Categories
apple

Smarter AirPods gestures

It’s one of my favorite AirPods features: slip in a single AirPod, and iOS will send a mono-mixed signal to the active unit, while ignoring the other.

I use this all the time. For example, if my AirPods are running low on power, I’ll continue to listen in one ear while charging the other unit in its case.

AirPod rainbow Or consider the road trip scenario: we’re rolling down the highway, mile after mile. As the driver, I’m getting bored, but I can’t fire up the car’s built-in stereo without disturbing my snoozing passengers. Wired headphones are too fiddly to safely set up while driving. But I can easily pop in a single AirPod—without taking my eyes off the road. And because iOS mixes down to mono, I can leave one ear free for key safety signals: a blaring horn or the tell-tale thump-thump-thump of a tire that’s about to blow out.

However, there is one drawback to wearing a single AirPod: playback controls. I’ve set the double-tap gesture on each AirPod to separate functions: bump the left AirPod, and the audio pauses; bump the right, and I jump to the next track (or skip past the boring bits of podcasts).

But when wearing just one earbud, I’m stuck with just one gesture. Either I can’t play/pause (when using the right AirPod), or I can’t skip ahead (when wearing the left).

AirPod options I’d like to see Apple add another setting to the AirPods’ “Double-tap on AirPod” options: “Single.” When I’m wearing just one AirPod, whether it’s the left or the right, let me choose the double-tap action. (I would likely set the option to “Next Track,” since I can pause the audio in a pinch by pulling the AirPod out.) ◾

Categories
apple

AirPods after 18 months

I’ve owned AirPods since soon after their release in late 2016. After a year and a half of daily use, I jotted down some thoughts:

Pleasures

Happy little habits

In an earlier post, I celebrated the “ritual” of AirPods—the tactile, repeatable “nano-gestures” that makes using them so much fun:

Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Months later, that ritual remains a simple pleasure.

Utility

The AirPods aren’t just fun, they’re functional. For quick YouTube hits, they’re far better than their wired counterparts, which require constant detangling and rewrapping. Because they’re so easy to pop in and out, I find myself turning to them more frequently. Even if I’m just washing a single pan, I’ll catch up on a news podcast. On a road trip with sleeping passengers? AirPods make it easy to stave off boredom—without snaking a wire across the cabin.

Durability

The AirPods are surprisingly sturdy. I have snapped the AirPods case shut literally thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of times. The mechanism still feels completely solid—with no sign of looseness or wear.

And I’ve dropped the things more times than I care to admit—often from waist height or higher. They’re none the worse for wear, physically—although the reliability issues discussed below could be related to these many falls.

Overall, though, I’m impressed with the AirPods’ build quality over the long term.

Pains

There’s a lot of delight in AirPods, but they also cause their share of headaches. Here are a few additions to an earlier list of quibbles, after eighteen months’ use:

Dis-connected?

More and more frequently, it seems, I’ll put in both AirPods and hit play, only to discover that one (or both) of them aren’t receiving audio. I’m left with three fixes, each more desperate (and cumbersome) than the last:

  • Wait it out. Sometimes, the offending unit will recover its connection after a few seconds. Too often, though, that recovery never happens.
  • Manually AirPlay to the AirPods. This requires that I pull out my AirPods and fiddle with the clunky Control Center interface for audio targeting.
  • Return both AirPods to the case and try again. Even this doesn’t always fix the issue. Occasionally, I’m forced to do this dance again and again.

In other words, the AirPods connection process isn’t rock-solid. I want it to be automatic and I want it to happen faster. As things work now, I don’t trust them to work every time.

Even aside from reliability improvements, Apple could improve the AirPods connection experience. Each AirPod should emit the “connected” chime independently, as they’re inserted into your ear. Too often, I’ll hear the sound in one ear before I get the other one out of the case. That leaves me unsure as to whether both units have connected—or whether one missed the wireless memo.

Corrosion and water resistance

The AirPods are the best running headphones I’ve ever owned. I didn’t realize how annoying that dangling wire was until the AirPods severed it for me.

