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Wearable Tech

New AirPods and my face, nearly three years later

Apple's wireless buds look similar, but the world's different.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wireless earbuds have been revolutionized since 2016, and AirPods have become iconic. New York City, and my daily commute, are perfect examples. For months, I had commuted as the Lone AirPod Guy back in late 2016. Now, who isn't wearing them? I remember putting AirPods on for the first time, and not knowing what to think. Photo taken, meme generated. Message sent: No one wanted to be seen wearing them.

Now, they're everywhere. In New York, they're as common as hats.

So, when the latest version of AirPods arrived for me to try out, as I unwrapped them, they didn't immediately seem any different than Version One... and the experience felt utterly normal. The case opens the same, with those perfect little magnets releasing and letting the lid pop up. The long white buds slide out from the charger just like before. If you put a new and old AirPod side by side, you wouldn't see any difference.

In three years, my face has changed more than these AirPods. I've gained weight since 2016 (or I lost weight, then gained weight). I have new glasses, subtly different. If you saw my face now and my face back then, you'd see some similarities. I think my hair's the same, albeit grayer.

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What I looked like in fall of 2016.

James Martin/CNET

The differences with the AirPods are all under the hood, and in subtle ways. But since they're the same price as the old ones, unless you pay up for the wirelessly charging case, it's really just a value-add to the same proposition. But maybe the proposition now is this: I don't know, necessarily, what device I'm using. But my body, and what it wears, is a constant. And AirPods generally stay in.

There are some key new differences that begin to reveal themselves when I actually start using them, though.

Read this for a review of the new AirPods . These are my impressions on the new AirPods and my life now, versus when I first started trying them nearly three years ago.

A smoother connected universe

The AirPods sound the same, but they connect faster -- just a bit, but that little connecting chime is snappier and feels more effortless. "Hey, Siri" works, but I feel silly saying it while walking through Penn Station (or anywhere). I wait for people to stare at me as I talk to my headphones.

The AirPods still have a double-tap that can be customized for track-skipping (or Siri, or pausing), but volume control can't be done with a gesture, which is really the thing I want the most. Saying "Hey, Siri, lower volume" isn't convenient. But having automatic "Hey, Siri" feels more like a perpetual voice assistant at the ready, in a good, or sometimes weird, way. Usually I just end up checking the weather.

The audio hiccups are gone now, when I walk crosstown in New York. The older AirPods used to briefly dissolve into stutter when I crossed intersections, and so far the newer ones are handling better, blanketing me in continuous sound. Does this mean I'll keep AirPods in more often? Possibly. It also means I'm increasingly living in my own pod-in world.

Of course, this makes me think of what will come next. Will AR audio like Bose's audio sunglasses, which are ready to serve up hints of the connected world, act as a guide through life? Maybe. A step toward always-on AR in a pair of Apple AR-equipped smartglasses someday? Possibly. At the moment, AirPods and Apple Watch with cellular are already a self-contained wearable network. They feel like a seamless little package deal.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Wireless charging, longer battery: Small steps

Wireless charging with the new AirPods charge case works with any Qi charger (or the back of a nearby Samsung Galaxy S10), but now that Apple's AirPower charge mat is dead, it kills some of the reason to pay $40 more for the wireless charge feature. Maybe it's nice to have if you have wireless Qi chargers around your desk or home, but AirPods last for a good several days in my everyday use, and charge fast with Lightning. I still use Lightning over wireless.

I haven't experienced the extra battery life during phone calls, because I don't make a lot of phone calls anymore. But I listen to tons of music, on Apple Watch and on iPhone. AirPods are as good as ever for that.

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Superconnected, and totally normal

The me of 2019 is usually trying to avoid being too immersed in connected tech, and failing miserably. That's because my job is to look at connected tech. I'm still a person who prefers doing things on a phone versus speaking commands or launching a watch app. I've fallen into familiar habits.

What strikes me most of all is how normal AirPods are now. They seemed truly unusual in late 2016. But then again, the world was pretty different way back in those days. Now, AirPods seem like the most normal, reliable thing in a very odd and continually mutating universe. It takes more than AirPods to stand out in a crowd now. Maybe wearing a sharp pair of smartglasses, or testing a new VR headset, would make people look. AirPods are now standard-issue human tech.

As I get older, I appreciate them more. I still would like some more controls, and ways these could even more effortlessly swap between iPads, Macs and iPhones. I still need to enter Bluetooth settings to connect to my iPad or MacBook -- it doesn't magically switch unless I'm moving between watch and phone. But the way they're designed, and stick around, feels like one of the most successful design moves Apple has pulled off.

Except... come on. Maybe those cigarette butts can be just a bit shorter.

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Apple AirPods 2019 (Charging Case)
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