Sharing with your Mac, iPhone and iPad: the ultimate guide

25th Aug 2012 | 11:00

Sharing with your Mac, iPhone and iPad: the ultimate guide

Why keep all your data on one Mac or iPad?

Sharing at home: plenty of choice

Not too long ago, people tended to own one computer on which they would store all their data, occasionally moving it around using floppy discs, CDs or USB memory sticks. And although we're only a few years down the line from those times, the concept of stuff living on a single machine now seems very outdated.

As technology has developed rapidly, the ways in which you can transfer, share and send files have become many and varied. The rise of the internet is the biggest factor in allowing this to happen, providing an increasingly fast and easy way to send documents, pictures, music and even movies between devices and around the world.

Faster home broadband connections are at the point where uploading stuff no longer takes hours, and a good 3G connection when you're on the move can be just as effective for sending and receiving files.

Networking computers used to be a real hassle, but with modern operating systems, it has become far easier. AirDrop in OS X 10.7 is perhaps the ultimate expression of simple file sharing, a system that doesn't even require the two Macs sharing files to be on the same wireless or ethernet network.

Sharing media has become simple too, with apps like iMovie and GarageBand allowing direct uploads to popular streaming sites, and iTunes Home Sharing and Match giving you much more flexible access to your media at home or on the move. Read on to find out how sharing data can free you from your desk…

Sharing at home

There are lots of ways to share files at home, and it's easier than you think...

sharing 1

Sharing your data across a home network has been possible for a long time, but it's only in recent years that it has become really simple, at least if you're using Macs. We'll skip past the old-fashioned methods of using USB memory sticks or burned DVDs to move stuff; although these are still possible, they're quite labour intensive.

These days, it's all about being networked, and the most common way to network computers is using Wi-Fi. There's a good chance you're on wireless broadband at home anyway. And even if your computer connects to your modem using an Ethernet cable, you can still share its wireless connection (and even its broadband connection) to other computers over Wi-Fi.

To do this you go into the System Preferences > Sharing tab and switch on Internet Sharing. To share files between computers, you can create a network on one computer from the AirPort menu and then join that network from the other computer. Neither computer has to have an internet connection for this to work, as you can achieve the same thing by connecting the two machines using an Ethernet cable.

On supported models you can even use FireWire Target Disk mode by connecting two Macs using a FireWire cable and booting one while holding the T key. This boots the 'slave Mac' as a hard drive on the host Mac and only supports the dragging and dropping of data from one to the other, so it's a basic but effective way of connecting the two.

To share files on a Mac you need to go into System Preferences > Sharing and make sure the File Sharing service is turned on. This means the computer will appear in the sidebar of other Macs on your network and broadcasts itself as an available device.

Also in this window you'll find a list of shared folders you can edit and add to. By default, each user's Public Folder is shared and when someone connects to it over a network they'll see its contents as well as being able to drop items into the Drop Box folder. They can't see the contents of the Drop Box, so it's a secure way for people to transfer stuff to you without altering the contents of the folder afterwards.

For each shared folder you'll also see a list of users, and what their access permissions are for that folder. By default, you have ownership of folders inside your Home directory but you can choose to assign other users from your Address Book with specific access, setting them up a password. So if you wanted a friend to be able to access and edit a certain folder on your Mac, this would be how to do it.

Under the Options menu in the File Sharing section you also have the option to turn on file sharing over FTP in addition to the default AFP protocol. If you activate the third option, SMB, you can share files and folders with Windows PCs on a network. Windows uses different file sharing protocols to the Mac, so switching on SMB should ensure that your Mac communicates with any connected PCs and broadcasts itself properly to them.

If you're running a mixed network and need to move files between Macs and PCs, turning on SMB sharing is a must. You may also find that you need to go into your AirPort preferences and find the WINS section, then add your Mac to a Windows workgroup, which will probably be called MSHOME or WORKGROUP. You can find this by going to My Computer > Properties > Computer Name on the PC. It might take a little work, but it should get you sharing between platforms.