But runners get wet; it’s nearly unavoidable. I sweat like mad in warm weather, and that moisture inevitably drips from ears onto my headphones. Plus, running outdoors means venturing into rain, fog, and snow, which all find their way onto my earbuds, as well.

To be fair, Apple doesn’t market these devices as water-resistant. But I had hoped that AirPods would cover all the use cases of their wired predecessors. Plus, various YouTube videos have proved that it’s possible for the AirPods to survive being submerged in a washing machine. I hoped they’d prove similarly resilient to raindrops.

Fate may have caught up to me recently. I began to notice that my right AirPod frequently ran low on power. I would head out running, only to hear the sad little “low charge” chirp after just a mile or two. After experimenting with the case, I realized that the right-side earbud wasn’t making a reliable connection to its charging element. Looking closer, I spotted greenish-blue corrosion on the metal tip of the AirPods stem.

Thoroughly cleaning both the case and the AirPods themselves has made charging more reliable (but not foolproof). Again, that’s more my fault than Apple’s, but it’s still irritating.

Earwax-orange clashes with AirPods-white

Last week, my family trekked to a family-friendly amusement park, several hours away. At day’s end, my daughter begged for one more ride: the log flume, which ends with a watery splash. Hoping to avoid further water damage to my AirPods, I handed the case to my wife and jumped in line with my eager kiddo.

After splashdown, we found my wife relaxing a nearby bench. Handing the AirPods back to me, she teased, “Your headphones are gross.” Snapping open the AirPods case, I realized that she was absolutely right.

In my earlier list of AirPods quibbles, I explained just how filthy AirPods can get. Earwax collects in the speaker grills, migrates its way to the AirPods stems and eventually starts to stain the charging case, too.

Now, in Apple’s defense, I apparently produce a lot of earwax. Not to get too scatological here, but I’ve occasionally had to ask my doctor to clean out build-up from my ear canals. That’s not Apple’s fault.

But you could hardly pick a worse color than Apple White™ if you’re hoping to hide otic excretions. Here’s to hoping they offer black or (even better) (PRODUCT)RED alternatives next time around.

Conclusions and AirPods v2

Despite all my complaints, after eighteen months of daily use, AirPods’ positives outweigh their negatives. I’m eagerly looking forward to the product’s next iteration. Rumored features would address at least two of my earlier quibbles:

  • Wireless charging (coming to a future AirPods case, as announced at last September’s iPhone event) would eliminate the fiddly plug-in process.
  • Built-in noise cancellation (recently predicted by Mark Gurman) would make the AirPods a more viable option in high-noise environments. As things stand, it’s nearly impossible to hear the AirPods over the roar of a lawnmower or a jet engine.
  • Water resistance (another Gurman-sourced rumor) would be welcome. The current product is too difficult to keep bone-dry. ■
Categories
apple

AirPods quibbles

Yesterday, I explained how much I enjoy my AirPods, both for their convenience and for the fun little tactile habits they build.

But AirPods aren’t perfect. Here’s my list of complaints:

