iPod/iPhone speaker docks are great. They let you create an instant stereo system. You can hear all your music without complicated connections to an AV receiver. Your iPod/iPhone will charge while it's playing music, and they're great for parties.
One problem: once your iPod or iPhone, or iPad and the new generation of iPad docks, is docked, you don't have your music or phone in your hands. If your iPhones rings, you have to go get it from the dock. Want to turn down the volume, skip a track, hear a track again? Ya gotta get up. At parties, the guest nearest the dock suddenly gets control of the music YOU wanted to play. And if they have an iPhone, suddenly you're hearing what they want to hear.
Lack of control of your docked iPod/iPhone doesn't exactly rise to the crisis level of, say, political upheavals in North Africa or the deficit problem, but this is a tech blog and these are the ridiculous kinds of problems we deal with here.
AirPlay is a way of wirelessly transmitting audio or video or photos via WiFi (so you need a WiFi router in your house) from your Apple portable device to your HDTV via an AirPlay-enabled AV receiver, an AppleTV or, with the Philips' latest Fidelio SoundSphere speakers you see in the photo, which I took in Spain, via an AirPlay-compatible speaker dock.
In the latest Apple iOS operating system (4.3.2), you'll see the new AirPlay icon – a horizontal rectangle pierced at the bottom by a pyramid – on the video player, iPod app and photo viewer on your portable Apple device. Touching this transfers whatever you're viewing or listening to on your iPod, iPhone or iPad to the aforementioned compatible viewing/listening device. It's much simpler than it sounds.
Philips' Fidelio is the fourth AirPlay speaker dock available, or will be when it goes on sale in about a month. The first was the Zeppelin speaker dock from B&W ($600), followed by the iHome iW1 ($300) and the Star Trek:TOS "City on the Edge of Forever" time portable-shaped JBL On Air Wireless AirPlay speaker dock ($350). Denon also has an entire line of AirPlay-compatible devices. I was told the Fidelio's would be priced at $900 euro, so figure at least around $1,000 U.S. (I'm waiting for Philips to give me the domestic details.) Oh, that eye-on-a-stalk thing jutting out of the top of the Fidelio speaker is a tweeter.
Making sure you iPad/iPhone/iPod is wirelessly connected to the speakers is a challenge – speakers have no screen to inform you of your connection. I had a hard time understanding the demonstrator in Spain who spoke mostly German about how you know the speakers is wirelessly communicating with your Apple portable. It looks as if there are a series of colored status lights on the back of these weird-looking speakers to let you know you're AirPlay connected.
AirPlay pros and cons
AirPlay's big advantage is being able to hold your Apple portable in your hands while your music plays through the speakers. You maintain control. You can answer your iPhone when it rings without getting up to retrieve it. You can keep your iPhone in your pocket while it plays inaccessible-to-your-guests music at a party. And AirPlay has WiFi's range of around 150 feet, so you can even remotely control the music from your backyard barbeque.
And, of course, all the AirPlay docks will play your music when your iPhone, iPod or iPad is docked.
The cons are your iPhone, etc., will only charge when it's docked. And only the Fidelio and the Zeppelin seem to be designed to accommodate the iPad.
But you can always set up a charging dock where you're sitting, even if the speakers are across the room or even in another room.
So, there. Another minor gadget inconvenience solved. Now if Steve Jobs was only in charge of world peace.