AirDrop and Hotspot in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite: Explained

AirDrop and Instant Hotspot in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite: Explained

While perhaps not as new and sexy as Handoff, making or taking calls, or sending and receiving SMS/MMS, the final two Continuity features in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite will absolutely make life easier for anyone with an iPhone and/or iPad and Mac. And that's the new, cross-compatible AirDrop and the new, Instant Hotspot. So, how do they work?

AirDrop between everything Apple

AirDrop started off on OS X Lion back in 2011. It used Bonjour (zero config) and personal area networking (PAN) to discover and transfer files between Macs, and eventually made its way from the Finder to the Share menu and Open/Save dialogs. Where it didn't find its way was on to iOS.

At least not until iOS 7.

When AirDrop did come to iOS, however, it came in name only. The protocol itself was significantly different. With no Finder in iOS, AirDrop existed only in the Share sheet. Instead of Bonjour and PAN, it used Bluetooth LE and direct Wi-Fi to transfer data. It was an incredibly secure implementation but it wasn't compatible with the older version on OS X.

At least not until iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite.

How the new AirDrop works

OS X AirDrop, like iOS before it, now uses Bluetooth LE for discovery and direct Wi-Fi for transfer. That's really the best of both worlds, as you get the low-energy savings of BT LE for the connection and the race-to-sleep efficiency of Wi-Fi for the transfer. (Apple hasn't released any security information yet, but if they've maintained the security model it will be similarly terrific.)

Between iOS devices nothing changes, of course.

Between iPhone or iPad and Mac, when the iOS device is unlocked it'll show up as an AirDrop target in the OS X Finder and the Save option in the menu. OS X devices show up just like iOS devices on the iPhone or iPad.

Between Macs it works similar to how it did in the past but you have an optional checkbox to "AirDrop with Older Macs".

This means that no matter where you have a piece of data, be it a photo, contact, or anything else shareable at all, you can move it directly between all your Apple devices with just a couple taps or clicks.

Instant Hotspot

Tethering from an iPhone or iPad cellular to a Mac or iPad Wi-Fi has always been a bit of a pain. Some of that has been carriers and their cockamamie tethering plans. But some of it has always been the process which, at the best of times, required a password to be entered, and at the worst required off/on toggles or reboots to get it working consistently.

No longer.

Now your Mac or iPad Wi-Fi can instantly connect to your iPhone or iPad cellular and you can be up and using the internet in no time.

How the new Instant Hotspot works

Although I haven't seen anything specific from Apple on how they're identifying known devices for tethering, based on how the rest of Continuity works my guess is you need to be logged into the same iCloud account (Apple ID) on your cellular device as you are on your Wi-Fi device. That way Apple knows they're yours and random people can't automagically leach your bandwidth.

If that's the case, and you have Bluetooth LE to pair with, your iPhone or iPad cellular will simply appear as an option in your available Wi-Fi network connections list, distinguished with Apple's linked-ring tethering icon. Connection type (e.g. LTE) and battery level will also be displayed on the Mac.

So, regardless of whether your iPhone or iPad cellular is sitting right in front of you, or is across the room in a bag, there's no password to enter, no toggles to flip, no devices to reboot. Just tap/click, connect, surf.

Bottom line

Again, AirDrop and tethering aren't new features they're new implementations of pre-existing features. They may lack the impact of Handoff or call/SMS/MMS Continuity, but they solve really usability problems for real people. Apple is sometimes accused of spotlighting a feature one year only to forget about it the next. By looping AirDrop and tethering into Continuity Apple not only brings them back into the spotlight but makes them better than ever before. Hopefully this is just the beginning of that trend.

More of iOS 8: Explained

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

AirDrop and Instant Hotspot in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite: Explained


I am very excited about the instant hotspot feature. I travel for a living, and completely depend on a Verizon Wi-Fi hotspot for connectivity. Needless to say it is very costly having to pay for data, typically 12-14 GB per month. Now my iPhone 5S with Sprint unlimited LTE data, I will be able to connect my MacBook Pro, iPad, and hopefully iPod touch while traveling without enormous Data plans with my dedicated hotspot. I realize most people have some sort of wireless Internet connection without data restrictions during a high percentage of their time, unfortunately I do not live in that world, and this could be a major upgrade in my daily life. Because of the places I travel in America, I would still want to keep my Verizon service, because they are the most dependable LTE service, but with Sprint's ever growing LTE service this could help out my wallet immensely. I am interested in how much data usage "handoff" will burn up in my situation and will this be a function that can be disabled.

I prefered internet sharing. You connect your macbook with your iphone with USB/ hotspot and sharing the internet via WLAN on your macbook as router with any other device. That was amazing until I downgraded from Mavericks to the seriously handicapped Yosemite. Apple should find a solution for Internet sharing function asap.

One thing I am not fully clear (sorry if i sound like an idiot): if you are in AT&T don't you need then to activity the HOTSPOT ability so that you can benefit from this option? Maybe I am confuse on the concept of thetering vs hotspot here...
I am grandfather into the unlimited data plan that they had so I want to be clear if this only works if you have there hotspot option (SETTINGS>CELLULAR DATA>SETUP HOTSPOT), which will mean that I will have to change plans, or if my Mac and iPad will see my phone like just one more WI-FI location without having to setup anything.
Hope my question makes sense... Thanks!

Instant Hotspot is the same as the previous Personal Hotspot feature, it just allows for faster connection for devices you own. So, you still need hotspot/tethering service from your carrier and it still needs to be enabled in Settings.

Hope that helps!

glad it makes sense to you. it still doesn't to me. It makes for connecting faster? Like how? Once you have connected and entered the password - only a moron wouldn't have their LTE iPhone or iPad password-connected - it never has to be entered again. As it is today the , I see my LTE cellphone connection in any tethered devices and never have to re-enter a password. And I get the same bandwidth on my tethered device - in this case my iPad - as I get on the phone. So what, exactly, is the great benefit here?

I think there a great many people that think they know more than they do.

Just because you don't understand the difference doesn't explain your rude comment. On the other hand maybe you are one of the people you describe and that does.

Ok, I'll ignore the last paragraph and assume you didn't intend to come across the way you did.
The way things are now you must open the settings app on your phone and turn the hotspot on, make sure wifi is on, then click on wifi on your connected device and select your phone as a hotspot.
With instant hotspot, you will simply click on wifi on your connected device, select your phone, and boom, instant hotspot. While connected it will display in your menu bar the battery status and connection type. Your phone can stay in your pocket the entire time.
Make sense now?

Hi Reene,
Thank you for the update on AirDrop and Handoff. I have just one question though - What benefits or should appleTV users expect to benefit from the above Technologies especially in the Enterprise where AppleTV's Bonjour protocol has had issues with WPA2 and certificates?


Rene, will you be able to transfer a videos on your Mac to your iPhone? (content not purchased through iTunes)

OK, simple question. I have a 2011 iMac with BT 2.1
Which of the following will work on my Mac
(I know Continuity requires 4.0 though Yosemite is still in Beta. Things might change by fall)