Dragging and dropping files and folders between Macs is also possible using AirDrop if you're running OS X 10.7 on both machines. This uses 'invisible' networking with no setup to discover other AirDrop capable Macs in range and make them visible to you in the Finder sidebar. Drag and drop files to a user's picture to share them.

Oddly though, Apple only enables AirDrop on specific, newer Mac models. This is because it uses special features of certain wireless chips, and can work between Macs even if they aren't connected to a network.

As annoying as this is, if yours is not supported, there is a workaround as long as you're running 10.7. Open the Terminal application and type: defaults write NetworkBrowser BrowseAllInterfaces 1.

Then quit Terminal and log out and back in again. You should now see AirDrop in your 'Go…' menu. The difference is that it will only work when both Macs are on the same network.

If you have an Apple TV you can stream your iTunes library to it to view on your TV. Third-party apps such as StreamToMe and Air Video can stream from your Mac to an iPad with live video conversion, so there's no need for an Apple TV.


Using the iTunes File Sharing section, you can share media between your Mac and your iPad outside of Apple's syncing system by dragging and dropping movies, photos and other things directly to an app. You can copy movies that are not in iTunes-friendly formats directly to an iPad. You can drop AVI movies and various others without having to convert them to M4V or MP4 format first. Various iPad apps can do this, including VLC, AVPlayer HD, CineXPlayer, Movie Player and GoodPlayer.

How to set up file sharing at home

1. Turn on sharing

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Go into the Sharing section of System Preferences. Locate the File Sharing option in the list of services and click its tick box to make sure it's switched on. You can give the computer a unique name in the box at the top - this is what will be broadcast across your network.

2. Add extra folders

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Click on the plus icon underneath the list of shared folders and you can choose any folder that you own to share with other users. By default your Public Folder is shared and users will be able to place things in the Drop Box. To create more shared folders, add them here.

3. Set a password

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In the list of users to the right, click the plus icon to add a new user. If you select an Address Book entry you can set a password for that user and create an account on the local machine for them. With this information they'll be able to access your shared folders.

Sharing with iTunes

As the centre of your digital hub, iTunes lets you share in different ways...

iTunes file share

Apple's iTunes has come a long way since its early days as a simple jukebox. Now it lets you purchase, play and share all your music and movies in a multitude of different ways. It's grown to support all of Apple's iOS devices as well as integrating with iCloud, adding internet storage to its list of capabilities.

If you have an iPad you can connect it to your Mac using a USB cable. Then in iTunes, go to the device and find its Apps tab. Scroll down and you'll see a File Sharing section where various apps are displayed; these are the apps that can swap data with your Mac. It's possible to drag and drop items out of the list to your Mac, or into the list to copy them to your iPad.

If you're running iOS 5, this whole process also works wirelessly if you have enabled Wi-Fi sync in iTunes. At a basic level, iTunes stores all its data inside a single folder on your hard drive, which by default, is located inside your Home directory in the folder Music/iTunes.

Inside this folder it keeps everything, from music and movies to books and mobile apps, as well as your master library file, artwork and backups of your iOS devices. It's important to activate iTunes' option to copy all music to this root folder, so it's not scattered randomly around your hard drive (from previous occasions when you may have dragged and dropped music into iTunes). You can find this in iTunes' Preferences > Advanced section.

It is possible to share an iTunes library by moving it from this directory to an external or networked hard drive so that it can be accessed from different Macs. After copying the whole iTunes folder, go into the Advanced preferences again. In the iTunes Media Folder location box, click to navigate to the folder's new location, which can be over a network as well as on a local hard drive.

On other Macs on the network, hold down the Option key while starting iTunes and from the chooser, select Choose iTunes Library, then navigate to it. You only have to do this the first time you want to use the shared library.

It's possible to share and stream media across your home Macs even without physically moving iTunes' library, using Home Sharing. This feature can be switched on in iTunes' Advanced menu and you'll be prompted to enter your Apple ID. After this, iTunes will broadcast itself to other copies of iTunes on the same network.

