‘No sweat’ said my EarPods, just before they drowned
Making identical products for different conditions is a bad idea
Most of the electronic gadgets I get in India seem to be designed for countries with cooler climates where humidity is not a factor. Looking at it that way, I would say there is still room for growth in the stagnating mobile phone industry if phone makers focus on customizing their phones for different markets. In India, I would say price sensitivity is a key factor affecting sales. In fact, Apple has recently accepted that its high pricing strategy won’t get it anywhere in India and is beginning to look into assembling iPhones in India in order to avoid the high import taxes.
However, weather conditions don’t seem to be getting much attention. The recent models of iPhones may be waterproof, but touchscreens don’t work too well with sweaty fingers. As for the bundled accessories like headsets, they aren’t even waterproof, and this is an issue.
Dew point and muggy days
Indian Summers are not something you look forward to in India. It’s not yet peak summer and I stay in a city located around 400m above sea-level. But temperatures are already nudging 40℃ (100℉). However, what really gets me is the oppressive humidity, which leaves me drenched in sweat and wreaks havoc with my gadgets.
Here’s what the weather was like this evening at my place. The key figure is the dew point as explained by the linked website, which I quote below. That 22℃ (72℉) gives an idea of how muggy the weather is in India.
…once the dew point gets between 55 F and 65 F, the NWS says the outdoors will feel “sticky with muggy evenings.” Anything above 65 F means there’s a lot of moisture in the air, and most people will start to feel uncomfortable. Once that dew point temperature hits 70 F (21 C), things are getting oppressive, if not outright dangerous. High dew points are uncomfortable because the air’s moisture is slowing down the rate at which our sweat evaporates off our bodies. It’s how we cool down. So, if you’re in some place with a very high temperature and a low dew point, your body is going to sweat and that sweat will evaporate. It’s also very easy to become dehydrated in this situation.
Normally, I use my gadgets indoors, where ACs and fans take the sweat out of the equation. However, this changed when I began jogging a few years ago. Like lots of amateur joggers, the music on my headphones is what keeps me going during my 5km morning run. Though a simple headset without a mic can do the job, a headset with remote controls allows me to easily control the sound volume, and skip tracks until I find a song that matches the cadence of my footsteps pounding the pavement. That’s a lifesaver on days when I lack energy as the beat motivates me to maintain my pace and complete my run.
The Apple Earpods that come with iPhones is perfect for this task. They allow me to control music and volume and even take calls while jogging. Unfortunately, Apple’s Earpods are not waterproof. I found this out the hard way when its buttons stopped working midway through a sweaty run. The sound cut off as I fumbled with the remote to change a song. Once I got home, I tried to fix the Earpods by cleaning them as best as I could but to no avail. My guess is sweat must have entered the remote, and corroded the electrical points inside. I even tried burying the headset in a sack of rice as it’s supposed to be an effective way to absorb the moisture. No luck. After waiting patiently but unsuccessfully for a couple of months, I mournfully dropped the dead headset in the dustbin.
After that, I switched back to my old iPod’s EarPods, which come without remote controls. The Earpods are not waterproof either but they kept going, probably because there aren’t too many sweat glands inside the human ears. But I missed my remote. It was a pain to pull my phone from my pocket while jogging every time I needed to change a song or increase/reduce the volume.
Around this time, Bluetooth headsets started becoming affordable. I tested the waters with a cheap Chinese brand from Amazon. It lasted around a year before it stopped working, and I assumed that it was due to its poor quality. On hindsight, it might have again been the sweat. A little while later, I spotted a JBL set going for under ₹2000 ($29), I gave in to temptation and got myself a pair, conveniently ignoring the fact that it didn’t mention anywhere that it was sweatproof or even waterproof. That was in December 2017.
In South India where I live, the major difference between winter and summer is a slight drop in temperature and humidity. Basically, you sweat less in winter. Moisture, however, didn’t seem to be an issue for my new Bluetooth headset. I relished the freedom of once again going wireless, though the JBL’s remote could only control the volume. Maybe it was luck or maybe the summer of 2018 wasn’t that humid, and the JBL survived a year of running.
Just as I was beginning to think sweat was no longer an issue, my wireless world came crashing down. Or up, to be precise. It happened midway through a sweaty run a week ago. The volume on my JBL headset suddenly started shooting up to deafening levels. I thought maybe a volume button was being pressed accidentally somewhere. But the buttons on my phone and the headset’s remote didn’t seem to be pressed. However, pressing the buttons on the JBL’s remote got me no response. So I pulled out my phone and used the physical volume button on the phone’s side. It worked. But as I was about to put my phone back, the volume began to rise again, and I could see the volume slider on my phone’s lockscreen beginning to move right again as if being pulled by some invisible hand. So I unplugged my ears, turned off the Bluetooth, and resigned myself to a run sans music. The next day, I went back to my mic-less Earpods but it was cumbersome as I was used to being wireless.
However, I had almost lost three headsets to sweat. Something had to change.
I say ‘almost’ because somewhat surprisingly, the JBL headset regained its full powers after a few days, with all buttons becoming functional. However, I didn’t want to push my luck by taking it out jogging again.