  • The auto-connect feature is amazing—when it works. Too often, I’ll slip in my AirPods and tap play on the iPhone, only to hear the audio buzz out of the phone speaker instead of the headphones. This makes me doubt whether I’m using the AirPods the “right” way. Can I just slip them in? Or am I expected to unlock my phone, crack open the AirPods case, wait for the battery level pop-up, and then pick up the earbuds?
  • Relatedly, AirPods’ audio source switching often doesn’t do what I expect. For example, I’ll be standing in my driveway, ready to head out on a run with just my AirPods and my Apple Watch. I’ll hit play on the Watch, but the audio won’t get pumped through the headphones. Apparently, they’re still connected to my iPhone, sitting on my dresser inside the house. To avoid this, I either have to remember to switch the iPhone into airplane mode before stepping outside, or I have to just start running to escape the iPhone’s Bluetooth range. Eventually, the AirPods get with it and pick up the Watch’s audio playback.
  • This same unwelcome dance happens when I’m in range of my PC. Yesterday, while recording a video on my iPhone using the AirPods’ built-in microphone, I suddenly heard the telltale chime that tells you the AirPods have connected to a new device. For some reason, they thought I would want them to stop feeding recorded audio to my iPhone and instead connect to my Windows laptop, ten yards away through a log wall. I had to scrap that take, run back to my office, and unpair the AirPods from Windows.
  • The AirPods’ carrying case feels great in the hand, but its smooth finish makes it prone to slipping out of my pocket. Occasionally, I’ll reach for my AirPods, only to realize they dropped into the couch cushions when I was watching TV. This bugs me, only because I’m afraid I might lose the pricy little suckers.
  • AirPods get filthy. The case’s interior collects earway and pocket lint, especially in the hinge. Regular cleanings are definitely mandatory (a quick swipe with an isopropyl-soaked Q-tip does the trick for me).
  • The convenience of wireless earbuds is somewhat tempered by the fact that I have to plug them in. Because the batteries last for days, I can sometimes forget to keep the AirPods topped off, and this creates some range anxiety, especially when traveling. And the charging experience itself isn’t great; jacking the AirPods case into Lightning feels a bit janky, and the AirPods don’t chime to tell you that you’ve correctly seated the jack into its port.[1]
  • I’ve experienced some skipping audio when pairing my AirPods to my PC. Now, Apple may not be to blame here; maybe there’s some incompatibility with the Bluetooth stack on Windows?
  • Finally, AirPods don’t fit well under noise protection earmuffs. Yeah, I know, this is totally an edge case. But I like to listen to podcasts while I mow the lawn.[2]

  1. I was excited to hear Apple announce “AirPower” last week—one mat that can wirelessly change the iPhone, the Watch, and the AirPods at the same time. This would help resolve the annoyances of charging AirPods; all I’d need to do to top the off is drop them onto my nightstand before bed.  ↩

  2. There is a hack here; slip the AirPods upside-down and place them into the opposite ear; the antenna stem is just short enough to fit inside the earcup.  ↩


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Categories
apple

Apple’s cigarettes: AirPods as happy ritual

I’ve owned Apple’s AirPods for nine months. They’re great.

Sure, I might have a few complaints, but in general, AirPods are sheer delight; I love the feeling of freedom they provide. I love that I no longer snag cords on every doorknob. I love that I can put in a single AirPod when stereo sound doesn’t matter. I love that I don’t waste time rewrapping cables over again and again. I love that I can leave the AirPods in when I’m not listening, then forget they’re even there.

But the pleasure of AirPods isn’t just about their convenience. More than that, they’re fun—fun in a way that wired headphones never were. There’s something visceral and addictive about handling them—a ritual that makes me want to use them.

They remind me of cigarettes in that way. Now, I’ve never smoked, but from what I can tell, half of smoking’s pleasure is this series of mini-experiences that make up the habit. You feel the reassuring shape of the pack in your pocket. Slip it out and flip it over in your hand. Tap it on your palm a few times. Slide out the individual smoke, feeling that slight friction as it escapes the pack. Roll it back and forth between your fingers. Raise it to your mouth and hold it lightly between your lips. Cup your hands to shield away the wind. Strike the lighter and feeling the flame’s radiated heat. Hear the tobacco crackle as the cigarette ignites.

And the ritual goes on: the first few puffs, flicking the ashes, holding the smoke in your mouth, stubbing out the butt. It’s this sequence of “nanogestures” that (I’m guessing) become automatic and reassuring. It’s addictive not just because of the nicotine, but because it’s tactile and repeatable.

AirPods boast their own set of habitual nanogestures. For me, the case lives in a dedicated pocket in my favorite pants. I feel for their shape beneath the fabric. Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Tactile, repeatable, pleasurable. The AirPods ritual became familiar almost as soon as I started using them. But—unlike wired headphones, which were always a chore—the AirPods routine has never grown tiresome, even after nine months of use and thousands of repetitions. ■


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Categories
technology Uncategorized

AirPods complaints

Let me get this out of the way: Apple’s AirPods are good. They pair seamlessly, sound at least as good as their wired equivalents, and are fun to use. From what I’ve read, no other company offers truly wireless earbuds anywhere near as good as these. And “truly wireless” matters; I love that I don’t snag my headphones on every doorknob. It’s nice that I don’t have to snake a cable through my many layers when prepping for a cold-weather run.

