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Posts tagged with "AirPods"

Erasing Complexity: The Comfort of Apple’s Ecosystem

Every year soon after WWDC, I install the beta of the upcoming version of iOS on my devices and embark on an experiment: I try to use Apple's stock apps and services as much as possible for three months, then evaluate which ones have to be replaced with third-party alternatives after September. My reasoning for going through these repetitive stages on an annual basis is simple: to me, it's the only way to build the first-hand knowledge necessary for my iOS reviews.

I also spent the past couple of years testing and switching back and forth between non-Apple hardware and services. I think every Apple-focused writer should try to expose themselves to different tech products to avoid the perilous traps of preconceptions. Plus, besides the research-driven nature of my experiments, I often preferred third-party offerings to Apple's as I felt like they provided me with something Apple was not delivering.

Since the end of last year, however, I've been witnessing a gradual shift that made me realize my relationship with Apple's hardware and software has changed. I've progressively gotten deeper in the Apple ecosystem and I don't feel like I'm being underserved by some aspects of it anymore.

Probably for the first time since I started MacStories nine years ago, I feel comfortable using Apple's services and hardware extensively not because I've given up on searching for third-party products, but because I've tried them all. And ultimately, none of them made me happier with my tech habits. It took me years of experiments (and a lot of money spent on gadgets and subscriptions) to notice how, for a variety of reasons, I found a healthy tech balance by consciously deciding to embrace the Apple ecosystem.

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The Reliable Simplicity of AirPods

Chris Welch, writing for The Verge on AirPods' advantage over other wireless earbuds:

AirPods are the best truly wireless earbuds available because they nail the essentials like ease of use, reliability, and battery life. There are alternatives that definitely_ sound_ better from Bose, B&O Play, and other. But they often cost more and all of them experience occasional audio dropouts. AirPods don’t. I’d argue they’re maybe the best first-gen product Apple has ever made. Unfortunately, I’m one of the sad souls whose ears just aren’t a match for the AirPods — and I’m a nerd who likes having both an iPhone and Android phone around — so I’ve been searching for the best non-Apple option.

But some 14 months after AirPods shipped, there’s still no clear cut competitor that’s truly better at the important stuff. They all lack the magic sauce that is Apple’s W1 chip, which improves pairing, range, and battery life for the AirPods. At this point I think it’s fair to say that Bluetooth alone isn’t enough to make these gadgets work smoothly. Hopefully the connection will be more sturdy once more earbuds with Bluetooth 5 hit the market. And Qualcomm is also putting in work to help improve reliability.

I haven't tested all the wireless earbuds Welch has, but I have some anecdotal experience here.

A few months ago, I bought the B&O E8 earbuds on Amazon. After getting a 4K HDR TV for Black Friday (the 55-inch LG B7), I realized that I wanted to be able to watch a movie or play videogames while lying in bed without having to put bulky over-ear Bluetooth headphones on. Essentially, I wanted AirPods for my TV, but I didn't want to use the AirPods that were already paired with my iPhone and iPad. I wanted something that I could take out of the case, put on, and be done with. So instead of getting a second pair of AirPods, I decided to try the E8.

I like the way the E8 sound and I'm a fan of the Comply foam tips. The case is elegant (though not as intuitive as the AirPods' case) and the gestures can be confusing. My problem is that, despite sitting 3 meters away from the TV, one of the earbuds constantly drops out. I sometimes have to sit perfectly still to ensure the audio doesn't cut out – quite often, even turning my head causes the audio to drop out in one of the E8. I'm still going to use these because I like the freedom granted by a truly wireless experience and because I've found the ideal position that doesn't cause audio issues, but I'm not a happy customer. Also, it's too late to return them now.

A couple of days ago, I was doing chores around the house. I usually listen to podcasts with my AirPods on if it's early and my girlfriend is still sleeping, which means I leave my iPhone in the kitchen and move around wearing AirPods. At one point, I needed to check out something outside (we have a very spacious terrace – large enough for the dogs to run around) and I just walked out while listening to a podcast.

A couple of minutes later, the audio started cutting out. My first thought was that something in Overcast was broken. It took me a solid minute to realize that I had walked too far away from the iPhone inside the house. I'm so used to the incredible reliability and simplicity of my AirPods, it didn't even occur to me that I shouldn't have left my iPhone 15 meters and two rooms away.


Apple Posts ‘Sway’ Holiday Ad Featuring AirPods and Apple Music

Just ahead of Thanksgiving in the United States, Apple posted their annual holiday ad on YouTube earlier today. The company's holiday commercials have become a tradition in recent years, and they tend to carry a message that goes beyond advertising the specific features of Apple products.

This year's ad, titled Sway, is all about AirPods and Apple Music. The video is set on Tuesday, December 19, and follows a woman who starts dancing and walking down a street as she listen to Sam Smith's Palace on her AirPods. The performance continues after she bumps into a man walking by and the two start dancing together in the snow while sharing AirPods. The ad cuts back to reality and the tagline "move someone this holiday" appears. As with holiday ads in previous years, Apple picked a beautiful song to accompany the video; the incredible choreography nicely complements the idea of sharing a moment with someone through music.

Apple's 2017 holiday commercial follows last year's 'Frankie's Holiday' and 2015's 'Someday at Christmas' featuring Andra Day and Steve Wonder. You can watch the video below.

