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Monday, January 16, 2012

iPad Access to Airport Disks

I have Apple Airport-based networks - they work very well.

Over the last couple of years I have been installing large USB hard-drives on them to backup my laptops and other macs.  I also use them to store a variety of content so that its easily available to any mac or laptop - manuals, sample libraries, and so on.

The other day I started to wonder how I could access these Airport disks from my iDevices (iPhones, iPads).  When using them for development its nice to have quick access to documents, for example.

But alas, the iPad and iPhone don't have a Finder (or Explorer for those on Windows).

Yes, I know its stupid.

But Steve Jobs felt that having things like that were "bad" and these devices should not support them directly.  That's nice if you're a artsy 14 year old, I suppose, but not so nice if you're a professional who needs to get work done.

So the first question was "How should I access these drives?"

That turns out to be easy if you name them right.

You have to name the drives without spaces in the name.  I know, all my graphic arts friends will be horrified, but that's the only way it seems to work (no more "Bob's Special Art Work" drive names).

I do this by formatting the drives I buy with my mac using "Applications>Disk Utility" as "Mac OS Extended (Journaled)" and changing their name at the time of formatting.   Plug in the drive, select it in Disk Utility, choose the file system type above, and "Erase."

Once that's complete I plug the drive into the Airport (there are also settings to fiddle in Airport Utility as  to allow it to support attached USB drives).

With a little luck the name of the network will appear in the left pane of the Finder as whatever you've named the airport (if you're on a mac).  Selecting and clicking the name will bring up the drives connected to the Airport (in 10.6.8 this is a bit flaky - the drives don't always appear right away - this flakiness may be drives spinning up but I am not sure).

But what if I don't have a mac (I have Windows or an iDevice)?

It turns out that the drives are still accessible.

You use a URL with the following general format: "smb://airport_ip/drivename."

So for, say the Airport named "Synthodeon" at "" I would use "smb://" to access the Elements-01 USB drive on a mac.  (On Windows you would use "\\\Elements-01".) You may have to enter a username and password if the drive has one.  (It seems as if the Airport is simply presenting the drives a remotely mountable SMB drives for this purpose.)

Of course if your network can resolve the Airport name to an IP you can just use that (or you can add your Aiport's address to /etc/hosts.)

Now I can access the drives directly.

As for iDevices - there are two problems to overcome.

The first is that there isn't a Finder or Explorer equivalent on an iDevice.

The second is that there isn't a direct way to open, say, a PDF once you locate it on your Airport drive.

I tried an app called "FileBrowser" which initially failed to work as advertised.  Basically you enter the IP and other info above and its supposed to access the SMB drives.  At least with the Airport this initially failed to work and no useful error is provided.  (This describes how it's supposed to work.)

You have to be very careful too because most apps like this seem to promise results but after you carefully read the descriptions you see that they won't ever work.  For example, I thought I could use "Air Sharing".  But a careful read of the description does not indicate support for SMB-type network connections.

There are a few similar apps as well - you can find them by Googling for the above apps and following the "customers also bought" links as well.  The giveaway is that some people love it (probably are using it one way) and others say its a rip off (probably trying to use it some what that's not supported).

This is probably something I could write an app for but I am already behind on my apps list of things to do...

(I had written how this did not work but I was later able to figure it out.)

After some time away from FileBrowser I was finally able to get it to work.

To some degree there is a trick to it.

You have to precisely use the format that they provide for a Mac.  Since they support both PC and Mac its a little hard to tell from the example provided what's expected for each.  (I only was able to get the Mac format working.)

The docs call for using an SMB-based URL:


For the mac you have to use the exact format above with the forward slashes.  In my case smb://

You cannot just use, for example, //  For the mac you must have the "smb:".

Once you get this right it asks for a username and password and you are in.

FileBrowser allowed me to directly navigate to a PDF on the Airport drive and open it.  It downloads it first - but its quick.

I don't know what other file types are supported for me at least PDFs are a big help.

I am not sure why this did not work the first time - yes I used the right values.  It may have been because when you enter the SMB://... information you are in a text insert box.  Pressing [RETURN] seems to have the effect of reformatting the field to match the Windows format.

The second time I fiddled around with this I simply navigated away from the field without pressing [RETURN] on the text edit box.

This may be a bug but I am not sure...

In any case I solved the problem. 

This may also be why some people were not successful with it.

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