Category Archives: Accessories

AirPods after two months

[TL;DR: AirPods have flaws, and I don’t recommend them for everyone. But while the drawbacks are immediately noticeable—including meh sound quality—some of the best things are features you appreciate more over extended use, especially if you use AirPods with multiple Apple devices. (Also, these are my personal views, not those of my employer, etc.)]

I’m frequently asked what I think of Apple’s AirPods. It feels like every time I wear them in public, someone asks how I like them—leading me to try to explain my conflicted thoughts in depth to someone who undoubtedly expected (and likely would have preferred) a simple “They’re great” or “They suck.” Similarly, whenever I mention them on Twitter, a bunch of people ask for my impressions, and it’s tough to tell the whole story in 140 characters.

I received my set back on December 20, so I’ve been using them just over two months. I almost returned them after a week because I was disappointed in the sound quality, but I decided to keep them, and I’m glad I did: Two months in, I’m using them more than when I got them. While I have some serious criticisms of the AirPods (as you’ll see below, and as I’ve mentioned on Twitter), and they’re not as good in some areas as I expected, they’re a lot better in other areas, and the latter are things that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more over extended use—and, I hope, point to improvements we’ll see in other Bluetooth headphones in the future.

Thanks to some free time on vacation last week, here are my main impressions, from bad to great.

The bad

Sound quality: While audio quality isn’t identical to that of Apple’s wired EarPods, it’s much more similar than different. This means that AirPods sound decent for traditional earbuds, but not great—and not nearly as good as what you’d get with a good set of in-ear buds (and probably even great cheap in-ear buds). Bass is an especially noticeable weakness—even if you don’t like the accentuated bass you get with a Beats headphone, AirPods lack a good, accurate low end.

No track or volume controls: There’s no way to skip tracks or adjust volume on the AirPods themselves. (Sorry, Siri doesn’t count—I’m not talking to myself whenever I want to skip tracks or tweak the volume level.) The most you get is the option to configure a double-tap on either earpiece as Play/Pause—a setting that disables Siri activation on the AirPods. (I do use Siri via the AirPods to initiate phone calls and ask questions, so I don’t enable this setting.) When listening to your tablet or computer, this isn’t as big of a deal, since those controls are within easy reach. But if your iPhone is stowed away while listening on the go, you must pull it out for these actions. The best current solution, if you have an Apple Watch, is to keep the Now Playing widget in your watch’s dock for quick access. I’m hoping a software update will at least let you tap the AirPods for track control.

The debatable

Battery life: I’ve seen complaints that the “five-hour battery life” is too short, but in my experience—I frequently have my AirPods in my ears much of the day, because they’re great for phone calls—I have yet to run out of battery. The main reason is that real-world use encourages you to charge them without thinking about it: As with any tiny piece of electronics, I worry about losing my AirPods, so I tend to put them in their case whenever I plan to have them out for a while (say, during lunch), and that case automatically charges the AirPods. (It provides 24 hours of total use time, with fifteen minutes in the case giving you several hours of listening time.) Unless you actually need your headphones in your ears constantly for a full eight-hour work day, you’ll likely end up charging them multiple times per day in the course of normal use.

Comfort: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and secure the AirPods are (for me, of course). I don’t have much of a problem with the fit of the wired EarPods, and the AirPods have essentially the same fit in the ear, but several people I know who never found EarPods to be comfortable are happy with the fit of the AirPods. My theory is that the lack of a dangling cable eliminates the biggest reason earbuds fall out—the cord pulling down on them—and puts less pressure on each ear. This design also means that there’s no annoying connecting cord rubbing against your neck, like you have with most Bluetooth earbuds. That said, as with any product where fit matters, your mileage may vary, and you should see if you can try a set before buying.

No noise isolation: This is a mixed bag for me. I like wearing AirPods when I need to hear what’s going on around me. 1 But the lack of any noise isolation means I simply can’t use them in noisy environments, so I have to carry a different set of headphones for travel.

Price: Great Bluetooth earbuds tend to cost $100 to $150 these days, so $160 isn’t outrageous…except that AirPods don’t sound like great Bluetooth earbuds. On the other hand, AirPods do some things (see below) better than even the best Bluetooth earbuds. Let’s put it this way: If sound quality is important to you, you’ll probably want to wait until better-sounding headphones get Apple’s W1 wireless chip and the user-experience benefits that come with it. (I ordered the Beats X to see—hoping against hope?—if it has significantly better sound.)

