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They sound great and last for hours on a single charge. Apple AirPods Pro pack impressive noise cancelling into a tiny space. At NZ$450 the price is competitive if you are looking at more traditional noise cancelling headsets.

Apple AirPods ProApple’s original AirPods were a surprise hit. You see them everywhere. Almost everyone who has a pair loves them.

Reports say they account for six of every ten wireless earbuds sold worldwide.1

My old AirPods are the second generation model. They fit my ears and work better than you might expect.

Airpods Pro are a step up in every dimension. Apple added active noise cancellation to an already successful recipe. It then improved the fit and upgraded the functionality. They look like another hit.

AirPods Pro wake-up

My first AirPods Pro demo was in a noisy cafe with hard floors and background clatter. We connected them to an iPhone.

From the outset the earbuds blocked out most of the noise. They allowed me to hear music with an unexpected clarity.

It got better fast.

That’s because there is a built-in feature that lets you check how well the earbuds fit in your ear. Unlike the original all hard plastic AirPods, Apple uses removable soft tips. Three sizes of removable tip come packed in each box. Mine needed changing. This is a little fiddly, but only takes a minute or so.

After swapping, the new tips block even more of the background sound. The sound quality is astounding for something so small.

Later, I listened again on the bus ride home. The experience was even better than the cafe. I’m not sure I’ve heard such outstanding crystal clear sounds while on public transport.

At home I can be blissfully unaware when helicopters pass overhead or if the Royal New Zealand Airforce takes off from nearby Whenuapai,

Both types of music

AirPods Pro work well with all kinds of music, which is good because I listen to all kinds of music. One acid test I use to gauge loudspeaker or headphone quality is high quality recordings of piano music. Both the classical and jazz tracks I tested came out near perfect… on a bus. You don’t get a bass boost, which may not be your taste.

I’ve enjoyed noise cancelling for a few years now. When I reviewed the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, I liked them so much I bought a pair. They proved their worth on long distance flights.

There is some colour to the MDR-1000X sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound fine when listening to my favourite music. In comparison, the Airpods Pro have a much flatter, more accurate sound.

In the past I’ve always thought the MDR-1000X-style over-the-ear form is more comfortable if you use them for hours, say on a trans-Pacific flight.

I haven’t been on a flight since getting the Airpods Pro, but I have enjoyed long listening sessions. The earbuds don’t get uncomfortable if you wear them for a few hours. They are certainly much easier to drop into carry-on luggage. I expect them to replace my older style noise cancelling headphones.

On most measures the Airpods Pro are the better or equal to the Sony headphones. It feels like the Sony controls are easier to use, but that could be familiarity; I’ve only had the Airpods four days.

The flat response is so good that I can use them as a reference when mixing music tracks on my iPad without waking the house. They are that good.

During testing I never heard any lag or had trouble connecting. Although, if you pull the AirPods Pro out to talk to someone the music will pause. This isn’t always necessary as we will see later. I found Apple’s Music didn’t have a problem, but some other non-Apple apps can stop altogether and need a restart.

Controls

AirPods Pro have smaller stalks than the older AirPods, but are a fraction heavier. Not that you’d notice. They come in a slightly larger snap-top box.

You can store AirPods in the box when they’re not in use. The box charges the AirPods, you can use a lightening connector or wireless charging. When charged, the box carries its own reserve of charge, so you can top-up the AirPods Pro charge between sessions.

A single charge gives around four hours listening time. Depending on how you use the box, Apple says you can get up to 24 hours before needing a recharge. This more or less squares with my experience, although my record keeping while watching the battery life wasn’t perfect.

There’s a squeezable control surface. Squeeze once and the music or other audio will stop playing. Squeeze twice and you skip to the next music track.

Squeezing and holding either fires up Siri or turns off noise cancelling. You can also start Siri by saying “Hey Siri” and have your text messages read. It also uses the microphones to deliver external sounds. You might want to do this if, say, a flight attendant wants a word.

One of the magical features is the way AirPods Pro pair with your other Apple devices. Once they have met one Apple device, all the others can find them. Open the box close to an Apple device and you’ll see a message telling you how much charge is left.

