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AirPlay and AirDrop: Apple’s wireless tech story

Is Apple’s wireless sorcery truly magical?

Apple’s stance on future connectivity by removing ports on iPhones and MacBooks isn’t anything new – they’ve had an anathema against wires for many years now. But somewhere down the line, they decided to take it up a notch, doing away with two of the most common physical connections in any techie’s life – aux cables for audio and data cables for transferring stuff from computers. This is precisely where AirPlay and AirDrop come in. Both of these are over-the-air, WLAN data transfer protocols that allow you to play music and transfer files respectively in the Apple ecosystem.

Tunes over the air!

It all started back in 2004 when Apple released AirTunes, a not quite groundbreaking feature that let you stream music to remote speakers from a running instance of iTunes from a Mac. This was also the time when they were trying to replace Wi-Fi as we know it, with AirPort (thank god that never took off). AirTunes basically was a protocol to stream music coded in Apple’s proprietary codec via Airport Express or even vanilla 802.11b/g networks. All the heavy lifting of decoding music from the regular formats such as MP3 and recording it before broadcast was handled by iTunes. There were other several (admittedly rudimentary) music streaming devices and protocols so AirTunes never really took off. At least, not until 2010. AirTunes got a major overhaul and was rebadged as AirPlay and the functionality was added to iPhones and iPads as well. Its popularity grew when a year later, screen mirroring was baked into AirPlay. Being able to go from watching something on your small screen mobile device (not so small in the case of an iPad) to seamlessly switch over to a large screen TV was a feature Apple users soon grew very accustomed to.

Airplay
When dat Beach so good, you need to have it on every screen

And keeping with the spirit of everything Apple, it’s pretty easy to use as well. All you need is an iOS device that is running something that’s later than iOS 4.2 or a computer running iTunes plus OS X Mountain Lion or later. You also need a second generation or newer Apple TV or AirPlay-enabled speakers. Just connect the sending device and the receiving device to the same WiFi network, swipe up to open up the Control Center and swipe left to get to the Now Playing screen. Once you are there, locate the device you want to stream to from the list on the right, and choose it. Voila, you’re done. iPhone users will have to click the AirPlay icon to open up the list and macOS users will have to click on the AirPlay icon in their menu bar. Just make sure that both your Apple TV/Speakers and your streaming device is awake and connected to the same WiFi network for AirPlay to recognise both devices.

It’s getting better!

One of the main deterrents for not using Airplay was that it is a monogamous relationship – you pair your iOS device with the receiver and that’s it. You don’t get any of the new fancy multi-room audio setups; hell, you even have to stay in the same room for ensuring connection stability. And if you wanted to stream to more than one device at a time, you had to boot up iTunes on a computer. But all of that is set to change very soon. Airplay 2 seemingly released with iOS 11 and while it promised several amazing features over regular AirPlay, with multi-room streaming being the most prominent, initial testing might have revealed that it is yet to be functional.

AirPlay

Conduct your own AirDrops without a helicopter nor a starving nation to worry about!

AirDrop, while working on the same premise as AirPlay, is an entirely different ball game altogether. While AirPlay’s streaming protocols have been reverse engineered (and thereby opening up a whole new avenue of third-party receivers to stream to), the protocols for transferring data that is employed by AirDrop still remain extremely confidential. Which is a good thing for Apple, in hindsight, because the ability to AirDrop stuff is one of the major contributing factors for people buying into the whole ecosystem.

To put it very simply, AirDrop is a service that lets you transfer unlimited data between two systems wirelessly. Or the next best thing to unlimited anyway – there have been forum reports of users successfully transferring 10+GB single files over AirDrop. We can’t think of more extreme consumer level use-cases, so it’s pretty darn impressive. The protocol allows you to send documents, photos, web pages, map locations, music files…. Basically pretty much anything you want, to nearby devices. It’s all encrypted via TLS Encryption.

AirDrop
This Everyone option is for those who
like to live on the edge

It was released alongside OS X Lion back in 2011 and was baked into iOS 7 in 2013. The first roadblock? You couldn’t transfer files between a Mac and an iPhone with AirDrop, owing to two completely different protocols – the iPhone requiring both a WiFi and a Bluetooth connection while the Mac required only WiFi. This was fixed with OS X Yosemite’s release in 2014, allowing the phone to establish simultaneous Bluetooth and WiFi connections with the Mac. Most Macs that were released in the last decade can use the legacy WiFi only AirDrop to transfer files but for iPhone – Mac transfers, you’ll need to have a device from 2012 or later.

You can access AirDrop by swiping up into your control centre while on MacOS, AirDrop is available in the Finder’s sidebar. Most ‘Share’ dialogue boxes will also have AirDrop listed as an option. Do note that enabling AirDrop will turn on WiFi and Bluetooth on your iPhone (because both of those are leveraged) and WiFi on your Mac. Once you initiate the transfer, the receiver must choose to receive the files and you’re done. (This is done automatically if both the devices are signed into the same iCloud account)

Down with the wire tyranny!

Allrighty then, the future is here, let’s destroy allllll the cables and become wireless overlords! Well…. Not quite. For starters, it requires you to invest quite heavily into the Apple ecosystem and who are we kidding, even owning more than one Apple device is a huge obstacle in India. Premium pricing is well and good until you get the short end of the stick. And even if you are invested in the ecosystem, transferring files to friends and family is going to be hard if they don’t have an Apple device. Furthermore, a wired connection will always beat a wireless one in terms of both speed and quality of the data transferred. While it is improving (by a whole lot) and is definitely a viable alternative, a lot of people would still prefer a wired connection. Maybe someday, wireless connections will finally break the speed boundary imposed by a physical medium and be much faster and better, but that day isn’t here yet. The transfer rate of AirDrop is pegged at about 24 MBps. Yup, that’s it. Extremely painful when you consider that USB 3 Flash drives can hit about 240 MBps.

However people using such services do know that they are trading off reliability, speed and quality all for the sheer convenience of not having to fiddle around with wires. The ability to do so much more without digging around for a physical bridge for data between two devices is an enticing option and the wireless future promises all that and more. These are but baby steps towards that direction and as such, an excellent way to tide us over till better options arrive.

AirDrop

Alternatives do exist

Do you also want to enjoy these Air shenanigans but can’t afford to invest into the Apple ecosystem? Have no fear, because even Androids are starting to get on the AirPlay wagon. At Least HTC tried once… and it didn’t end well to say the least. The idea was good on paper but the flagship pricing makes people want to just pick up an iPhone instead to get more out of it. But on the receiving side, you do have a lot of third party options – the most famous and well regarded of which is AirFoil. Be warned, it’s just for audio streams though. You can also look at AirSync with the doubleTwist app and if you are willing to take it up a notch, you can whip together a streaming box for your TV with a Raspberry Pi that’ll cost much cheaper than an Apple TV. For AirDrop, you’ll have to deal with the clunkiness of ShareIT. Or go all in on cloud hosting services – provided you have the right internet connection for it.


This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Prithvi Sudhan

Prithvi Sudhan