Apple’s tightly integrated ecosystem means that the more Apple gear you own, the more sense it makes to keep buying Apple gear. Of course, the rest of your household may not share your passion for the Cupertino company’s wonder gadgets, or you may need to use non-Apple gear for work.
Unfortunately, Apple does not play nicely with others, requiring you to make compromises if you have a mix of Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows Phone devices all trying to live happily side-by-side.
It won’t take long to encounter problems when trying to integrate non-Apple gear into your home, as Apple goes out of its way to make life difficult for people who want to have a foot in each camp.
Calendars created in iCloud can’t be easily shared with non-Apple users, while iCloud won’t sync office files with non- Apple mobile devices. Apple’s ebooks can only be read on iGadgets and Macs, while iTunes won’t transfer music and movies to non-Apple players. The list goes on.
Every time you encounter a schism between your devices, you’re faced with two options. You can either find workarounds to sneak your non-Apple devices into the Apple ecosystem, or you can move away from Apple’s offering in favour of a platform-agnostic alternative.
Android AirPlay. Popular Android app, doubleTwist, allows users to stream media to AirPlay devices.
The trouble with using workarounds to sneak into the Apple ecosystem is that you never know when Apple will break the feature you’re relying on.
Generally, the more reliable option is to shift away from Apple in favour of a third-party product or service designed from the ground up to be cross-platform compatible.
If your home is full of Macs and iGadgets, then Apple’s tiny Airport Express wireless base stations offer a cheap and effective way to set up a multi-room audio system for streaming music around your house.
Life becomes more complicated when someone walks in the door with an Android device, but there are workarounds.
There are plenty of Android apps that can stream content to an Apple TV, but only a few apps will also recognise your other AirPlay speakers. Android’s popular doubleTwist app (www.doubletwist.com) supports AirPlay streaming as an additional purchase in the form of AirSync.
It may take trial and error to find the right Android AirPlay app for your home, and don’t expect anything to be quite as slick as Apple’s own offerings.
Honey Player (www.honey-player.com) is another simple Android app, which makes it easy to view the music on your Android device and then select an AirPlay speaker around your home. Some other Android AirPlay streaming apps like AirStream (airstream.io) and AirAudio (bit.ly/1ebX735) require ‘root access’ on your Android device, which is a little like jailbreaking an iPhone.
If you’re looking for a substitute for Apple’s Remote app, to control iTunes playing on a computer, then check out the Remote for iTunes app (hyperfine.com/ remoteforitunes), which is available for Android and Windows Phone.
While you’re expanding your AirPlay capabilities, you should also check out Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil (www.rogueamoeba.com), which lets you stream audio from any application on a Mac or PC. Airfoil also lets you turn any Mac, PC, iOS or Android device into an AirPlay speaker.
If you’re looking to invest in new streaming audio hardware, it’s worth looking beyond the Airport Express to something more cross-platform friendly. NETGEAR’s WN3500RP Dual Band Wi-Fi Range Extender (www.netgear.com.au) is very similar to the first-generation Airport Express, but it supports music streaming via AirPlay or DLNA.
In our tests, two NETGEAR adaptors kept AirPlay multi-room audio in sync, but the music fell out of sync if we used a combination of Apple and NETGEAR adaptors.
You’ll also find several third-party AirPlay wireless speakers with built-in DLNA streaming, such as the Pioneer XW-SMA4 (www.pioneer.com.au), Boston Acoustics MC200 Air (www.bostonacoustics.com) and Denon CEOL shelf system (au.denon.com).
If you’re looking at portable speakers, then there are plenty of Bluetooth options such as the splash-proof Strong Splash (strong.com.au) or Logitech UE Boom (www.logitech.com/en-au), which work with any Bluetooth-enabled mobile device.
If you’re buying a speaker with an iPhone or iPod dock and it doesn’t feature wireless DLNA or Bluetooth streaming, then look for a 3.5mm audio line-in jack as an insurance policy so you can easily play music from any device.
