What Is AirDrop? How Does It Work?

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What Is AirDrop?

Airdop on iPhone

AirDrop is a feature that lets Macs and iOS devices share files wirelessly with a minimum of fuss.

AirDrop is extremely cool and useful, but is one of those features most people don't know about. Not because it is hard to use (it isn't) but because most people don't think to look for it. Most of the time when we want to share a photo with someone, we just send it to them in a text message. Which is easy enough, but when that someone is standing right beside you, it is even easier to simply use AirDrop.

AirDrop isn't just for photos, of course. You can use it to transfer almost anything that you can share. For example, you can AirDrop a website from your iPad to your friend's phone, which is great if they want to bookmark to read later. Or what about a grocery list? You can Airdrop text from Notes to someone else's iPad or iPhone. You can AirDrop anything from a playlist to a location you've pinned in Apple Maps. Want to share your contact information?  AirDrop it.

How Does AirDrop Work?

AirDrop uses Bluetooth to create a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi network between the devices. Each device creates a firewall around the connection and files are sent encrypted, which actually makes it safer than transferring via email. AirDrop will automatically detect nearby supported devices, and the devices only need to be close enough to establish a good Wi-Fi connection, making it possible to share files across several rooms.

One advantage to AirDrop is the use of Wi-Fi to make the connection. Some apps provide a similar file sharing capability using Bluetooth. And some Android devices use a combination of Near Field Communications (NFC) and Bluetooth to share files. But both Bluetooth and NFC are relatively slow compared Wi-Fi, which makes sharing larger files using AirDrop much faster and more convenient.

AirDrop Supported Devices:

AirDrop is supported on current iPads going back to iPad 4 and iPad Mini. It also works on current iPhones going back to the iPhone 5 (and, yes, it even works on the iPod Touch 5). It is also supported on Macs with OS X Lion, although Macs released earlier than 2010 may not be supported.

How to Turn On AirDrop

Having trouble finding out where to turn on AirDrop? If you have found yourself hunting through your iPad's settings, you are looking in the wrong place. Apple wanted to make it easy to turn AirDrop on or off, so they put the setting in the new control panel. Unfortunately, this isn't the first place all of us look for turning on settings.

You can access the new control panel by sliding up from the bottom of your iPad's screen. Remember, you need to start at the very edge. You can even start completely off the iPad's display if that helps.

Find Out More About the Control Panel

Once the control panel is revealed, you will have access to the AirDrop settings. You can turn it on, off or "contacts only", which is the default setting. 'Contacts Only' means only people in your contacts list will be allowed to send you an AirDrop request.

How to Use AirDrop on the iPad

iOS AirDrop

You will need to be near the person you are sharing with and they must have their device turned on for it to register, however, you need not be right next to them. AirDrop can even reach into the next room. Both devices will also need the correct permissions to AirDrop with each other.  

In the Control Panel you can tap the AirDrop button to turn permissions from "Off" to "Contacts Only" to "Everyone."  It's usually best to leave it at "Contacts Only."

You will also need to navigate to whatever you want to share. So if you want to share a web page, you'll need to be on that web page. If you want to share a photo, you'll need to be viewing that photo in the Photos app. AirDrop is not a file manager like what you might see on a PC. It's designed to share what you are doing at that time.

  • First, tap the share button. This is the box with the arrow sticking straight up. This share button accesses the Share menu, which allows you to share via AirDrop, Facebook, iMessage, etc. View a picture of the share button.
  • Next, locate the device you want to receive your AirDrop. This is the top portion of the Share menu. Devices will show up as a circle with an identifying label under it. This will be the contact's photo with their name under it, but if you don't have a photo attached to this contact, it will show up as a gray circle with their initials in it.
  • Last, tap the circle. Tapping will initiate sending the document to the recipient, who will then be prompted whether or not to accept the AirDrop.

That's it. You can drop anything from photos to web pages. You can even share a contact by tapping the Share Contact button at the end of the contact's information in the contacts app.