Apple AirPods Pro Verdict

AirPods Pro show off Apple technology at its best. They feel a little magic. It’s rare for someone like me who has been looking at new gadgets for decades to break out even a modest smile. The AirPods Pro left me grinning.

They are comfortable, sound good and have battery life to see you through everything except a long haul flight. The noise cancellation is excellent, on a par with headphones costing much more. You can use them if you have an Android phone or Windows device. Best of all, they fit into a tiny pocket.

While the price tag looks expensive, you get a lot of value for the money. Decent noise cancelling technology is never cheap.


  1. This success came at the moment Apple’s iPhone sales stumbled. ↩︎

Ben Brooks argues that you should ditch your laptop for an iPad Pro. He says the iPad has shown it is a better tool than a laptop.

Up to a point I agree with Brooks. The iPad Pro can be a better work tool than a laptop in many circumstances. One day it may always outperform the more traditional computer format all the time.

The gap between what you can do on an iPad compared with what you can do on a laptop has almost closed. Every new version of iOS makes the gap smaller. That will accelerate now Apple has split iPadOS from iOS.

But we’re still not all the way there yet. Some tasks are still better done on the laptop. Take, for example, troubleshooting a web page. Despite there being excellent iOS web inspection tools, my favourite is Inspect Browser, this still works better on a laptop with a desktop-style browser.

Some webpages still force the iPad to a mobile version, although you can now demand the desktop page.

There are tasks that are better on an iPad Pro than on a laptop. I’m a journalist, I write for a living, all day most days. Writing is arguably better on an iPad Pro than a laptop.

I no longer use my MacBook as a portable. When I’m on the move the iPad is my preferred device. I fly with it, take it cafes and to meetings. Soon I will drop the MacBook, but not yet.

sign in with Apple

At first sight sign-in with Apple looks like another attempt by a tech giant to collect user data.

It isn’t. Apple aims to reverse that data collection.

Facebook and Google offer single sign-in services. These are used to monitor people’s online activity.

Single sign-in reduces friction as you move around on-line sites that ask for a log-in. It speeds things up. That’s important in an impatient world.

Sign-in downsides

The downside is that Facebook and Google get to learn a lot more about account holder online activity.

You may view this as innocent, ominous or simply a tax paid to live in the digital world. You may not care.

Other downsides are greater security and privacy risks. In the past single sign-on services have been hacked.

Sign-in with Apple is different. It is more secure. There is built-in two-factor authentication support and anti-fraud detection.

You can use it to sign-in to websites. It also works with iOS apps. That way you know the apps you use are not sharing your private data with someone you may not trust.

Also, you choose if an app developer gets to see your email address. That’s optional.

If you choose not to share, Apple generates a disposable email address for that app. If, say, the app developer starts spamming you, you can kill the email address and lose nothing.

Sign-in with Apple works with Android phones and Windows computers, but you’ll get most from it if you have Apple hardware. It integrates with iOS and Apple Keychain. It also works with Apple TV and Apple Watch.

Sign-in with Apple stays private

There’s no lock-in. On the other hand, it might give privacy aware users who shop elsewhere another reason to consider Apple products.

Apple insists app developers using the App Store offer the service if they offer the Google or Facebook alternative. Otherwise it is optional.

At first I was wary of the idea. Now I’m keen. I’ve never used the Google or Facebook sign-ins and got used to doing things the slow, but more private, way. Now that’s unnecessary.

Of course, you have to trust Apple when it says that it doesn’t interpret collected data or keep track of your log-ins.

The difference here is that we know for certain Facebook and Google do this. Apple makes its money from hardware and services. Facebook and Google are all about surveillance capitalism.

See: Let’s Clarify some Misunderstandings around Sign In with Apple • Aaron Parecki

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made the news when he told car industry executives he doesn’t expect to see self-driving cars in his lifetime.

Wozniak is 69. You can do your own grim maths calculation here. A self-driving car may yet pull up in my lifetime, hopefully your’s too.

The tech sector has a long history of misplaced ‘coming real soon now claims’.

One of my first jobs covering technology was in 1981. I went to a press conference showing an early speech recognition computer. It could just about understand ten words some of the time if you spoke very carefully.

