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How to Use AirDrop and Apple Watch Unlock With Ethernet on the Mac

Posted by Jim Tanous on September 4, 2018
mac iphone networking

Features like AirDrop and the ability to unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch require that Wi-Fi be enabled on your Mac. This is fine if you use Wi-Fi for your normal network connection, but what if you prefer to use a hardwired Ethernet network instead?
The good news is that you don’t need to choose; you can connect to the Internet and your local network resources via Ethernet while still keeping Wi-Fi enabled. The trick is setting the correct service order for your Mac’s network connections. Here’s how it works.

You Still Need Wi-Fi

First, we should note that you still need to have a Wi-Fi network for your Mac, iOS devices, and Apple Watch to connect to. The steps here will tell your Mac to prioritize the Ethernet connection for your normal network activities, but this won’t help if you’re in an environment that simply doesn’t have Wi-Fi.

Understanding Network Service Order in macOS

Your Mac can connect to various types of network connections, often connecting via multiple connections simultaneously. For example, an iMac could have a Wi-Fi connection, a wired Ethernet connection, a Bluetooth connection paired with an iPhone, and an additional Ethernet connection via a Thunderbolt adapter.
The Service Order (also known as port priority) in macOS tells your Mac how to prioritize these network connections. It’s an ordered list of all currently available connections regardless of status. When you set the service order and your Mac tries to make a network connection, it will start at the top of the list and automatically work its way down until it makes a successful connection.
This is useful because network conditions change, especially for mobile devices like MacBooks. You might connect to a wired Ethernet connection at work, a Bluetooth-enabled iPhone tether while on the road, and a Wi-Fi network at home. By setting the correct service order, you can ensure that your Mac will always connect to the network via the appropriate method.

Set Service Order to Use Ethernet & Wi-Fi in macOS

For our example, we’re using a MacBook Pro with a Thunderbolt 3 Dock that has wired gigabit Ethernet. We want to use the Ethernet connection when the MacBook is plugged into the dock so that we can access the internet and our network attached storage at a fast, consistent speed, but we also want to keep Wi-Fi enabled for features like AirDrop and using our Apple Watch to unlock the MacBook.
To accomplish this, we’ll set our macOS service order to prioritize the Ethernet connection for normal network traffic while leaving the Wi-Fi connection available for these aforementioned features. So, to start, log into your Mac and head to System Preferences > Network.
mac system preferences network
Click the gear icon at the bottom of the network connections list and select Set Service Order.
mac set service order
A menu labeled Service Order will appear showing all network connections that are available to your Mac, even those that aren’t currently active. Simply click and drag to rearrange these connections into the desired order, with the highest priority connection at the top.
mac ethernet with wifi
So, in our example, we’ll drag Thunderbolt Ethernet Slot 1 (which is our Dock’s Ethernet connection) to the top of the list, and then place Wi-Fi beneath it. When you’re done, click OK and then Apply to save the change.
Configuring the service order this way means that for any compatible network traffic, our Mac will start with the Ethernet connection first. As long as the MacBook is connected to the Dock, Internet and local network traffic will be routed via the Ethernet connection. If we disconnect from the Dock, the Wi-Fi network will take over.
The key in the previous paragraph is “compatible” network traffic. The Internet and local network file storage can be transmitted via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, so those will work with either depending on what’s hooked up. AirDrop and unlocking your Mac with an Apple Watch only work via Wi-Fi, so when those requests come in, they’ll skip right over the Ethernet connection and go straight to Wi-Fi.
unlock mac apple watch
With this setup, you can continue to use a fast, reliable wired network connection while still maintaining access to Apple features that require Wi-Fi. You can of course further customize this as desired by adding any additional network connections or bringing things like iPhone tethering into the mix. The point is, you don’t need to disable your Ethernet connection or route your normal traffic via Wi-Fi just to use Wi-Fi-dependent features.

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