If you’re building a multi-room audio system from scratch, then it’s hard to go past the slick Sonos Digital Music System (www.sonos.com), which can stream audio from your computer, network drive and smartphone/tablet, as well as directly from internet radio stations and subscription music services like Spotify and Rdio. You’ll find Sonos apps for iOS, Android, Mac and PC, as well as the stand-in Phonos app for Windows Phone 8.
Lineup. Boston MC200 Air, Denon CEOL and Pioneer XW-SMA4.
VIDEO STREAMING AND SCREEN MIRRORING
A tiny Apple TV media player lies at the heart of most Apple-centric home entertainment systems, but you may need to think further afield if you want to cater to other devices.
Android apps such as PlayTo (www.playto.tv) and iMediaShare (www.imediashare.tv) let you stream video to Apple TVs via AirPlay, but they also support streaming video to DLNA- enabled televisions, Blu-ray players and media players like the WD TV Live Hub.
You’ll also find Miracast support in some devices, which is the AirPlay video streaming equivalent for Windows and Android. If you’re looking to add Miracast capabilities to your lounge room, then the easiest option is to upgrade to a Miracast- compatible Blu-ray player.
If you want to extend your iGadget’s reach beyond Apple’s AirPlay ecosystem, iOS apps such as PlugPlayer (www.plugplayer.com) and 8player (08software.com) let you stream music and video from iGadgets to a wide range of players around your home. Beamer is another app, which handles non-Apple video formats.
Once again, don’t expect everything here to ‘just work’ the way it does with your Apple gear. You’ll need to do your research and look for playback devices and apps known to work with your specific Android devices.
If you’re packing a Samsung, LG or Sony Android device then start by looking at the same brand Blu-ray players, or Smart TVs if you’re in the market for a whole new television. When buying a television it’s really better to focus on the best picture quality you can afford, with plenty of HDMI inputs, and then let your various set-top boxes do all the heavy lifting in terms of Smart TV and internet features.
Of course, the Apple TV also lets you mirror the screen from a Mac onto your television. If you’re looking to replicate this from a Windows PC, chase up a Google Chromecast stick, which lets you send the picture from any Chrome browser tab to your television.
They’re only US$35, but you can’t buy them in Australia yet, so you’ll need to order one online.
AirPrint is another of those handy Apple technologies likely to catch the eye of non-Apple users in your home.
Before you upgrade to a new printer just for AirPrint, check out EuroSmartz’s PrintCentral (mobile.eurosmartz.com), which can print from iOS and Android devices directly to most network-enabled printers.
If you are looking to buy a new printer, along with AirPrint capabilities you should also look for Google Cloud Print support. Google’s service is compatible with a wide range of handheld and desktop devices.
The Android PrintBot app lets you print to most AirPrint-capable printers. Thankfully most printer makers – including Brother, Canon, Epson, Lexmark, HP and Samsung – also offer their own printing and scanning apps for iOS and Android, plus often Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry.
Some cloud-enabled printers, such as Epson’s XP-700 or Brother’s MFC- J6920DW, even let you print files directly from Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox or Box. As a last resort, you can also email files straight to the Epson for printing.
While it’s ridiculously easy to purchase content on an iGadget, it’s also ridiculously hard to share that content with other devices – ebooks being a classic example.
While the iPad is great for watching movies and listening to music, it isn’t always the best device for reading a book. Smaller, cheaper and lighter ebook readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Kobo Touch are much easier on the eyes than a tablet because they don’t feature a backlight.
This also means the battery lasts for weeks instead of hours – perfect for travellers trying to preserve the battery on their iGadgets.
The latest model ebook readers have a built-in side light for reading in bed, but even then they’re still easier on your eyes and your wrists than reading on an iPad mini.
If you buy ebooks for your Kindle or Kobo reader you can still read them on your mobile devices using the slick iOS and Android apps, which even keep track of which page you’re up to when you start reading on a new device.
But if you buy your ebooks from Apple, then you’re stuck reading them on iGadgets or your Mac. Even though Apple uses the standard ePub format there’s no option to transfer these files to an ebook reader, due to Apple’s FairPlay copyright protection.
