Wolverton: Apple’s AirPods alternately awesome, annoying

Apple is pitching its new AirPod wireless headphones as “effortless” and “magical.”

For my part, I’ve found them equal parts impressive and irritating. I loved how easy they were to connect to my phone and being wire-free is liberating. But I missed having buttons to pause my music or adjust the volume. And at times, I found just plain glitchy.

AirPods represent Apple’s attempt to move the tech industry from the old wired headphone jack to a wireless connection. The company announced the devices in September at the same time it unveiled the iPhone 7, which not so coincidentally lacks a headphone jack.

Apple started taking orders for the new earphones this week. The company plans to have them in stores next week. I received a pair from the company on Wednesday to test out.

One of the best things about the AirPods is the simple fact that they are wireless. I use the wired EarPods that came with my iPhone all the time and their wires can be a pain. They get tangled up. They can cause the headphones to pull on your ears. When I run with my dog, I feel like I’m constantly battling the wires, trying to get them out of my way. Meanwhile, my cats have ruined several pair of EarPods by chewing on or through the wires.

By contrast, it was liberating to use the AirPods — no wires, no fuss. And while I was somewhat concerned about losing one of them, they fit snugly in my ears.

Another great thing about the AirPods is how easy they are to connect to your phone and other devices — at least if they are all made by Apple. The AirPods, which look like a wire-free version of the EarPod headphones Apple has for years shipped with its iPhones, come with a matchbook-sized, flip-top charging case.

When you open the top of the case, an image of the AirPods appears in an alert on a nearby iPhone. You can connect the headphones to your phone by simply tapping on the alert. You don’t have to go into your settings. You don’t go through the typically painful Bluetooth pairing process. Instead, it’s quick and easy.

Even better, if you are signed into your iCloud account, Apple will automatically configure your other Apple devices to use your AirPods. So, instead of having to manually go through a separate pairing process for your iPad or Mac, the AirPods just show up as a connection option. And if you’ve connected your AirPods to your iPhone, but want to switch the connection to your Mac, you just have to select them on the Mac; you don’t have to disconnect them from your iPhone first.

Apple earns huge bonus points in my book for creating a new and better way to connect than the standard Bluetooth process.

But AirPods are clever devices in other ways too. Apple has designed them to recognize when they are in your ears, using both optical and motion-detecting sensors. Put them in, and they will automatically connect to your phone. Take them out, and they’ll disconnect. If you are listening to music through them, you can pause it by taking an AirPod out of your ear. When you put it back in, the music will resume.

The AirPods don’t have any physical buttons. But if you do two quick taps on them, you can activate Siri, Apple’s intelligent assistant, on your phone. You can ask Siri to turn up the volume or to place a call. You can also answer a call or hang up by double tapping.

In general, these features worked pretty well for me.

One of the big concerns with wireless headphones is how long their batteries will last, something you don’t have to worry about with wired ones, which are typically powered by the headphone port. Apple says the AirPods should provide five hours of “listening” time on a single charge. I haven’t systematically tested that claim, but they seemed to offer fairly decent life. I listened to podcasts and music for close to an hour and a half and made and received numerous calls over the course of a day all on a single charge.

To recharge the AirPods, you simply stick them back in their case. Apple says you can get 3 hours of charge in 15 minutes and the case provides more than 24 hours worth of battery life for the earphones.

I found the sound on the AirPods to be OK, not noticeably different from what I get through my wired EarPods, but not as good as what you might hear through high-end headphones.

But other things didn’t work so well. While listening to a podcast while out for a walk with my dog, the sound occasionally cut in and out. It was similar to the experience you get when talking on the phone with a weak cellular connection. But I was in a fairly strong coverage area and don’t remember having a similar experience with wired headphones.

I also found it frustrating that in moving from my wired EarPods to the wireless AirPods, I lost some features that I use all the time.

Unlike my EarPods, the AirPods don’t have a pause button. Taking an earphone out to pause your music may work OK in some situations, but when I’m walking or running my dog, I’d much rather not have to worry about having to hold on to something else. I’d much prefer to just be able to press a button to stop a podcast or song.

You can configure the AirPods so that a double tap will pause or play audio instead of summoning Siri. But they won’t support both functions at the same time. You have to decide whether you’re more likely to want Siri or to want to pause your music. You can’t designate a single tap to pause your music and a double tap to summon Siri; they only recognize a double tap.

I also missed having volume buttons. You can summon Siri and ask her to adjust the volume up or down. But to do the equivalent of pressing the volume down button three times — something I often do on a dog walk as I go from a heavily trafficked street to a quiet one — you’d have to summon Siri thrice, a time-consuming process. It’s much less painful — if a bit unwieldy — to just pull your phone out of your pocket and press the volume buttons on it.

In addition to working with your iPhone, AirPods are supposed to work seamlessly with Apple Watch. After being irked about having to repeatedly fish out my phone to control my podcast while using the AirPods, I decided to wear my Apple Watch, figuring I could use it instead.

But that didn’t work so well either. There was often a delay when I pressed the pause button on my watch or tapped its volume controls. Sometimes I tapped the pause button repeatedly and it didn’t do anything. Frustrated, I ended up going back to my phone.

(It turns out that my Watch didn’t have the latest version of Apple’s WatchOS software — it was running 3.0, not 3.1 — so it could be that a software update will fix this bug.)

And the AirPods are definitely better suited for Apple devices than they are for non-Apple ones. You can connect them to a Windows computer or a Android phones via Bluetooth, but you’ll have to go through the standard pairing process you would with any other Bluetooth device. And you’ll have to pair them to each non-Apple device individually, rather than all at once.

So, I’m of a mixed mind about the AirPods. In many ways, they’re very cool and smart. But they could use a bit more polish.

Photo: A wireless AirPod is shown during the demo session of an Apple launch event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)

 

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