Monday, October 2, 2017

Airpods: Apple's Imperfect Audio Port Solution

With the introduction of the iPhone 7, Apple decided to remove the classic audio port from the phone. They claimed to address the elimination of the audio port with a brand new product, Airpods, wireless Bluetooth headphones that would be so awesome, you'd never miss your old headphones. Skip the part about how Airpods weren't even available for the first three months or so of the iPhone 7. Oh, and the part about the limited availability of Airpods even today. Airpods were promised to be be so great, we'd never want to go back to wired headphones.

I have a set of Airpods, had them for several months, and I can only say, "Airpods, you are no wired headphones."

Don't get me wrong, Apple has accomplished something impressive with Airpods. They are, hands down, the best wireless iPhone headset that I've used to date. But that comes with a large number of caveats. But what's important to understand is that, while they're a nice iPhone accessory, they don't come close to replacing my earbuds.

Bluetooth < Wires
Fundamentally, Airpods suffer from the Bluetooth wireless connection. Using them in my office where there are numerous other Bluetooth devices, I experience a lot of drop-outs from both the speakers and the microphone. I blame this on Bluetooth interference. It's so bad that if I have a call, I use my wired earbuds.

But the drop-out problems aren't limited to "Bluetooth noisy" environments. Using the Airpods while listening to music walking around at night, I found the sound dropped several times also. Potentially, this could be related to software that has each ear piece to check in with the other one and verify that it's there -- the auto-detect ear software. Apparently, you can turn this off, but I think I saw where disabling this disables stereo -- which makes sense if you consider that it needs to know whether there is a second headphone in order to send a stereo signal. However, it should be noted that my wired headphones don't experience similar drops.

This brings me to the sensors in the Airpods. With most Bluetooth headsets, there is some functionality that enables you to answer calls with a tap -- similar to hitting the start-stop button on the wired headphones. Unfortunately, with several months of use, all I've succeeded in doing with my Airpods is opening the voice interface at various times. I'm sure that if I were running battery-wasting, time-wasting Siri, I could have asked Siri to answer the phone, but mostly I've had to default to scrambling around, trying to find my phone in order to answer calls on the iPhone instead of the Airpods.

On a related note, I can't count how many times I've accidentally fumbled with one of the Airpod earpieces, only to accidentally bring up the voice interface -- enough to make me cautious about handling the earpieces.

The Good
Let me say that I understand the interest in having a wireless headset. How many times have I found myself listening to music while doing something like cooking when the wire on my headphones gets caught on a knob or the corner of a cabinet? Having my ear yanked or sending my iPhone flying sends me cursing the wire and everything it stands for. With the Airpods in a quiet Bluetooth environment like my home, I can wander around with audio, safe from worrying about whether the cable is about to get caught on something. Do I still experience drop-outs? Yup. But the trade-off of no wires is usually worth it for kitchen tasks.

Airpods also work reasonably well when driving in my non-Bluetooth-enabled vehicles. The wire doesn't usually get in the way while driving, but it's still potentially a concern. Meanwhile, the variability of cell coverage when you're on the road means that the wireless connection is only one of multiple connectivity issues that you deal with.

Finally, another nice thing about the Airpods is that you can use one or both. If you use just one, you can get some pretty serious battery life out of the set by periodically switching earpieces and letting the other one charge.

All trade-offs aside, Apple's Airpods provide a nice Bluetooth headset experience. At the same time,  one of the reasons that I chose the iPhone 5se was the inclusion of the headset port. Having experienced both the "antique" and what Apple promises us to be the "future" of audio on a phone, I must say that the removal of the audio port still ranks as one of the worst design choices Apple has made.

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