ProBeat: Yay headphone jacks, nay notches

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This week, Google released the first Android P developer preview. Among the new features is built-in support for display cutouts, colloquially known as notches. Just as I support sticking with the headphone jack, I prefer phones without notches.

I criticized Google multiple times for mistakingly following Apple and prematurely removing the headphone jack from its Pixel phones. I won’t do that this time — Google’s move to support notches natively in Android makes plenty of sense to me: Android phone makers are embracing the notch in droves. It follows that Android should support it as well (however, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will probably have notches as well, which I will whine about loudly).

I can’t blame Google for supporting with software what is already happening with hardware. Android phone makers, though — I am not impressed. For the love of all things screen, stop copying Apple for the sake of copying Apple.

This unscientific poll by my colleague Evan Blass shows I’m not alone in this line of thinking:

When you’re buying a new smartphone, there are already plenty of difficult decisions you have to make: Android or iOS, normal size or plus size, single or dual camera, carrier “discount” or unlocked — just to name a few. Tradeoffs like headphone jacks and notches really should not have to be part of the equation.

As Samsung and a few outliers have shown, you do not have to rip off Apple to please your customers. Just because it makes sense for do it, doesn’t mean it makes sense for your company. You can include a headphone jack, exclude a notch, and still offer an amazing phone in 2017 and in 2018.

They say consumers should vote with their wallet. I wholeheartedly agree. All things being equal, buy a phone that does not make these unnecessary compromises. Trendy should never be more important than practical.

One day I will look back on this stance and chuckle. Notches will have gone away, as will the usefulness of headphones jacks. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to make these tradeoffs now, just because Apple has made certain decisions for its products, and a bunch of Android phone makers have blindly followed.

Yay to headphone jacks, nay to notches, and a big hurrah for consumer choice.

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I hope headphone jacks make a comeback next year

Apple iPhone 6S and 7

When reflecting on smartphones that were released over the year, I feel that things went pretty well. I was impressed with both of LG’s flagships, the G6 and the V30; the Galaxy Note’s reputation didn’t suffer irreparable damage and seems to be doing well; Apple knocked it out of the park with the iPhone X; I could spend all day talking about if I were to list them all, but I can’t, so overall I’d say things were good this year.

But despite all the good that came of this year, there were some downsides that occurred, one of the worst being that companies haven’t figured out that headphone jacks are still a useful feature and continue to inexplicably strip them from new smartphones.

I’m going to start off by using Apple as an example. They weren’t the first to do it, but I think they were the most influential by doing so. The thing is, it’s easy for Apple to do things because they control the entirety of iOS. If you don’t like the changes they make, tough cookies. You take it or leave it. If you’re heavily invested in iOS already, or simply prefer iOS to Android, then you have to decide whether a headphone jack is really worth leaving an entire platform for. Will people do that? Sometimes. But I think the majority of people are just going to learn to live without it, even if it’s not necessarily as convenient as simply having a headphone jack.

I’m more concerned about Android devices. Although not all of them have nixed the headphone jack, I am surprised at the amount of manufacturers who quickly followed suit. HTC, Razer, Essential and Google are all the brands I can think of off the top of my head that followed Apple and Moto, who omitted the feature last year. While the list may not be that long, it worries me that more joined this year – especially Google, who made it a very specific point to keep the headphone jack last year. Suddenly the headphone jack totally sucks, but oh, look! Pixel Buds have come to save the day! How convenient.

As 2017 comes to an end and CES is only a month away, I wonder whether 2018 will continue the trend, or if the headphone jack will make a comeback like the microSD card did.

Either scenario seems possible. I could see it making a comeback because many of the phones who omitted it aren’t doing so great. The Pixel 2 XL keeps making headlines, and usually not in a great way. HTC is still having trouble finding its mojo. Although the HTC U 11 had decent days after its release, long-term market shares for the company continue to decline. Essential Phone was unfortunately a flop, although it seems worth checking out now that the price is $ 499, and Razer Phone seems like a very niche device directed towards a very specific subset of smartphone users. In the end, none of the phones are exactly flying off the shelves (save for the Pixel 2 XL, though they are experiencing a high rate of return for unrelated reasons).

On the other hand, maybe headphone jacks will continue to fade year over year. As much as I personally appreciate headphone jacks, the future of smartphones appears to be as wireless as possible, so why prolong the inevitable? Wireless charging and wireless headsets very well might be the norm eventually, but the problem right now is that phones are prematurely trying to replace the solid state of the headphone jack with the not-very-solid Bluetooth, or worse, trying to make it seem as if USB-C or Lightning offer significantly higher quality audio. If they do, I can’t tell. I’d argue that most people can’t. What people do notice, however, is that their once convenient headphone jack is now missing, and although it’s probably not annoying enough to completely replace the phone the first, second, or even third time they realize they forgot their dongle/special headphones at home, it might be annoying enough to consider a smartphone with a headphone jack the next time they upgrade.

It’s hard to say what next year will bring, but I do hope that it brings more headphone jacks and not less.

Readers, what are your thoughts on the headphone jack? We’ve had a little over a year to warm up to the idea now – have you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Google’s Pixel 2 Proves Apple Was Right About Headphone Jacks

Google yesterday unveiled its Pixel 2 flagship. It’s a stunning premium handset that might give Apple and Samsung a run for their money (until the iPhone X drops, of course). But among other things, the Pixel 2 proves that Apple was right all along.

Apple debuted the iPhone 7 last year, and when it did, it basically declared the headphone jack largely obsolete. Of course, many critics were skeptical then, and many remain skeptical of its removal. Some even used the jack’s removal as “evidence” of Apple’s unfriendliness to users. But, the Google Pixel 2, like the iPhone 7 before it, also does away with the 3.5mm headphone jack. And while current Samsung devices are still holding out, Google’s move signals the beginning of the end for the popular port.

When two tech titans like Apple and Google carry out a decision like this, it inevitably ends up changing the industry. Just look at some of the top Android makers sans Samsung: Xiaomi, HTC, Motorola and Huawei are following suit. The future, at this point, looks entirely wireless (save for the occasional dongle used in a pinch).

What the headphone jack’s removal on the Pixel 2 signifies is that Apple’s bet paid off. Certainly, for many users, it caused some short-term inconvenience. But, contrary to the critics, this turn of events proves that Apple did indeed show “courage” by being the first one to nix the feature. Now, for better or worse, it’s only a matter of time before the headphone jack on modern flagships is a thing of the past.

It may not seem like it in the short term, but users will eventually get used to the new standard. The headphone jack’s removal will undoubtedly free up internal space within all smartphones who do away with it. That might be the missing key that’ll allow phonemakers to begin packing beefed up and upgraded internal components into their devices. And not that the headphone jack was perfect, anyway. The original Pixel’s audio jack was notoriously bad.

Apple has a reputation for innovation and pulling the industry forward. But that innovation is not always welcome at the time. Consider the first iPhone. It may seem strange to us now, but many in 2007 were extremely skeptical of the iPhone’s multitouch and lack of a physical keyboard. Others “power-users” complained that the iPhone could never recreate the physical, tactile feel of a hardware keyboard, and that its message-writing experience would be objectively worse. Eventually, those criticisms died down. Just look where we are now.

It’s easy to see that same level of skepticism concerning Apple’s new Face ID technology — especially when it’s used in lieu of something familiar like fingerprint scanning. And while it may be a bit early to call any bets, it’s worth venturing that the smartphones of the future will all have some derivative of the Face ID tech.

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