Do Apple's AirPods Only Work on the iPhone?

Apple AirPods Are Compatible With More Devices Than You Think

Apple AirPods
image credit: Apple Inc.

When Apple debuted the iPhone 7 series that removed the traditional headphone jack from the device, it compensated for that removal by introducing AirPods, its high-end 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 and up, 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.

The AirPods Just Use Bluetooth

Apple's doesn't go out of its way to stress this about the AirPods, but it's important to understand: The AirPods connect to other 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 leads people to think that AirPods are Apple-only is the discussion of the special W1 chip in the iPhone 7 series and later iPhone models. The W1 is a wireless chip created by Apple and available only on its phones. 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 (as we've seen, thats Bluetooth). 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 a compatible iPhone and they automatically connect to the iPhone (after the first, one-button-push pairing, that is). 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?

Generally speaking, it's correct that AirPods work with all Bluetooth-compatible devices. But they don't work the same way for all devices. There are definite advantages to using them with the iPhone and other Apple products. 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 (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 and up, 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 that uses the same Apple ID, via iCloud. That's not possible on Android, for instance, since Android doesn't support iCloud.
  • Smart Features: The AirPods are packed with smart touches: They know when they're in your ears and stop playback when they're taken out; They automatically switching audio playback to the iPhone when they're removed from ears; They play audio to only one AirPod if only one is in an ear. These features are only options with Apple devices.