Say it with me now: Dongles. Dongles, dongles, dongles.
Does it feel weird yet? Well, that’s pretty much what using a dongle as your headphone jack is like: It works, but it’s never not awkward.
Still, for the past week I’ve given it a shot with
Lenovo’s Moto Z, the first major smartphone to launch in the US
without the 3.5mm connector that’s been ubiquitous for decades. (Chinese firms LeEco and Oppo had previously made the switch with some phones overseas.)
Apart from letting me use the word “dongles” four times in my lede, this has given me a sneak peek at what millions of iPhone buyers might be in for come September. At this point, it’d be a surprise if Apple’s next flagship iPhone didn’t dump the jack — a torrent of rumours have suggested as much, and headphone companies are already preparing for the next phase.
So would that really be a big deal?
Well, if my time with the Moto Z is any indication, yes and no.
To be clear: You’ll live. There’s been an endless stream of impassioned arguments against this idea in recent months — and I’m about to add another — but this isn’t the end of the world. From an experience standpoint, a dongle is, at worst, an annoyance. It just makes the cable a little bit longer. Look at this
XKCD comic, then keep things in perspective. All this has held true in my time with the Moto Z.
And again, Bluetooth headphones are a thing. You might be totally fine with them, and you might not want to go back to cables even if your choices weren’t about to be constrained. That’s not me, but maybe you’re what’s called a “normal,” like my colleague Steve Kovach. The quality of wireless headphones has only improved in recent years, too.
But this is reaching. The only thing Lenovo can say it’s gained specifically because it got rid of the headphone jack is that it helped make the Moto Z really thin. It’s 0.2 inches thick, and you can feel that when it’s in your hand. On hardware alone, it comes off like a premium, expensive piece of tech. Same goes for Samsung’s
Galaxy S7, which is 0.31 inches thick.
To recap: Thus far, the trade is A) Complicating a thing that’s been convenient and universal for 50 years, for B) Making a slightly thinner phone. Thin phones are great. But they’re not worth the trouble.
The root of the issue here is a false dichotomy. People who are ok with removing the headphone jack will say that clinging to an old standard is resisting progress. “Remember the floppy disk? It had to go!”
But when the floppy disk died, there were CDs and zip drives. If the headphone jack goes, it has A) Apple’s Lightning connector, which is limited to only that brand’s devices; B) USB-C, which has next to no headphones readily available and isn’t finished yet
; and C) Bluetooth, which gives you another thing to charge and sounds worse to people who genuinely care about audio.
Nobody’s against progress, but to enact it, you need two things: something dated to replace, and something superior to insert. You can make a case for the former. The latter doesn’t really exist yet. This isn’t a practical problem so much as it’s an ideological one. Lenovo’s approach doesn’t add value.
If and when everyone goes all-in on USB-C, then there’s the possibility of a real upgrade. USB-C can do all the digital tricks the future of headphones supposedly has in store, and can serve an analogue connector, meaning it doesn’t necessarily have to come at a price premium. Right now, though, it’s not there yet. The Moto Z reminds me of this.
Instead, we have a bunch of maybes.
Maybe “smart headphones” that track your head movements and adjust themselves accordingly will become a thing.
Maybe jack-less phones will all be waterproof.
Maybe they will all have bigger batteries without being huge.
Maybe having noise cancelling all the time will be a revelation.
There’s a lot of maybes, but we just don’t know yet. Apple ripping off the band-aid might help, but it’s definitely not the case at the time of the Moto Z’s launch.
What we do have are dongles. Dongles that flap and flail around while you’re walking, dongles with cables that could fray over time, dongles you can’t connect to if you want to use a portable battery pack, and dongles you can’t lose if you want to listen to music on your $625 Lenovo phone.
They’re fine, but again, they don’t add anything to the experience. They’re an admission that the time is too soon to kill the headphone jack, and that something — its replacement, specifically — is missing. I wonder what it could be.
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