Editor's note: welcome to the first installment of Pointers, a new weekly column that offers tips and tricks for getting more out of your Mac or iOS device -- or, in this case, both. Check back each Thursday for a new useful technique designed to demystify, declutter or de-stress you -- and hopefully add some delight as well.
When you know what's happening, AirDrop is as convenient and simple as Apple made you think it would be. You can transfer anything from your iPhone or iPad to your Mac (or vice versa), without emailing or messaging, without any concern for how many items you can send, without any concern about the size of those files. The first time you try flinging a document from iOS to OS X, though, it is Cotton-Eyed Joe
: where did you come from, where did you go? We'll fix that with this handy tip.
The reason is that you handle AirDrop in a different way on your Mac than on your iOS device -- and also, it's just not as clear as it should be when you've done it. For this tutorial, we're going to take ten photos from our iPhone, and transfer them to our Macs in one go via AirDrop. Then, we'll do the same going the other direction.
We're also going to do this in the way we recommend: switch it on when you need it, switch it off when you don't. You could set up AirDrop to be on all the time, but it wouldn't dramatically speed up the job -- and it could leave you open to getting notifications of people trying to AirDrop things to you that you don't want, not to mention a potential battery hit.
Set up your Mac
Open a Finder window, and tap on AirDrop in the list of folders and places in the left sidebar. For now, think of AirDrop as being a folder that you open and close as you need. It isn't at all, but that's what it looks like and actually it's rather smart that this is all you need to do to switch AirDrop on. The only problem is that it's just so different from how you do it on iOS.
Unless you have already activated AirDrop on your iPhone or iPad (more about that later), all you'll see in this AirDrop area is that blue icon. So go to your iOS device, and just start picking photos from, say, the Photos app.
On iOS: pick your photos to send
Again, it is great and smart that you begin by picking what you want to send, rather than having to dig out an AirDrop manual first and throw switches. You already know how to pick photos, so let's dart through this and on to the next step.
Notice that you can pick as many shots as you like, which is a true boon. We picked ten specifically because that's about double the number iOS lets you email anywhere. Also, iOS Mail would be asking what size you want to send these in an effort to save data or sending time, whereas AirDrop will just send them as-is, no resizing necessary. Invariably, you only ever want to send a photo at its full size anyway, and choosing Medium or Small is a compromise you're making to get Mail to send it in most cases. So AirDrop wins another point there.
On iOS: tap the Share button
This gets you the same panel that you would use to send one photo via iMessage, Mail, Twitter and so on. As you're sending more than Mail or Twitter can handle, those options are gone. AirDrop is at the top, and by default it's switched off.
Tap the AirDrop icon to switch it on: you'll automatically assume you can tap anywhere on that AirDrop row but no, it has to be the icon -- and, rather surprisingly, you have to be a bit patient with it after that.
Especially if you're using an older iPhone like a 5, this is the first part where you'll find the process slow. It's not crazy slow, you won't have a birthday party before it's finished, but it is slow enough that you'll wonder if you've pressed it, just like the elevator call button. One reason for this slowness is that it is also switching on WiFi and Bluetooth, if you don't already have those on.
When it's on, the AirDrop icon is larger and blue. You'll get a little tired of seeing that, though, because this is the second part where you may find things slow. What should happen is that your iOS device will see all your other devices that have AirDrop on, and it will show you them. We find that it occasionally takes longer than it should for it to notice the other devices, and sometimes it fails completely. If that happens to you, switch off AirDrop on iOS (see step 5) and schlep through this again.
Once your other devices are there, though, tap on the one for your Mac.
Wait for iOS
AirDrop is doing its job sending your photos across and it shows you the progress first by outlining the destination icon in a blue circle that progressively fills in. Then it shows you by changing the name of that icon to "Sent."
Unfortunately, if you're sending 10 items, there is no way to tell whether Sent means all of them have gone, or just the one. You just have to wait or keep an eye on your Mac. The actual sending appears to be pretty quick, but depending on the receiving Mac it may take a few seconds for the Mac to acknowledge all the items.
This is why the AirDrop section isn't really a folder. Much as you would expect to see your photos appearing in the AirDrop window, in fact they actually go into your Downloads folder. Depending on the file size and the age of the Mac, this could take a little while -- and this is the third and final part where you'll find you have to wait. For a while after your iOS device is showing the word Sent, you will not be able to see anything on your Mac.
That's not unreasonable, photos are big files, but we'd rather the process were more like downloading files from Safari: you get an icon quickly, and then a progress bar. You do get greyed-out icons for each photo file you're sending, but it takes a while for those to appear at all. Then when they do, it sometimes seems to take ages before their greyed-out appearance changes. We've found we can often click on an apparently greyed-out and therefore incomplete download and see the full image immediately through Quick Look.
So it's not immediately obvious when your files have arrived, and that -- plus the fact that parts of this process are slow -- could easily mean you don't bother with AirDrop. But the slowness is relative: each part is slow enough that you're not clear whether anything has happened. They're not actually slow enough that AirDrop doesn't remain the quickest and easiest way to transfer files.
Just one more thing, though.
Switch off AirDrop
You've probably already done this on your Mac: if you clicked on the Downloads icon in the Finder window, you've gone to that and switched off AirDrop without even knowing.
On iOS, it takes another step and we recommend that you do it. We've never had any problems with strangers trying to AirDrop things to us, but we are hyper-conscious of battery life. There's no reason to presume AirDrop takes up a lot of power, but it does switch on Bluetooth and Wifi if they're not already on, both of which can produce a battery-life hit if you often keep them off -- if you're away from Wifi, your iPhone will expend a lot of power and effort constantly looking for Wifi signals, so maybe get in the habit of turning Wi-Fi off when're out and about. So switch AirDrop on to send, switch it off when you're done.
Unfortunately, switching off is not as immediately easy as switching on. The sharing panel does all the work of switching on, but to drop AirDrop you need to swipe from the bottom of your screen and bring the Control Center up. Tap on the AirDrop line, tap Off. Remember that switching AirDrop on makes your iOS device also turns on Bluetooth and Wifi, they are not automatically switched off. We tend to leave Wifi on unless we're traveling but we tap that Bluetooth button off regularly.
Well done! Now, what about going the other direction? A folder of 10 loose photos you want to put on the iPhone without having to go through the whole adding-to-iPhoto and syncing-through-iTunes business? It's pretty easy now that you know most of the steps, actually. Since Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and generally "always on" on most people's Macs, there are much fewer steps.
Open an AirDrop window on your Mac, turn on AirDrop (if it isn't already on) from Control Center on your iOS, wait a few seconds for the iOS device to show up in the Mac's Finder AirDrop window (don't let the iOS device go to sleep, however), and drag the photos on top of the icon for the device. Photos will be automatically added to your Camera Roll once they transfer over - other sorts of files will ask you what app you want to use to open them -- and of course, you need to bear in mind that you don't have as much storage on an iOS device as you do on a Mac, so be prudent about what you transfer. Turn AirDrop off from Control Center when you're done.
Whenever you break something down into steps as we've done here, it automatically sounds longer and more complicated than it really is. Once you've gone through this and seen how handy it is, you will use it again and again. You'll use it as repetitively as Cotton-Eyed Joe's
-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher