First Impressions of AirPods

IMG_5072.JPG

Apple's AirPods are finally here—they're backordered, but they are available for purchase.

Like everyone else I know in the Apple journalism world, I've been eagerly anticipating their debut since news broke in late October that their release would be delayed, with Apple saying they "needed a little more time" to get the product just right. The last time I saw AirPods in person was in the hands-on area at the September 7 press event for iPhone 7.

Fast-forward to the present, and I've been using a set since last Friday. My overall take after a few days with them is short: It’s a great product. They’re yet another example of quintessential Apple—the weaving of hardware and software that works so well you'd swear it's due more to wizard-like magic than it is to bonafide engineering prowess. Along with Apple Pencil, AirPods is the best, most Apple-y product the company has released in a long time. Both may be accessories, but they’re nonetheless important. They’re every bit as technologically advanced and forward-thinking as an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro.

With these sentiments in mind, here are some assorted thoughts on Apple's wireless marvels.

Pairing & Controls. For better or for worse, the AirPods represent my first foray with wireless headphones. The setup process is simple and clever: flip open the top of the case, and a screen appears on your iOS device with a picture of the AirPods and a giant "Connect" button. Tap it and that's it. Your AirPods are paired with your device. (Apple uses iCloud to propagate pairing to your other devices.) This isn't only easy and convenient, but from an accessibility perspective, the lack of multiple setup processes saves on eye and muscle fatigue, since I'm not expelling precious energy finding menus and pressing buttons to pair my AirPods. One nicety: When your AirPods connect to a device, you hear a “ding.” It’s a nice touch, as this secondary cue makes knowing whether you’re connected more accessible. You don’t need to check the Bluetooth menu.

Controls-wise, I do have two small complaints. First, in my testing, it seems the double-tap-the-earbud-to-invoke-Siri gesture only works with the right earbud. (UPDATE: I'm told double-tapping the left earbud does work. I just tried it twice and, sure enough, it works. Maybe I just wasn't tapping hard enough or in the right place.) I'd rather it also work with the left one, because my left is my dominant side and I instinctively reach with my left hand to tap. I can do it with my right, but it doesn't feel nearly as comfortable because of the decidedly weakened muscles on the right side of my body. A preference here would be welcome.

Secondly, I wish there was a dedicated pane for AirPods in Settings from which to configure preferences. As it is now, you have to go to the Bluetooth pane and tap the "i" next to your AirPods to access its settings. It's not that much work, but the menu feels unnecessarily hidden. I was confused at how to find it, then I read Jason Snell's FAQ on Six Colors to find the answer. Ideally, it'd be great to see Apple add this functionality to Control Center. It seems like a natural place for it, since it's there that you change the audio source.

Fit & Sound Quality. Prior to Friday, the only headphones that I regularly used were Apple’s EarPods. Everyone’s ears are different, so lots of people dislike them, but I’ve always liked them for several reasons. They’re “free” (in the box), they fit comfortably in my ears, and they sound fine for my needs.

Fortunately for me, AirPods effectively are EarPods with the cable cut off. AirPods fit just as well in my ears as EarPods do, and they stay in fine too. I’ve tried jumping up and down, moving my head from side to side—they don’t fall out. The only time they’ve fallen out is if I accidentally pull on the stem with enough force that they dislodge, but that’s only happened once or twice. In terms of sound quality, AirPods sound great. Where by “great,” I don’t mean audiophile-level great, but for listening to podcasts and music, they’re perfectly acceptable.

On Siri & Living Without Wires. Using the AirPods, I’m distinctly reminded of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the 2013 film, Her. The voice assistant in the movie is far more persistent and interactive than Siri is on the AirPods, but the broad strokes are definitely there. Especially for the visually impaired, having Siri literally in your ear is far more accessible than having her on a screen. Double-tapping the earbud may prove inaccessible to those with certain fine-motor delays, but the future potential for Siri is clear. One day, perhaps sooner than later, Siri will be as persistent as Scarlett Johansson’s character in Her. Today, though, I’m tempted to change the double tap’s behavior to play/pause audio, since Siri still has accessibility issues of her own to work out.

As for using wireless earbuds, I’ve found the experience truly liberating. I’ve been kicking myself for not trying this technology earlier, as the accessibility gains have been plentiful. As I wrote in relation to the iPhone 7, the greatest benefit is I no longer have to plug in anything, nor do I need to spend time untangling a cable. It saves much energy and frustration, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve only had the AirPods less than a week, but already I can unequivocally state that I don’t foresee myself ever going back to wired headphones. Wireless is the way to go, and the “special sauce” Apple’s added with the AirPods (thanks to the W1 chip) makes the decision a no-brainer if, like me, you’re knee-deep in Cupertino’s ecosystem.

The Charging Case. I’m a fan of the AirPods’ charging case for a couple reasons. I just like holding the thing in my hand; I turn it over and over like a worry stone, and I’m always flipping the case open and closed. It’s silly and amusing at the same time, but I like it. I’ve even been asked a couple times if the case was my dental floss container.

Playfulness aside, the great thing about the case is its size and weight make it easier for me to keep track of my AirPods. Whereas previously I was always searching for the tangled mess that was my wired EarPods, the AirPods case is much easier to see and feel. Furthermore, the case is great in the way that it “sucks in” the earbuds when you put them in to charge. The use of magnets here not only is clever, but in terms of accessibility, it’s effortless to put away the earbuds. All I need to remember is the left bud goes on the left and the right one goes on the right. In addition to the magnetism, they only go one way, so there’s no struggling to figure out how they go.

The only issue I have with the case is getting the AirPods out. As someone with less than optimal fine-motor skills, it’s somewhat tricky to get them out at times. I’ve developed a method whereby I hold the case at an angle facing downward, then grab the top of the earbud and pull. I’ve gotten quite good at this, but someone with more severe delays than I do may have more trouble. I don’t know of a solution other than asking for help, but there’s definitely potential for trouble here depending on your needs and tolerances.

On VoiceOver. I want to include a quick note on the AirPods and VoiceOver, as it’s the most common question I’ve gotten from people going back to the September event.

Full disclosure: I’m by no means a VoiceOver power user. As I tweeted recently, VoiceOver works wonderfully with AirPods. I noticed no lag whatsoever; everything I tried routed accurately to the AirPods with clean, crisp sound. I’m sure there are bugs somewhere—I’ve run into one where audio stops working with AirPods and the source changes—but the AirPods passed with flying colors in my rudimentary tests.