Lion 101: How to use AirDrop (and alternatives in case you can’t)

It’s easier to explain what AirDrop is by first explaining what it isn’t. It is not a replacement for file sharing services across the Internet. In fact, there is no aspect about AirDrop that in any way resembles any sort of sharing at all, really. It’s more like a close range transporter (Star Trek-style) for files.

Not every Lion is part of the AirDrop pride

Unfortunately, just because you have OS X Lion installed doesn’t necessarily mean you can use AirDrop. While AirDrop doesn’t require any Mac to be actively connected to a Wi-Fi network, it does require that each Mac have a wireless card turned on — and not just any wireless card –only certain models of Macs are equipped with the sort of hardware necessary to participate. You could check your hardware version and see if you have what it takes, or just look for AirDrop in your favorites list in the Finder. If it’s listed, then you have what it takes.

Identifying other AirDrop users

At first you’ll think AirDrop isn’t working, or that it’s really, really slow.  Even though you may be in the middle of a slew of Macs running OS X Lion that are all AirDrop-capable, your screen will still be blank. That’s because in order to use AirDrop, you must opt-in by selecting AirDrop from your favorites list in the Finder. Once another Mac does the same, you will see the user show up in the Finder. As soon as either of you navigate away from AirDrop in that Finder window, it will be turned off.

If you happen to be a MobileMe user, and you’re logged in to your MobileMe account on your Mac, and all of the AirDrop Macs near you have all done the same, AND you all happen to be in each other’s MobileMe contact list, then you’ll see each other’s real names instead of just the computer nicknames of your Macs.  That makes it sort of like sharing files peer-to-peer over IM networks. The major differences are that you don’t have to be friends, you don’t have to be using the same service, and you don’t have to be connected to a Wi-Fi network. You don’t even need to have Wi-Fi turned on. All you need is the right Mac with Wi-Fi powered on, and someone to share with.

AirDrop a file from one Mac to another

It’s very easy to share a file once you can see someone to share with in AirDrop. Simply drag your file and drop it on the AirDrop recipient in the Finder, confirm when asked “Do you want to send…” to the recipient, and wait for the user to accept the file.  Once the file transfer process has begun, you don’t have to keep AirDrop open in the Finder. AirDrop will continue the file transfer in the background, and notify you when the process is complete. To be clear, no one using AirDrop can see any files you have on your Mac via AirDrop. Only files you drag and drop on specific recipients will be transferred. There’s no setup, no configuration; it just works.

Alternatives to AirDrop for your Snow Leopard friends

The ability to transfer files in much the same way actually existed before AirDrop. Granted, it wasn’t as slick or polished, and there was some initial setup and configuration involved, but the ability to transfer files from one Mac to another in an almost identical peer-to-peer fashion has been in place for quite some time. In fact, if your Mac can’t participate in AirDrop, it’s all you’ve got.

Send file in iChat via Bonjour. Enabling the Bonjour account in iChat is one of the slickest features on the Mac many don’t realize they have. It’s like a private instant messaging service for all Macs on the same network. You can use this ad-hoc network of IM buddies to transfer files back and forth quickly. You don’t need an IM account, just the user account you use to log on to your Mac. Transferring files is about the same as with AirDrop. You must all be participating in iChat, and you must choose so transfer a specific file to a designated recipient. It’s not quite as easy as AirDrop, but it’s close. The one advantage here is that the range is greater.  You aren’t dependent on the Wi-Fi radio signal reaching directly between Macs; you just need to be on the same network.

Bluetooth file transfer. In theory, transferring files from Mac to Mac over Bluetooth is exactly the same as AirDrop.  The big difference is in the setup. You must first enable Bluetooth Sharing in the System Preferences; make sure that Bluetooth is turned on and that all Macs involved are discoverable. You even have to pair your Macs before the file transfer can begin. Once everything is set up and ready to go, you can use the Bluetooth File Transfer agent to send and receive files. I’ve used this technique in the past, but have found it to be unreliable and a pain to set up and configure, so I’d use this as a last resort.

AirDrop’s only flaw is its hardware dependency. Most households will have a mix of old and new Macs that are actively being used. That being said, when you do have the right hardware in place, nothing beats the simplicity of transferring a file from one Mac to another that comes with AirDrop.