If you sign in on those Macs using the same Apple ID, you'll be able not only to play music and videos from the library, but drag and drop them to that Mac's library as well. The ability to physically copy files rather than just streaming means you can sync the files to different iOS devices. The fact that you have to use a single Apple ID for Home Sharing means that piracy is not really possible, but within the confines of a single house, your music and movie collections can be used more flexibly.

If you don't want to use Home Sharing, iTunes has a simpler sharing service, in the Preferences > Sharing section. Activate this and you can share either the whole library or selected playlists locally, with optional password protection. An Apple ID sign-in isn't required, but this service only allows streaming, not physical copying.

Go into iTunes' Advanced menu and you can choose to turn on Photo Sharing from iPhoto to your Apple TV using Home Sharing, and also share any videos that are present in your iPhoto library. If you activate Photo Library sharing from iPhoto, it shares to other copies of iPhoto on the local network.

Control your syncs

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As we've mentioned, it's possible to move data between Macs and iPads via the traditional USB cable approach, or wirelessly if you're running iOS 5. Some people still like to use Apple's syncing system, which automatically synchronises music, movies, apps and other media when the two are connected. You can control what syncs by going to the device in iTunes and selecting what to include.

One of the benefits of syncing like this is that iTunes can choose music for you and transfer it. Others prefer to manually manage data since it offers rather more control, letting you drag and drop from iTunes to the iPad. Select the device in iTunes while it's connected, go to the Summary tab and scroll to the bottom. Activate manual management of music and videos - if you're using Apple's iTunes Match service, you'll only be able to manually deal with videos because your music is delivered from the cloud.

Since iOS devices have lower storage capacities than Macs, syncing whole libraries doesn't make much sense if your music and movie collections are large. In these cases, either choose to sync specific playlists, or use manual management to keep control of how much stuff is being fired over so as not to fill up your iPad.

There's also an option in iTunes' Summary tab to compress media prior to transfer. 'Convert higher bit rate songs' will shrink larger file sizes prior to copying, and 'Prefer standard definition videos' will transfer a lower resolution copy where available, both of which will use less space on the iPad.

How to turn on iTunes Sharing

1. Open the Preferences

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In iTunes, go to the Preferences section and locate the Sharing tab. Click to turn on sharing and select either the whole library or specific playlists within it. You can also set up a password: those who know it can stream music across the network to their copies of iTunes.

2. Turn on Home Sharing

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Go to the Advanced menu in iTunes and choose to Turn On Home Sharing. You'll need your Apple ID and password. With Home Sharing activated on another Mac on the local network, a user will be able to drag and drop music and movies from your library to theirs.

3. Move the library folder

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Go to your Home directory and find the Music > iTunes folder. If you have set iTunes to always copy new music into the library folder, this will contain all your music as well as the master library file. By copying this folder to an external drive, you can free up disk space.

Sharing with other people

Sharing with others

When you need to share your files and folders with other people...

GarageBand Share

The internet has revolutionised the way we communicate and consume and share information with each other. The rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as the prevalence of fast internet connections means it's now more convenient than ever to share things electronically.

At its simplest, this can mean emailing things to people. Apple's Mail is great with attachments, and you can drag and drop documents into a new message to attach them. In the case of pictures, there's an option at the bottom-right corner of the message window to resize them prior to sending, which works beautifully. Movies can be dropped in as attachments too, and there's even a Photo Browser window that's able to access your iPhoto albums and even your Facebook albums online, if you have enabled this in iPhoto.


Of course it's also possible to send zipped archives, Microsoft Office and other types of documents. Mail generally encodes files properly, so it's rare to have that one of your contacts find they can't open a file you've sent them. The only thing to watch out for is message sizes: movies or large pictures can easily be over 10MB in size, and most ISPs have a message size limit of between 10 and 20MB. Any bigger than this and the mail may get rejected, so split files over several mails or use a file-hosting service such as Sendspace or Dropbox.

