How Miracast could finally make your smartphone run your home theater

miracast streaming header wifi alliance tv streamingFew things make me feel like I’m living in the future as much as wirelessly beaming movies and music from a mobile device to a big-screen TV or home audio component. Oh, you haven’t heard that song yet? Let me stream it right through your speakers! Missed the latest episode of Top Chef Masters? I have it here on my laptop, let’s pop the high-definition video up on your TV — no wires necessary. That’s right up there with hoverboards and robot butlers in my book, folks.

One problem: It’s not that easy yet. The two major wireless media streaming technology options available today — Apple’s excellent AirPlay and Intel’s, um, improving WiDi — struggle with major flaws that majorly limit their usefulness.

The best hope for a wire-free mobile future rode in this week in the form of Miracast, a new standard backed by the same organization that watches over Wi-Fi itself. It’s an innovative technology that’s backed by a bunch of big-name players and breaks many of the chains holding WiDi and AirPlay back, but Miracast has some hurdles to leap before it becomes a household name.

The problems with WiDi and AirPlay

The biggest issue with WiDi and AirPlay is that they’re proprietary and available on very limited hardware. Only Apple devices broadcast AirPlay signals, and only the Apple TV set-top box or select home theater equipment can receive that signal. WiDi’s restricted to select laptops and notebooks with Intel Core processors inside, plus you have to pay about $100 for a WiDi adapter for your TV. Bleh.

On the positive side, that adapter allows WiDi broadcasters and receivers to talk to each other directly; AirPlay has to piggyback on an external Wi-Fi network. If you don’t have a Wi-Fi network set up, you can’t use AirPlay. (Apple’s rumored to be working on “AirPlay Direct” to ditch the reliance on outside Wi-Fi, however.)

Another issue lies in actually using the wireless streaming technologies. AirPlay’s a model of clean engineering and pretty much works like a charm every time you use it, but WiDi is another matter completely. Intel’s technology frequently suffers from horrible lag, and it didn’t support 1080p video or Blu-ray streaming until earlier this year. A scheduled October update could help things, but we won’t know until we see it.

Finally, WiDi and AirPlay are only kinda wireless. Both require the use of a box that connects to your TV via an HDMI cable, if you want to stream video from your phone or tablet.

Miracast basics

Miracast, on the other hand, requires no additional hardware or external Wi-Fi networks. It uses the Wi-Fi Direct standard to create a direct wireless network between the sending device and the receiving device. In other words, just pair your mobile device with your TV or stereo and you’re good to go. Both devices need to be Miracast certified for the technology to work, but if you want to stream music and movies to a non-certified device, there will be Miracast adapters available that plug into HDMI or USB ports.

miracast nvidia wireless streaming mobile to tvEven better, the Wi-Fi Alliance has ensured that the protected content woes that plagued WiDi’s launch won’t happen to Miracast; anything you can see or hear on your mobile device can be streamed to your television. That includes full 1080p HD video and yep, even DRM-protected media like DVDs or Blu-rays.

Everyone can join this wireless party

Like Wi-Fi itself — and unlike WiDi and AirPlay — Miracast is an open, optional certification that any manufacturer can apply for if their products meet the standard. That alone gives it a big potential leg-up over already-established technologies.

In fact, a number of big-name technology manufacturers are already onboard the Miracast bandwagon. Samsung — the world’s most prolific smartphone maker — is signed up, and Nvidia has pledged to certify its Tegra mobile processors — found in scores of smartphones and tablets — to the Miracast standard. Sony, LG, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm have all publicly issued statements of support.

Even Intel wants in on the action: All WiDi products have already been Miracast certified, as have LG’s Optimus G smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Samsung Echo-P Series TV, and a number of various chips and adapters.

The sending and receiving gadgets don’t have to be from the same manufacturer, either. A Samsung phone should stream content to a Sony TV just fine, provided both are Miracast certified. Spiffy.

An AirPlay rival at last?

Things look pretty good for Miracast. Many would-be technologies die on the vine due to a sheer lack of adoption, but with the Wi-Fi Alliance and its assorted manufacturer partners on board, that doesn’t seem likely to happen to Miracast.

The biggest potential pitfall, as I see it, lies in customer confusion; it’s great that Intel certified its WiDi devices, but some of WiDi’s more advanced features won’t work if one of the two devices is “only” Miracast certified. That could confuse some people, but I don’t foresee it becoming a major issue because frankly, Intel’s WiDi isn’t in the hearts, minds or laptops of most people yet. A successful Miracast very well could kill it off in short order.

WiDi-esque lag could slow Miracast adoption as well; we’ll have to see how well the first wave of devices play together.

miracast gaming wireless streaming wifi mobile to tvWill Miracast be successful? That’s the million-dollar question, but all signs point to yes. It’s more flexible and more universal than current wireless display technologies, and even better, you don’t need to pay extra for additional adapters or wires unless you want to stream content to a non-certified TV. With the big names backing the standard, Miracast should theoretically pop up in a large number of TVs, smartphones, tablets and laptops in short order.

If you ask me, Miracast is here to stay. Folks who haven’t bitten into Apple will be able to get a taste of mobile display mirroring that’s hopefully as easy-to-use as AirPlay. Who knows? If Miracast takes off, maybe Macs and iDevices will one day ditch the proprietary AirPlay and embrace the open-standard goodness. (Hey, it could happen.)

Now, someone needs to start working on those robot butlers.

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