Review: AirPods

I've written about how using the 12.9" iPad Pro as a laptop replacement has made computing more accessible for me, which in turn prompted me to reassess my feelings towards the 5.5" iPhone Plus after using the 4.7" model since its debut in 2014. What I learned is the adage that bigger is better is absolutely true for my needs and tolerances. The large screens on my iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Pro are so great for my vision that they far outweigh any disadvantages in ergonomics and portability. It's a tradeoff that took me time to make.

I sincerely believe my choice to revisit the Plus-sized iPhone was one of the best technological decisions I've ever made. I have been so happy with the large phone (and the large tablet) that I can never again see myself using smaller ones. Contrast my outlook to that of my girlfriend, who's a staunch iPhone SE loyalist. She loves her small phone while despising the bigger ones. Whenever I use her SE—to help her update iOS and whatnot—it feels like a baby's toy compared to my Plus. These moments serve as reminders of how perspectives can change so quickly and starkly; it's kinda surreal.

Yet for all the praise I heap upon big iPhones and iPads, the other side of that coin is I also have great affinity for Apple's small products. Two of these are foremost in my mind: Apple Pencil and AirPods. Both are accessories, albeit important ones, that embody everything that's special about Apple. They're essentially very small computers that not only are engineering marvels, but they possess that "magic" that's historically made Apple products so revered. On their own merits, a strong case can be made that both the Pencil and AirPods are arguably the best products to come out of Cupertino recently.

Regarding the AirPods in particular, my first impressions hold true: AirPods are quintessential Apple. There is both good and bad, especially when it comes to Siri, but the net is unquestionably positive. Like other reviewers, I continue to be delighted by them and am excited to watch them evolve.

Put another way, I adore Apple's big products, but my favorites might be the small ones. And AirPods are a big deal.

Wonderfully Wireless

Beyond being wireless, the banner feature of the AirPods is the effortless pairing process. The flip-open-the-case trick is equal parts whimsical, magical, and accessible.

The idea that Bluetooth pairing is flaky and a pain in the ass certainly is annoying and problematic for anyone, but the pain points can be exacerbated for someone with a disability. This is where the automatic pairing becomes even more of a boon.

The accessibility win here is auto pairing removes the friction of finding and navigating Bluetooth menus. (And because Apple uses iCloud to propagate this info to your other devices, users are saved from the tedium of multiple setup processes.) I say this all the time, but it’s really true: As with many things, this is seemingly an insignificant detail, but the tiniest details often end up making the biggest difference in shaping a positive experience for someone with disabilities. In my case, the fact that I needn’t go to the Bluetooth settings on my iOS devices or my Mac and tap/click a button lessens the load my eyes and fingers need to bear in order to pair the AirPods. Again, a small thing, but the energy savings I get from not having to do that can be put towards other things, and I feel better. It's a win-win.

Another accessibility win related to pairing is the chime you hear when the AirPods connect. This sound is great because it acts as a secondary cue that lets you know your AirPods are paired. It’s a nice touch, as someone like me doesn’t always need to rely on one sense (my eyesight) to confirm my AirPods are ready to go. Therefore, the chime is an accessibility feature unto itself for the blind and low vision.

Pairing aside, the wireless nature of the AirPods has some clear accessibility gains. As I reported in my first impressions piece, the AirPods mark my first foray into the world of wireless headphones. The experience has been so good that I still kick myself for not exploring this space sooner. Living without wires for the past few weeks has me believing my hypothesis was correct: Not having to mess with headphone jacks and untangling cords is truly liberating and more accessible. Like with the abstraction of Bluetooth settings, the friction inherent to my wired EarPods is completely taken away. It’s less hassle and frustration for me, but more importantly, it maximizes my enjoyment of the AirPods because I’m doing so little work. I feel better; all I have to worry about is not losing one or both—or the case. I need only to be extra careful that they’re safe and sound.

The Case of the Clever Case

The AirPods case has accessibility benefits all its own. In many ways, the case is a product in itself, and adds to the overall delight factor.

What I said in my first impressions piece remains true:

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.

I also noted the difficulty in getting the AirPods out of the case, and the method I devised to overcome it. As more time has passed, my skill in getting the AirPods in and out has improved to the point where it's no longer an issue. Granted, this may be troublesome for others with more severe motor delays than mine, but for me it’s a solved problem. Furthermore, the amber/green indicator light for charging is beneficial (similar to the chime) insofar that it’s another cue that lets users know charge status. It’s another nice touch.

The only drawback to the AirPods case I can see is the thing is a notorious lint magnet. I keep the case in my jacket or pants pocket most of the time when I’m out, and I’m constantly wiping it clean with a slightly damp cloth or napkin. It does nothing but satisfy my obsessive-compulsiveness for keeping my devices looking nice and in tip-top shape. It’s just a little maddening that I need to wipe down the case so often.

Siri and the “Voice-First” Interface

I’ve spent most of this review thus far extolling the virtues of the AirPods. But that doesn’t mean the product is without warts. There are areas in which it should improve.

Chief among them is Siri. In an accessibility context, Siri is like the 5-tool baseball player whose career is hamstrung because he's injury-prone. All the talent and potential, but he spends more time on the disabled list than in the lineup.