At the press conference we were told computers able to recognise and understand everyday speech are just two years away. They’ve been just two years away ever since.

Self-driving cars are not that different. In fact the reason for misplaced optimism is much the same. That is, people are terrible at forecasting future technology.

In 2015 Elon Musk, Tesla’s boss, predicted his cars would be capable of “complete autonomy” by 2017.

Last year General Motors said it would offer a range of driverless cars this year.

Waymo, which is part of Alphabet (Google) has been testing driverless taxies in Phoenix Arizona this year. Waymo choose Phoenix because it has wide, flat roads.

In theory it is one of the easiest places in the world to drive. In practice Google still sits human drivers behind the wheel; just in case.

One reason for overconfident forecasts is that tech company leaders believe their own hype about progress in artificial intelligence and related technologies.

Progress is difficult. Much of today’s AI uses brute force; improvement can be a long, hard slog. That doesn’t sound anything like as good at a rah rah sales event as whipping up excitement about what could be possible.

Hear me talk to Kathryn Ryan about this on RNZ Nine-to-Noon.

Judging by the latest IDC phone sales report, Apple has now found the point where iPhone prices rises meet customer resistance.

The last two product cycles have seen Apple raise iPhone prices faster than the rate of inflation.

A few anomalies like the troublesome Samsung Galaxy Fold aside, Apple prices have also gone up faster than phones from rival manufacturers. The gap between Apple’s most expensive iPhone and the most expensive mainstream options from the likes of Samsung and Huawei is higher than ever before.

In New Zealand the Apple iPhone XS Max with 512Gb of storage costs NZ$2800. Huawei’s P30 Pro, with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1500. That’s a fraction over half the price of the top iPhone.

Samsung’s Galaxy S10 with 512Gb of storage is $2100. Three-quarters the price of the iPhone XS Max.

Quality?

You can argue Apple’s phones are better than Huawei’s or Samsung’s. Although many readers would dispute that. You can also argue that an iPhone has greater value than an Android for people who have invested in iOS.

Even so, it can’t be an accident that Apple’s sales have dropped both in absolute terms and relative to the market since those price rises.

That fall is not trivial. IDC’s latest phone sales report shows iPhone unit numbers dropped 30 percent in a year. The report says: “The iPhone struggled to win over consumers in most major markets as competitors continue to eat away at Apple’s market share.”

Apple’s iPhone revenues dropped 17 percent.

Third place

IDC says Apple is now firmly in third place behind Samsung and Huawei. The report says the total phone market dropped 6.6 percent year on year. Apple accounted for two-thirds of that drop.

There is evidence much of this drop was in China.

We can’t know for sure there is a direct link between Apple’s recent rounds of faster than inflation price rises and the drop in sales. But it is a plausible working thesis.

Buoyant

For a while Apple’s faster than inflation price rises meant that the company’s phone revenue remained buoyant as unit numbers fell. In effect Apple users were trading up to more ritzy phones. If that was a strategy, it only worked in the short-term.

One aspect of this is that although Apple’s iPhones are more expensive, they contain more technology and more functionality. This might justify the higher price in some cases.

In recent years Apple’s gross margin has been around the 38 percent mark. That sounds huge, but it’s not unusual in the technology sector. Software companies tend to do better.

The most recent result shows the gross margin has fallen from 38.3 percent a year ago to 37.6b percent. In other words, those higher phone prices are not a simple case of Apple cashing in.

Problems everywhere

Samsung and Huawei both face enormous problems. The Galaxy Fold is a potential disaster for Samsung. Meanwhile Huawei is at the centre of a nasty political row. At some point that could affect the company’s handset sales, at least outside of China.

Apple faces a difficult year. If the folding phones from Samsung and Huawei turn out hits, Apple will be on the back foot in technology terms. There’s also the 5G problem. Apple committed to buying Intel 5G chips. It turns out these don’t work, so Apple has turned back to Qualcomm.

For all these reasons, observers are going to judge the 2019 iPhone launch more carefully than any Apple launch over the past three to five years. It might also pay to take a close look at what Apple does with prices later this year. Another big rise would ring alarm bells.