The Real Reason Why Macs Before 2011 Can’t Use AirPlay Mirroring In Mountain Lion [Feature]

The Real Reason Why Macs Before 2011 Can’t Use AirPlay Mirroring In Mountain Lion [Feature]

If your Mac wasn’t made in the last year and a half, you won’t be able to do this.

With OS X Mountain Lion, AirPlay Mirroring is finally coming to the Mac, allowing some Macs to stream audio and video directly to their Apple TV.

‘Some’ is the operative word here. Much to the disappointment of the vast majority of Mac owners who will be installing Mountain Lion on their machines in a couple weeks time, AirPlay Mirroring will only work if you have an iMac, MacBook Air or Mac Mini from mid-2011, or a MacBook Pro from early 2011.

There’s been a lot of conspiracy theories floated about this requirement. Some have argued that it’s forced obsolescence on Apple’s part, trying to force older Mac owners to upgrade their machines. Others have suggested that the reason Apple requires a Mac from 2011 or later is because of special DRM technology in Intel’s chips that didn’t debut until last year.

The truth of the matter, however, is far less sensational. The reason you need a 2011 Mac to make use of AirPlay Mirroring in OS X Mountain Lion is because the graphics in older Macs just don’t cut the mustard.

How can that be?

It’s simple: the secret sauce that Apple requires to make AirPlay Mirroring work is on-GPU H.264 encoding, or the ability to compress video on your device’s actual graphic chips without calling upon the CPU.

“At least as far as Apple’s concerned, it’s not really possible for older Macs to support AirPlay Mirroring,” Sid Keith of AirParrot, an OS X app that allows you to mirror video to the Apple TV. “Without physical hardware support, mirroring eats a huge chunk of CPU, which means performance would be hindered to a point Apple would never allow.”

“Without physical hardware support, mirroring eats a huge chunk of CPU, which means performance would be hindered to a point Apple would never allow.”

It’s not just Macs that can’t use AirPlay Mirroring if they are older than 2011: even on the iOS side of things, you need a minimum of an iPhone 4S or an iPad 2 to use AirPlay Mirroring on your Apple TV. Why? Because older iOS devices don’t have on-GPU H.264 encoding either.

“The new generation of Intel and AMD chipsets that debuted in 2011 are definitely required for this to work up to Apple’s specifications,” agrees AirParrot’s lead developer, David Stanfill.

“For the modern [Intel and AMD] chipsets Apple has written drivers to access the on-GPU H264 encoding,” says Stanfill. “Since the image of whatever is on screen is already in your graphics’ frame buffer, all Apple needs to do is the scaling (the most expensive part of AirPlay Mirroring, which is why you have ‘Best for AirPlay’ resolutions that are 1:1), the color conversion (H.264 video needs YUV color space vs. RGB), and the actual encoding itself right on the GPU. Then, Apple only has to transmit the relatively small encoded video stream to the Apple TV.”

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for Apple to do AirPlay Mirroring on a Mac without on-GPU H.264 encoding. AirParrot is an app that proves exactly the opposite: all that is required is a multi-core CPU. But things can definitely get hot, and Apple hates that.

“With AirParrot, we spent a lot more time hand tuning the CPU instructions that power the video conversion,” Stanfill told Cult of Mac. “The H. 264 encoding is actually plenty fast enough on any modern multi-core CPU, but the scaling and colorspace conversion processes are still pretty intensive. We can do 60FPS of 1080p mirroring with only 10-20% CPU usage, which is better than Flash can say for playing 1080p video. The compromise is that on older machines, AirParrot uses a non-trivial amount of CPU, which can result in the fans kicking and the machine getting a little warm… but even with on-GPU AirPlay Mirroring, 2011 MacBook owners will still notice the heat.”

Whether you use AirParrot or AirPlay Mirroring, on a newer Mac or an older one, though, the real bottleneck for most users isn’t going to be whether the H.264 encoding was done on the CPU or on the GPU… it’s going to be your network.

Even on an older Mac, the real bottleneck for AirPlay Mirroring isn’t your GPU, it’s your network.

“You really need a top-notch network to do Airplay Mirroring of say, a web-based video player, with smooth low latency audio and video,” says Stanfill again. “That means an AirPort Express N router or any other high-quality brand router, and a pretty uncongested network. We’ve been out there for several months and have had tens of thousands of users in all kinds of networks using AirParrot. The actual video stream we are sending is the same size and shape as Apple’s stream, so we have no reason to expect that Apple’s experience will be much different. If you’re BitTorrenting while AirPlay Mirroring, good luck.”

Mystery solved! If you’ve got a Mac older than 2011 that won’t be able to take advantage of AirPlay Mirroring when OS X Mountain Lion is released, AirParrot can be purchased for just $9.99, and runs on Snow Leopard or above. A demo is available if you’d like to try it first.

Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly said that AirParrot did not transmit audio. This was in error, and the revised version of this article has corrected the mistake

  • Solowalker

    Thanks for no credit to your commenters, Cult of Mac. Myself and others talked about this exact point in your last AirPlay Mirroring article that you even reference in this article. At least a simple shout out to commenters at the end might suffice.

  • Plasadda

    I’ve used my mac, air parrot and an apple TV to watch sky on my TV despite a broken satellite dish – it does do audio!

  • MacHead84

    Thanks for no credit to your commenters, Cult of Mac. Myself and others talked about this exact point in your last AirPlay Mirroring article that you even reference in this article. At least a simple shout out to commenters at the end might suffice.

    CoM rarely writes their own articles, they steal others work and give tiny credits to the real authors to avoid plagiary.

  • maybeinoregon

    I have read seen these spec quoted before, so. I guess I won’t upgrade to the latest OSX…problem solved. We currently use AirPlay with no problems at all on our current OS, and iOS…and we have iPhone 4, 4s, iPad1, iPad3, iMac 2010, MBA 2011, and MB Pro 2010, across ATV2, and ATV3…p getting off the Apple train is getting easier and easier…thanks Apple!

  • brunuM

    This information can´t be true. My Macbook Pro is from late 2010 and has the NVIDIA GeForce 320M which allow on-GPU H.264 encoding graphics. At the present moment, I am able to airplay from itunes to the Apple TV. So, must work with Moutain Lion also. http://developer.apple.com/library/mac/#technotes/tn2267/_index.html

    • i_Phoned

      SHH! You are letting the cat out of the bag!

  • MrsCleaver

    Good info. I have more to add.

    Even on an earlier 2 gHz White Macbook running Snow Leopard, Air Parrot works perfectly streaming to an Apple TV, and the computer does not get that hot. If you quit non essential apps, mirroring is perfect and the computer is very responsive and no warmer than usual.

    On the OTHER hand, while Air Parrot also works equally well on my Mid-2009 2.8 gHz Macbook Pro, there is a small penalty, now well-documented, and this is it: certain Macs, including my series, use a particular Nvidia graphics processor that interferes with Air Parrot (and other screen-sharing applications). The anomaly however, is that items (files and folders) selected in the Finder will “stick” to the cursor, and NOT release. There are two fixes for this: you can put the Mac to sleep once, and the “sticky-file-to-cursor” issue goes away, at least until you Log Out or Restart again. Then you simply sleep the computer again, wake it up and problem fixed… again. The only other known “fix” is to simply delete Air Parrot (for example) AND it’s associated extensions. Unless the kext files are removed, the problem will persist. Believe me, this is exactly how it works, and is based on many days trying to troubleshoot the issue, even a failed trip to the Genius Bar. In the end, I found the solution on the last page of a 13-page Apple forum discussion. On that page, the developer of Air Parrot (mentioned above), explains what I’ve detailed here.

    I should note that Air Parrot does not have similar issues with Snow Leopard at all, only Lion. And this is why I do not understand why Apple could not address this through software, either Nvidia drivers or some other way. But that would mean competing with their own upcoming screen mirroring.

    Therefore, while I don’t doubt John Brownlee’s explanation, I do not understand why Air Parrot works great under Snow Leopard without issue, but not Lion or, presumably Mountain Lion. And if it could be addressed in software, then Apple’s own screen mirroring should be able to work on all dual-core Macs and newer. Just my opinion.

    Sorry for all the words, but it’s something I’ve been troubleshooting for several weeks now and I wanted to share my findings.

  • stenar

    I’ve been using AirPlay on my iPhone 4 and iPad 1 for some time. So, it’s not just 2011 iOS devices that can do this.

  • Paul Burt

    I have read seen these spec quoted before, so. I guess I won’t upgrade to the latest OSX…problem solved. We currently use AirPlay with no problems at all on our current OS, and iOS…and we have iPhone 4, 4s, iPad1, iPad3, iMac 2010, MBA 2011, and MB Pro 2010, across ATV2, and ATV3…p getting off the Apple train is getting easier and easier…thanks Apple!

    You’re confusing plain, old AirPlay with AirPlay Mirroring. AirPlay will still work just fine with all of those (just as it does with my late-2008 MBP, 4S, ATV2 and Airport Express); it’s Mirroring that requires the better graphics card (which I’m disappointed my dedicated graphics card in my MBP doesn’t support).

  • Paul Burt

    I’ve been using AirPlay on my iPhone 4 and iPad 1 for some time. So, it’s not just 2011 iOS devices that can do this.

    That’s correct; AirPlay works fine on those. It’s AirPlay MIRRORING that won’t. The difference is important.