After upload you get a link to send to someone, and Sendspace has a downloadable desktop application to help you manage your transfers. Dropbox is even better since it has iOS client apps, so you can upload, download and manage files across all your devices as well as sharing them with others. It's a particularly elegant way to manage data both for yourself and for sharing across the internet with others.

There are other ways to send links and files to people using just your Mac. iChat is capable of sending files between two users if you simply drag and drop a file into a conversation. Other IM clients like Adium can do the same. Some offer encryption, and it makes sense to zip large groups of files together to minimise upload times, either using OS X's built-in compression tools (right click and choose 'Compress…') or a third-party app like Dropstuff, SimplyRAR or BetterZip.

Photo sharing is one of the most popular kinds of sharing, and iPhoto can share your photos across your local network and also to the internet, from the Share menu. You can send pictures straight to a MobileMe, Flickr or Facebook gallery, complete with metadata and other tags, straight from iPhoto.

If you're running OS X 10.7, you can sign in to iCloud and activate Photo Stream, which pushes all new pictures into the cloud. Your master collection is maintained on your Mac, but all pictures imported to iPhoto or Aperture will be viewable wirelessly on your iOS devices running iOS 5. Snaps you take on your iPhone or iPad will be viewable and downloadable in iPhoto on your Mac.

However, you're the only one with access to these. To create galleries to share with others you need to use the Flickr or Facebook options in iPhoto. There are a number of iOS photo-sharing apps such as Instagram, Camera Plus, Photoshop for iOS and iPhoto for iOS, all of which allow you to upload photos and albums directly to sites like Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.

But it's not only photos that get shared: video sharing is huge now as well, and iMovie lets you compress and upload your productions directly to YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo from your Mac. Pro-video apps such as Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro X also have amongst their many export options the choice to send movies to these sites, with more control than you get in consumer apps.

iMovie upload

Obviously these are popular sites, which are advanced enough to handle high-definition content and process it in a reasonable time. You can share movies to these sites from iOS apps such as iMovie and Avid Studio as well, though you really need to be on a wireless connection due to the size of the file transfer involved.

SoundCloud is the go-to site for sharing your music tracks these days, with direct upload support built into many iOS apps and desktop music-creation packages like Cubase (though not yet available with GarageBand or Logic). Of course, you can just export an audio file then upload it to SoundCloud through a browser: it just takes a couple more steps.

SoundCloud is great because its audio players are supported on pretty much every platform, including iOS. It also allows the recording of audio straight into the site, from your Mac or from an iOS device.

iCloud is a great service but it is currently better for sharing your own documents across your own devices than for sharing with the world.

A more open-source alternative is to use Google Docs, a browser-based service that lets you create online documents and spreadsheets that others can access and edit with your permission.

Dropbox is another great solution for sharing documents online, though it allows upload and download of files, not actual online creation and editing, like Google Docs.

Sharing on the go

Even when you're on the road you can still share your stuff...


When you're away from home with a laptop, you can still access all of your Mac's sharing capabilities with a network connection. In fact you don't even need a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection if you have an iPhone or 3G iPad.

With iOS 5 and the relevant bolt-on enabled with your cellular provider, you can use the Personal Hotspot feature built in to iOS to share the cellular connection to any compatible device including a laptop.

On your iPad 3G or iPhone 4 or later, go into the Settings > General > Network section and tap to turn on the Personal Hotspot feature. You're then able to create a mini wireless network over Wi-Fi and USB, and even over Bluetooth. On the device you can create a name for the network and set up a password, then it should appear as an available network on your laptop.

You can also use this to share your iPhone's connection with your Wi-Fi-only iPad. In other situations you may only have your iPad or iPhone with you, accessing either a 3G or wireless connection. In these cases you're still able to share a surprising amount of stuff from the device.

At a basic level, the Photos app allows you to select pictures to share over email or in a message, and you can do this with videos as well. Photos, movies and other documents can be copied and pasted into emails and iMessages. As long as they're relatively small (say under 20MB) they'll send even over 3G.

