from cable television. Even streams from Netflix and YouTube impressed, with little choppiness or other telltale signs of an underpowered video player. (Of course, note that streaming quality will depend a lot on the quality of your Internet connection.)
One trick to making these look best is to use widescreen mode instead of full screen. Full screen produces blocks and artifacts that the widescreen mode doesn't show. (In Apple's player, you can double-tap the screen or tab the button in the upper right corner to toggle between modes--other apps have similar controls.)
Video stored on the device is another matter. If you've created files sized for the small screen of an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, that low resolution will become very apparent on the big screen. Even some files I ripped at DVD resolution didn't look great, although they were certainly watchable.
The lesson here is to use the highest resolution you can get--this will cost you storage space, but your eyes will thank you.