Hence, I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink on the topic of Siri's performance as an accessibility tool. The gist of my concern is Siri doesn't handle speech impediments very gracefully. (I've found the same is true of Amazon's Alexa, as I recently bought an Echo Dot to try out.) I’m a stutterer, which causes a lot of repetitive sounds and long breaks between words. This seems to confuse the hell out of these voice-driven interfaces. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that if I don’t enunciate perfectly, which leaves several seconds between words, the AI cuts me off and runs with it. Oftentimes, the feedback is weird or I’ll get a “Sorry, I didn’t get that” reply. It’s an exercise in futility, sadly.

There are things I try to do to mitigate this, such as slow down while speaking and hold down the Home button on my iPhone, but the effects are nominal. It’s so frustrating that I've historically avoided Siri altogether, despite how her capabilities have grown over the years. The times I do summon Siri are in instances where I know I can get a command out quickly and accurately (e.g., setting a timer).

Which brings us to Siri and AirPods. It definitely shows glimmers of promise as a Her-type “computer,” whereby you have an persistent, intelligent assistant in your ear at all times. But we're not there yet and we're not close.

Siri on the AirPods suffers from the same issues I encounter on my other devices. It’s too frustrating to try to fumble my way through if she keeps asking me to repeat myself. It’s for this reason that I don’t use Siri at all with AirPods, having changed the setting to enable Play/Pause on double-tap instead (more on this later). It sucks to not use Siri this way—again, the future implications are glaringly obvious—but it’s just not strong enough at reliably parsing my speech. Therefore, AirPods lose some luster because one of its main selling points is effectively inaccessible for a person like me.

I realize learning language is hard, and teaching a robot to understand it is even harder. But if these assistants are supposed to be truly "intelligent," I shouldn’t have to adapt my speech pattern to the assistant; Siri, et al, should be nimble enough to adapt to me. If voice-driven computing is the way of the future, as many in the tech commentariat proclaim, then I surely hope engineers are investigating ways to make Siri and its ilk more accommodating. Voice brings with it new paradigms for accessibility, and, frankly, I worry that users like me will be left behind. If Siri or Alexa can't understand me and I’m frustrated, why bother? I'll do stuff manually.

Despite my beef with Siri, however, there is a silver lining. Its presence in the AirPods highlights the greatest benefit voice-driven UIs have for accessibility: they're hands-free. If you're someone who has normal fluency but limited physical motor abilities, you can easily ask Siri to adjust volume, control playback, and check battery levels. This is where Siri's potential as an assistive technology shines, as it gives users who may not be able to use the tap gestures on the AirPods another method with which to interact with their headphones. In fact, this is precisely why I'm so "meh" on voice-driven AI; Siri and its competitors can do so much for accessibility if it weren't for how poorly they handle non-standard speech. (This is a pitfall of adopting HomeKit devices as well.)

It's important I emphasize that although my focus is on Siri because it’s baked into the AirPods, I’m not placing blame squarely on Apple. The accessibility of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and others is an industry-wide issue—one that I hope more people pay attention to. I have hope for Siri because Apple leads in accessibility. Whatever is in the labs, I’m sure there are people who are aware of this problem and are working on solutions. As I said, voice has new paradigms for accessibility. We mustn't forget about speech impairments.

Some Gripes

My quibbles with AirPods involve two things: configuration and playback control.

Regarding configuration, I feel the settings pane for AirPods is unnecessarily hidden. As it stands today, you have to tap the “i” next to your AirPods in the Bluetooth source list (Settings → Bluetooth) to access the options screen.

I would prefer Apple add a discrete AirPods pane in the main Settings screen, a la Siri. In terms of accessibility, this more straightforward path would be helpful because its top level placement would mean less tapping and searching. But it’s more than visual/motor considerations—someone with a cognitive delay of some sort may have trouble remembering where to find the option to, say, disable ear detection. Besides, as innovative and strategically important as AirPods are to Apple, it feels right that AirPods should get prime real estate somewhere—its status as an optional accessory be damned. (I'm not saying build it into iOS by default, not yet anyway, but if you do have AirPods, it should be front and center in Settings. Better still, it could be shown in Control Center, which seems like a natural fit.)

As for playback control, this is my biggest annoyance with AirPods, particularly when I’m listening to music. With my wired EarPods, I can use the button on the cord to skip tracks and play/pause audio, whereas with AirPods I can’t. I can double-tap to Play/Pause, but to change tracks, I have to reach for my phone and look at the screen. That isn't always practical or accessible. I wish there was an option to triple-tap your earbud to skip tracks, as that would be analogous to the aforementioned button. Maybe Apple planned this and it didn’t make the cut for the initial version, but I hope it comes someday. Playback control would be much more accessible.

Finally, a note about the double-tap-to-Play/Pause gesture. For as disappointing as Siri is for me, I like Play/Pause even more for accessibility's sake. It's much easier to access via an earbud than it is to dig out my phone and tap a button on the Lock screen. I'm glad I made the switch; it works great.

Bottom Line

Jason Snell at Six Colors sums up the AirPods well. He writes:

Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?

As Jason says, “hearing is believing.” If you're an Apple user, AirPods are a no-brainer purchase.

The "secret sauce" Apple's added to AirPods, enabled by the wizardry of its W1 chip, makes AirPods 1.0 a pretty impressive product all around. As I wrote at the outset, they are classic Apple: delightful, magical, and, yes, accessible.

For as much as I love the ever-burgeoning power of my iPad Pro and the supercomputer-in-my-pocket that is my iPhone, it's been a while since I've been so smitten by a product as am I with my AirPods. They're fun to use, and are way more accessible than any other headphones I've ever used.

Go order a set right now. You'll get them… eventually.