Simple AirPlay setup for whole house audio

I’ve been enamored with home audio since I was a very young.  I can recall turning on radios in separate rooms of the house so I could run from room to room playing my guitar along with the radio, preparing myself for future “rock-stardom”.  Fortunately for us all the long hair and spandex didn’t survive the 80’s but my desire to have audio in every room of the house didn’t.

Since then, I’ve spent more time (and money) than I should trying to build a fully distributed, multi-source audio distribution system, or what has been marketed at Whole House Audio but the big A/V vendors.  None of these efforts have been inexpensive, user friendly, or as functional as I would have wished.

Needless to say, I was very excited at the potential uses of AirPlay when it was initially introduced by Apple.  Utilizing this feature built into IOS devices and iTunes, you can easily put together a reasonable system (from a cost and complexity standpoint) that will give you fairly good results.

I’m certain there are more ways to do this than I’ll give you here, so please don’t flame me for forgetting your preferred method….

Step 1 – Start with a source

The most basic of AirPlay sources is iTunes.  If you’ve accepted iTunes to be your central storage for all digital media, this gives you a good based from which to start. iTunes gives you a lot of flexibility here and can easily be controlled via the Apple remote app from any IOS device.

From iTunes or the Remote app you can select your music or playlist as well as the destinations within your home.  Each AirPlay target has a separate audio level control available so you can balance out the levels to your preference (or the devices capability).

If you don’t want to use your media library and you prefer to stream your music selections, you are in luck.  You can use a streaming source, like Pandora, to feed AirPlay.  In this case I will use an iPad which I have Pandora set up on.  Launch the app and start playing your preferred playlist.  Once it starts you can double-click the home button to bring up the “multitasking bar”, swipe to the right and you’ll see your audio controls, from there you can click on the AirPlay button to choose which target you would like to use.

Step 2 – Simple target devices (or audio destinations)

Since AirPlay has been out for just over a year now and manufacturers are now starting to integrate it’s features into their devices.  Audio/Video receivers from Denon and many small speaker/dock devices have implemented AirPlay, but I’ve yet to see one of these solutions that are reasonably priced to use if you wanted to stream music to say 5-7 locations in or around your home.

The approach I’ve taken doesn’t really care if the speakers or stereos are “AirPlay enabled” or not.  In fact, most of my target systems are built from either powered speakers or systems we’ve had in our home far longer than the existence of AirPlay.

So how do I connect them?

One of the simplest and underrated devices from Apple is the Airport Express.  While it has the capability to extend your wireless network (albeit at the expense of your throughput), make USB devices like hard drives or printers wireless, or provide ethernet connectivity to a non-wireless device, the biggest feature is it’s ability to be an endpoint in an AirPlay environment.

On every airport express is a combination mini-toslink and analog miniplug connection.  So you can connect to a RCA input with a mini to RCA cable or directly to a digital input with the mini-toslink to toslink cable.  I am very aware that Apple sells a nice “kit” with both these cables for an astonishing $39.  A quick Google search will find an appropriate cable for your application for less than $5 per cable.

I have Airport Expresses using both options.  Where I have a bookshelf stereo unit with optical input, I’ve connected the AE via the toslink cable.  However in a simple and somewhat portable setup, I’ve used another AE simply connected to a pair of powered computer speakers.  With these two options, you can probably accomodate most any stereo or powered speaker setup you have in place today.

To extend my options a bit further, I’ve also utilized Apple TV2s as target devices for AirPlay.  ATV2s fit quite a different category of use verses the AE.  The biggest difference for me is the lack of an analog audio out on the ATV2.  While it has a full size optical output, it can perform the same function as an AE connected to a receiver with an optical input.  This is truly a matter of preference, do what you wish here.  The deciding point for me is what is the end device.  If it’s really at TV, then the ATV2 is the preferred component.  If it’s an audio only device, then the AE is my preferred device.

So now rooms like bedrooms and the family room don’t necessarily have to have a dedicated audio system in them to have audio streamed to them.  The downside to this particular option is that you have to have the television on in those rooms in order to have the audio output.  Whereas you can leave the stereo or speakers connected to the AE always on and set to a preferred volume level.

Step 3 – MultiSource?

While not a traditional multi-source setup, you can get a similar function from this setup.  I cannot use iTunes running from my central media server to serve up different playlists to different rooms/targets.  This would be a wonderful feature if someone on the iTunes dev team could work that out.  However you can use a couple of sources (possibly multiple iTunes or IOS devices) to control separate sets of speakers.  So my daughters could use the iPad to connect to speakers in the bedrooms upstairs to play Radio Disney while I have iTunes or my iPhone streaming music to all the speakers downstairs or outside.

