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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.) ◾

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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. ■

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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.  ↩


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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. ■