Today's Pointers column is about a part of the iPhone we all take so much for granted that we almost don't remember its there: the earbuds (or, if you have a more recent iPhone, EarPods) and the little controller they come with. As with iOS and OS X generally, it should not surprise you that there may be hidden abilities in there: this is true of many aspects of Apple's hardware and software. Both in Apple's own supplied earphones and Apple-compatible third-party ones with the little controller, there are some less-obvious and downright-secret features you may not know.
Of course, almost everyone has figured out the basics: when listening to music, you can of course control the volume, pause, and resume music playing by clicking the top, bottom, or middle "buttons" of the controller, and you likely know that this also works for phone calls, with the middle button changing to answer/end. You may also have discovered, or will just learn now, that double-clicking will skip to the next song, chapter in an audiobook, or episode of a podcast (if there are any to go to). Standard stuff.
The hidden power of triple-clicks, and press-and-hold
Less obvious, and less well-documented is what happens if you double-click and hold down that center button on the second click. As it turns out, it will fast-forward through music or a podcast (sadly, not through boring phone calls). Even less obvious -- and generally only discovered by accident -- is that triple-clicking the center button and holding down on the last click will rewind
music, audiobooks, and podcasts. The fast-forwarding or rewinding continues until you release the center button.
What's more -- and you either knew this intuitively or already discovered it -- triple-clicking without holding has the opposite effect of double-clicking: it jumps back to the previous
song, chapter, or episode. Not the most intuitive thing in the world, but it follows a sort of logic and quickly becomes habit with practice. But do you know the power of the Dark Side? Sorry, I mean the power of the hold? Pressing and holding the center button (on the first click) has a couple of useful abilities that may not seem as obvious.
Say you get an incoming call while you're already on a call. Your brain thinks "there must be a way to put the call on hold and answer the second call without hanging up on the first party," but your eyes report that there's no obvious method for this that doesn't involve taking the iPhone out to resolve it, so inevitably the brain just gives up and makes hasty excuses, presses the center button to end Call 1, and then presses it again to answer the former Call 2, which is now the only active call. Only that isn't generally what happens.
The mistake people make is that they assume the headphone controller is "dumb" and doesn't know you have two calls. In fact, it does, and thus the answer/end button now acts as a "put call 1 on hold and answer call 2" with a center-button click. Talk to caller 2, and then -- this is the part everyone screws up and loses someone on -- click-and-hold on the center button for a count of two (two seconds). This will end the second call and switch you back to the first call.
Old iPhone earbuds still have some useful functions
It isn't any more sophisticated than that, though, so you can't juggle calls back and forth as you reassure your spouse on call 1 that you're not cheating on them while your lover is awaiting your commitment to a rendezvous on call 2. However, the single-click and hold also works when you hear a single incoming call (say, while you're listening to music) and a quick glance at the iPhone or Apple Watch lets you know you don't want to talk to them right now: press and hold the center button for two seconds and/or until you hear two beeps. That means the call has been shuffled off to voicemail, and your audio program resumes without having to stop and take the call.
Here's one you probably may not have known: on the iPhone, if you are taking a picture in landscape (the way the good lord intended), you can press the plus (volume up) button on the iPhone to take the picture, rather than struggle to hold the iPhone steady with one hand while you try to tap the picture button on screen with your fingernail (tip: nope, you have to use your fingertip). This allows you to hold the iPhone with two hands for steadiness, and take the picture with a "shutter button" on top (presuming the iPhone is oriented correctly), just like a point-and-shoot camera.
Oh, you're thinking, that's a nice tip (or perhaps you're thinking "well duh
"), but what has it got to do with the earbuds or EarPods? Ah, that's the bit you probably didn't know: the plus button (top button) on the earphone controller -- not
the center button this time -- acts as a shutter button as well. Of course, it's important to remember this only works in the default Camera app, but as that's what most people use nearly always, it's great for times when you want or need to hold the camera one-handed, such as taking a portrait-oriented photo or video, or want to be able to take the photo without having to physically look at the iPhone to see where the shutter button is.
Compatible third-party iPhone earphones
Another you have probably already found by accident is that pressing and holding the center button when no call is coming in (or active) will invoke Siri on the iPhone 4S and higher. This is great for quick access to Siri when the iPhone is still in your pocket or purse and you don't want to fish it out, but you do want to tell her (or him -- Siri has a male voice option, you know) to set a reminder for you, change a meeting date on your calendar, call someone on your Contacts list, where the nearest coffee shop is, or tell you a joke (among the many other things Siri can reply to).
We've been talking about the iPhone because quite a number of these tips are designed specifically for iPhones, but many of them also work for the iPad, the iPod touch, and even the Mac (thanks to the Continuity feature introduced in Yosemite, you can make and receive phone calls relayed from your iPhone, and of course the music controls work there as well).
The EarPods or earlier earbuds (or your own third-party headphones if the controller on them is compatible with the iPhone standard) can also be used for dictation on the Mac, which sometimes works better for accuracy than the built-in mic on most models (and obviously functions as the mic on Mac minis or Mac Pros, which don't have built-in microphones). In short, check out the hidden features of the volume/phone controller on your earphones -- you might just learn a few new tricks, you old dog.
-- Charles Martin