A case of mistaken identity
It’s not just headsets which have an issue with sweat. Take Apple’s Touch ID. This is a wonderful innovation but it too doesn’t work too well when it’s humid and your fingers are sweating. The thing is unlike wet fingers, sweaty fingers won’t get perfectly dry by wiping them as sweat is being constantly generated. This can lead to a maddening experience where my phone stubbornly refuses to believe I am me. If I’m lucky, my phone will sometimes relent and give me the option of entering a passcode to unlock it. If it’s a bad day, I will have to keep jabbing away at the home button and onscreen buttons for a while till you get the passcode option, and then hope you can type out your passcode with your sweaty fingers.
In fact, one of my sad memories is the day I beat my personal best timing for a 5 km run by going under 28 minutes. But my clock says I crossed 28 minutes, simply because the phone refused to recognize my sweaty finger desperately swiping away at the ‘stop’ button on my running app.
Of course, there are workarounds. There always are.
Saving a wet fingerprint sometimes works. But ‘sometimes’ is not a good solution.
Upgrading to a phone with Face ID is another option. This can get you past the lockscreen even if you have sweaty fingers. But you still have to deal with the maddening ‘swipe-that-won’t-swipe’ that happens with sweaty fingers. Besides, Indian taxes make iPhones cost more than anywhere else on earth. Like a 64GB iPhone XS Max costs ₹106,999 ($1547), and that’s after a recent price cut of ₹4000. There’s also the fact that my iPhone 6S+ is fine apart from this sweaty issue. It should easily last another couple of years with the battery change I made a couple of months ago. It just doesn’t make sense to upgrade my iPhone so I can get past my lockscreen when my fingers are sweaty.
AirPods are another option as you can bypass the touch function, by using voice control with Siri. But again AirPods are an expensive solution as the new AirPods 2 with standard (wired charging) casing costs ₹14,900 ($215).
The need of the hour is an economical solution.
Earlier this year, I made a resolution to avoid adding to the world’s growing electronic junk by cutting down on my consumerism. But this is a genuine need. So I ordered a sports headset from Xiaomi for a tenth the price of the AirPods at ₹1499 ($22). What makes the Mi a sports headset is its IPX4 splash and sweat-proofing.
Xiaomi is a Chinese company that has a reputation for making relatively good quality, value-for-money phones and accessories under the Mi, Redmi and Poco brands. My short personal experience, sort of backs that up. I have been using my sweat resistant Bluetooth headset for three days, and I’m quite impressed with it.
The Mi is more suited than the JBL for jogging, and it’s not just the IPX4 rating. The JBL has two components, a battery and the remote component attached to its headset apart. These bounce around uncomfortably on my neck when I go jogging, and the sound of them bouncing off my neck clashes with the music. It takes some practice to tune out the disturbance.
On the other hand, the Mi’s short cable and light remote unit (which combines battery and remote) mean it doesn’t bounce around on my neck like the JBL, and interfere with the music. Xiaomi has also made track skipping work by a long press on the volume buttons, something which normally won’t happen on cheaper, non-Apple devices.
Mi also claims the battery will last for 9 hours. I doubt this but I think there will be substantial savings in power consumption with the Mi as they have done one simple thing. Unlike the JBL and most other Bluetooth brands, which have a bright ‘always on’ light to serve as an indicator that the device is turned on, the Mi has a lower power ‘on’ light that blinks once every ten seconds or so.
Making things better
In that sense, a lot of what Xiaomi did with the sweat-proof headset is just common sense. But I like the thought process by which they fine-tuned the gadget for a jogger’s needs.
I must add that the Mi products do have their disadvantages. Xiaomi has to cut corners to keep the price down on its products. Like I have a Mi Band which I got in Sep 2016 for ₹2000 ($29). I use it to keep time, count my steps, and vibrate to alert me when my phone is in silent mode and someone calls. It has done this job well for two and a half years. But the screen began to go dim a couple of weeks ago, and I will have to replace the whole gadget. In comparison, my Apple products seem to last forever, with even my old clickwheel iPod still in sound working condition. But the way I look at it, $29 for a product that needed to be charged just once a month, yet delivered non-stop service for 30 months is pretty good value for money.
Coming back to the Bluetooth headset, the Mi’s cable doesn’t feel as sturdy as the JBL’s flat, tangle-free one. The JBL also has magnets in the earpieces to hold them together around your neck, unlike the little clip that the Mi uses. In fact, the overall build quality of the JBL just feels better. But the reality is the flimsier Mi is actually far better at the job of being a jogger’s headset.
In that sense, Xiaomi has taken a page out of Apple’s Playbook of taking an existing product and creating a better version of it. But Mi has an edge on Apple as it manages to do this while keeping its price lower than competitors instead of higher. This explains why Apple has only a 1% share of India’s cellphone market while Xiaomi is the market leader with 28.9%.
To sum up, if Apple and other phone makers apply Xiaomi’s simple principles, and tackle the specific needs of customers in different locations, I see no reason why they can’t reverse the current global trend of falling phone sales.