But I have my quibbles:

  • Control issues. Nerds have fretted about the AirPods’ lack of playback / volume controls since Apple’s initial announcement back in September. After ten days using them, it’s clear to me: using Siri for this is annoying. Two examples:

    First, skipping podcast ads[1] with the AirPods is a chore. I can command Siri to jump ahead two minutes, but playback does not restart automatically afterwards. I then have to invoke Siri again and say “Play.” In other words, it takes two separate double-tap gestures, two spoken phrases, and at least ten seconds to complete this simple task. With the wired EarPods, accomplishing the same thing took literally two seconds.

    Second, this shouldn’t happen:

    Sir is dumb.
    C’mon, Siri.

    Yes, I have a “Ray” in my address book. But Siri has to get smarter than that.

  • If you own an Apple Watch, you can control playback and volume there instead of via Siri. But that has its own challenges; Apple has made it difficult to get at the “Now Playing” screen from inside other Watch apps—especially if you’re on the move. You must tap the side button and scroll to the “Now Playing” view before you can skip around or adjust the volume. Again, this is a downgrade compared to the wired earbuds, where the process was simple: tap, tap, done.
  • The “double-tap-for-Siri” gesture isn’t as reliable as I had hoped. One morning, I repeated the invocation three times before Siri chirped up. Another day, while out running, Siri wouldn’t respond no matter how hard I tapped. Only re-pairing the AirPods fixed the issue and enabled the double-tap gesture again.
  • When listening to the Airpods, I find myself unsure what to do with the sleek little AirPod carrying case. Should it live in my pocket? In my bag? What about when I’m running—should the case come with me? With the wired EarPods, the device was a single, connected unit and thus easier to keep track of. Now, I have three separate dinguses to track, and I’m just not sure how to do it efficiently.
  • Relatedly, I spent over an hour the other night hunting for the AirPods case. The smooth little pebble had slid out of my pocket while I was sitting and fallen onto the floor. The old EarPods, by virtue of being a rubbery tangle of wires, never did this. I wish the AirPods case were less glossy and more grippy.
  • AirPods owners have noticed that the case seems to lose charge constantly—even after the earbuds have been topped off. I’ve seen this, too. Regardless of how much (or little) I use them, the AirPods case needs a recharge at least every two days.
  • The AirPods’ sound quality is decent—at least as good as the stock earbuds that came with my iPhone. But they do produce some noticeable low-level static—a buzzing whine that I can hear distinctly in a quiet room. It’s not enough to bother me, but I’m aware of it when the environment around me is silent.

Again, AirPods are delightful in many ways. They’re an impressive technological achievement. But in introducing new conveniences, Apple has also eliminated some familiar, critical benefits of the old tech. This give-and-take makes me hesitate to recommend the AirPods. For $160, your experience will be both better and worse than using the free EarPods that came with your iPhone.

But as a proof-of-concept, the AirPods’ potential is clear. If Apple can pare down the price[2] and sand off the rough edges—particularly by adding physical playback and volume controls—AirPods v2 would be a no-brainer purchase for many iPhone owners.


  1. Don’t judge me. I can only hear about Squarespace so many times.  ↩

  2. $99 sounds good, doesn’t it?  ↩

Categories
technology Uncategorized

‘Apple May Replace 3.5mm Headphone Jack on iPhone 7 With All-in-One Lightning Connector’

Joe Rossignol, summarizing a report from Mac Otakara:

Should this rumor prove to be true, Apple’s decision to switch to an all-in-one Lightning connector for charging and audio output could face the same kind of controversy as when the company retired its proprietary 30-pin dock connector in favor of a smaller Lightning connector starting with the iPhone 5 in 2012.

Online critics have argued that dropping the headphone jack would actually be worse for consumers than the 30-pin-to-Lightning switch. In that case, the swap was one-for-one; the devices lost the legacy connector, but they also gained a (more functional and more convenient) port.

This newly-rumored change (subsuming the headphone jack into the Lightning port) raises usability questions. How would users charge their phones and listen to music simultaneously? Posed more cynically, would this simple use case require a $39 Apple adapter?

