Apple AirPods: A Review for Remote Workers

I’ve had my hands on a pair of Apple’s AirPods for just over a week now. In that time, I’ve been evaluating whether or not they’re a good fit for remote workers. I’m going to give you my thoughts on the AirPods in general, and then tell you why I think these $159 Bluetooth earbuds are great tools for distributed team members on the go.

Goodbye, headphones & earbuds

The AirPods were first announced a few minutes after the new design of the iPhone 7 without a headphone port. The online punditry kicked into high gear (complete with funny memes) on Apple’s removing the input. Hardware investor Avidan Ross of Root also noted one clear negative: the jack is used for I/O for affordable sensors in the developing world. Ross makes a great point. It’s a reminder of how important hardware design is. It’ll be interesting to hear how Apple’s move affects different people.

For remote workers who have access to AirPods, the 3.5mm headphone jack can be safely left behind at home along with optical drives and Ethernet jacks.

I still use an iPhone 6S, and typically would have a set of earbuds plugged into my phone or Macbook at least eight to nine hours a day. I’ve owned cheaper Sony and off-brand Bluetooth headphones in the past. None of them were worth dealing with the intermittent pairing issues, audio latency when watching videos, or having to dig out a mini/micro USB cable whenever they died.

Since starting to use AirPods a week ago, I haven’t plugged in a pair of earbuds or headphones. In the future, I’ll only plug them in for audio recording work. Perhaps if I had a set of premium earbuds like Jaybirds, Beats, or Bose, I wouldn’t have found the AirPods so revolutionary. Given my prior experience with the technology, they are a sea change in how I interact with audio.

The sound

I’m no audiophile — I’m a tech writer who is happy with the quality of streaming music services using standard EarPods. I have noticed improved highs and lows, and music seems more crisp overall, but I’ll save those details for reviews with more sonic discretion than I possess!

Everything else

  • The pairing is fast and easy. If you hold the AirPods near your iPhone and open the lid, a screen pops up on your iPhone asking if you wish to pair. Then, your AirPods also links to your other Apple products via iCloud. You do have to go into Bluetooth settings and manually connect when you want to switch from one source to another. If you’re not an iPhone/Mac user, there is a pairing button on the back of the battery case to connect to products on other platforms.
  • The battery life is good enough that I don’t worry about the battery life. If you’re just listening to audio, you’ll get five hours from each AirPod. The AirPods are charged by placing them back inside of the case. The case holds enough charge to provide 24 hours of playback time, and will charge the AirPods from dead to a 3-hour capacity in 15 minutes. The AirPods are small enough that I don’t really feel comfortable leaving them anywhere but in the case when they’re not worn. With that habit, I’ve never noticed the charge level dip below 50%.
  • Battery life did drop when I used the microphone heavily. If you’re on calls, the life expectancy drops from five hours to two hours. The upside is that you don’t need to wear both AirPods for making calls since each one has an independent beam-forming microphone. If you use one earbud and keep the other in the charging case, you can get through any meeting, short of a filibuster.
  • The fit is almost exactly the same as with Apple’s wired EarPods. That said, the AirPods stay in my ears much better than the EarPods ever did. I suspect this is mostly due to the pull from the weight of the cord. I can headbang at my desk with no dislodging of either AirPod, but I’m still a little wary when walking over a sewer grate. If you lose one, a replacement earbud costs you $70 from your local Apple store.

Video Conferencing usefulness

In the past week, I’ve used the AirPods for multiple video calling and screen shares, traditional telephone conferences, personal video calls like FaceTime and Skype, and several phone calls. I never heard any of of my colleagues on these calls complain about sound quality.

I did have the AirPods drop connection once on a call — the audio defaulted back to my iPhone. I placed the AirPods back in the case, put them back in my ears and that corrected the issue. I’ll keep an eye out for future problems, but so far that was my only hiccup.

If you’re in team meetings, you’re probably using video conferencing with your TV, in your conference room or breakout space. (Here’s an affordable hardware package that includes an external speaker/mic for team video calls on your TV.) But if you’re a road warrior or digital nomad, these will fit the bill nicely.

The one feature missing for remote workers is the ability to quickly mute and unmute the microphone without using an external device. You can double-tap either AirPod to activate Siri or play/pause audio, depending on which setting you choose, but while on a phone call double-tapping will hang up the call. Double-tapping in a video meeting on or Skype does nothing.

I’m hoping that future upgrades will add both additional tapping commands, as well as the ability to change those commands contextually within apps. I can see a definite use case for double-tapping on my left AirPod to mute/unmute and double-tapping the right AirPod to end the call, for example.

All in all

For someone who spends their day listening to music or videos while working and also needs to jump on conference calls, the AirPods have been a welcome upgrade.

I carry the AirPods in their battery case in the coin pocket of my jeans everywhere I go. This means I always have access to audio entertainment and hands-free communications for up to 24-hours without having cords to deal with. It’s a welcome upgrade in my daily life.

While at $159 the AirPods aren’t exactly cheap, they’re less expensive than other truly wireless earbuds and offer reasonable audio quality, wonderful battery life, and are a great example of Apple’s design philosophy. I highly recommend them if you’re in the market.

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