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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mountain Lion misery with AirPlay

Last summer, I wrote about the lack of coverage for Airplay on Apple's actual computer line. In short, you could throw basically any audio from your phone or tablet or whatever at a suitable receiver, but only iTunes could do it on your computer. This seemed backwards to me.

Well, along with many other little tweaks, Mountain Lion added the ability to do "mirroring" via Airplay from computers. Joy, right? Not really. It's only half-baked.

First of all, it won't start up predictably. Sometimes it will work, and other times it won't. What I mean is I can go into the audio control screen or option-click my speaker icon, and it will offer my Airport Express as an output device. So far, so good. Trouble is, when I try select it, it fails to "take".

It doesn't throw any kind of error message or otherwise explain what's going on. I also can't find any information in the (horribly spammy) syslog files. That's not too surprising to me since syslogs on Macs tend to be the realm of the damned. Good luck trying to find any meaningful information in there with all of the random bits of the OS spewing pointless messages constantly.

If I'm willing to disconnect from my network and reconnect, it might start working. It might also start working if I put the machine to sleep and wake it back up. I haven't determined exactly which rubber-chicken-waving event is required to make it happy. Obviously, none of this should be happening, but here we are.

Once it finally does "lock on", there are other anomalies to report. First, iTunes will flip its output display to my Airport's name, even though the entire system is going there. This is the same thing it does when just iTunes is going there. That means you can't tell which mode it's in. It also means that little widget is the wrong place to go to enable this mode, since it will only route iTunes itself. Dumb.

Sometimes I listen to my scanner audio through it. That site works by having a series of MP3 files, and jPlayer fetches one, plays it, then starts over. This open-play-close thing does not agree with Airplay. It adds a perceptible delay in this mode since it's clear that it's immediately closing the Airplay link as soon as playback stops. Then it has to re-establish it, and the usual lagginess of a connection being opened happens.

I've been working around that lagginess by just telling iTunes to play continuously. Sometimes it's okay to hear some music way down in the mix underneath the police and fire dispatches. Other times, it's more distracting than anything, so I just turn iTunes down all the way. At that point, there's no music to be heard, but it keeps the playback running so there's no close-open-close-open lag going on.

This is probably wreaking havoc on my iTunes library since now all of those songs have lots of "full plays" that I never heard, but I don't care. If I was sufficiently obsessive about such things then that might bother me.

There's a final rub to all of this: additional audio sources. There seems to be a limit for how many things will mix into this scheme. If someone sends me a link to something which plays audio in my browser, it's highly likely it will bump out either my music or the scanner. When this happens to the scanner, the browser playback hangs, and it won't clear out until I disconnect and reconnect Airplay.

I've taken to hovering over the mute button on Flash videos for different sites in order to smack it before it can load fully and start playing video just to keep from triggering this. How stupid is that?

This is life on a system with the hood welded shut.