What it's like to live with AirPods

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I was one of the world's first normal people to be photographed wearing Apple's AirPods. Shortly thereafter, I became a meme. Or rather, Apple's weird-looking earbuds did -- I was just the ear model.

These little 'buds became poster children for the awkwardness of wearable tech design. Instagram, Reddit and Twitter comments compared them to objects ranging from cigarette butts to tampons.

Well, they're finally here.

AirPods are now available to buy. What do they feel like? I've been wearing a preproduction pair for the past few months. I'll tell you.

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As everyone already knows, the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus don't have a standard headphone jack. You need to use the Lightning headphones, or the Lightning-to-minijack dongle, both of which Apple mercifully throws in the box. (But still, hey, no headphone jack.)

Of course, what Apple is really trying to do is condition you to an all-wireless world. Wireless Bluetooth headphones have been around for years, and they've gotten quite good. Beats, Apple's own fully owned subsidiary and the largest headphone brand on the planet, already sells plenty of wireless headphones, including three all-new models that debuted alongside the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus: the Beats Solo3, Powerbeats 3, and BeatsX. BeatsX could be the best alternative to AirPods, with a lower price and a compact wired design that would make them less easy to lose, but they won't be available until next year.

Apple's AirPods, the company's own, first-ever Bluetooth headphones, come with an Apple logo to set them apart. AirPods look exactly like the ubiquitous white EarPods that have come shipped with iPhones for years, albeit with the wires clipped, and they're "true wireless" headphones, meaning they don't even have a cable connecting the left and right earbud. They come with a charging case that doubles as a pocketable storage unit as well as a battery booster that can add 3 hours to the AirPods' standard 5-hour battery life in just 15 minutes.

The new headphones cost $159, £159 or AU$229.

They look dorky as hell, but I still like these AirPods. I'm not wild about the price, though. Paying $160 for these headphones feels like an awful lot. But these little buds are an indicator of where wireless headphones are heading fast.

Editors' note: This preview originally posted on Sept 13, 2016. It's been slightly updated to reflect new information on availability and competing models, and a few new thoughts after wearing them for months. We'll update this to a full rated review in the near future once we receive a final production model.

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How dumb do I feel?

AirPods feel like regular EarPods, but wireless. So, since I can't see them while I'm wearing them unless I look in the mirror, I generally feel fine (until the internet uses a photo of me to demonstrate how silly they look. Details, details).

Then I look in the mirror. One AirPod looks like a futuristic Bluetooth headset. With two in place, they look like hipster earrings. Or tiny vape pipes. Or sci-fi jewelry. Or worse.

OK, AirPods look ridiculous. I don't know why Apple put that weird tail on them, except maybe for an antenna, or to make the microphones better. (More on that later.) Even after months getting used to them, they seem weird. But I can't see them when I'm wearing them, and to me they feel fine.

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How do they sound?

Here's the thing: Mostly, they're good. Or, fine. I liked listening to music with AirPods. I started finding myself preferring them to plug-in headphones, thanks to the freedom of movement they provided. I listen to Apple's EarPods as my main headphones most of the time. AirPods sound similar.

Until, of course, they start to produce some of the same little pops and interruptions I always get from Bluetooth earphones when I'm walking. I don't seem to get quite as many with the AirPods, but the skips and interruptions, when they happen, make me wish for something wired.

The 5-hour battery life for the earphones isn't great, but it's good for earbuds this tiny. And the little dental-floss-box-looking charger not only packs enough total charge for 24 hours, but quick-charges them fast enough that I never worried about running out of juice in a day. Or even two. Or three. You just need to accustom yourself to swapping the buds back into the case when you're not using them. I've rarely found myself running out of batteries, except when I forget to charge them over a long weekend.

Will AirPods work with other Bluetooth devices?

Yeah, they're Bluetooth headphones. They'll work with any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, tablet, computer or other wireless device. I paired them with the Galaxy S7 Edge, and they worked fine for music and calls. But when you use them with Apple devices, you get some extra special features such as auto-pairing (see below). In Bluetooth mode with non-Apple devices, the AirPods won't turn on or off when you remove them from your ears, either. I've used them with my TV, laptops, and everything else.

How does auto-pairing work?

It's not as "auto" as you think. AirPods include a secret sauce that most other wireless Bluetooth headphones (except those three aforementioned new Beats models) don't: simplified setup across all your Apple devices running iOS 10 or MacOS Sierra. What that means is the profile gets added, but you'll still have to pick them as your source on a new device.

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That pairing process had hits and misses in my everyday use. To connect them the first time, just flip up the AirPod case's lid and the iPhone asks if you want to connect. On the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus I tested with (running a build of iOS 10 software with AirPod compatibility added), AirPod pairing was mostly automatic.

Many Android phones have a similar "tap-to-pair" function that uses near-field communication (NFC) on compatible handsets and headphones. We've rarely seen that work as well as the Apple auto-pairing on these AirPods, but it's something similar in concept.

Once paired, the headphones now work with all the compatible Apple devices you own via iCloud. But to use those devices, you need to find a sometimes-hidden button in iOS to pick your audio source, and tap "AirPods." So, while not completely automatic, it saves you a trip to re-pair the earphones via Bluetooth...and more importantly, you won't need to pair them again when you go back to your other device.

Having one setup process for multiple devices seems helpful, but where it really pays off is if you have an Apple Watch.

Apple Watch and AirPods: Best buds

These are the Bluetooth earbuds Apple should have always had for the Apple Watch in the first place. AirPods, because they auto-pair with both iPhone and Apple Watch, act as conduits to both. The watch acts as extension of the phone. The AirPods, of the watch. There's a seamless feel as I wander around now. Especially with just an Apple Watch and AirPods on; suddenly I feel like I've put on my wearable astronaut suit and left my phone-world behind.

