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Goondu review: Apple AirPods present a wire-free future

January 14th, 2017 | by Grace Chng
Goondu review: Apple AirPods present a wire-free future
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Apple AirPods. PHOTO: Handout

Headset wires are annoying. I’ve used several headphones to listen to audio books when I started running about three years ago. At the beginning of each run, I would be untangling the wires of the headphones. When I put them on, they get caught on pieces of clothing, or worse, door handles.

Switching over to wireless Bluetooth headsets was a solution but it was also equally frustrating because pairing with the iPod was often a touch-and-go affair.

In stepped Apple with its own Bluetooth earphones, the AirPods, and immediately going wireless has been so much easier.

Look and feel
AirPods are typically Apple-like: simple and white. The pair of earbuds slide easily into a charging case which is the size of a dental floss box. The case seals shut magnetically. The AirPods and case charge via an included Lightning cable.

The earbuds are super lightweight. They comfortably sit in the opening of the ears, with two small antenna-like rods protruding out and down the sides of the face. They have no wires. There’s nothing to break or tangle, nothing to plug in, nothing to get caught on collars, buttons or zippers.

The outer rods are touch-sensitive, allowing me to engage with Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. Since there are no buttons on the AirPods, Siri is the only way to interact with the earbuds. Double-tap the AirPods, then tell Siri to select the music – in my case, podcast episode – change the volume, check battery life or perform other tasks.

I wore the AirPods once while travelling to the city via the train. Yes, people stared at me. The two protruding rods must look weird on my face. A recent issue of Wired magazine described these two protrusions as tiny candy canes, bean sprouts or tiny golf clubs.

I’ve used the AirPods for three weeks for my runs and it has been a pleasure because they are easy to pair, provide good connection, offer good battery life and sit easily and comfortably in the ears.

Pairing
My experience with other Bluetooth headphones has been frustrating and disappointing. Turn them on, put them into pairing mode, find the right setting on the phone or tablet, fail, try and try again.

In comparison, pairing the AirPods to Apple devices is easy. It only takes a few seconds. Open the case, and a screen pops up on your iPhone asking you to connect. Once set up, the AirPods will be automatically available via iCloud to all your Apple devices including any Mac laptop and Apple Watch. This is an appreciated feature.

I can use the AirPods as a mono or stereo headset since only one bud, left or right, can be used. Each earpiece has optical sensors and accelerometers that are baked into the W1 new wireless processor used in the earbuds.

Pop the AirPods into your ears, and the podcast, audio book or music starts playing. Pop one out and the remaining AirPod will play in mono. Remove them completely and the sound automatically pauses until they are popped back in. Very nifty.

The wireless connection between the two earbuds is good. Once I’d less than flawless connection while running at the East Coast Park, the sound dropped intermittently. I took the iPod out of my running pouch and carried it in my hand for the entire 5km. Connection was then restored. However, this problem has not surfaced again.

For my runs, I just put the earbuds on. A ding lets me know the AirPods are connected to my iPod and I’m off. The same thing happens if, after the run, I want to connect to my iPhone for calls. The pairing is immediate.

The runs are more enjoyable since no wires get in the way of swinging hands. The earbuds don’t drop out even for my longer runs of 8km. However, I don’t think it would stay in my ears if I’ve to jostle with passengers running for the train.

They are tiny devices which can easily get lost or trampled. Or chewed up by the pet. I’ve dug out the AirPods from the mouth of my four-month-old Labrador Retriever puppy who thought they were chewies. Fortunately, they were intact. A quick rinse and the earbuds are back in action.

Sound
The AirPods don’t offer noise cancellation, so there is an “open” quality to the sound. Running along the road, the noise of the traffic can be overwhelming. However, in a quiet environment like the Botanic Gardens, the sound is crisp and clear.

When I switch to the iPhone to make calls, the microphone is also fantastic. Each AirPod has a microphone on the end. There’s an additional accelerometer in each earbud which detects when I’m speaking. A pair of beam-forming microphones focuses on the sound of my voice, filtering out external noise so that I can be heard clearly.

Battery life
In the three weeks I’ve had them, the AirPods have been charged twice and I run and walk six times a week, averaging 80 minutes each time. Apple promises five hours of listening time from one charge and up to 24 hours of total listening time when the earbuds are kept in the case which is also a charging device.

Poor Siri
Unlike a music playlist which can go on for 60 minutes, podcasts average 30 minutes. For longer runs, I’ve to whip out the iPod while still running and select the next podcast I want to listen to. I do this because Siri is sluggish. It doesn’t understand me too well.

With no buttons on the earbuds, everything is controlled by Siri. Want to turn the volume down, tap the earbud, wait for a beep? Then give Siri the command. Wait for the command to be processed and then carry on. Do the same for skipping tracks and other commands.

Conclusion
Lose the AirPods’ charging case and you’re lost. There’s no way you can charge the earbuds. Siri is also not seamless and it felt unnatural to use voice to control the earbuds.

For a user sitting somewhere to listen to music or make phone calls, the AirPods will sit nicely in your ear. The good news is that in my 5km and 10km runs, the earbuds did not shift. However, when I reached up to wipe perspiration off my face, I almost sent one earbud flying into the road.

What has been a great experience is the tight integration between hardware and software that is Apple’s signature. Because the AirPods are part of the Apple family, everything works seamlessly. This is a feature I would pay for because it removes the pain from often patchy Bluetooth pairing.

The AirPods do work with other devices. There is a small button at the back of the charging case which can be used to pair the AirPods to an Android device. I must get an Android phone to test this feature.

Wireless headsets are the future. For wider use, Apple must improve Siri. Barring that, the AirPods are a nifty and easy to use Bluetooth headset. The AirPods – and the iPod – will be accompanying me later this year when I run the San Francisco half marathon.

The AirPods which were available from mid-December was delayed from their initial release in October. It costs S$238 and can be bought online at apple.com.sg. Note that delivery will take six weeks.

Veteran tech writer Grace Chng has covered Apple for 30 years.

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GALLERY

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