Commentary

Fate of the headphone jack looks secure - for now

Mr Justin Denison, senior vice-president of product strategy at Samsung, speaking about the new features on the Samsung Galaxy S8 at the launch event for the smartphone in New York City last week.
Mr Justin Denison, senior vice-president of product strategy at Samsung, speaking about the new features on the Samsung Galaxy S8 at the launch event for the smartphone in New York City last week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus ditched, Samsung has kept for its Galaxy S8 and S8+

Samsung's new Galaxy S8 and S8+, unveiled in New York City last week, are beautiful smartphones with state-of-the-art technology.

They pack a host of dazzling new features, especially their almost bezel-less display. But it is the retention of a decades-old relic that arguably made me the happiest.

I'm talking about the 3.5mm headphone jack - the one that Apple jettisoned with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus phones.

I am all for keeping the humble audio jack. I may not own expensive headphones, but I do have many devices like laptops and tablets that still use the headphone jack. Having to swop headphones or use an adapter for different devices is annoying. While I could go the wireless route, some of my gear, like my desktop PC, do not even support Bluetooth.

Now, given that details about the S8 were leaked in the lead-up to the launch, the retention of the audio jack was not that surprising.

But, back in December, it was rumoured that Samsung would take the cue from Apple.

And it was widely speculated last year that Android handset makers would remove the headphone jack. In fact, Lenovo's Moto Z actually beat Apple to the punch with a USB Type-C connector for audio a few months before the iPhone 7 launch.

Last September, the USB Implementers Forum released a standard for audio using USB Type-C. According to the industry group, removing the analog audio jack will simplify the innards of devices, improve power management, and allow for smart features on headphones and other audio equipment. It will also make for slimmer phones.

This standard probably came too late for handset makers to implement in their latest phones. Which is why this year's flagship smartphones seem to be bucking the trend.

At the Mobile World Congress trade show in February, we saw the latest high-end Android handsets, like the LG G6 and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium sporting the headphone jack. Huawei's flagship P10 and P10 Plus phones, which were launched in Singapore last week, also retained this connector. The only Android phones to ditch the headphone jack so far are from HTC, Lenovo and LeEco.

Thus, it would seem that the headphone jack is safe, for now. With the micro-USB port already being phased out for USB Type-C on smartphones, it would have been too much for consumers to have to buy new connectors and adapters for the audio jack, too.

But this reprieve is likely to be temporary. Handset makers would have noted that Apple managed to sell a record 78.3 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2016 despite the backlash and jokes about the missing audio jack.

In addition, wireless technology is improving, too. The Galaxy S8 supports the new Bluetooth 5.0 standard that promises four times the range and twice the speed of the previous version. You can even stream to two sets of wireless headphones at the same time.

In short, the days are numbered for the headphone jack. While I hope for it to last as long as possible, I'll give it two years before USB Type-C audio becomes standard on phones.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Fate of the headphone jack looks secure - for now'. Print Edition | Subscribe