Apple’s AirPods have been staggeringly successful. Although at first some found them strange-looking or were convinced they would fall out of their ears, they quickly became the in-ear wireless headphone to aspire to.
Rarely in the two years and three months since launch has demand eased off. As a result, the look has gone from curious to acceptable to – dare I say it – iconic. And certainly ubiquitous.
AirPods are wireless Bluetooth earbuds created by Apple. They were first released on December 13, 2016. The product’s second iteration, with improved battery life, was released on March 20, 2019. AirPods are Apple’s most popular accessory product, with 35 million units sold in 2018.In addition to playing audio, AirPods feature a built-in microphone that filters out background noise, which allows taking phone calls and talking to Apple’s digital assistant, Siri. Additionally, built-in accelerometers and optical sensors enable AirPods to detect taps (e.g. double-tap to pause audio) and in-ear placement, which enables automatic pausing when they are taken out of the ears.AirPods are compatible with any device that supports Bluetooth 4.0 or higher, including Android devices, although certain features such as automatic switching between devices are only available on Apple devices using iCloud.On March 20, 2019, Apple released the second generation AirPods, which feature the new H1 chip, Bluetooth 5 connectivity and hands-free “Hey Siri” support. An optional wireless charging case was added in the offerings. Apple claims that the new AirPods has 50% more talk time over the 1st generation AirPods, which was discontinued on the same day.
AirPods 2: How Apple reinvented its 'magical wireless experience'
Now, the second-generation AirPods have been announced, I talked to Greg Joswiak, Apple’s Vice President of Product Marketing and Kate Bergeron, Vice President of Hardware Engineering about the new arrivals.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
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AirPods 2: How Apple reinvented its 'magical wireless experience'
The new AirPods look, at first glance, like the older model, even down to the price, which remains the same at £159. There is no difference in the look or shape of the buds themselves and there is only one visible change to the case: a Wireless Charging Case is now available for an extra £40, allowing you to place the case on a compatible wireless charging pad instead of plugging it in with a Lightning cable.
This means there’s a tiny LED on the outside of the case to show when it’s charging. The new AirPods are on sale online now and will be in Apple Stores next week.
Joswiak is an experienced Apple exec, who has a forensic knowledge of the company’s products, an infectious charm and a passion for purple shirts. He introduces the new product simply: “We have a second generation of AirPods, with our new Apple-designed H1 headphone chip and a configuration with a wireless charging case. We also have a new option which is pretty cool, personal engraving of the charging cases, free from apple.com and the Apple Store app.”
So far, so good.
“The bigger picture, though, is that AirPods simply deliver a magical wireless experience.”
I’m not sure that I like using the word magical, but I see what he’s saying. Pairing AirPods with an iPhone is exceptionally simple. As Joswiak explains, “As soon as you’ve pulled the AirPods out of the box and flipped open the lid on the case, there’s a simple one-tap set-up, they’re automatically paired and connected. Once you’ve done that, they’re immediately set up to work with all your Apple devices, including an Apple Watch, iPad or Mac that uses the same Apple ID. Once you’ve used AirPods, you never go back. They’re the most popular wireless headphones in the world. They’ve become a cultural phenomenon. For us, they’re the key ingredient to the wireless future. We designed them to be effortless to use.”
Open the case near an iPhone and a screen will pop up showing the exact battery life. And there are other cool features, like the way when you’re talking to someone, and you naturally take one of the AirPods out your ear to do so, the music pauses, resuming when you put the bud back into your ear.
All these features remain the same in the new version. By the way, you can use AirPods with Android phones, for instance, but the pairing is not as seamless.
Kate Bergeron explains the new headphones in more detail: “When we were thinking about generation two, we really wanted to focus on this new H1 chip that was designed specifically for headphones. We’re combining wireless technology which is a hallmark of Apple’s and very highly customised audio. Together, these things create an amazing audio experience. Because the H1 chip is more powerful, it delivers some profound efficiencies, which means you can have Siri available all the time.”
Ah, yes, I forgot to say, another AirPods feature is the way you can tap on either of the buds while they are in your ear and then ask Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant, to change the track, lift the volume or even give you spoken directions to wherever you’re going.
Now, with the new AirPods, you don’t need to tap. Just say, “Hey, Siri” and it will respond. This is made possible thanks to the H1 chip saving so much battery life that it can be listening for the magic wake words at all times.
“So, we’re able to have ‘Hey, Siri’ listening enabled at all times and still keep the same battery life as before: five hours’ listening time is still achieved thanks to this new chip,” Bergeron says.
“In addition, we’ve been able to deliver 50 per cent more talk time so when you’re on a call, you’ll have three hours of battery life, not two.”
Leaving aside whether jabbering on for three hours is really desirable, this is quite a feat. So, how come more talk time but no extra battery life? That’s because when you’re talking, listening out for “Hey, Siri” is turned off.
Switching between devices is up to twice as fast, now, too. “If you’re using your AirPods between your Mac, your iPhone and your iPad, switching is even more seamless and the connection to phone calls, when you’re pulling your AirPods out of your pocket to connect to a phone call, is up to 50 per cent faster than before,” Bergeron says. “In addition, for some casual gaming on your iPhone, for instance, we’re able to provide up to 30 per cent lower latency.”
My experience of Apple’s stats in situations like this is that the figures don’t mean that much but the experience when you use them is noticeably different.
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The improved chip means improved audio in different ways, too. “The combination of the wireless changes we’ve made in the chip as well as the audio gives a more robust wireless connection, which turns into better audio quality in different conditions. When going outside, some people have found that in that environment there can be problems maintaining RF (radio frequency) links. Now, in all sorts of different conditions we find we’re able to have better audio quality all the time.”
The LED on the new wireless charging case is the main visible difference compared to the previous case. “The cases are exactly the same size, there’s a slight increase in weight thanks to adding the wireless charging coil but it’s negligible.”
Wireless charging is traditionally slower than through a Lightning cable. “It’s just over two hours to charge the case from zero to 100 per cent via Lightning,” Joswiak chips in, “and around three-and-a-half hours wirelessly. But realistically, customers rarely charge from zero, and the fast charge is the same as before – just put the AirPods themselves into the charging case for 15 minutes and you get three hours of listening time.”
Apple is expected to release a new version of iOS, the operating software for iPhones and iPads, soon. I wonder if the new hands-free Siri feature will have to wait for that, but Joswiak’s reply is elegant rather than factually revealing: “We always recommend that for every new product that customers install the latest version of software that’s available at that time.”
Reading the runes, I would imagine it means that by the time the new AirPods reach customers next week, that enhanced software will be available to make hands-free Siri work.
The new AirPods are a big event because almost no product attracts the level of interest of these little in-ear wireless headphones. Next week, if they live up to Apple’s promises, they’ll be even more desirable.