The good

Range: I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how far I can wander from my source device and still get a solid signal. I’ve used otherwise good Bluetooth headphones that would occasionally cut out if my body got in between the headphones and my phone. The AirPods almost never cut out, even with a wall (or two) in between. Put simply, AirPods have the best reliable Bluetooth range of any Bluetooth headphone I’ve tried—and I’ve tried many. (I did have one issue where, after a firmware update, my AirPods were unusable for phone calls. I ended up unpairing them and then pairing them again, and the problem disappeared.)

Headset use: AirPods are much better than I expected for phone calls, video conferencing, dictation, and other situations in which I need a microphone—they’re my new Bluetooth headset of choice. In part this is because the weight and fit make them comfortable enough to use for hours at a time, but it’s also because my voice sounds great to people I’m talking to. They tell me I sound at least as good as, and often better than, with the expensive, dedicated Bluetooth headset I’ve been using for the past year or so.

Auto on/off/pause/resume/etc.: Put your AirPods in your ears, and they automatically wake and connect to the last-used device. Pull an AirPod out of your ear and your media playback pauses; put it back in and playback resumes. Pull both EarPods out, and they go to sleep, with your source device switching audio back to its own speakers. Put one in an ear, and your phone knows you have a headset for calls. This all works seamlessly, and it’s great. I have a couple other Bluetooth headphones that have a “Take them off and playback pauses; put them on and playback resumes” feature, but it’s glitchy, and sometimes playback resumes on the wrong device or from the wrong source. 2

Software integration It’s a simple thing, but I love that I can easily see the battery level of both the AirPods themselves and their charging case right on my device screen.

The great

Pairing: I’m sure you’ve read about this in many other places, but it bears repeating: There’s no other Bluetooth device that’s easier to pair. You just open the charging case’s lid next to your iPhone, and a pairing dialog appears on your phone’s screen. Tap Connect, and you’re done. But in addition to being paired with your phone, the AirPods are automatically paired with every other iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, and Apple Watch 3 (but, alas, not Apple TV) associated with your iCloud account. There’s nothing else like this in Bluetooth audio, and it’s related closely to the next point…

Multi-device use: This is one area where I think a lot of “general tech” reviewers have missed a major advantage of AirPods, both because they have to write their reviews without extended use and because they don’t use the AirPods with multiple devices. No other Bluetooth-audio device I’ve used is better at pairing with, and switching between, multiple audio sources.

A big reason this matters is that Apple customers tend to own multiple devices—some combination of iPhone, iPad, iMac, Mac laptop, Apple Watch, and iPod touch—and in my experience, many of them actively consume media on more than one of those devices. For years, one of the biggest headphone complaints among Apple customers (heck, among consumers in general) has been how terrible BT headphones are at letting you use them with more than one source. Even when a particular headphone lets you pair with two or three sources, it’s not obvious how to switch the active connection from one source to the other. And even if you do that successfully, sometimes you’ll get interrupted when listening to a secondary device if audio starts playing on the primary device. My “solution” has been to [hangs privileged head in shame] use a separate set of headphones for each device.

AirPods are a massive improvement in this area. As I mentioned above, your AirPods are automatically paired with every Apple device associated with your iCloud account. By default, AirPods connect to the most-recently used source that’s available, but you can easily switch to a different device. The most seamless transition is between iPhone and Apple Watch: The connection automatically switches to whichever is playing audio. To use your AirPods with your iPad or other iOS device, you just choose them as the audio output in Control Center; on a Mac, you click the systemwide audio menu and choose AirPods as the output device—though I prefer this nifty third-party Mac app that lets you switch your AirPods to your Mac with a click or a keyboard shortcut. (If you have non-Apple devices, sorry, it’s not as seamless. But I wouldn’t recommend AirPods to someone who doesn’t have Apple devices.) And I don’t think I’ve ever had, for example, my phone’s audio interrupt me when I’m watching a video on my iPad—something that happens all the time with my other multi-device Bluetooth headphones.

As someone who uses an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac daily to listen to audio, I can’t say enough about how great this feature is. It’s enough of a convenience that I end up using AirPods more than any other single headphone, despite my complaints about sound quality and noise isolation.

  1. I always use Bluetooth headphones at the gym and when doing other exercise, because the lack of a cable means there’s nothing to get snagged on equipment. I also use open headphones in these situations, because I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me.
  2. With one full-size-headphone model, If I’m watching TiVo on my iPad and I adjust the position of the headphones on my head, TiVo pauses; when the headphones are back in place, the Music app starts playing.
  3. Running iOS 10.2, macOS Sierra, or watchOS 3 or later, respectively.