  • AirSquirrels

    MrsCleaver – The issue with the Apple NVidia drivers and any additional third-party video driver in the system only applies to the “Extended Display” driver. You can either not install this driver, or just remove this driver and AirParrot will continue to work properly without the drag and drop issues, you just won’t have the extra “extend display” feature.

  • justmeblue5ft3

    You can do this already using Eye One, while using it on the Mac it’s like a Tivo, record, rewind fast forward, and it even has picture in a picture, it can send and receive video from the Tivo and smart TV, plus we have Apple TV, no problems.I’m not sure of the exact wording as in “mirroring” but we can see anything in the living room on TV that is playing from the Mac in another room. This is good because I get a lot with Eye One on this Mac that I can’t get on my big TV. Go figure.

  • darttabb

    So now tell us why pre-Lion Macs can’t use iCloud, although Vista can.

    I’m sure the answer will be just as ignorant as this article.

  • xMoonDevilx

    It will obviously run better on newer machines, but they said the same thing about video recorders on the iPhone 3G model….many within the Mac community too, admonishing others requesting it by saying hardware was missing to make it work. Yet, MANY independent app developments later showed they could. Apple strives for only the best…but many can find work arounds that can please them if needed.

  • cowomo404

    Exactly as I expected. The whole DRM excuse was just ridiculous. I only hope AirParrot is updated to run on Mountain Lion. Here’s hoping my NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT & 9400M chips are compatible with Airplay mirroring (supped up MacBook Pro late 2009)

    AirParrot works flawlessly on my Pro with MLion

  • MeredithMcKay

    So, if I put a modern graphics card (one for which Apple has written the required drivers) in my Early 2008 Mac Pro, will I be able to use AirPlay Mirroring from it? Can anyone recommend such a card?

  • Kevin Horn

    I would take it that this utilizes the Intel QuickSync hardware integrated into the processor. Apple started using this for FaceTime HD on Sandy Bridge-based Macs when they came out and this appears to be the same thing. It is a powerful IC integrated into the processor so it would make sense to use it for this. The problem seems to be that either Apple reverse engineered the technology without Intel’s help or collaborated with Intel to make private APIs to integrate because using QuickSync for 3rd parties is only available via the Intel Media SDK on Windows boxes even though the hardware is there on all SNB and IVB equipped computers.

  • Daniel Smith

    ok, what about external hardware accelerators? Elgato turbo.264 HD for example?

    Daniel

  • CLEMENT_FARAH

    I am not convinced on how a third party company ( air parrot) are able to develop a software that allows airplay mirroring to Apple Tv, while Apple Inc. are struggling to make that happen on hardware that they have designed a couple of years ago, and on an OS that they have developed …

    For God’s Sake i am Mirroring my iPad2…

  • joshfofer

    This information can´t be true. My Macbook Pro is from late 2010 and has the NVIDIA GeForce 320M which allow on-GPU H.264 encoding graphics. At the present moment, I am able to airplay from itunes to the Apple TV. So, must work with Moutain Lion also. http://developer.apple.com/library/mac/#technotes/tn2267/_index.html

    It is true, as I am sure you’ve now found. MP4/M4V video in iTunes is different from fullscreen video output (some of which might be Flash, or MKV, or AVI, or whatever) — which needs to be TRANSCODED ON-THE-FLY to MP4 for real-time streaming to an AppleTV. This isn’t trivial stuff.

  • CHoorel

    MrsCleaver – The issue with the Apple NVidia drivers and any additional third-party video driver in the system only applies to the “Extended Display” driver. You can either not install this driver, or just remove this driver and AirParrot will continue to work properly without the drag and drop issues, you just won’t have the extra “extend display” feature.

    Is there any way you can instruct me which drivers to remove? Is it in the Extensions folder with the AirParrot drivers? What are the downsides to removing it, will it not allow me to extend the desktop to peripheral connections as well? Thanks.

  • disqus_PnS4kEUbK8

    Smells like bs. I’ve played games required more processing by the graphic card than an ipad can handle. Doesn’t float my boat

  • Guest

    Someone has to pay for the Half BILLION paid out to Execs after the founder, who took $1 in pay passed:
    Name/Title 20092010201120122013Key Executive Compensation3,061,03488,889,238432,365,655191,878,58114,798,388

  • Guest

    Name/Title 20092010201120122013Key Executive Compensation3,061,03488,889,238432,365,655191,878,58114,798,388

  • i_Phoned

    Someone has to pay for the half BILLION paid out to Execs after the $1 a year Founder passed : Morningstar:
    “Name/Title
    Key Executive Compensation
    2009 3,061,034
    2010 88,889,238
    2011 432,365,655
    2012 191,878,581
    2013 14,798,388″

    Do the math…

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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