Apple doesn't allow much file management on iOS, but with the addition of a third-party app or two you can get better control over managing data. Downloads and Filer come in free 'lite' and paid-for versions, and are able to provide a basic file browser interface for managing files.

They also allow file sharing with your Mac both through iTunes and the provision of a web sharing service, where you can access the iPad or iPhone from your Mac's browser to transfer files. They allow you to download files from websites, copy them from Mail attachments and manage them centrally.

Filer allows connection to Dropbox, iDisk and WebDAV servers to upload and download files, and Downloads also has a very useful feature set for working with and opening all kinds of documents. Dropbox is a more complete solution because it works across your Mac and iOS devices, and allows comprehensive web-based sharing. It also has features such as the ability to control the quality of uploaded pictures and videos, so you can choose between better quality and faster uploads.

Google Docs is a great way to create, store and share documents from any mobile device, and it has a special mobile interface that works well on iOS. Other good mobile apps for sharing documents on the go include QuickOffice Pro HD, Documents To Go and Smart Office 2, with support for many sharing services including, iDisk and SugarSync amongst others.

Another thing that people want to do while they're out and about is listen to their music. But music collections are so big these days that few of them would fit on an iPad or iPhone, so we have to choose what to load up.

Or at least we did before iTunes Match came along. This £25-per-year service from Apple gives you access to your entire music library wirelessly wherever you are (with a few caveats). It works by analysing your music library in iTunes on your Mac then uploading the information to Apple's servers. It matches every song that has a copy in the iTunes Store and since it has the world's biggest digital store, most of your music will be on there. Anything that's not available can be uploaded from your hard drive, which takes a little time but only needs doing once.

On your iPad or iPhone you can turn on iTunes Match and instead of seeing the music on the device, you get access to your whole library in the cloud. Playlists are maintained and your Mac remains the master library, so any changes you make there are reflected across all your devices, including the purchase or addition of new content. So whenever you have a wireless connection you can play your music library on any of your devices, choosing from thousands of tracks.

It doesn't actually stream to your iPad - it downloads a track, but these can be deleted at any time and a master copy remains in the cloud. The best bit is that even if your original music tracks were low quality, the cloud versions are 256kbps, high-quality versions.

If you don't have iTunes Match you can still stream music using an alternative app like Spotify or - the iPad client is called On Air. These let you set up playlists and access them over the air, though don't provide access to your music library. There is a charge for some aspects of the service like physical downloading of tracks in Spotify.

There are a number of other interesting mobile sharing apps like Bump, which lets you share contact information with people nearby, Foursquare which lets you share your location with other users and also Apple's own Find My Friends app, which does the same.

How to set up a Personal Hotspot

1. Turn it on

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On your iPhone 4 or 3G-capable iPad, go to Settings and then the Personal Hotspot section. Tap to turn it on. This will only be available if your carrier plan includes the option to use the hotspot feature. If you don't have it, it can be added for a fee.

2. Connect to the network

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On your laptop, click the AirPort icon and locate the network, which should bear the name of your phone or iPad. Click to join it and enter the wireless password as displayed in the setup screen and you should be sharing the cellular connection.

3. Connect an iPad

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If you have a Wi-Fi-only iPad and want to share an iPhone's connection, use the same technique but connect to the wireless network using the iPad's wireless network selection screen inside Settings. Note, you might go through your data allowance quite quickly.

How to use iTunes Match

1. Set it up

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In iTunes, make sure you're signed in with your Apple ID and subscribed to the service. Turn on iTunes Match from the Store menu. This can take a few hours, especially if you have a lot of items that need to be uploaded because they can't be matched.

2. Activate on iOS

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On your iPad, go into Settings > Music and turn on iTunes Match. If you have a 3G model you'll also see the option to use a cellular connection for iTunes Match. Show All music can be turned off to only show music downloaded to the device.

3. Play music

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Fire up the Music app and you'll see your playlists and tracks available to play. The cloud icon means the track is stored in the cloud; tap to manually download tracks or playlists. Swipe to delete a track from local storage - iTunes on your Mac maintains the master library file.

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