iOS 7 feature focus: AirDrop simplifies speedy local file transfer

Posted:
in iPhone edited October 2014
With AirDrop, Apple has implemented a useful, robust and simple file sharing feature that has, until iOS 7, been largely the domain of third-party apps.

AirDrop


Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of features focusing on iOS 7's new and notable features. AppleInsider will be publishing additional articles highlighting brand new additions such as App Store auto-updates and individual caller blocking, as well as enhancements like the revised Camera app.

As one of the highlights of iOS 7, AirDrop brings "no setup" file sharing functionality first seen in OS X to Apple's mobile platform, offering users an easy and seamless way to transfer digital assets between compatible devices. Importantly, the protocol uses a hybrid Bluetooth and Wi-Fi communications solution that provides for both speed and security.

Like many Apple inventions, AirDrop streamlines a process already in wide use, in this case file sharing. Previously, iOS users had to swap photos, video, and other data via email, iMessage or apps that supported larger file transfers. Adoption of AirDrop may make these workarounds a thing of the past.

The technology

It should be understood that AirDrop is a proximity-limited technology, meaning that it will only work when two or more users are near each other. This is illustrated by the requirement that a compatible device, which will be limited to the iPhone 5 or later, fourth-generation iPad, iPad mini, and fifth-generation iPod touch, have both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled.

When AirDrop is activated, it uses Bluetooth to scan for nearby devices that are advertising discoverability. User can elect to be seen by everyone, only by contact, or not at all if the feature is turned off.

AirDrop
Sending side interface as seen on an iPad mini.


Once a connection is established via Bluetooth, an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network is created to link the two devices together, allowing for faster transfer speeds. Basically, Bluetooth is used for discovery and token setup, while the more robust Wi-Fi protocol is leveraged for transfers.

Rooted in patents

At least some of Apple's AirDrop technology has its root in patents previously covered by AppleInsider, including a filing for a proximity-based solution that automatically transfers media when a nearby device is identified.

More recently, Apple was awarded a patent for an NFC-based cross-platform data transfer system very similar to AirDrop. Instead of using Bluetooth to initiate the device handshake and authentication, the patent relied on near field communications. Like AirDrop, however, the end result is the creation of an ad-hoc wireless network over which files can be transferred.

The process

As with any iOS feature, AirDrop has been simplified with every day users in mind. Once a picture, video, or other sharable asset is selected, it takes only two steps to send the file to a waiting friend's device.

AirDrop
Accepting an AirDrop transfer on an iPhone 5.


As seen above, we selected a video file to move from an iPad mini to an iPhone 5. Tapping on the "share" icon at the bottom left of the screen brings up the sharing interface, which is split into four rows: content to be shared, AirDrop, share-to apps like iMessage or Mail, and remote media options like AirPlay.

With AirDrop, users only need to be concerned with the top two rows. Since we selected a video from the Photos app, other images and clips appear alongside as scrollable thumbnails. Users can choose from other photos in a library and send multiple files in a single AirDrop session. Each selected picture is ticked with a blue checkmark.

Sending involves a simple tap on another user's iCloud avatar, which should pop up in the AirDrop row directly below the selected content when a device is in range. If the default AirDrop instruction graphic appears instead, it either means the other device is not configured correctly, is out of range, or is not discoverable.

As previously noted, the recipient device must be awake, have AirDrop activated and both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi switched on. If a sender's information is not entered into the receiving device's contacts list, "Everyone" must be selected in the AirDrop settings menu, which can be accessed from Control Center.

AirDrop
Various AirDrop discoverability states.


On the receiving end, a pop-up pane will appear notifying the user that a friend is attempting to share a file. This window will, in most cases, have a preview of the image or video being sent and options to accept or decline. Refusing a transfer will cause a red "Declined" message to appear under a on the sender's device, while accepting will show the text "Sent" in blue.

Results

In our testing, AirDrop worked flawlessly. Wireless connectivity was solid and we encountered no errors or problems shooting files back and forth. Transfer speeds were fast thanks to the peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection, and connecting to other devices was seamless. It should be noted, however, that the implementation is currently limited to first-party apps like Photos and Contacts and a few third-party titles that pushed out updates after iOS 7 was released.

AirDrop
Incoming AirDrop alert on lock screen (left) and setup pane.


Obviously, the usefulness of AirDrop depends largely on how iPhone, iPad and iPod owners share and manage their stored content. Some choose to email or send iMessages, while others like syncing to cloud services.

Despite being an iOS 7 feature, AirDrop is only compatible with Apple's latest devices, as previously mentioned. In addition, it will be up to developers to implement the sharing service into their software, though integration could theoretically support almost any type of file as long as both devices have the same app.

Use cases may be limited at this time, but Apple has paved a way for developers to integrate fast and easy file sharing at the system level, meaning one embedded solution can be called upon to handle all transfers.

