Apple needs to take the frustration out of AirPods firmware updates

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Apple needs to take the frustration out of AirPods firmware updates
AirPods firmware updates shouldn’t be so frustrating.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

What’s in that firmware update for a couple of AirPods that came out Tuesday. Who the hell knows?!? Apple doesn’t announce updates for its truly wireless headphones — and won’t tell anyone what’s in them. It’s very frustrating.

Apple’s attempt at making AirPods firmware updates simple instead makes them way more complicated than necessary. Currently, they happen in the background, but what’s really needed is an “Update Now” button.

A simple AirPods firmware update system that’s not so simple

Apple’s current system involves AirPods taking care of their own firmware updates. When the earbuds are in their charging case, they automatically connect to the iPhone they’re paired with and download, then install, any new software version available.

The idea is that the user doesn’t have to do anything. They won’t even know the update took place. It’s as simple as can be.

But it turns out the real world isn’t so simple. For a lot of reasons.

First off, consider an AirPods Pro firmware update released in 2019 that many people think made Active Noise Cancellation worse. Naturally, users were eager for a new version to replace that supposedly dodgy software. When it arrived, there was no way to know if it actually fixed the ANC problem because Apple’s “behind the scenes” firmware update system doesn’t include release notes. The result was frustration.

Next, jump forward to 2021. Apple announced that it would add Find My tracking and Conversation Boost to AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. These much-anticipated features would come in a firmware update. That’s great, but Apple didn’t reveal when that actual update was available, because the company never tells us when new firmware for AirPods is out. And AirPods don’t tell their users they have new features. We’re just expected to figure everything out for ourselves.

And, finally, the whole idea that AirPods upgrade on their own and there’s nothing the owner can do about it is sure to frustrate some people. Like me. When a new software version is out, I want it now. We think we know what it takes to update AirPods firmware, but it’s still a frustratingly indirect process.

A simple ‘Update now’ button, please

When I have a keyboard connected to my iPad, a Keyboard section appears in the Settings application. The same goes for when I connect a mouse or trackpad. And the same should happen with AirPods. Tools to install new firmware updates should appear there. With a button that says “Update Now.”

Apple also should start announcing AirPods upgrade — and including release notes. We shouldn’t be expected to find out our AirPods Pro now support Conversation Boost because we stumbled across the new feature in Settings.

I think when Apple came up with the plan that AirPods would quietly handle their own firmware updates, the assumption was that these would offer small tweaks that would marginally improve the earbuds’ performance. And as long as that was true, users probably didn’t need a manual way to update them.

But that’s not true anymore. Now that AirPods firmware updates can include significant new features, Apple needs to give us an announcement, release notes and an Update Now button. It would be much less frustrating.