Appledystopia: Independent Technology News

Prevent AirPlay from Dropping Out

published by Chand Bellur
April 17, 2017 at 3:34 p.m. PST

Listening to music should be a pleasurable experience. Unfortunately, with the new Apple TV, this isn’t always the case. I bought my first Apple TV, a second generation model, in the summer of 2011. Back then, Apple TV didn’t have an App Store and it only had a handful of “channels”. For early adopters, AirPlay was a necessity.

After a few good years with my Apple TV 2, it became clear that Apple was neglecting this model. Although they just recently ended support for the device, it was the victim of neglect only a few years after release. AirPlay was rock solid, but my Apple TV 2 would reboot itself randomly. This happened a few times a night, usually in the middle of a program. Researching the issue, it seemed like a common problem, but Apple did nothing about it. I eventually gave up and decided to buy a new Apple TV 4.

Excitement for my new Apple TV diminished quickly, due to the unreliability of AirPlay. The first night I used the device, I noticed that AirPlay would drop out, usually if I walked in between my AirPort Extreme WiFi router and Apple TV. This never happened with my previous Apple TV. Both units were placed in the same location. They both used the same WiFi router.

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Research uncovered the fact that Apple “overhauled” AirPlay in order to reduce initial latency. I did notice that there was no lag when starting an AirPlay stream. Unfortunately, this seems to have come at the cost of reliability. Apple seems to have reduced latency by decreasing the buffer size. This means that any disturbance in the data stream will result in audio cutting out. Listening to music became agitating. It was no longer a pleasurable experience.

After over a year of experimentation, I discovered a few ways to improve AirPlay reliability. Although you can’t completely eliminate AirPlay dropouts, you can prevent them. You don’t have to implement all of these suggestions to improve AirPlay reliability. This article assumes that you have a basic knowledge of how to use AirPlay.

Close Apps and Restart Apple TV Before an AirPlay Session

At its core, tvOS is the same as iOS. The core tvOS operating system is remarkably stable and responsive. Unfortunately, there are problems at higher levels of the operating system. Let’s face it — Apple isn’t putting their best and brightest engineers to work on Apple TV.

I’ve found that closing all tvOS apps and restarting Apple TV improves the reliability of AirPlay streaming. The theory is that some tvOS apps are operating in the background and some of these processes are not cleaned up when the app is closed. I suspect that Apple’s own iTunes apps are the chief culprit. AirPlay reliability seems to be compromised after using the iTunes Movies and TV Shows apps. They may have additional hooks into tvOS that third-party developers can’t take advantage of. Perhaps they are polling Apple’s servers excessively. Whatever the cause, there’s no denying the correlation.

You can close all apps by double clicking the Home button (looks like a TV) and flicking each app up using an upward motion on the Touch surface. Next, go to Settings > System and click on Restart. It only takes 30 seconds for Apple TV to restart, which minimizes the inconvenience. You can also restart Apple TV by holding down the Home and Menu buttons simultaneously for 6 seconds (until the light flashes rapidly). Release both buttons as soon as the light starts to flash.

Keep AirPlay Source Device Unlocked

AirPlay should work when a device is locked, but this isn’t always the case. It will function when playing music. In certain cases, AirPlay will stop video playback on a locked device. I’ve found that AirPlay is much more reliable when the source device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) is left unlocked.

Go to Settings > General > Auto-Lock and change it to Never. You can conserve battery life by turning screen brightness down all the way. Just remember to change the Auto-Lock setting back to your preferred setting. Using short Auto-Lock times can preserve battery life and reduce wear on the sleep/wake button.

It’s also best to leave your music app open and keep it on the Now Playing screen. This seems to give priority to music streaming and AirPlay processes. It also makes it easier to control music playback and view track information.

Device Placement Affects AirPlay Dropouts

AirPlay dropouts tend to happen when I walk in between my WiFi router and Apple TV. This flaw is exclusive to Apple TV 4. It seems to be a consequence of Apple’s AirPlay “overhaul”. AirPlay is faster, but less reliable, presumably due to a smaller buffer size. For whatever reason, their quality assurance process didn’t catch this problem. They don’t seem to be interested in fixing it either. Just accept it and try to make the best of it.

Device placement matters a lot when it comes to both the Apple TV unit and AirPlay source device. Make sure to place your Apple TV within range of your WiFi router. You can check WiFi signal strength by going to Settings > Network. Make sure you have at least 4 “bars”. (They’re actually circles on Apple TV. Think different!) Even though my Apple TV gets 5 “bars”, I still have AirPlay problems. Poor WiFi reception would exacerbate the problem.

If your WiFi reception is weak, consider placing your Apple TV in a different location. This may not be possible, as it needs to be hard-wired to your television. A WiFi range extender can help boost the signal. If your Apple TV is close enough to your router, you may want to consider connecting it using an ethernet cable.

Make sure to place your Apple TV in an open area, unobscured by cabinet doors or other obstacles. Placing your Apple TV higher up can also improve WiFi reception.

Placement of your source device can also influence WiFi reception and AirPlay reliability. The iPhone, iPad and iPod touch all have different WiFi modules and antenna configurations. I figured out the optimal placement of my old 2011 iPad 2 by looking at the iFixit teardown. I place my iPad with its WiFi module facing my router, and it seems to help. You can also use a free app such as Wi-Fi SweetSpots to determine optimal positioning. The app displays real-time data on WiFi connection speeds. My iPhone 6 works best when the top is pointing toward my router.

Turn on Bluetooth to Prevent AirPlay Dropouts

Contrary to popular belief, AirPlay does work over Bluetooth. In fact, you can stream AirPlay directly to Apple TV without a WiFi connection. This feature, known as peer-to-peer AirPlay, has some limitations. It can’t stream most video. Also, your source device has to be placed very close to your Apple TV.

In my experience, I have found that Bluetooth seems to enhance standard AirPlay reliability. There is also some indication that Apple uses Bluetooth to enhance AirPlay reliability, as part of the “overhaul”. Turn on both WiFi and Bluetooth on your source device before establishing an AirPlay connection.

Configure IP Address and DNS Manually

By default, all Apple devices are setup for automatic IP configuration. This may seem like a good idea, but this configuration causes the device to repeatedly ping the WiFi router. This creates unnecessary network traffic and reduces bandwidth. Beyond AirPlay reliability, manually configuring network settings will speed up your WiFi network.

Manually configuring your network settings is easy. On Apple TV, go to Settings > Network > Wi-Fi and then click on your WiFi router. Next, click on Configure IP and change it to Manual. You will now be asked to enter values for IP Address, Subnet Mask, Router and DNS. These are pre-populated with the correct values. Simply scroll and click on the Done button for each entry.

You should also make this change on your source device. This is a little more difficult on iOS. Tap on Settings > Wi-Fi and then tap on the name of your WiFi network. Write down the values for IP Address, Subnet Mask, Router and DNS. You can also take a screenshot, but you’ll need to switch between apps. Next, tap on Static and enter these values. Tap the back button at the top. Your WiFi connection will be re-established.

You only need to do this once for each WiFi network and device. After the change, WiFi should work normally, even if you restart your router or device. If you do experience problems, simply switch back to automatic configuration and use the new values for manual configuration.

Consider Using a 2.4GHz WiFi Connection

There are two bands for WiFi routers — 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Most modern routers and devices support dual band configuration. It’s usually best to go with the default configuration. Most WiFi routers are smart enough to inspect background noise and choose the right band and channel settings. You may need to restart your WiFi router to optimize these settings.

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In certain cases, using only 2.4GHz may work better for AirPlay streaming. There used to be a lot of noise in the 2.4GHz channel, due to the abundance of wireless devices. Older cordless phones and baby monitors use this band. Times have changed. Most people use cell phones and have disposed of their cordless phones. Newer baby monitors use WiFi or the 5GHz channel.

These days, you may actually experience more noise over 5GHz, however, its range is limited. Higher frequency waves tend to travel shorter distances. This is why AM radio reception has a longer range than FM. 2.4GHz signals are also better at penetrating walls. If your WiFi router is far away and must communicate through walls, 2.4 GHz may be a better option.

There are some disadvantages to 2.4GHz. Your overall WiFi speed probably won’t be as fast. If you make this change, I recommend splitting your WiFi network into two distinct networks — 5GHz and 2.4GHz. Most WiFi routers support this capability. Before you start an AirPlay session, change both your Apple TV and source device to use the 2.4GHz network.

In my experience, 2.4 GHz offers better AirPlay connectivity and sufficient bandwidth for streaming music and video. That said, I actually don’t engage in this practice. It’s just too much of a bother. I only recommend this level of fiddling if your AirPlay dropouts are severe, frequent and aren’t solved by the other tips.

Full configuration of your WiFi router is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, please read “Apple TV 4: Fix WiFi Problems”.