Perhaps more importantly, AirDrop for iOS lays down the groundwork for future projects. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a cross-platform version of AirDrop may be in the works, especially given a nearly identical feature bearing the same name first landed on OS X.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 45
    hydrhydr Posts: 146member
    Activation Server down for an hour, how about making that news? Unacceptable Apple.
  • Reply 2 of 45
    Nothing new, iPhoto had this since day one...for photos that is.

    But yes, really great to see this get extended to any file on my phone. Oh wait: "It should be noted, however, that the implementation is currently limited to first-party apps like Photos and Contacts."

    Hmm, 'kay. Well, maybe with 7.0.1 then.

    What's with the downloadgate whiners today anyway?
  • Reply 3 of 45
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    As with any iOS feature, AirDrop has been simplified with every day users in mind. Once a picture, video, or other sharable asset is selected, it takes only two steps to send the file to a waiting friend's device.

    Sounds cool. I have not tried iOS 7 so I'm wondering what other sharable assets are able to use AirDrop. Maybe iWork documents or contacts which have always offered to share by email. 

  • Reply 4 of 45

    "It should be noted, however, that the implementation is currently limited to first-party apps like Photos and Contacts."

     

    This isn't accurate.  AirDrop works right now with Evernote and Vimeo.  Perhaps you should extending your testing to those 3rd party apps and include that in your article.  I think readers would be interested.

  • Reply 5 of 45
    mazda 3smazda 3s Posts: 1,569member
    I've been having trouble getting it to work with my iPhone 5 and my wife's iPhone 5. We have it set to "contacts-only", and of course we're both in each other's contacts. Half of the time, her phone doesn't even show up in the list of available devices when I try to send a file (and we're in the same room).

    Opening the options up to "everyone" doesn't change a thing. We both have Bluetooth enabled and we're connected to a dual-band Wi-Fi N router.

    In the past week that we've been running iOS 7 GM, I've only been able to get it to work one or twice.
  • Reply 6 of 45
    eriamjheriamjh Posts: 1,114member
    Quote:

     Despite being an iOS 7 feature, AirDrop is only compatible with Apple's latest devices...


    THIS is a bummer as there is likely no technical reason it's not supported on all iOS devices that support iOS7.  Although it does appear to require iCloud.

     

    Jailbreak "fix" for this in 3... 2... 1... ?

  • Reply 7 of 45

    The reason why AirDrop is limited to those particular devices is because it requires WiFi Direct for the actual transfer.  Meaning, the ability for two WiFi devices to connect directly to each other, rather than joining the same network.  This allows AirDrop to work even if you are out in the middle of the ocean with no WiFi networks, Internet connection, etc.  The WiFi component Apple was using before the iPhone 5 didn't support WiFi Direct, which is also the issue with iPads before the 4 and the mini.

  • Reply 8 of 45
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Mazda 3s View Post



    I've been having trouble getting it to work with my iPhone 5 and my wife's iPhone 5. We have it set to "contacts-only", and of course we're both in each other's contacts. Half of the time, her phone doesn't even show up in the list of available devices when I try to send a file (and we're in the same room).



    Opening the options up to "everyone" doesn't change a thing. We both have Bluetooth enabled and we're connected to a dual-band Wi-Fi N router.



    In the past week that we've been running iOS 7 GM, I've only been able to get it to work one or twice.

     

    Sorry, this may be an obvious question, but you and your wife both have separate iCloud accounts, yes?  I know a lot of families that share one, and if you are both logged in to the same iCloud account, that would probably not work for AirDrop transfers.  The router shouldn't matter, as long as you have bluetooth and wifi turned on for your phone, both have different iCloud accounts and are logged in, and both have AirDrop turned on in Control Center.

  • Reply 9 of 45
    mazda 3smazda 3s Posts: 1,569member
    dcompiled wrote: »
    Sorry, this may be an obvious question, but you and your wife both have separate iCloud accounts, yes?  I know a lot of families that share one, and if you are both logged in to the same iCloud account, that would probably not work for AirDrop transfers.  The router shouldn't matter, as long as you have bluetooth and wifi turned on for your phone, both have different iCloud accounts and are logged in, and both have AirDrop turned on in Control Center.

    We have separate iCloud accounts and we both have Airdrop enabled.
  • Reply 10 of 45
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Mazda 3s View Post





    We have separate iCloud accounts and we both have Airdrop enabled.

     

    Wow, that sounds like a really annoying bug then.  My wife is installing iOS7 later today… I'll be testing out AirDrop more extensively when she does.  I'll post here if I encounter any similar problems or ideas for solutions...

  • Reply 11 of 45
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Eriamjh View Post

     

    THIS is a bummer as there is likely no technical reason it's not supported on all iOS devices that support iOS7.  Although it does appear to require iCloud.

     

    Jailbreak "fix" for this in 3... 2... 1... ?


     

    I would think the technical reasoning behind this is that all of the supported devices are the only devices supporting Bluetooth 4.0 (with the exception of the iPhone 4S and 3rd gen iPad). Probably an incentive to upgrade, too.