If you’re looking to distribute audio on a fairly reasonable budget, I don’t believe you can easily beat this setup.  It definitely gives you a lot of flexibility about what you want to put where (from a target perspective) and can easily grow to fit your needs.  As each iTunes and IOS update come out, I eagerly look to see what new AirPlay options may be enabled.  Especially as Apple starts to introduce the ability to distribute video in the same manner.  But that’s a whole other topic…

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iOS 4.2 is out! Update your iDevice!

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

While many people (me included) are happy to update their devices to iOS 4.2 for the new features enabled, most are not aware of the security fixes included that are also necessary.  iOS 4.2 (like many iOS updates prior) includes fixes to address multiple vulnerabilities. Exploitation of these vulnerabilities may allow an attacker to execute arbitrary code, initiate a call, cause a denial-of-service condition, gain system privileges, or obtain sensitive information on your iPhone, iPad, or iTouch.  (While there is an update for AppleTV also, I’m not aware of what, if any, vulnerabilities were addressed with that update).

A quick overview of these fixes includes fixing an issue with the new iAD service where the ads could send you to malicious sites, fixing mail issues where properly formatted HTML emails could send information back to the sender of the email, and a network issue where properly formatted PIM messages could cause a denial of service situation or the device to completely shut down.

To see a full list of the vulnerabilities addressed, please see Apple’s security page here:  http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4456

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Android and iPhone exploits revealed in past week

Over the weekend, a new Web-based jailbreak became available for iOS devices, offering users a simple method to open their devices to installation of unauthorized third-party applications.  An error in the processing of Compact Font Format (CFF) data within PDF files can be exploited to execute arbitrary code e.g. when a user visits a specially crafted web page using Mobile Safari.

This is applicable to any iOS 4 device (all new iPhone 4s, iPads and any upgraded iPhone 3G and 3Gs).  On of the main features of iOS 4 was the SandBoxing approach to applications.  This exploit bypasses the SandBoxing by exploiting a third party app.  I have to say this doesn’t help Adobe’s popularity in Cupertino.

Time will tell if Apple will release a patch to iOS to resolve the issue or if Adobe will have to update their code.  For the time being, the best advice is to browse “safely” (if that’s really possible anymore) or just not browse at all.

The Andriod exploit has a completely different twist on it.  Spider Labs released a DVD at Defcon last week that provided a method to root the device.  Once the exploit is applied the Android device acts as a bot for the hacker who has full remote-control over the device providing access to all the user information on it.  What makes this more interesting is that Spider Labs is an ethical hacking team using this approach to incentivize manufacturer to provide  a fix to the issue more quickly.

“It wasn’t difficult to build,” said Nicholas Percoco, head of Spider Labs, who along with a colleague, released the tool at the Defcon hacker’s conference in Las Vegas on Friday.  Percoco said it took the team about two weeks to build the malicious software.

CNET reported that there were ten companies had data compromised.  The list included Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Apple, and Google amongst others.  All information was solicited through one phone call to an employee of the company.

************** UPDATE Aug 5th **********************

CNET has posted that Apple has acknowledged the issue and already have a fix.  They did not mention when it would be released but a software update is imminent.

************** UPDATE Aug 11th *********************

Apple has released iOS 4.0.2 for iPhone and iTouch as well as iOS 3.2.2 for the iPad to address this vulnerability.  Of course the a side effect to addressing this vulnerability is that it now breaks the functionality of JailbreakMe 2.0.  Not that this should be a surprise.

Verizon to make an iPad killer… filed under is this really news?

http://preview.bloomberg.com/news/2010-05-11/verizon-wireless-is-in-talks-with-google-about-developing-tablet-computer.html

Is anyone surprised that another company is planning to make a touch screen tablet?

Anyone surprised that Verizon wants a piece of this market?

Anyone surprised that Google is planning to use it’s Android platform for a larger touch screen device?

You shouldn’t be.  Microsoft introduced a touch screen “tablet” device back in 2001.  Many manufactures produced PDA’s of various form factors and eReaders have been around for at least a couple of years.  Heck even Apple has been down this road before with the Newton in 1987 (yes, that’s 87).  Even though it was 20 years later when Apple introduced the iPhone, there exist some similarities in the “look” of the platform.