Turn Off WiFi on Other Devices

Ideally, only your Apple TV and source device should be connected to your WiFi router during an AirPlay session. Competition from other WiFi devices creates unpredictable traffic on the WiFi network. With its small buffer, AirPlay doesn’t fare well with competing WiFi traffic.

Turning WiFi off on other devices improves AirPlay streaming quality. It will also save battery life and speed up WiFi access. I do this even when I am not starting an AirPlay session. Apple devices sometimes decide to download a huge iOS update or do an iCloud backup at the worst possible time. These rogue processes have interrupted streaming video programs too often. Turning off WiFi on idle devices just makes life easier!

Download Music

Streaming is all the rage these days. The problem is, streaming music from a server and beaming it to Apple TV involves a lot of network traffic. Instead of just beaming music to Apple TV via AirPlay, your device must also stream it from a server. Downloading music ahead of time reduces traffic on your WiFi network. It also guarantees the best audio quality. It may not eliminate AirPlay dropouts, but it definitely reduces them.

You don’t have to sit around waiting for your music to download completely. Although it depends on the app, most will let you play an album or playlist before it has fully downloaded. I use Google Play Music, and I am able to start the download process just before I start playing. Of course, AirPlay is more reliable when the download process has completed.

Downloading music also saves battery life on your device. Streaming an album and relaying it to Apple TV for the duration of music playback uses more battery power. If you simply download the album or playlist in advance, your device will just stream the downloaded music to Apple TV over AirPlay.

AirPlay Music Playback Steps

So far, the advice in this article has been presented in prose. It’s important to know both how and why you need to do something. These explanations can often occlude the process, making it harder to digest and practice. For clarity, the following step-by-step process will reduce AirPlay dropouts:

1. close Apple TV apps
2. restart Apple TV
3. activate WiFi and Bluetooth on source device
4. set Auto-Lock to Never on source device
5. download music on source device
6. turn on AirPlay
7. play music
8. place device in WiFi-optimal position, leaving it unlocked

After making the configuration changes and following this process, I have almost eliminated AirPlay dropouts. I get maybe one dropout per 10 hours of music playback. I can live with that. As for the time involved with the process, it’s still faster than finding a CD in my collection.

Alternatives to AirPlay

If all else fails, you may want to consider avoiding AirPlay altogether. It’s unfortunate that it may come to this. AirPlay used to be rock solid. If it doesn’t work out for you, it’s best to consider alternatives.

Although there are a variety of Bluetooth adapters and speakers on the market, I don’t recommend this technology. Bluetooth has a much shorter range than AirPlay. I haven’t been very impressed with Bluetooth for transmitting high quality audio. If you want to stream video over Bluetooth, it probably won’t work well.

If you have a newer iOS device, peer-to-peer AirPlay may work better. This technology uses Bluetooth for the AirPlay connection. For more information, please read “Apple TV 4: Peer-To-Peer AirPlay Without WiFi”.

You can attach an iOS device to your TV or stereo using cables. There are a variety of HDMI adapters that connect to both the classic and lightning Apple docks. They’re not cheap and they limit mobility. If you just want to play music, you can connect your device to your stereo using a 1/8″ male to stereo RCA male cable. Make sure to turn the volume down on your source device before you start playing music. Also, the digital to analog conversion won’t give you the best sound quality.

If you have an older stereo equipped with a tuner, you can buy an inexpensive FM transmitter. This isn’t the best solution, as the FM band does not support high fidelity audio transmission.

Chromecast is another alternative to AirPlay. I haven’t used Chromecast, but it’s a popular device and people seem to like it. I can’t attest to its reliability, but it may provide sufficient buffering for trouble-free streaming. Chromecast devices are inexpensive and will definitely perform better than Bluetooth, wired connections or an FM transmitter. Make sure that your preferred apps work with Chromecast before you buy one.

Submit Feedback to Apple

When I first discovered the AirPlay flaw with Apple TV 4, I was irate. They hobbled one of my favorite Apple TV features. I’m still a bit annoyed that I have to perform a complicated ritual before I start an AirPlay session. I have reported this problem to Apple. If AirPlay is causing problems, please inform Apple. They won’t fix it unless people complain.

I had a theory that Apple may be neglecting AirPlay in order to promote their own services. After all, AirPlay lets you stream Spotify, Google Play Music and all of their competitors’ content to Apple TV. Lately, I have been reading reports that Apple intends to use AirPlay for some augmented reality features. These are all rumors, but, if true, Apple may need to overhaul AirPlay again. Let’s just hope they don’t break it even more.

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