iOS 5: How to sync your iPhone over Wi-Fi

The iPhone's greatest flaw has long been the need to connect it physically to iTunes. With iOS 5, your iPhone and iPad can break free.

Nik Rawlinson
Nik Rawlinson has been writing about tech since Windows 95 was looking distinctly futuristic. He is a former Editor of MacUser magazine and one-time scribe for Personal Computer World. Nik is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.
Nik Rawlinson
3 min read

The iPhone's greatest flaw has long been the fact that to both set it up and synchronise it you needed to connect it to iTunes. iCloud has gone some way to overcoming this obstacle, as it enables music, books and apps bought on one device to be downloaded to all of your others simultaneously. It's only with iOS 5, though, that your iPhone and iPad can truly break free.

Set up iTunes Wi-Fi sync

Step 1

1. You first need to pair your iPhone with iTunes so that it knows where it should send its data. Connect it to your Mac or PC using the bundled USB cable and click its entry in the sidebar. Scroll to Options on the device Summary page and check the box beside Sync with this iPhone over Wi-Fi. Click Apply. You can now detach your iPhone as any further changes that you make to its settings can be passed over the air, as we'll see in step 4.

Step 2

2. iTunes Wi-Fi sync can only be initiated when your iPhone is plugged in to a power source. Although Apple implies that it must remain plugged in throughout the operation, we have unplugged ours during our tests and the synchronisation has completed without issue. Your experience may vary, so ignore Apple's advice at your own risk.

To initiate the process, tap Settings > General > iTunes Wi-Fi Sync. The synchronisation button will be greyed out until you connect to the mains, and it won't 'see' your Mac or PC until you launch iTunes. Once you do, tap Sync Now. A progress bar will monitor the process.

Step 3

3. You can now switch away from the sync app on your iPhone and leave it running in the background. During our tests we were able to use our iPhone as normal while synchronising, making calls and receiving emails without any problem. Keep an eye on the double-ended circular arrow in the status bar, which spins throughout the sync. The process takes considerably longer over Wi-Fi than it does when physically connected, even if you've set iCloud to mirror all downloads to each of your iOS devices, as it must still perform the regular core handset backup over your network.

Step 4

4. Take things one step further and you can manually manage the content on your phone over the air. Return to iTunes on your Mac or PC and check the box beside Manually manage music and videos. You can now drag media from your library to a disconnected device.  

Wirelessly syncing your photos

Step 5

5. Although iOS 5 synchronises your last 1,000 images over a 30-day period with your other iOS devices courtesy of iCloud Photo Stream, it's still not possible to natively transfer selected photos from your iPhone back to your Mac or PC without connecting it by USB.

To plug this gap we'd recommend using PhotoSync. This £1.49 app works on both iPhone and iPad and can wirelessly transfer images between both of them and your computer, either one by one or by recognising what has been added to the library since it was last used and transferring new entries en masse. For greater flexibility, its internal Web server also lets you navigate your iPhone or iPad image library using a regular Mac or PC browser and download collections as compressed Zip files.