Anyway, back to the iPad killer…

I still stand by my argument that we need this type of computing platform.  (yes need) To expect other vendors to not enter this market space would be naive.  How many new MP3 players hit the market after the iPod was released?  How many other touch screen mobile devices have been introduced in the three years since the iPhone was introduced?  So we should absolutely expect someone to want to compete in this market space.  And that’s a good thing.

Apple has legitimized the market space for this type of device.  While talking it down for years saying a complete and “user friendly” device did not exist, they managed to suppress the market with marketing and now have opened up that space.  Lets we forget that Palm, the guys who really made the PDA popular, have had the WebOS which runs their Palm Pre device and now rumored to power the new HP Hurricane device (which may or may not successfully run Flash).

I will be interested to see the Android based device, as well as the WebOS device.  I stick by my earlier article in that the platforms need to not only be intuitive, but must almost manage themselves for them to really take hold and displace any traditional device (laptop).

So the best I can really say to any article about the iPad killer is.. REALLY?  It must be a slow news day.  I could probably create that story on any given day:

  • GM introduces Ford truck killer!
  • Cheese Cake Factory introduces Friday’s combo killer!  (wait, I might like that)
  • GAP introduces Levis jeans killer!

Get the idea?

At best I think it’s probably a good search engine technique vs an article title (heck, I’m giving it a try).

I guess it’s just a matter of being first to market or at the top of the market.  One way or another you are a target and someone will be aiming for your spot.  The odd thing is, this market has existed for years, it just no one outside the “geek” community really paid any attention to it.

Maybe all the Appleholics are right, you don’t really need it until Steve says you need it….

Rumor: Landor Associates working on upcoming iPhone campaign for Verizon

Rumor: Landor Associates working on upcoming iPhone campaign for Verizon

I haven’t had any real issues with AT&T and the iPhone.  I’ve tried playing the lottery numbers and it’s not that I’m somehow lucky or more fortunate that others.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t make that many phone calls and I’m mainly a data/sms user.  Granted I’ve been in locations with “one bar”, but those coverage issues weren’t any different that any other carrier there.

Given the recent Android sales numbers (7% more sales for the market than iPhones in the last quarter), maybe Apple is looking for a competitive boost from this.  However Apple is certianly paying attention to those sales numbers and what is really behind them.  With all the buy-one get-one offers and reduced prices on Android devices, you would expect sales to be brisk.  Imaging how many iPhones would be sold this quarter if AT&T released a $50 iPhone offer, buy-one get-one FREE?  Yeah, we can only hope…

The iPad vs the PC – Don’t buy a Model T in 2010

The personal computer is like the Model T.  Henry Ford was noted as saying:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” [1]

One could easily make the comparisons that IBM was the Ford of PC hardware manufacturing and Microsoft the Ford of Operating Systems.  The evolution of personal computing devices in the past 20 years has been as dramatic as the past 100 years of automotive evolution (and to some degree the past 15 years they’ve been closely entwined).  But for some reason, we have people arguing today to continue producing Model Ts and not Ford Fusions.

How is that you ask?

Originally Model Ts owners were content to own the vehicles and use them.  Most of them were just happy when the were running and not requiring maintenance or repair.  I liken this to the early IBM PC users in the 80s.  If they could get it to perform as designed, they were quite happy.

After World War II, young gentleman with new ideas and expanded skill sets decided to start modifying the evolved Model T (or Model As)  into unique hot rods.  They pushed it beyond the limits of it’s original capabilities.  The personal computer evolution of the 90s can be likened to this period.  Machines were more stable, parts became cheaper and widely available to the general public so they were able to customize and modify systems on their own.

Is this what you want to drive every day?

Now we make a jump to modern vehicles.  GPS, traction control, lane departure warnings, air conditioning, heated and cooled seats, satellite radio, anti-lock brakes, remote start, keyless entry, I can go on for a while here…  While the Model T didn’t have any of these features, the basics of transportation were met in 1908 and now in 2010.  However I don’t think we’re reached this level of evolution in the personal computing market, until now.

I’m going to invoke the 80/20 rule here (though it’s probably more 95/5) and say that the majority of automobile owners purchase their cars and use them as intended without modification.  Then there is a percentage of users that customize their cars for styling, performance, or function.  So why then do computer companies continue to produce Model T computer systems expecting the end users to do all the modifying and customizations when the Ford Fusion would better fit them?