It's particularly nice because it fixes a problem I always had with Bluetooth headphones and making phone calls while wearing Apple Watch: call handoffs.

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It's annoying to use Bluetooth headphones and smartwatches. You have to pick where you pair, which was especially awkward when answering incoming calls if you "accepted" them on the Apple Watch. If you have Bluetooth headphones paired with your phone, Apple Watch calls get answered on the Apple Watch speakerphone...not on the headphones.

With AirPods and iOS 10, if a call comes through, you can answer on either device and just start talking. You can use them for running and listen to music. Whatever you need. They're seamless -- or, almost seamless.

Sometimes there would be a bit of a clicking sound, and I realized the AirPods were now paired with my other device. A few times, the handoff happened too slowly, and I missed the call. Early days for the AirPod, perhaps. But the ability to answer calls in-ear makes the Apple Watch feel more like a true communication tool.

How do you control them? Well...

There aren't many remote controls. You can double-tap on an AirPod to activate Siri, or turn that control into Play/Pause in AirPod's settings. But you can't adjust volume, or do the variety of things you can do with the basic in-line Apple EarPod remote. I kept reaching for my phantom remote all day long, but it wasn't there to help me.

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Can you share AirPods?

Yes, you can. I put one in my ear and one in someone else's and we listened to music. The earbuds turn on via proximity sensors. They turn off when you take them out.

But you can't share a pair for phone calls. I tried, and it always defaulted to just one AirPod, whichever was inserted in someone's ear first.

Can you just use one by yourself?

Yes. Either bud will work the same, and it'll switch seamlessly if you change earbuds to take a phone call. It's pretty clever. And you can play music with one bud. But -- as I mistakenly thought when I took one out and it auto-paused -- you have to press play on your iPhone again, or keep one AirPod in the case and listen with one ear. (My earlier story said music didn't work with just one bud, and I was mistaken.)

What if you lose one?

See above. With one bud -- either one -- you still have a perfectly functional headset for making calls, or listening to music with one ear.

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Are they sweat-proof or water-resistant?

Apple doesn't make any water resistance claims for these AirPods. They should be fine for workouts, but if it starts to rain I'd pop them out in a hurry.

Did they stay connected?

Mostly, but I still heard audio pops from time to time. Not as many as I usually get with Bluetooth headphones, but they were still there.

Do they stay in your ears?

Mostly, yes. I've jumped around, hopped, jogged, cooked and wandered my office for weeks (ask my coworkers), and they stayed on.

But they fit just like Apple's free-in-box $30 white earphones. One size fits all, and tough luck if they don't. So if those standard Apple earphones fit, these will fit. And if they don't, these won't. Unlike most other in-ear headphones, there are no extra tips included for different ear sizes.

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Can they be used as wireless microphones for video shoots?

No. Not yet, at least. The microphones in the AirPods don't connect to all apps. I was able to record a voice memo, but I couldn't wear one and shoot a video of myself. And recording quality sounded digitized, like a phone call -- not nearly as smooth as a normal audio recording. Right now, AirPods have limited microphone uses beyond phone calls and chats.

What's it like using Siri?

It was fine. Double-tapping either 'bud brings up Siri. She heard me just fine, and I heard her.

Why not get Beats?

Besides the AirPods, Apple is making three other headphone models equipped with the W1 chip -- the hardware that enables that cool auto-pairing, and also helps with low-power battery use. Those three Beats models Apple announced are larger and the earbuds aren't independently wireless. But the BeatsX (which haven't arrived yet) are almost the same price, with double the battery life at 10 hours versus 5. Those could be the better choice for workouts.

Are there other true wireless headphones?

Yes. This has been an emerging market over the past year, with at least a dozen announced or available options from large manufacturers such as Onkyo and Samsung and smaller startups such as Doppler Labs and Bragi. Here are 11 good alternatives. Some also have better fitness features and are fully waterproof, like the Jabra Elite Sport. But some, while sounding good, get extremely expensive.

So, why get Apple's wireless headphones?

There are plenty of other options on the market. Bluetooth headphones are everywhere, obviously.

Apple's sound nice. I can't yet say they're the best because we're still comparing them with rival products. But they're priced competitively, almost identically to the better "wired wireless" headphones like the aforementioned BeatsX and Bose SoundSport Wireless. And the EarPod-style plastic earpiece, while it fits me fine, won't appeal to a lot of people. It feels looser in-ear than any normal sport-type earphones.

They are convenient for making phone calls, thanks to embedded noise-canceling microphones in both ears. They work, and people could hear me, but sometimes I was told I sounded a little digitized or fuzzy.

At least they're tiny and interchangeable. Each bud is separately wireless. And if you like that idea, and having Bluetooth headphones that can become a hands-free headset in a pinch, you might like these. If you can get over how they look.

But seriously: Will I look dumb if I wear them?

I don't know. They're headphones. They're not Google Glass.

What they could really portend is more wireless devices

The W1 chip Apple unveiled in the AirPods could easily be used in something else. Devices that easily auto-pair and sync across other devices you own could mean HomeKit-enabled smart home accessories, or VR headsets or other wearables. Maybe even an Amazon Echo-like product. It suggests a landscape of connected things, and Apple striving to push chips into specialized devices in its ecosystem. Are you ready for that? It could be yet another platform in a sea of connected-device platforms.

As proof of how more connected devices could glom onto your iCloud device world, AirPods show interesting promise. And they could be the type of always-in wearables to extend beyond the Apple Watch. But for now, they're mostly just small, nice wireless earphones...that cost a lot and lack a good remote.

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