Framed differently, what’s the customer benefit to eliminating the headphone jack? “Thinner devices” doesn’t cut it.[1] That’s a nice perk, but it doesn’t outweigh the potential inconveniences.

What if there’s more to the story? What if ditching the 3.5mm jack will allow Apple to do something more interesting than just slimming down its already-slim device?

  1. What if the new headphones integrated new sensors for capturing health data? Other companies’ earbuds can already measure heart rate, for example. I would love to shed the chest strap when I run.[2] A standard 3.5mm jack could never ferry data this complex back to the phone. Lightning could.

  2. A Lightning connection might allow Apple to dramatically improve the headphones’ remote control /microphone combo. The current remote is clever, but surprisingly primitive: the microphone button works by shorting the mic line with the electrical ground. The volume controls activate a resistor that drops the voltage. The phone then interprets these electrical signals and performs the appropriate action. It’s a cludgy, hacked hangover from a bygone era.

    One example of a potential remote improvement: “Hey, Siri.” This year’s iPhones introduced the ability to put the phone at your beck and call. But this always-listening feature doesn’t work through the EarPod mic. If that’s a limitation of the legacy audio connection, Lightning may help.

  3. What if the rumor mill has fundamentally misinterpreted the upcoming hardware change? What if Apple isn’t designing “Lightning headphones”—but rather wireless headphones with a Lightning charge adapter?[3] Like the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro, iPhone users could plug in the EarPods to top them off. That eliminates a major annoyance with current Bluetooth earbuds: no way to recharge them on the go. If the new EarPods could sip the iPhone’s battery in an emergency, you’d never run dry.

    One added benefit here: plugging in your EarPods would automatically establish a Bluetooth connection (again, like the Apple Pencil). This eliminates another Bluetooth pain point: the fiddly pairing process.


It’s too early in the product development cycle to say for sure whether Apple plans to dump the 3.5mm jack in next year’s iPhone. And it’s also too early to condemn the move. If it happens, let’s hope Apple has more in mind than just “thinner and lighter.”


  1. Honestly, the iPhone feels thin enough already, and slimming it down more would eliminate precious battery space. I already struggle to get through a full day without a charge.  ↩

  2. Unfortunately, I suspect that Apple’s answer here is “Buy an Apple Watch” (which has a heart rate monitor built in).  ↩

  3. Apple might still allow the EarPods to interact with the iPhone via the Lightning cable. After all, there are scenarios in which wireless connections don’t fly—e.g. during take-off and landing on commercial flights.  ↩

Categories
technology Uncategorized

Apple’s EarPods

Last fall, Apple unveiled new headphones—finally replacing the iconic white earbuds with a more streamlined design. The Cupertino company marketed these “EarPods” as a “revolution”: more comfortable and better-sounding than anything else out there.

When I upgraded to the iPhone 5 last September, EarPods were bundled in the box. And—despite Apple’s marketing hype—I didn’t notice a huge difference in comfort or sound quality.

Still, after a year of headphone (ab)use, I would wholeheartedly recommend the EarPods, even as a standalone purchase. They’re the first headphones I’ve owned to survive the “real-life” test.

I take my iPhone on runs; podcasts help distract me from how much I hate exercising, and I like to track my pace. But jogging wreaked havoc with Apple’s old earbuds. Sweat would trickle down the cord, splash into the remote, and (eventually) short out the buttons and microphone. I was left with permanently defective headphones.

That hasn’t happened with the EarPods. Even in sub-freezing temperatures, even when drenched with sweat, I can pause, fast-forward, and trigger Siri, without any trouble. The buttons continue to work flawlessly. I haven’t noticed any degradation in sound quality, either.

Another beneficial change: the old earbuds, which balanced precariously on the edge of my ear, often fell out as I ran. The EarPods’ streamlined shape lets them slip deeper into the ear canal. This provides just enough friction to keep them in place.

There’s a downside to that in-ear design, however. The EarPods collect earwax like mad. The tapered shape scrapes your ear canal clean and coats the speaker grill with orange-brown grossness. My recommendation? Don’t borrow your friend’s EarPods, unless you want ear lard trickling towards your brain.

Instead, buy your own!