Requiem for a keyboard

For almost six years now, my favorite Mac keyboard—the one I’ve chosen to use when I’m not required to type on something else for a review or the like—has been Logitech’s long-discontinued diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition1. (That’s a link to my 2009 Macworld review.)

If you don’t remember the diNovo, that’s not surprising. Plenty of keyboard geeks have never even tried it, because it looks like many other low-profile keyboards and doesn’t use big, clacky keys. That’s a shame, because the diNovo Mac Edition is the best Mac keyboard ever made.

(I know, I know. Mechanical-keyboard aficionados, you can wipe the spit-take off your desks now. If you’re a fan of Cherry keyswitches and other mechanical-keyboard fare, you think I’m crazy. That’s okay. Because while you’ve been unnecessarily bulking up your finger muscles, and annoying everyone within earshot with clicks and clacks, I’ve been using the Best Keyboard Ever.)

The diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition

The diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition

You can read my original review, but here are the—ahem—key reasons why this keyboard is so great:

  • It has truly fantastic keys. No, they aren’t Apple Extended Keyboard great—they’re a different kind of great. As I wrote back in 2009, “The diNovo uses Logitech’s PerfectStroke keys, which have a unique mechanism that’s somewhere between the dome-style keys traditionally found on desktop keyboards and the scissor-style keys used by most laptops. The result is low-profile keys that are a bit thicker than laptop keys but require less travel (the distance you have to push a key for it to be recognized) than desktop keys. The keys are among the best I’ve used on any keyboard, providing a near-perfect combination of initial resistance, key travel, and tactile response, with slightly concave tops adding a good tactile feel.”
  • It offers the complete array of keys, including a standard numeric keypad; a separate, inverted-T pod of arrow keys; and the standard group of Home/End/Page Up/Page Down/Delete/Fn keys. And everything is in the right place. I’m not a fan of the recent trend toward compact keyboards that lack numeric keypads, and I absolutely despise keyboards that change the locations of standard keys. Keyboard vendors: Give your prototypes to a few touch-typists; if they complain, rethink your design.2 It’s that simple.
  • It includes 19 F-keys, instead of the usual 12 or 15, and most of those keys are customizable using Logitech’s software3. The keys come pre-programmed to perform standard Mac F-key functions, but I’ve remapped most of them to special functions, app launches, and key combinations.4 (Surprisingly, whenever I have to use a different keyboard, this is the thing I miss the most. I haven’t found another keyboard with as many F-keys that can be as easily programmed, even if I use the excellent Keyboard Maestro.)
  • It has a near-flat profile, which is ergonomically much better for your hands and wrists than thicker keyboards that rise in the back.5
  • A minor touch that I’ve really grown to appreciate over the years is that the bottom row (the modifier keys and space bar) uses keys that are slightly thicker (taller) than others. A touch-typist presses these keys with the thumbs or (in the case of Control) the pinkies, using motions that are more awkward than typing on other keys. The raised design of these keys on the diNovo means they’re easier to press, reducing strain on the thumbs and pinkies, especially when pressing keyboard shortcuts. It’s a subtle design detail that really enhances the experience of using the keyboard.

In other words, while a few keyboards may have slightly better keys (especially if you’re a fan of mechanical keyswitches), the diNovo Mac Edition has an overall combination of great keys, very good ergonomics, and programmability that I’ve yet to see matched.

My only real beef is that the F-keys, along with the Escape and Eject keys, are mashed together in a single, uninterrupted row that itself sits flush with the number row. Most touch-typists I know prefer the traditional layout, which splits the F-keys into groups of four, and separates that F-key row from the main keyboard area, making it easy to find and press any of those keys by touch. To be fair, without the diNovo’s approach, I probably wouldn’t get the extra F-keys, F13 through F196.

Goodbye old friend(s)

I bring my love for the diNovo Mac up because mine apparently died last week. The Logitech software sees it, as it still shows up in Logitech Control Center, but keypresses are no longer recognized (or maybe it’s that they’re no longer being transmitted—the effect is the same).

I’ve been here before, actually. When Logitech discontinued the diNovo a few years back, I bought several extras—I had four in all. Each of them met a similar fate: After about two years of heavy use, it just stopped working. I’d put the dead one back in its box, pull out a new one, and pick up where I’d left off.

My stack of (dead) diNovo keyboards

My stack of (dead) diNovo keyboards

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If you had four, and each lasts for two years, you should have one left—you should be good for two more years!”

Oh, if only. Last week’s keyboard death was immediately followed by another unexpected tragedy—this one much worse.

