AirDrop With or Without a WiFi Connection

AirDrop Isn't Limited to a WiFi Network

AirDrop file sharing service
AirDrop file sharing service is built-in to your Mac. Image courtesy of Apple

One of the features available since OS X Lion is AirDrop, a handy method of sharing data with any Mac equipped with OS X Lion (or later) and a Wi-Fi connection that supports PAN (Personal Area Networking). PAN is a somewhat recent standard that has been added to the Wi-Fi alphabet soup of capabilities. The idea of PAN is that two or more devices that come within range of each other can communicate using a peer-to-peer connection method.

Apple's implementation of AirDrop relies on WiFi chipsets that have built-in PAN support. This reliance on hardware-based PAN capabilities in WiFi chipsets has the unfortunate consequences of limiting the use of AirDrop to Macs from late 2008 or later. The restrictions apply to third-party wireless products as well, they will need to have a built-in WiFi chipset that supports PAN.

It also prevents you from using AirDrop on other types of local networks, such as good old-fashioned wired Ethernet, which happens to be my network of choice here at home and in my office.

However, as an anonymous tipster reported to Mac OS X Hints, there is a workaround that will enable the use of AirDrop not only over non-supported WiFi connections but also by Macs connected to a wired Ethernet network.

How AirDrop Works

AirDrop uses Apple's Bonjour technology to listen in on a WiFi connection for another Mac to announce AirDrop capabilities.

It seems AirDrop will announce itself over any available network connection, but when AirDrop listens, it only pays attention to Wi-Fi connections, even if AirDrop announcements are present on other network interfaces.

It's not clear why Apple chose to limit AirDrop to Wi-Fi, but what the anonymous tipster discovered is that Apple, at least during testing, gave AirDrop the ability to listen for AirDrop announcements over any network connection.

Simply select the AirDrop item from a Finder window sidebar and all Macs on the network will be visible. Dragging an item to one of the listed Macs initiates a request for a file transfer. The user of the target Mac must accept the transfer before the file is delivered.

Once the file transfer is accepted, the file is sent to the designated Mac and will show up in the receiving Mac's downloads folder.

Supported Mac Models

AirDrop Ready Mac Models
MacBookMacBook5,1 or laterLate 2008 or later
MacBook ProMacBookPro5,1 or laterLate 2008 or later
MacBook AirMacBookAir2,1 or laterLate 2008 or later
MacProMacPro3,1, MacPro4,1 with Airport Extreme cardEearly 2008 or later
MacProMacPro5,1 or laterMid 2010 or later
iMaciMac9,1 or laterEarly 2009 or later
Mac miniMacmini4,1 or laterMid 2010 or later

Enable AirDrop Over Any Network Connection

  1. Turning on AirDrop capabilities for all networks is relatively simple; all that's needed is a bit of Terminal magic to make the changes.
  2. Launch Terminal, located in /Applications/Utilities.
  3. At the Terminal command prompt, enter the following:

    defaults write BrowseAllInterfaces 1

    The above command is all on one line, with no line breaks. Your web browser may show the command on multiple lines; if you see any line breaks, just ignore them.

  1. Once you type or copy/paste the command into Terminal, press enter or return.

Disable AirDrop on Any Network But Your Wi-Fi Connection

  1. You can return AirDrop to its default behavior at any time by issuing the following command in Terminal:

    defaults write BrowseAllInterfaces 0

  2. Once again, press enter or return after you type or copy/paste the command.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Although AirDrop works quite well when used in its default configuration over WiFi, I did encounter a few gotchas with this non-Apple-sanctioned method for using AirDrop over other network connections.

  1. On more than one occasion, I had to restart my Mac after running the Terminal command before the AirDrop capabilities would be applied. This included enabling or disabling the AirDrop feature.
  1. AirDrop normally lists nearby Macs with AirDrop capabilities. From time to time, AirDrop-enabled Macs that were connected by wired Ethernet would simply drop off the AirDrop list, and then show up again.
  2. Enabling AirDrop over any network appears to send data in an unencrypted format. Normally, AirDrop data is sent encrypted. I recommend limiting this AirDrop hack to a small home network where all users can be trusted.
  3. Enabling AirDrop over any network causes AirDrop to only work for Macs that are on the same network, i.e., no ad-hoc connections allowed.
  4. Using OS X's standard file sharing system may be a more stable method for file transfers on a wired network.

Should You Use This AirDrop Hack?

As always, that's up to you. I've given it a try and wanted to let other Mac users know that it is available should you wish to have the simplicity of an AirDrop connection.

I reset AirDrop's capabilities back to the default for a couple of reasons. Primarily, the listing of available Macs seems to be hit or miss when using the hack. I also prefer to use the built-in file encryption that the default AirDrop configuration provides.