Investigating Wireless Display Solutions

When College Library started investigating wireless display several years ago, the decision for which solution to implement was simple since Crestron AirMedia seemed to be the only device on the market that offered full display mirroring for both Windows and macOS, with limited support for mobile devices. Since then, the game has changed significantly and there are more players creating tough competition.

Since College Library was one of the first groups on campus to deploy wireless display technology on a large scale, other interested departments began approaching us as an authority on the hardware. Considering that it had been years since our initial investigation, we felt it was our duty to return to our investigation and see if we were still offer the best solution on the market. It turned out we weren’t, and that Mersive Solstice is now the obvious choice.

Our investigation included the testing of five wireless display solutions: Crestron AirMedia, Mersive Solstice, AirTame, AppleTV, and Chromecast. While AppleTV and Chromecast are great solutions for the average consumer, they don’t hold a candle to the other three in an enterprise environment. Because of this, the rest of this post will only focus on user experience and administration for Crestron AirMedia, Mersive Solstice, and AirTame.

User Experience

Via Computer

In their simplest form, these solutions can all be used to mirror a users desktop and replace the need to provide a cable to connect to a display. All three devices perform this basic task well, but AirMedia and Solstice have an advantage in resolution over AirTame. This is likely due to hardware limitation of the AirTame, since MSRP for this device is less than a third of the price of the other two. Where AirTame offers an advantage over the other two solutions is in the variety of operating systems it supports. Solstice and AirMedia only offer applications for Windows and macOS, while AirTame also supports Linux and ChromeOS.

Figure 1: Desktop applications (AirTame, AirMedia, Solstice)

The desktop applications for all three are relatively well designed, but aren’t very straightforward without the assistance of “splash screen” instructions (the default screen displayed when no users are connected to the device) from the wireless display device you intend on connecting to. From a user perspective, the AirMedia and AirTame apps will have similar functionality, in that their sole purpose is to allow you to mirror your screen wirelessly. Solstice sets itself apart from the other two with the availability of extra features. Along with desktop mirroring, Solstice also offers the options to display a single app window instead of the whole screen, or a media file. However, the feature that makes the Solstice really shine is “Layout”.

Figure 2: Mersive Solstice showcasing layout mode. Top are two photos shared from my phone, and bottom is the desktop of my computer.

Layout turns enables traditional displays to become a powerful collaboration tool. With the Solstice application, users have the ability to share as many objects as they like, which appear as tiles in the Layout window. A mirror of the Layout window is available to each user through their software, which allows for anyone to manipulate any shared items to blow them up for the group to focus on, rearrange them in the window, or even move them temporarily off screen for less clutter. This incredibly powerful tool is the main feature advantage that makes Mersive Solstice the clear winner in wireless display technology.

Another major feature that Solstice offers is something called Moderation. If enabled, a user can activate their self and others as moderators for the wireless display session, so that moderator approval is required for each individual who attempts to connect and every item that is pushed to the display. This powerful tool is great for classroom setting where a teachers want to have full control over wireless display access and what content is being posted.

Via Mobile

When it comes to using mobile devices such as phones and tablets with these three solutions, Solstice remains the superior choice in design and functionality. The mobile app for Solstice has just as much power as the desktop application, while less functionality is available with the mobile apps for AirMedia and AirTame.

Figure 3: Mobile Applications (AirTame, AirMedia for AM-100, AirMedia for AM-101, Solstice)

While support for Android device mirroring has been available for some time for many wireless display solutions, iOS devices have had more trouble in enterprise environments. This is due to the fact that iOS devices are restricted their to using Apple’s AirPlay for mirroring, which requires multicast DNS (mDNS) to be enabled on the wireless network. mDNS is typically considered a security risk in enterprise environments, so most large institutions disable mDNS, making AirPlay, and therefore iOS mirroring, over wifi unavailable. Recently Crestron and Mersive implemented an AirPlay proxy feature on their AirMedia and Solstice devices respectively, which allows for wireless display hardware to communicate with connected devices via their mobile apps and enable AirPlay access without the use of mDNS. This recent development enabled us to support iOS display mirroring via wireless display for the first time in our environments.