A handful of old books in the iTunes store don’t appear to have Digital Rights Management (DRM), but if you buy a new Dan Brown book from Apple and load it onto a Kobo or Kindle all you’ll see is blank pages.
It is possible to bend the rules and strip the DRM copyright protection from Apple’s ePub eBook files so you can read them on other devices. But if you’re building a digital book library to share around your home, then avoiding Apple’s eBook store in favour of a cross-platform alternative will make life much easier.
MUSIC – BUY OR SUBSCRIBE
Thankfully Apple abandoned DRM for music downloads several years ago, meaning you can buy albums from the iTunes store and play them on any AAC-compatible music player including competing smartphones. Songs you’ve ripped into iTunes from your own CD collection are also DRM-free.
Of course, getting the music from iTunes to your non-Apple device is a little more complicated. The best option for Android users is doubleTwist; it comes with a free Mac/PC desktop app for iTunes- style syncing of music and video to your mobile device. Windows Phone 8 users should also try doubleTwist, although there are alternatives including Media Monkey (www.mediamonkey.com) and MusicBee (getmusicbee.com).
These days, the trend is away from buying music, instead we’re renting it via subscription services such as Spotify, Songl, Rdio, MOG, Deezer and JB HiFi Now.
Along with these, you’ll find a range of vendor-specific services such as Google Play Music All Access, Xbox Music Pass, Sony Music Unlimited and Samsung Music Hub.
These third-party services let you choose any album, such as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and listen from start to end – even if you don’t own that album. Apple’s iTunes Match and iTunes Radio don’t work this way. iTunes Match only lets you listen to music you already own.
iTunes Radio chooses music for you, like Pandora or Last.FM. It doesn’t let you select an album and listen from start to end.
Spotify and Rdio offer a wide range of desktop and mobile apps, making them a good starting point if you’re looking to support a blended household. Thankfully, they both offer a free trial so you can test them out to see which best suits your needs.
It’s worth noting that MOG offers unmetered mobile streaming for Telstra Mobile customers, although most mobile music apps will let you save tracks for offline playback. Many subscription music services are also compatible with the Sonos multi-room audio system, so it’s easy for one subscription to cover all your needs.
MOVIES – BUY OR SUBSCRIBE
Apple still applies DRM to movies, so think twice about buying movies from the iTunes store if you want to watch them on other devices.
There are ways to strip the DRM from iTunes video purchases, to play them on other devices, but there are alternatives if you want to stay within the law. Google Play Movies and TV has finally come to iOS, letting you stream movies that you’ve purchased or hired (although you can’t make purchases from within the app).
Android users can save movies for offline viewing, but this feature hasn’t come to iOS yet. iGadget users can also tap into some of their Google content via the YouTube iOS app.
EzyFlix offers another alternative for Australians, as you can watch rented or purchased movies on Windows, Mac, iOS or Android devices.
Adding details. Handbrake allows users to rip DVDs, but also add cover art, cast names, summaries and more.
You can stream movies straight from the cloud or download them for offline access.
EzyFlix also supports the new UltraViolet digital copy format bundled with some new DVD/Blu-ray movies instead of an iTunes code.
Windows Phone 8 users should look to the Flixster app for UltraViolet support.
The hassle with EzyFlix and UltraViolet is that you can’t copy a movie between your devices. If you want to watch the movie on your iPad, you need to download a separate copy straight to that device, you can’t transfer a copy across from your Mac.
Delete the movie from your iPad to make room and you’ll need to download it again. All this downloading is a major hassle compared to iTunes, although UltraViolet’s backers are working to make it more user-friendly.
The best cross-platform solution is to rip your DVDs and Blu-rays as MPEG-4 files using software like HandBrake and AnyDVD HD. Unfortunately, this still isn’t permitted under Australian copyright law, although keep in mind for many years it was also against the law to rip your own music CDs.
Of course, cross-platform support when hiring movies is less of an issue, because you only need to watch them once.
Apart from Apple you could look at Quickflix and Google’s cross-platform services or perhaps bypass geo-blocking and sneak into US services like Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon Instant Video.
If you’ve got an extensive movie and music collection, then you might use iTunes to stream it around your home, but there are better options if you’re catering to a wide range of devices and formats.
