The Apple Digital AV Adapter is Apple’s new HDMI adapter for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch released with the iPad 2 this year. While HDMI have been on the market for quite a while, this is the first official one. It joins the ranks of the VGA adapter, composite and component video cables in providing iOS devices with external display support. Read on to see how it works.

I find the hatred towards Apple’s adapter system quite amusing. While I’d love to insert my camera’s SD card straight into my iPad, connect an HDMI cable directly, connect a projector at school using VGA or plug in the USB cable from my Yamaha keyboard, I certainly don’t want the resulting device that would accept all those cables directly. Imagine how the iPad 2 would look if it had to be thick enough to accept HDMI and USB ports, let alone those giant D-sub connectors used for VGA! Then imaging how you’d fit 6 RCA ports in there to give it component and composite video, a line out port, power-out (for accessories), power in (for charging)/USB etc. The thing would look ridiculous, more like an AV receiver than a tablet.

This is of course why no one includes these ports directly. Many Android tablets solve the problem quite elegantly by not including half of them at all. If you’re lucky, there’s USB and HDMI. No VGA, composite or component. As if this wasn’t bad enough, you’re likely to get mini-HDMI rather than HDMI, and mini or micro USB with a host adapter (full sized USB) rather than a full USB port. I don’t know about you, but in my house (and in the house of anyone I know) mini-HDMI and mini/microUSB-to-USB adapters aren’t exactly common. If I have to buy unusual cables/adapters and carry them with me anyways, the whole point of not having proprietary connectors in the first place seems kinda moot to me. Point being, I’d rather pay a bit more to have my choice of proprietary adapters than to pay a bit less and be limited to a couple of “universal” ones. YMMV.

Now with that rant done, lets get down to business. The Apple Digital AV Adapter is a short cable with a male 30 pin dock connector in one end and a female HDMI and female dock connector port in the other end. Setup is pretty self explanatory; insert connector into iPad, insert HDMI cable into adapter, optionally insert charging cable into dock connector. There’s no setting to be switched, no resolution choices, nothing that requires doing to make it work. The image will simply pop up on screen, happy as can be. At least if you have an iPad 2.

You see, the adapter works differently on the iPad 2 compared to the iPad 1, iPhone 4 and iTouch 4. On the latter three, you have 720p video output with applications that support video out- official and third party. The iPad 2 on the other hand does it all in 1080p, and in addition to video out it also supports screen mirroring. Screen mirroring will mirror the screen on the external display (both in portrait and landscape) showing everything that the iPad screen shows. It will be 4:3 (or 3:4 in landscape), because that’s what the iPad screen is. This is like the duplicated desktop feature on a PC, more or less. Direct video out on the other hand will be the right aspect ratio and work in addition to the iPad screen, like extended desktops on a computer. The reason why Apple has limited the old models like this is likely to be hardware when it comes to 720p vs 1080p, and a-hole-ness when it comes to video mirroring. They’ve mirrored the iPad 1 screen themselves during keynotes, and you can do it with a jailbreak app, so it’s just Apple’s way of giving you another reason to buy an iPad 2. Ugh.

Either way, assuming you have an iPad 2 the external screen will always display a picture of some sort. It will switch automatically between mirroring and video out when you start doing something that allows video out. For instance, if you browse to the video library with a screen connected, it will show the menus, navigation etc mirrored on the screen up to the point you start playing the video. It will then show a message on the iPad screen saying that an external display is being used, put playback controls on the iPad and show just the video on the screen. Some third party apps (like Buzz Player) lets you choose whether you want to mirror the video or not, which is frankly the better system, though I don’t see many reasons why anyone would do 4:3 mirrored video playback.

Now, I don’t really understand why they’re making a deal about 1080p on the iPad 2. I mean, it can’t play anything that is actually 1080p, as far as I know. iTunes rentals and purchases are 720p at max, the thing isn’t listed to support more than 720p, and third party apps also won’t play above 720p. Maybe the photo viewer can take advantage of it, who knows, but as it stands today there’s not much you can do with the 1080p ability. Personally I see no need for 720p anyways as that resolution looks very nice, and if you really need 1080p I doubt you’re using an iPad as your source.

Honestly this is one of those reviews that could have been done with the 140 character limit on Twitter. “Got the Apple Digital AV Adapter. It works.” would frankly have covered it quite well. It does exactly what it says, which is to output video and (on the iPad 2) mirror the screen. However, for the sake of being thorough, here are a few additional pieces of information I’ve discovered about the thing, in no particular order:

  • If you rotate the iPad in mirroring mode, the on-screen picture will rotate- the image will be scaled to fit the height in both cases.
  • You cannot play a video on the external screen while doing something else on the iPad. Big let down. Recent review videos of the Blackberry Playbook shows that it can do it, so the iPad should too.
  • The adapter is rather stiff and heavy with an HDMI cable attached. This probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if you want to use it while moving the iPad around (or holding it).
  • Games will soon support video out, letting you use the iPad as a controller while seeing the picture on the screen. Real Racing 2 HD will be first.
  • All apps work with mirroring. Only some allow for video out (mostly video based apps, naturally).
  • There’s nothing indicating finger input on the external display when in mirroring mode. This makes it pretty useless for showing off apps as you can’t see what’s being done.

The Apple Digital AV Adapter is $40 worth of plastic with a HDMI connector on the end of it. It’s rather expensive, though ironically not any more expensive than what the local electronics store wanted me to pay for a mini-HDMI cable (that I didn’t buy). Unless Apple integrates HDMI (unlikely) or changes the design of the dock connector (there have been rumors of a new version with updated tech) this adapter will last you through several iPads, iPhones and iTouches, making the initial price more justifiable. It adds HDMI to iOS devices, which is quite a nice thing to do. Should the adapter have been cheaper? Most definitely. $40 – and much more in Europe – is far too much for something like this. $40 for a package including composite, component, VGA and HDMI adapters would have been a fair price. But hey, it’s Apple, we know they’re greedy.