  • Reply 12 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,161member
    dcompiled wrote: »
    The reason why AirDrop is limited to those particular devices is because it requires WiFi Direct for the actual transfer.  Meaning, the ability for two WiFi devices to connect directly to each other, rather than joining the same network.  This allows AirDrop to work even if you are out in the middle of the ocean with no WiFi networks, Internet connection, etc.  The WiFi component Apple was using before the iPhone 5 didn't support WiFi Direct, which is also the issue with iPads before the 4 and the mini.

    Was this the same reason why AirPlay was limited to Macs after 2011? I only ask as my 2010 MBP wasn't able to use Airplay but AirParrot, a third party app, enabled it. So I wondered if a similar work around might be possible?
  • Reply 13 of 45
    "It is not out of the realm of possibility that a cross-platform version of AirDrop may be in the works, especially given a nearly identical feature bearing the same name first landed on OS X."

    Well...yeah. 'AirDrop" has been in OSX for a long time. I rather expected this iOS7 implementation to be compatible with it immediately. Guess I'll soon test it.
  • Reply 14 of 45
    Originally Posted by hydr View Post
    Activation Server down for an hour, how about making that news? Unacceptable Apple.

     

    I suppose your server can handle 400,000,000 devices updating simultaneously, then.

  • Reply 15 of 45
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by digitalclips View Post





    Was this the same reason why AirPlay was limited to Macs after 2011? I only ask as my 2010 MBP wasn't able to use Airplay but AirParrot, a third party app, enabled it. So I wondered if a similar work around might be possible?

     

    From what I remember reading, the technical limitation preventing AirPlay on pre-2011 Macs is based on feature Intel added to CPUs in 2011:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_Quick_Sync_Video

     

    While it's possible to do AirPlay encoding in software (like AirParrot), it can be heavy on the CPU and doesn't have the minimal performance hit that Apple's chosen implementation does, since Apple's implementation leverages hardware features that make the video transcoding trivial for the CPU.  As you can see from the Wikipedia article, Intel introduced QuickSyncVideo in their processors starting in January 2011.  That seems to be the reason why native Mountain Lion support for AirPlay mirroring only goes back to 2011 Macs. 

  • Reply 16 of 45
    AirDrop works perfectly for me on both my mini and iPhone 5 (sadly my iPad 3 and iPhone 4 were left off the party invite list). I do have a question, though, that I thought you smart people might be able to answer...

    To utilize AirDrop, one needs to leave Bluetooth active at all times. I've always left Bluetooth turned off as I have no reason to use it, and I'd imagine there's got to be some sort of battery drain. So, my query is: Is there a penalty for leaving Bluetooth on, battery-wise?

    I can always turn it on/off when I feel the need to do the AirDrop thing, but I'm wondering if I should stop worrying and simply leave Bluetooth up and running all the time.

    Thanks! (And, by the way, in my opinion, iOS 7 is hideous... it's actually unbelievable how ugly this thing is. Sheesh.)

    ~Huck
  • Reply 17 of 45
    AirDrop works perfectly for me on both my mini and iPhone 5 (sadly my iPad 3 and iPhone 4 were left off the party invite list). I do have a question, though, that I thought you smart people might be able to answer%u2026

    To utilize AirDrop, one needs to leave Bluetooth active at all times. I've always left Bluetooth turned off as I have no reason to use it, and I'd imagine there's got to be some sort of battery drain. So, my query is: Is there a penalty for leaving Bluetooth on, battery-wise?

    I can always turn it on/off when I feel the need to do the AirDrop thing, but I'm wondering if I should stop worrying and simply leave Bluetooth up and running all the time.

    Thanks! (And, by the way, in my opinion, iOS 7 is hideous%u2026 it's actually unbelievable how ugly this thing is. Sheesh.)

    ~Huck
  • Reply 18 of 45
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Huck View Post



    AirDrop works perfectly for me on both my mini and iPhone 5 (sadly my iPad 3 and iPhone 4 were left off the party invite list). I do have a question, though, that I thought you smart people might be able to answer%u2026



    To utilize AirDrop, one needs to leave Bluetooth active at all times. I've always left Bluetooth turned off as I have no reason to use it, and I'd imagine there's got to be some sort of battery drain. So, my query is: Is there a penalty for leaving Bluetooth on, battery-wise?



    I can always turn it on/off when I feel the need to do the AirDrop thing, but I'm wondering if I should stop worrying and simply leave Bluetooth up and running all the time.



    Thanks! (And, by the way, in my opinion, iOS 7 is hideous%u2026 it's actually unbelievable how ugly this thing is. Sheesh.)



    ~Huck

     

    Yes, there definitely is a battery cost for bluetooth.  I've seen different reports of exactly what that cost is from different testers.  You might want to try an app like this to see what effect it has on your own device / OS configuration: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/id446751279

  • Reply 19 of 45
    How is the quality of the video/photo? I know that when you "message" a video to someone it just KILLS the quality.

    Does it transfer in it's original quality?
  • Reply 20 of 45
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by s!ke View Post



    How is the quality of the video/photo? I know that when you "message" a video to someone it just KILLS the quality.



    Does it transfer in it's original quality?

     

    It transfers full (original) quality.

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