DLNA is the de facto standard when it comes to home media streaming and these days you’ll find DLNA and iTunes (DAAP) server features built into even entry-level Network Attached Storage devices such as a Western Digital My Book Live.
You’ll also find basic media server features built into some broadband modems, serving up files from attached USB storage. If you’re after advanced server features, look to the likes of Synology and Thecus network drives, which support third-party plug-ins.
Unfortunately, DLNA compatibility is hit and miss between servers, players and content. You’ll need to experiment to see which options play nicely in your home.
If you’re looking for a smoother user experience, check out Plex Media Server. Plex offers server software for Windows, Mac, Linux and some NAS drives such as the NETGEAR ReadyNAS. You’ll also find a wide range of Plex playback apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry.
There are also Plex apps for the Chromecast, Roku, Google TV and Samsung Smart TV. There are even workarounds for accessing Plex on a non-jailbroken Apple TV.
The beauty of Plex is that it offers a consistent user experience across all your devices. It’s also possible to access your Plex library while you’re away from home, as well as store content on your mobile devices for offline playback.
Plex Media Server can also act as a DLNA server to support devices, which don’t have a native Plex client.
CALENDARS AND CONTACTS
After a shaky start, iCloud offers a slick user experience for the Apple faithful, but if you’re working with non-Apple devices then it’s easier to jump ship in favour of Google’s cloud services.
In the past you could host a calendar on your Mac and sync it into both MobileMe and a competing service such as Google Calendar, making it easy to share calendars with people outside the Apple ecosystem.
Under iCloud, your primary calendar must be hosted in iCloud, not on your Mac. You can’t then easily sync that calendar from your Mac to another service like Google Calendar.
Android users can use workarounds
like SmoothSync to access iCloud calendars, but it’s easier to just switch everyone to Google Calendar. Now you’re all free to use pretty much any computer, handheld device and calendar software you choose.
Google is a good choice for sharing calendars because it works hard to retain compatibility with as many devices and services as possible, whereas Apple only cares about supporting the latest Apple gear (for example, the move to iCloud left behind devices that couldn’t upgrade to iOS 5 and Lion).
Google recently dropped support for Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync protocol, not offering the option of ‘Google Sync’ to new users, but there’s still support for CalDAV, CardDAV and IMAP to support Google Calendar, Contacts and Gmail respectively.
Thankfully, Apple offers granular control over which iCloud services you’re using, so you don’t have to abandon iCloud completely. Dip into the iCloud settings on an iGadget and you can individually disable Mail, Calendars, Contacts, Reminders and Notes, while still using Find My iPhone along with Document and Photo backups.
OS X also lets you sync your calendar and contacts directly to Google.
OFFICE DOCUMENTS AND FILE BACKUPS
Once again, as soon as you’re trying to support non-Apple devices, it’s generally easier to abandon iWork in favour of the Office features built into Google Drive or Microsoft’s SkyDrive.
The trouble with iWork and Google Drive is you’re constantly forced to convert documents between formats when importing and exporting, which quickly turns into a nightmare.
Microsoft’s SkyDrive is actually the pick of the bunch because you can work with standard Microsoft document formats on iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices, as well as Mac and Windows, or in a desktop browser.
The SkyDrive desktop client keeps offline backups of your online files without converting them, unlike Google Drive, which only stores links to your online files but doesn’t actually download them. Offline mode in the Chrome browser is a half-decent compromise for Google Drive, although the files are locked away in your browser cache.
With the move to iCloud, Apple also abandoned its fully-fledged online storage and backup service. You can’t point iCloud at any folder on your computer and back up every file to the cloud (there are workarounds, but you’re taking a risk).
If you’ve gone with SkyDrive for document editing then you may find it easier to stick with Microsoft for online backups as well. Other options include Google Drive and Dropbox.
All three can upload desktop files to the cloud and also sync files with your other computers, Mac or Windows. You can also access your files from any desktop browser or mobile device, offering a lot more flexibility than you’ll ever get from the Apple-centric iCloud.