The iPad is the evolution of personal computing devices.  I know Apple would love to have it be revolutionary, but it’s not that significant of a departure.  The iPhone and iTouch really couldn’t be a replacement for a PC for a general user, they were more like a device that augmented the PC.  They are more like motorcycles and scooters;  fun to have and fun to use but not very good in the snow, can’t haul the camper, and you can’t bring home groceries in them.  The iPad has the potential to be a full replacement device for the user who browses the Internet, does email, and has needs for a few applications.  I does this in a simpler (and so far more secure) manner than a traditional PC.  So the iPad has all those electronics safety and security features that your new car has, and you like them.

Then why do we base on computers on this?

I’m still astonished at the articles I read regarding the iPad (and Apple in other cases) where users complain about the closed systems and how they are against the governance Apple has over the hardware, operating system, and now applications on it’s devices.  I say this evolution is exactly what we should be expecting (and wanting), not arguing against.

For those who say, NO!!! I want to be able to do all these highly complex things.  No problem, there’s an F350 out there for you, it will do all the heavy lifting you need.  For those who want to modify their systems and play games, etc.  No problem for you either, there is a Mustang or Focus for you to buy endless aftermarket parts for.  But for the 80%+ remaining that want a device that works every time they turn they key and has a maintenance scheduled they can live with, there is the Fusion, I mean iPad.

Why we need the iPad

I will disclaim that I am a fan of almost all products made by Apple.  I often try not to read any information on the days of product launches and instead wait until I can get the video and actually watch Steve (Jobs) sell me on why I need the next big thing.  However, when I watched the iPad launch, I felt… well, underwhelmed.

Time has since passed and having used an iPad I can definitely see a use for it.  It’s convenient, intuitive and most of all necessary.  Ok, I probably had you right up until necessary right?

Most post I’ve read are arguing about the convenience of this device vs a laptop or even a smartphone, that the lack of multitasking kills the usefulness, or that they can’t adapt to the keyboard.  That’s well covered everywhere else and I don’t have the background to weigh in on those concerns.

However…

For the average user  (I’m going to put that number at 80-90% of people using some personal computing device) whatever they have  for a pc or laptop does far more than they need.  The openness of those systems, flexibility, the power to meet most any need make it challenging for the casual user to maintain and have meet their needs.  Power users will have specific applications that require more advanced hardware and in doing so, they sign themselves up for the challenges of maintaining that device.  Netbooks were the first (dare I say feeble) attempt to fill this market space.  They were something inexpensive that gave people access to the Internet and allowed them to send and receive email.  Good concept, poor execution.

Along came the iPad.  After giving it some thought, I think the iPad is exactly what we need.

Allow me to digress…  Every day I learn something.  Being in Information Security, usually that’s something that makes it more difficult for me to sleep at night.  Vulnerabilities increase, threats become more aggressive and better at defeating security measures, and I begin to wonder if we aren’t fighting a losing battle.

Which makes me wonder…  What if… What if the iPad really is what we need?

A constrained device (yes this is a good thing), with controlled application deployment (yes still a good thing), where all applications have very limited access to the operating system?  I say, yes.  Absolutely.  PLEASE!  There is a tremendous market for this (which Apple certainly knows). Many more tech savvy users are screaming blasphemy as their screens as they read this, however having a PC with unlimited capabilities, interfaces, and expand-ability is only a requirement for a percentage of users (and I dare say that percentage is probably lower than most initial guesses).  Even those users, as intelligent and well intentioned as they may be, tend to do things that allow themselves to be compromised everyday.  Trust me, I see it.

The majority of users want a simple device that works and can offer some level of assurance of stability and data protection.  Remember “it just works!”  🙂

No more OS patches that break applications (well not the ones that Apple is allowing on the device anyway), no more security applications that accidentally break the operating system (hello McAfee? hows that XP thing going for you?), just a highly controlled computing environment that’s set up to meet the needs of most users.  Most users are not aware of these issues anyway and honestly don’t want to be bothered.  They often only find out about much of this once they’ve experienced a significant system issue and even then, they don’t care, they just want their system back and working.

Will these devices eventually become as much of a target as “normal” systems?  Probably.  But I believe they are well suited to be managed more easily and better protected from threats.  They will be more limited in function than a PC, yes, but the end users will express a higher satisfaction rate regardless.

While everyone will continue to argue over the size, shape, wether or not it has a camera or can be a giant phone.  I say they’ve missed the point.  We really do have a game changer here.