I pulled out the last of my diNovo keyboards, feeling pretty good about myself for having the foresight to buy so many extra. I unsealed the box, which had never even been opened. I pulled out the little battery tabs that keep the factory-installed batteries from draining while the product is in storage. I connected the RF dongle. I slid the keyboard’s power switch to On…and nothing happened. The keyboard’s power LED didn’t light up, the Logitech software didn’t see the keyboard, and keypresses weren’t recognized.

Thinking that perhaps the preinstalled batteries were dead—it’s been three or four years since I bought the fourth (and last) diNovo—I flipped the keyboard over and opened the battery compartment. That’s when I discovered, to my horror, the problem: The batteries had leaked. Worse, the leak had destroyed the keyboard itself, as no amount of cleaning and tweaking could revive it. (Related: I was up far too late that night trying to revive a dead keyboard.)

It’s a sad, sad week in my office.

I admit that it may seem silly to get bent out of shape over a broken keyboard, but consider: I spend 8 to 12 hours a day standing at my computer using the keyboard. Few things in my work environment affect my comfort and efficiency more. A fantastic keyboard with comfortable keys, good ergonomics, and lots of useful shortcuts dramatically improves my computing experience. (This is why I’m such a fanatic about—and advocate for—great keyboards, whether for the Mac or for iOS.)

So I’m actually quite sad today. An era of my computing life—the one where, every single day, I actively appreciated how great my keyboard was—has apparently come to an end7.

Of course, there are other good Mac keyboards out there, including a couple very good ones from Logitech: the excellent Bluetooth Easy-Switch Keyboard K811 (which my Wirecutter colleagues also like) and the very good Wireless Solar Keyboard K750 for Mac. But their keys aren’t as good as those on the diNovo Mac, neither has as many F-keys, and the F-keys each does have aren’t easily programmable. I’ll likely end up using the K750 going forward, because I need a numeric keypad, but I’ll miss the diNovo Mac every day.

By the way, if you have a Logitech diNovo Mac Edition sitting around that’s in good, working condition, let me know. I’m in the market.

  1. Not to be confused with the also-good-but-not-as-good diNovo Edge Mac Edition.
  2. People buying third-party keyboards are either replacing a broken stock keyboard or looking for something better. In either case, your offerings need to be at least just as good as what they’ve been using: A keyboard is used so much, and people are so familiar with their current keyboard, that they’ll immediately notice ways in which a new one is inferior. Unless you’re aiming for the “Oh, that works, and it’s cheap” people, make the effort to create a keyboard people will love, not one they’ll just put up with.
  3. I’ve heard a good number of complaints over the years about Logitech Control Center, but I’ve apparently been very lucky, as it’s always worked great for me.
  4. From my review: “With Logitech’s software installed, these keys (from left to right) adjust brightness down and up; invoke Expose; activate Dashboard; control media playback (back, play/pause, forward); mute/unmute volume; adjust volume down and up; activate Cover Flow; activate Quick Look; invoke Spaces; and open iTunes, Mail, Safari, and Calculator. As with Apple’s keyboards, you can choose whether or not these actions require the use of the fn key, which is located just to the right of the delete key….Each can be configured as a keystroke, a modifier key, any of the special functions listed above, or one of a number of other options: opening a program, document, folder, or URL; taking a screenshot; switching applications; or zooming the screen. If you’d like keys to do different things in different programs, you can set up program-specific settings.”
  5. Don’t get me started about those flip-out kickstands that raise the back edge of the keyboard so that it’s higher than the front. Unless you have a very specific setup where your wrists are below the front edge of the keyboard and your forearms are angling up—so the angled keyboard keeps your wrist and arm aligned—using those kickstands is a terrible thing to do.
  6. Some people have also complained that the diNovo uses an RF dongle instead of Bluetooth, but as I’ve written many times over the years, I think that’s mostly a marketing-induced complaint—these days, RF seems inferior. In my experience, as long as you have a spare USB port, RF is great for a desktop keyboard. The range and reliability are as good as (and sometimes better than) with Bluetooth, and RF keyboards never experience the “Bluetooth pause” where you have to wait for the device to reconnect when it’s been sleeping.
  7. It’s disappointing how few good aftermarket Mac keyboards are out there these days. There are a decent number of expensive mechanical models available, but for those of us partial to “normal” keyboards, the options are limited. Part of the decline in the third-party Mac-keyboard market is surely that Apple’s keyboards are now good enough for many people (and much better than the mushy-keyed monsters from the 90s and 2000s). Also, a huge proportion of people have laptops and don’t use standalone keyboards. Still, there were a few years in the late 2000s when Mac users were spoiled by a plethora of options for great, full-size, low-profile keyboards.