Apple users looking at an integrated media solution simply can’t look past AirPlay. By incorporating AirPlay, you build a bridge between your media rig and any of your Apple devices. Show off holiday pictures from your iPhone on your TV, play Spotify audio from your computer on your surround system, or perhaps even mirror your desktop on the television screen. All of it wireless. With AirPlay, your media rig is extended with all of the juicy features and applications of iOS and Mac OS X
To enjoy the benefits of AirPlay, you’ll need an AirPlay receiver, and the Apple TV is by and far the most popular one. Built as a veritable entertainment box, the Apple TV isn’t cheap (it’s a bit under the 100 mark). It’s tempting to look for alternatives; AirPlay receivers that are cheaper than the Apple TV. We’ve laid out four options.
1. The Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is, in essence, a small and lightweight computer. Designed with hobbyists in mind, you can set the Raspberry Pi to virtually any task. Christian Cawley rounded up five amazing uses for the Raspberry Pi and built a motion capture security system with it, too. Perhaps more in our area of interest, a Raspberry Pi makes for an excellent lightweight media center. It shouldn’t be surprising that it can also be used as an AirPlay receiver.
There are a number of ways to get AirPlay working on your Raspberry Pi. The easiest way is to use Raspbmc, a port of the popular XBMC media center. Follow Christian’s instructions for installing Raspbmc to get you 99% through the process. When you’re done, just make sure System > Network > Allow XBMC to receive AirPlay content is enabled.
Raspbmc is able to handle both video and audio content. At the time of writing, AirPlay Mirroring your computer screen is not yet possible. However, rPlay (currently in beta) will bring support for AirPlay mirroring to the Raspberry Pi as well. With the base hardware priced at $35, that’s a pretty good deal. In fact, that’s almost a third of the cost of an Apple TV.
2. An Old Laptop
Although a computer is usually priced higher than an Apple TV, a lot of people have old laptops or desktop computers lying around that are gathering dust. Repurposing this hardware is definitely cheaper than purchasing an Apple TV.
Raspbmc, which we mentioned above, is a port of XMBC. It stands to reason that AirPlay mirroring will also work on a regular XBMC installation. Check out our extensive XBMC guidebook to get to grips with the media center software. After downloading and installing, you’ll be able to stream audio and video (exempting AirPlay mirroring) to that old laptop.
If you’re only going to stream audio over AirPlay, XBMC might be overkill. Instead, you should take a look at Airfoil Speakers. Usually bundled with Airfoil, an alternative AirPlay streaming client, Airfoil Speakers is a free multi-platform app that adds a simple AirPlay audio receiver to your computer.
3. Android Stick
An Android TV stick, in case you don’t know, is a device that’s often only marginally smaller than a thumb drive. It runs Android and sports an HDMI instead of a USB connector. By plugging one of these Android sticks into your TV, any TV with an HDMI port is instantly transformed to a smart TV. James reviewed two Android TV sticks earlier this year. Both were priced at the $80 mark, but you can easily find alternative devices for half that price.
Because you’re essentially running Android, any AirPlay-compatible Android apps will suffice. Similar to the above, you can use XBMC to stream audio and video to the Android TV Stick, or AirFoil Speakers if you only need to handle audio.
4. Built-in Airplay Receivers
You might have noticed that all of the above options are workarounds or repurposed devices. What about a standalone, third-party Airplay receiver? There are those as well, but they’re not as great as you might initially expect. AirPlay is a proprietary format, meaning that the hardware manufacturers need to get a license from Apple to use it.
As a result, ‘cheap’ alternative receivers are hard to find. Your best bet is usually a set of AirPlay-enabled speakers, that’ll run you about $70 on Amazon. Faced with this choice, one of the above alternatives is often preferable. There’s one main exception to this rule: when you’re already buying high-end hardware. For example, if you’re purchasing a home theatre surround system, like the Denon pictured above, adding AirPlay functionality to the list of features doesn’t add much to the price.
How often do you rely on AirPlay? Have you ever build or configured your own receiver? Let us know in the comments below!
Image credit: carloszk