Review: Apple Digital AV Adapter
Apple has suggested that Hollywood studios are making it unnecessarily difficult for iTunes fans to watch their purchased movies through certain cables -- cables that run from Macs to TVs, from iPads to monitors, and so on. Try to play the iTunes Store-purchased film Quantum of Solace through Apple's previously-released iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter, for instance, and the iPad will refuse, seemingly because the VGA Adapter doesn't protect the video against possible copying. Users have complained, and Apple has pushed forward on new alternatives, including the breakthrough wireless AirPlay streaming in iOS 4.2, and now a new wired option supported in iOS 4.3: the Apple Digital AV Adapter ($39).
Apple’s Digital AV Adapter is actually the second Dock Connector-to-HDMI port adapter to be released for iOS devices, following the debut of the Noosy HDMI Adapter in December 2010. Surprisingly, Apple’s version isn’t just thinner and prettier this time—it’s also $20 less expensive, and more functional, besides. Noosy’s design added an oversized glossy white extruded pill to the iPad, iPad 2, iPhone 4G, and iPod touch 4G, placing just an HDMI port on the bottom. Apple squeezes both an HDMI port and a female Dock Connector port into an even smaller pill-shaped block that sits at the end of a flexible 2.75”-long gray cable, using a taller male Dock Connector to connect to the iOS device. You can plug an HDMI cable into the left side and a Dock Connector to USB cable into the right side of the Adapter, enabling the iOS device to simultaneously output audio and video while recharging, assuming it’s running iOS 4.3 or later.
Depending on your perspective, what Apple has accomplished with just that much of the Digital AV Adapter is either pretty impressive or still somewhat overpriced for what it does. We lean heavily in the former category, though it’s not lost on us that this $39 accessory leaves users to go out and buy the actual HDMI cable (say, Apple’s) themselves, and to find something—like Apple’s $29 iPod/iPhone or iPad USB wall adapters—to handle that half of the equation, too. Do the math and the actual cost of this solution is $87 plus tax when fully equipped with Apple parts, but you can shave it down to under $50 if you shop properly for the HDMI cable and already have one of Apple’s chargers sitting around. It wouldn’t have killed Apple to provide at least the HDMI cable for this asking price.
That having been said, the Digital AV Adapter works pretty well, and it’s likely to be more useful for more people than the $29 VGA Adapter. Once it’s connected, you can play even iTunes Store-purchased movies—including 720p HD and SD versions—through the HDMI cable to most connected TVs or monitors, including stereo or 5.1-channel surround sound audio. These iTunes Store movies still do not play through the Noosy HDMI Adapter or Apple’s VGA Adapter, even on an iPad running iOS 4.3. (iTunes-purchased TV and podcast content works on all of the devices, as does video imported through non-iTunes software.) However, when you use any of these accessories with the iPad 2, and presumably future devices, you can “mirror” the contents of the touchscreen on the HDMI display, enabling users to do video presentations of the entire iOS interface, as well as most applications and games, on much larger TVs. The iPad 2 appears to choose the best resolution mode supported by a TV, outputting at 1080p where possible and falling down to 720p if not. However, because the iPad 2’s landscape aspect ratio is 4:3 rather than 16:9 like most HDTVs, this creates large black bars on the sides of the TV screen, which increase even more in size when you rotate the iPad 2 into 3:4 portrait orientation.
Mirroring through the Digital AV Adapter isn’t without its own issues. Depending on the size, resolution, and color settings of the external screen you’re using, text and graphics that look great on the iPad 2’s screen may become a little fuzzy on the external display when rotated, or look somewhat different in tone in either orientation. iPad 2 mirroring seems to work best on 1080p HDTVs, with small compromises on the older 720p-capped set we tested on. Different sets will obviously vary.
All three of the HDTVs we tested, each manufactured in different years with different screens, showed iPad 2 camera color inaccuracies that became more obvious and pronounced in dim light, making skin tones look unnaturally pink or magenta relative to how they looked on the tablet’s screen. We believe that these color issues are correctable in the iOS software, but Apple will have to make the corrections on its own.
Certain applications, including the built-in iOS Videos and YouTube apps, automatically turn off iPad 2 mirroring to broadcast full-screen 720p HD or lower-resolution SD video that’s akin to what the original iPad, iPhone 4, and iPod touch 4G will put out with the Digital AV Adapter connected. Given that none of these devices could previously output iTunes-purchased movies in HD over a wired connection before, the step up in quality was pretty impressive, and we were glad to see it working.
The only big caveat here can be summed up in two words: Apple TV. When you add up the costs of the power supply, HDMI cable, and Digital AV Adapter, you’re close to the price of a second-generation Apple TV, which can wirelessly stream videos directly from the same iOS devices without the need for cables—and while multitasking, too. Apple TV doesn’t completely overlap with the Digital AV Adapter for features such as iPad 2 screen mirroring, nor will it necessarily interact in the same way with third-party iOS apps, but if you’re considering spending nearly $90 to fully equip the Digital AV Adapter, the $99 Apple TV and an HDMI cable might be a better use of dollars for some people. If all you want is a wired connection from your iOS device to an HDTV, particularly if mirroring of the iPad 2 interface is on your list of must-have features, Apple’s Digital AV Adapter is a good choice, and a decidedly better pick for the price than Noosy’s earlier HDMI Adapter.
Updated March 12, 2012: With little fanfare, Apple updated the Digital AV Adapter at the same time as it announced the third-generation iPad, switching from the original bag-style packaging to a new box (shown above), and making a series of tweaks to the Adapter itself. The new model number is A1422 versus A1388, and has the following differences:
* The new Adapter is ever so slightly longer than its predecessor—4 millimeters longer, or roughly 4.5” long.
* The cable connecting the male Dock Connector plug and HDMI/female Dock Connector ports is slightly thinner.
* The male Dock Connector plug is considerably smaller on the new model than the old one, and therefore more case-compatible.
* The male Dock Connector plug now has pressure-sensitive lock and unlock buttons on its sides.
* The female HDMI/Dock Connector port housing is now several millimeters taller on the new model than the old one, and the HDMI port hole looks a little nicer than before.
* The new packaging specifically references the iPhone 4S, while mentioning that mirroring is “supported by iPad 2 or later,” without naming the third-generation iPad.