[Apps] Streaming Video to the iPad

Air Video on the iPad

Air Video on the iPad

I’ve recently reconfigured my media storage to put all of my many ripped TV series and movies onto a dual bay 4TB NAS (though its only a 3TB NAS for the moment until I buy a second 2TB HD to replace the 1GB in the second bay). Until now I’d been keeping all the video files on my HTPC, but its internal 500GB HD was full, and the external 500GB drive was rapidly approaching the same state. So it seemed a good opportunity to centralise, especially as the new set up would allow me the flexibility to stream my media from the NAS to a variety of different machines. Including my iPad.

Now, because of the way iOS works it’s not just as simple as accessing a remote folder on the network and playing the media files. There are a couple of problems to overcome. Firstly there is no file browser on the iPad, and thus no native way of accessing a bunch of files sitting on a network share somewhere. Secondly, the files are in a rainbow of different formats. Some are Xvid AVIs, still others are H.264 encoding MKVs or MP4s. The one thing they have in common are that almost all of them are not natively playable on the iPad.

So we turn to the app store for a solution. And a solution there is. Though, typically, its not quite perfect.

There are two main ways to go about this. Firstly, I can use the NAS’s inbuilt UPnP AV server capability to stream directly from the NAS to the iPad. Having set up the UPnP AV server its just a question of finding an app that works well on the iPad. Oddly there aren’t a massive number of choices. In fact the only app to be fairly universally recommended on the web is Airplayer (below). It is a fairly simple app that connects up to any UPnP AV servers and streams over the media (audio and video). It works pretty well, but has one major downside. In order to play formats not natively supported by the iPad the app re-encodes on the fly, using the iPad’s processor. This works ok for some formats, but really starts to chug with a lot of the more complicated compression systems, and with HD content. Most videos are playable, even 720p movies are ok, but they tend to run at what seems like 15 fps. Not great for watching a 2 hour masterpiece. In all about 40% of the videos I tried streamed flawlessly, the others jerked along. On the iPhone the results were better, either because the iPhone4 has twice the iPad’s memory, or because the smaller screen resolution makes the encoding easy.

Air Player UI

Air Player UI

Air Player in action

Air Player in action

So, what else can we do? Well, how about offloading that processing burden to a more powerful machine? Well my quad core laptop sits in the corner of the room idling away for most of the day. Could that be of use. Indeed it can, and there a couple of apps that take advantage of that. Air Video and StreamToMe (below) both use a PC as a server, and live encode video to the iPad’s native format on the fly, using the server’s processor, before firing it over the network to the iPad or iPhone. In practice, they both work, but Air Video seems by far the superior choice.

StreamToMe UI

StreamToMe UI

Stream To Me in action

StreamToMe in action

I’ve used both apps for several days, and StreamToMe just doesn’t seem to cut it. Both play all the video on my NAS flawlessly, but Air Video starts, stops, changes and resumes videos far more reliably, and far faster than its counterpart. Its PC-based server software also seems far more robustly made. In use I found ServeToMe (StreamToMe’s server software) crashed regularly, and even failed to render screen fonts properly on Windows 7.

And so I now use both AirPlayer and Air Video. If I’m up and about and the PC is on, then Air Video is the one to plump for. It’s also what I use to watch videos in bed, with the laptop left on, but set to shut down after a couple of hours (or as long as the video I’m watching will last). I keep AirPlayer installed to for those times when the laptop is off, or out of use, so I can stream directly from the NAS, even if some of the videos are pretty jerky. StreamToMe on the other hand, has been consigned to the big home screen in the sky.

Air Video in action

Air Video in action

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Categories: Apps

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