Crestron’s current AirMedia hardware is known as the AM-101, which replaced the older AM-100. The major difference between these two pieces of hardware is the AM-101 supports AirPlay, while the AM-100 does not. For mobile devices, Crestron supports these two pieces of hardware independently with two different apps depending on which version you’re connecting to. The legacy AM-100 app is very unstable and prone to crashes; it also currently does not work with iOS 11. If you aren’t on the most recent iOS version or have an Android device, you can use this legacy app to share a file or photo. Considering the sad state of the legacy app, I consider mobile devices not supported on AM-100 hardware. The newer version of the app for AM-101 appears to be more stable and is similar in functionality to the desktop app in that it only allows device mirroring.

AirTame does not support mirroring for mobile devices, but offers the ability to share a photo or file from either your device’s local storage or a Dropbox account you associate with the app. The major downside to the AirTame app is that mobile devices need to bypass security in order to connect wirelessly. This means that if you have your AirTame set up to require users to input a randomly generated pin to connect a desktop device, mobile devices need to be able to bypass this security because the app does not support entering a security pin. Currently, the ability for AirTame’s mobile apps to support a security pin is on their development roadmap, so ideally this issue should be mitigated at some point in the near future.

Solstice showcases the most functionality in their mobile app. It offers the ability for full mirroring along with photo and video sharing. Users can also access the Layout window (Figure 4) from their phones to manipulate the content that is being displayed to enhance collaboration. Also, moderator functionality is also available via the mobile app.

Figure 4: Layout window on the Solstice mobile app.

Administration

AirMedia devices do not come with any administration tools for environments with more than one device, so changes need to be made to each individual device, one at a time. However, administrators do have the ability to export settings for one device and tediously upload them to others individually. Crestron does offer a separate firmware utility for updating multiple devices at once, and for a significant annual cost administrators can purchase Crestron Fusion, which allows monitoring of the status of all devices. The separation of all of these tools makes for a wireless display solution that is not easily implemented, monitored, updated, customized, or managed in an enterprise environment.

Figure 5: Administration tools (AirTame Cloud, AirMedia Administration for a single device, Solstice Dashboard)

Both AirTame and Solstice are superior to AirMedia when it comes to administration of multiple devices. All AirTame devices come with access to AirTame Cloud, which is an administration tool that can be accessed through a browser to manage all of your devices. With AirTame Cloud administrators has the ability push updates and settings to multiple devices at once, and monitor signal status. It also offers the ability to provide other administrators with their own accounts to access your locations specific cloud instance. While customization and control of individual devices is limited compared to the Solstice, AirTame cloud is a beautiful, reasonably powerful, and easy to use administration tool.

Enterprise models of the Solstice come with a license for Solstice Dashboard, which is a desktop application for device administration. Since Dashboard is a Windows only desktop application, it would require installation via parallels for Mac users, or installation on a Windows server for remote access for more than one administrator. Despite that drawback, Solstice Dashboard is a vital and powerful tool for large enterprise deployments. Some unique and notable features are:

  • Monitoring signal and active use, including how many users currently connected, of all devices
  • The ability to disconnect all users, or clear all shared items for a specific device remotely
  • Integration of an Exchange or Office365 room calendar on Splash Screen
  • An emergency broadcast system to share an Emergency message across all devices, whether they are in use or not

Dashboard has an impressive amount of control and customizability options outside of the unique features I listed. I highly recommend any interested party to request a demo from Mersive if they would like to get a full tour of the software.

In Conclusion

Mersive Solstice is without a doubt the superior wireless display solution. While the cost of the Solstice is rather significant (considering it requires an annual “maintenance” cost of 10% MSRP), its diverse functionality, simple administration, and support of collaboration make it worth the investment. College Library plans to eventually transition to Mersive Solstice, and it is quickly becoming the standardization on campus. If Solstice is outside of the price range for your institution, then I highly recommend AirTame as an alternative solution. AirTame is more user and administrator friendly than the AirMedia, and much more affordable.

For any followup questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to cmc-sysadmins@lists.wisc.edu.

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