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AirPods: Ushering in a Wireless Future

AirPods were announced at Apple's September keynote, accompanied by a video introduction in which Jony Ive proclaimed: "We believe in a wireless future, a future where all of your devices intuitively connect." In other words, a future that goes beyond getting wires out of the way by creating experiences that are only possible with smarter inter-device connections.

AirPods entered the world on the heels of a controversial decision to remove the standard headphone jack from the iPhone. Connecting wired headphones to an audio source is a decades-old practice we've all grown used to, and while this type of connection is still possible on the iPhone via a Lightning connector, AirPods represent Apple's efforts to move forward into a wireless future.

Though wired headphones are dead simple to use, no one can deny that they do get in the way in a material sense. We've all experienced the frustration of cords that tangle, tug, and keep us tethered to our devices. Even the most passionate wire-supporters among us are familiar with these challenges. Wireless AirPods were designed to make such issues ancient history, while simultaneously mitigating the negative trade-offs that are typically associated with Bluetooth headphones.

Technology is at its best when its net gains make you forget about any net losses. Traditional Bluetooth headphones have done a relatively poor job at this, plagued by poor battery life, unstable connections, and often, high cost. So Apple's challenge with AirPods was to achieve what its competition had not: create a device whose benefits over wired earbuds greatly outweighed its drawbacks.

After nearly a month with AirPods under my belt, I believe the company succeeded.

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AirPods Make Their Video Debut

Update: Apple has posted an additional video featuring the AirPods called 'Stroll,' which is a longer version of the Siri video described below. You can watch the video at the end of this article.


Apple posted three 15-second advertisements featuring AirPods. Each video is black and white, except for the screens of the iPhones that make an appearance in two of the clips. All three also features the single ’Down’ by Marian Hill.

Two of the videos start with a man walking down the street of a city. In the first spot, the lead character taps his AirPods twice to activate Siri and says ‘Play Marian Hill,’ which starts the music. The second spot opens with another person flipping open his AirPods case to pair his AirPods, then immediately cuts to him dancing down the street and horizontally along the side of a car. Both ads close with the taglines ‘AirPods on iPhone 7’ and ‘practically magic.’

The third ad substitutes musical notes on a staff with AirPods scrolling by as ‘Down’ plays. The clip concludes with AirPods emerging from their case and the pairing interface opening on an iPhone 7.

These are the first advertisements to focus on AirPods. The first two ads do a great job of quickly showing off a feature then focusing on the freedom of movement afforded by AirPods. The final spot that substitutes musical notes with AirPods is more focused on showing off the product, delightfully linking the AirPods with the music they play.


Steven Aquino on AirPods and Siri

Some interesting thoughts about the AirPods by Steven Aquino. In particular, he highlights a weak aspect of Siri that isn't usually mentioned in traditional reviews:

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.
[...]
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.

That's a hard problem to solve in a conversational assistant, and exactly the kind of Accessibility area where Apple could lead over other companies.

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Testing the Operating Range of AirPods and Beats Solo3

Steffen Reich ran some tests to determine range differences between AirPods, W1-equipped Beats headphones, and older Beats models:

Much has been said about the virtues of the W1 chip Apple started baking into their latest wireless Beats line-up and of course the AirPods. By now we know for sure that W1 facilitates a much faster pairing process, as do we know that the chip significantly amplifies both battery life and conservation techniques. What’s less prominently talked about – at least from official sides – is the operating range of these wireless headphones and the presumed effect the W1 chip addition has had on that benchmark.

Obviously, walking a straight line in a park is no replacement for the kind of wireless interference you'd have on a train, in a crowded street, or in an office with walls and other Bluetooth devices nearby. Also, the AirPods are a new category altogether – I'm not sure how relevant a comparison to non-wireless Bluetooth buds can be.

However, these base results are in line with the excellent range I also experienced with the Beats Solo3, which makes me wonder how impressive (range-wise) future Studio Wireless headphones will be.

I keep wishing Apple would license the W1 chip to third-parties – especially on large headphones, it makes pairing and range performance so much better than regular Bluetooth.

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AirPods, Siri, and Voice-Only Interfaces

Ben Bajarin makes a strong point on using Siri with the AirPods:

There is, however, an important distinction to be made where I believe the Amazon Echo shows us a bit more of the voice-only interface and where I’d like to see Apple take Siri when it is embedded in devices without a screen, like the AirPods. You very quickly realize, the more you use Siri with the AirPods, how much the experience today assumes you have a screen in front of you. For example, if I use the AirPods to activate Siri and say, “What’s the latest news?” Siri will fetch the news then say, “Here is some news — take a look.” The experience assumes I want to use my screen (or it at least assumes I have a screen near me to look at) to read the news. Whereas, the Amazon Echo and Google Home just start reading the latest news headlines and tidbits. Similarly, when I activate Siri on the AirPods and say, “Play Christmas music”, the query processes and then plays. Where with the Echo, the same request yields Alexa to say, “OK, playing Christmas music from top 50 Christmas songs.” When you aren’t looking at a screen, the feedback is important. If I was to ask that same request while I was looking at my iPhone, you realize, as Siri processes the request, it says, “OK” on the screen but not in my ear. In voice-only interfaces, we need and want feedback that the request is happening or has been acknowledged.

Siri already adapts to the way it's activated – it talks more when invoked via "Hey Siri" as it assumes you're not looking at the screen, and it uses UI elements when triggered from the Home button.

Currently, activating Siri from AirPods yields the same feedback of the "Hey Siri" method. I wonder if future Siri will talk even more when it detects AirPods in your ear as it means only you will be able to hear its responses.

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