Do Apple's AirPods Only Work on the iPhone?

Apple AirPod Is Compatible With More Devices Than You Think

Apple AirPods
image credit: Apple Inc.

When Apple debuted the iPhone 7 series that removes the traditional headphone jack from the device, it compensated for that removal by introducing AirPods, its new wireless headphones. Many critics decried this move, saying that it was typical Apple: replacing a universal technology that it doesn't control with one that's proprietary to its products.

But those critics aren't entirely correct. Apple's AirPods may have special features when connected to the iPhone 7, but they're not restricted to the iPhone. This is good news for Android and Windows Phone users, as well as Mac or PC users. Apple's AirPods work with any device that's compatible with Bluetooth headphones.

It's Just Bluetooth

Apple's introduction of the AirPods didn't make this very clear, but it's important to understand: The AirPods connect to devices via Bluetooth. There's no proprietary Apple technology here that blocks other devices or platforms from connecting to the AirPods.

Because they use a totally standard Bluetooth connection, any device that supports Bluetooth headphones works here. Android phones, Windows Phones, Macs, PCs, the Apple TV, game consoles – if they can use Bluetooth headphones, they can use the AirPods.

But What About the W1?

Part of what led people to think that AirPods are Apple only was the discussion of the special W1 chip in the iPhone 7 series. The W1 is a new wireless chip created by Apple and available only on the iPhone 7. Combine that discussion with the removal of the headphone jack and it's easy to see how people misunderstood.

The W1 chip isn't the way that the AirPods communicate with the iPhone. Rather, it's what makes them work better than normal Bluetooth devices, both in terms of pairing and battery life.

To connect a Bluetooth device to your iPhone normally includes putting the device in pairing mode, looking for it on your phone, trying to connect (which doesn't always work), and sometimes entering a passcode.

With the AirPods, all you do is open their case in range of an iPhone 7 and they automatically connect to the iPhone (after the first, one-button-push pairing). That's what the W1 chip does: it removes all of the slow, inefficient, unreliable, and annoying elements of Bluetooth connectivity and, in true Apple fashion, replaces it with something that just works.

The W1 chip is also involved in managing battery life for the AirPods, helping them to get 5 hours of use on a single charge, according to Apple. 

So AirPods Work For Everyone?

Broadly speaking, AirPods work for all Bluetooth-compatible devices, yes. But they don't work the same way. There are definite advantages to using them with the iPhone 7 series. When you do that, you get access to some special features that aren't available on other devices, including:

  • Tap to Siri—You can double tap the AirPods to activate Siri. Can't do that on other devices (partly because Siri doesn't exist on them, of course)
  • Super-Simple Pairing—You can connect the AirPods to any Bluetooth-compatible device, but the super-fast, super-simple pairing only works with the iPhone 7, W1 chip and Apple TV. For other devices, it's the old, annoying pairing process.
  • iCloud Pairing—One of the coolest things about the AirPods is that once you pair them to one of your Apple devices, they're automatically set up to pair to every Apple device using the same Apple ID, via iCloud. That's not possible on Android, for instance, since Android doesn't support iCloud
  • Smart Features—It's not yet clear if the following features are iPhone-only, but it's possible that some of the AirPods' smartest features—knowing when they're in your ears and stopping playback when they're not; automatically switching audio playback to the iPhone when they're removed from ears; playback to only one AirPod if only one is in an ear—could be restricted to the iPhone. It could be that these features rely on the W1 chip.