It’s rare for me to buy things for myself, but occasionally eBay presents me with a bargain that I can’t resist. A couple of weeks ago it was a brand new ThinkPad x230 (for Tessa), still my favourite laptop, for only £200, it’s as light as the very best machines available today but with a better keyboard, it’s much more reliable and repairable and 1/5 of the price. Yesterday it was a refurbished 4th Generation Apple TV, refurbished, but supplied sealed and in as-new condition. To understand how the Apple TV fits into my setup so well, I need to describe it in a little detail.
I have a Dell 27 inch 2560×1440 WQHD resolution monitor attached via Display Port to a ThinkPad X230 laptop that sits in a dock on my desk. This PC/Monitor is my primary PC and media centre, it’s got a big SSD in it with a replica of my favourite TV shows stored locally and kept in sync with the free app BTsync. I run the Plex server on the X230 as well as on my home server.
My portable is an identical ThinkPad X230, which also runs Plex and is kept in sync with BTsync. I like to watch media on the big screen while I work with my portable on my lap. To watch media on the big screen I mainly use Windows Media Centre, which has been hacked to run on Windows 10 and an old Media Centre remote control. I can use remote desktop to connect to either laptop from either laptop, both inside and outside of the house.
This setup is pretty good, but it has some shortcomings.
- It’s not easy or reliable or even possible to ‘throw’ content from my phone or from the ThinkPad on my lap up onto the big screen, and I find myself wanting to do that a lot
- The Media Centre Remote is great for Windows Media Centre, but it’s not great for Plex and it’s terrible for YouTube and other video apps
- Windows has a dearth of media apps
- Sometime in the last year all of the remotes in our house stopped working correctly, only sending 3 key presses at a time, with a pause of perhaps 30 seconds before sending resumed. This happens on Windows 7 and 10 and I’ve given up trying to debug it, although on Windows 7 I improved it by disabling the media controls extension in Chrome
- I want to gradually transition over to Netflix, iPlayer etc. rather than using Media Centre, but they don’t all work on Windows 10 and even if they did I don’t have a good remote control solution for them
Bottom line I wanted a new media centre solution. The kids all have Roku’s and they like them, so I was considering getting another one, but in the end this Apple TV was cheaper than any other option, excepting a Fire TV stick, so I decided it was worth a try. I did get a Fire TV stick for the guest bedroom.
I had a few other lucky breaks:
- My Dell Monitor supports hardware shortcut keys, which allow me to switch between HDMI (Apple TV) and Display Port (ThinkPad) with a single tap on a button on the side of the display
- The Dell also has a sound bar with an independent volume control that’s driven from the HDMI audio feed, this is important because the Apple TV only outputs audio over HDMI and my version of HDMI doesn’t support volume control otherwise
- I have an old copy of the Air Parrot 2 software, from some experimenting I was doing when I was working, which allows me to fully integrate the Windows 10 laptops with the Apple TV
So what can I now do with this setup:
- I can switch between the Apple TV and the ThinkPad with a single button press, basically when I sit down at my desk to use the PC, I press the button to use the screen connected to the ThinkPad, when I get up from my desk, I press it again to connect it to the Apple TV
- I can display audio, video, apps or the full screen of any of my devices to the big screen seamlessly. My iPad and iPhone display natively using Apples Airplay, and my two ThinkPads can do the same thing using Air Parrot, which is a Airplay client for Windows.
- I can play music and podcasts from my phone to the sound bar on the Dell, which is surprisingly good quality
- I can control the Apple TV using the excellent remote control that comes with it, but if I need to type anything, like an email address or password I can use the Apple TV remote app on the iPhone.
- I can remotely control either of my ThinkPads using the Air Parrot remote app, this means for example that I can play any video off my laptops’ hard drive on the Apple TV using only the iPhone
- I can also use the Air Parrot app running on the ThinkPad to display my desktop, an application or a video directly to the Apple TV.
- The Apple TV has excellent Plex, Netflix and YouTube apps and integrates nicely with those same apps on the iPhone
- I now have a great solution for watching video podcasts
- The Apple TV supports local content, so using VLC I can drag and drop TV shows into my browser and they are available to playback offline, for example when I’m on holiday, this is much more convenient than taking my laptop with me, or using my phone