Update: I’d been under the impression that the W1 chip in AirPods required matching tech in the iPhone 7, but it turns out this isn’t the case, and the chip can perform its pairing and power-saving magic with older devices too. That only underlines my desire to see Apple license the chip.
Of all the things that Apple announced during the iPhone 7 launch, the W1 chip actually impressed me most. I’d guessed that Apple would be including something like this, suggesting beforehand that the tech might solve three problems with Bluetooth audio.
First, fast and rock-solid pairing. First-time pairing should be quick and painless, and once headphones have been paired to a particular iPhone, they should instantly re-pair next time they are used. No more of the ‘will they or won’t they?’ question familiar to current-generation Bluetooth products.
Second, the connection too should be ultra-reliable. No random cutouts that interrupt the audio stream. Even half a second’s stuttering quickly becomes really annoying when listening to music.
Third, the power efficiency should be better than current low-energy Bluetooth, so charging headphones becomes a weekly thing for the average user, not something we have to do every few days.
Apple still hasn’t revealed much detail about the W1 chip, but it definitely addresses at least two out of the issues, and probably all three …
The W1 chip certainly solves the pairing problem. Those present at the event reported that pairing was instant. Propagating that pairing across all your Apple devices via iCloud is also a huge step forward.
Apple has also confirmed on its website that the protocol improves battery-life. Beats Solo 2 headphones offer 12 hours of battery-life, while the Beats Solo 3 – which include the new chip – claim 40 hours. Apple states that the improvement is ‘driven by the efficiency of the Apple W1 chip.’
What’s less clear is whether W1 helps the reliability of the Bluetooth audio stream itself. Some are speculating that Apple is using some aspects of the Bluetooth 5 standard expected to hit the market later this year. That offers much greater range and bandwidth, and ought to radically improve audio quality, but Apple has certainly made no mention of this, and lists the iPhone 7’s Bluetooth standard simply as 4.2 rather than a hybrid 4.2/5.0.
What Apple does say – at least about the Beats Solo 3 – is that they use Class 1 Bluetooth in place of the standard Class 2 for most headphones to date, including the Solo 2. Class 1 has a lot more power, allowing much greater range. While Class 2 has a typical range of 10 metres/30 feet, Class 1 typically offers 100 metres/300 feet.
There’s no definite confirmation that the iPhone 7 supports Class 1 (both connected devices need to support the higher power to see any benefit), but it wouldn’t make much sense for Apple to be promoting Class 1 for the headphones if the iPhone 7 couldn’t utilize it.
This is actually quite a trick: Class 1 Bluetooth usually has high power requirements, and tends to be limited to devices that are either mains-powered or have bigger batteries. Including this in a low-powered Bluetooth chip is actually a really big deal.
At short-range, Class 1 ought to be significantly more reliable than Class 2, so my guess is that, yes, the W1 chip probably also solves the third of the problems I mentioned.
Right now, it only does so in the iPhone 7, but I think it’s a sure-fire bet that the W1 chip will also be included in future iPads, iPods and Macs.
All of which means that it would be fantastic to see Apple license W1 chips to other headphone companies, much as it does the Lightning connector. That would allow other manufacturers to offer the same instant pairing, increased battery-life and improved reliability.
There would be no downside to buying headphones equipped with a W1 chip. It’s already been confirmed that Apple’s own AirPods can still connect to non-W1 devices using standard Bluetooth pairing. So W1 headphones would offer all the benefits when connected to a compatible device, and fallback to standard Bluetooth otherwise.
Sadly, however, my suspicion is that this won’t be the case. Without the Beats acquisition, Apple probably would have licensed the tech, as it would want consumers to have a wider choice of headphones than its own AirPods. But as the owner of Beats, it will likely want to keep the shiny new tech to itself. And as someone who is most definitely not a fan of Beats products, I think that would be an enormous shame – and a missed opportunity for those of us with a preference for rather better-quality headphones.