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Apple kills the headphone jack, launches mediocre wireless earbuds, and calls it ‘courage’

At its iPhone unveil yesterday, Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller took the stage to explain why the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus would dump the 3.5mm headphone jack, and move to a mixture of proprietary wireless solutions with wired headphone support provided via the Lightning port. Schiller justified this decision by declaring: “It comes down to one word: Courage.”

The Internet greeted this pronouncement with the mockery it deserved. Dumping the headphone jack and relying solely on the Lightning port for peripherals means it’s no longer possible to charge your iPhone and listen to it at the same time. That’s not a major issue early in a device’s lifetime, but smartphone batteries often degrade over time and may not offer enough battery life even when new to cover every scenario. For example, I carry an external battery on a regular basis and have often used it to charge the device while simultaneously using wired earbuds. The iPhone 7 no longer supports this particular use case. Apple’s decision to include a wired pair of earbuds and a 3.5mm-to-Lightning Adapter with the iPhone 7 is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t address the loss of functionality.

Apple’s new wireless AirPods raise far more questions than they answer. At $159, they’re extremely expensive for an unproven technology. Apple also claims they’ve implemented a new proprietary wireless connection standard courtesy of their new W1 processor — but the AirPods will supposedly offer just 5 hours of listening time. That’s roughly in-line with what cheap Bluetooth earbuds currently offer at $25-$30. More expensive earbuds promise much better, with headsets in the $150 to $200 range offering 6-12 hours. Granted, Bluetooth audio also has had some problems with latency and quality, but Apple didn’t offer any concrete information on how its new audio standard would avoid these issues. Putting a chip inside an AirPod is interesting — but interesting and meaningfully better aren’t the same thing.

Apple promises a number of advances with these new earphones, including a rechargeable case that can hold 24 hours worth of listening time, the ability to recognize whether you have the devices in your ears, and the ability to detect new audio feeds and switch to devices in close proximity. Apple did not confirm whether or not the AirPods can function via Bluetooth and pair with other devices. It’s been implied that the AirPods are only compatible with devices that can run iOS 10 and macOS Sierra. That includes iPhones from the iPhone 5, the iPad mini 2, the iPad 4th generation, the iPad Air, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch.

The only courage in this announcement was the price tag. $159 for a pair of earbuds with mediocre talk time and potentially limited compatibility is not a breakthrough. Ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack may allow for marginally better audio, but the minuscule amount of room that jack took up inside the chassis won’t lead to meaningful improvements in battery life — nor did it seem to lead to a further decrease in device thickness, however unnecessary that would have been at this point.

Other companies, meanwhile, have found ways to build water-resistant phones without ditching the headphone jack. The Verge thinks Apple’s W1 is a fancy way to obfuscate its use of Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart), but it’s not clear if this is accurate. Whatever Apple has implemented, it appears to be an additional protocol wrapped around Bluetooth — we’ll have to wait and see if it can “fix” wireless audio as Schiller promised. Apple’s EarPod audio quality hasn’t historically been good enough to justify a $160 price point and I’ve personally found the fit rather poor. They may work for basic activities, but not for anything athletic.

The iPhone 7’s other hardware promises some genuine change and improvement, but I’m not impressed with the company’s decision to remove useful functionality in favor of an expensive peripheral that almost certainly won’t justify its price. Given the logic board problems with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the only iPhone I’d personally want to buy at this point is the iPhone SE, with its combination of long battery life, proven design, and broader support for common industry standards.

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