The HomePod Situation

Apple’s competitor to other standalone high-end speakers came out on Friday. It’s the HomePod. Apple boasts about its higher quality sound that adapt to the room you are in, reviewers agree.

Nilay Patel wrote this in his review:

All of this means the HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we’ve tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it’s immediately, obviously noticeable: set in a corner of my kitchen, the HomePod sounded so much better than everything else that our video director Phil Esposito went from thinking the whole thing was kind of dumb to actively pointing out that other speakers sounded bad in comparison.

Compared to the HomePod, the Sonos One sounds a little empty and the Google Home Max is a bass-heavy mess — even though Google also does real-time room tuning. The Echo and smaller Google Home aren’t even in the same league. The only comparable speaker that came close in my testing was the Sonos Play:5, which could match the detail and power of the HomePod in some rooms when tuned with Sonos’ TruePlay system. But it also costs more, is larger, and doesn’t have any smart features at all.

The Apple engineers I talked to were very proud of how the HomePod sounds, and for good reason: Apple’s audio engineering team did something really clever and new with the HomePod, and it really works. I’m not sure there’s anything out there that sounds better for the price, or even several times the price.

What most reviewers also say is that Siri isn’t as hot as the virtual assistant competition in “OK, Google” and Amazon’s Alexa.

Joanna Stern for the WSJ:

Stumping Siri wasn’t as easy as it has been—it knew state capitals, kitchen measurements and the year “Friends” premiered. But Alexa and Google Assistant not only knew more answers, they could better parse my questions. When I asked, “Who is the prime minister of England?” they both correctly named Theresa May. On the HomePod, Siri only knew the answer when I asked, more appropriately, “Who is the prime minister of Great Britain?”

There are other problems I won’t shut up about: Many people will put a HomePod in the kitchen, yet it can’t set two simultaneous cooking timers. It can’t wake me up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” either. Echo and Google Home can do both. Apple says it is improving Siri all the time.

Of course the “Who is the prime minister of England?” question no-longer stumps Siri, Apple read that review and fixed the glitch, but they’d do that for whatever trivia a reviewer points out. More fundamental issues like the one with multiple timers have been a thorn in the side of anyone who uses iOS’ built-in timer for the past decade, and every Homepod reviewer seems to have taken the time to (rightly) dig into Apple on it.

Siri on the HomePod also fails at understanding multiple users. This is a real issue because it won’t lock other people out of your messages and other personalized features. So, unless you live alone and never have guests, it would never make sense to turn on the personalized features option in the HomePod’s settings.

The other downside is that the device only works out of the box with Apple Music and other music in Apple’s ecosystem through iTunes Match or purchased in iTunes.

I wish that there were a cheaper HomePod Jr. that was cheaper than $350, and that Siri had worked better on the device today. It will get better over time, and I know that for many people that want a smart speaker they’re going to choose the Amazon or Google options, but I wouldn’t ever buy a box running Amazon or Google’s assistants for one reason: Trust.

Google is an advertising publisher, they are fantastic at search, but that’s how they make their money. So, their assistant-in-a-box is not something I would ever trust to keep in my home. I don’t even use their browser, Chrome.

Amazon is a weird business that wants to put something in your home so that you will buy things through it and it can learn more about you to sell you more things. Amazon is more focused on being user-friendly than Google, but the ultimate goal is still so that you’ll be used to ordering paper towels or whatever through their assistant. They also have abhorrent labor practices.

Kelly Weill for the Daily Beast:

In 2015, Ohio gave Amazon more than $17 million in tax breaks to open its first two distribution centers in the state. The handout was heralded as a job-creator.

By August 2017, more than one in ten of those new Ohio Amazon employees or their family members received government food assistance, state data show.

Spencer Soper at The Morning Call reporting on conditions inside an Amazon warehouse back in 2011:

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Apple, in theory, wants to sell you a good product that does a thing that you will hopefully find delightful. I believe that their engineers take privacy seriously, and genuinely try to treat their workers well even though the executives fuck up like clockwork, I haven’t seen anything as galling as what happens with Amazon and Google.

The Apple engineers, at least, try to do as much as possible with processing our data on our devices instead of shipping your data off to their server farms to analyze it. Siri does require shipping your voice data off, but I would bet $100 that some of Siri’s limitations are down to the security restrictions Apple has in-place to protect our privacy.

It’s wrong to personify any company, but this is the only company I would trust to have a microphone in my home all day. I also like Apple Music, I’ve been using it daily since 2015 and I still love it.

That’s why I’d be good with trusting the HomePod with what it offers today, and would recommend it to someone who wants to listen to music, podcasts, or other audio sent over Apple’s AirPlay to the dingus. I just have no idea where it would even fit into my life.

I use a cheap bluetooth speaker in the bathroom to listen to music and the news while I take a shower or give my kid a bath. I bring an even cheaper bluetooth speaker with us to the playground so that we can listen to music and baseball games. The HomePod can’t replace the bluetooth speaker in either of those scenarios.

When I want to listen to music in my house I can turn on the Apple TV box, TV, and audio/video receiver with one tap of the remote. The speakers inside the HomePod sound great, but they aren’t going to beat a real stereo set. The HomePod doesn’t have a physical line-in, so it can’t replace my AVR and speakers.

So, I don’t really know where the HomePod is supposed to fit in, for me and my family. It’s not a soundbar, it’s only a bluetooth speaker replacement when you don’t need portability, and obviously don’t need it to work with non-Apple devices since the HomePod only supports Apple’s AirPlay. Maybe if you live an extremely minimal life it’d fit in for you. What a strange device.

Apple’s WWDC 2017 Press Event Notes

Every year Apple has at least two big events, their iPhone event in the second half of the year and their developers conference event in the first half of the year. Each event has it’s own press briefing, here are my notes from today’s WWDC 2017 press briefing. It is long as hell.

The show opened with a comedy skit about a new Apple engineer sitting down at a new desk and accidentally unplugging the iOS app store servers, disabling every app. Soon, the world descends into chaos as people can’t get directions and we see a marketplace of people trying to substitute for the missing apps:

Tim Cook was the first live human on stage with numbers and then to announce that Amazon’s Prime Video service is finally going to the Apple TV.

WatchOS 4:
Kevin Lynch announced new Siri functionality that would automatically present information you might want on the new Siri watch face. Rotating the crown scrolls through the available information. For example you might want to see your upcoming appointments and weather changes. They’re displayed as tiny cards as seen here:

There’s also a new kaleidoscope face along with several animated Toy Story character faces.

WatchOS 4 also has more customized notifications for activity encouragement and better reward animations when you’re done exercising.

The exercise tracking is more advanced and detects when you’re paused while swimming to determine your intervals, for example. It’s also easier now to move from one workout type into another without stopping.

New gym equipment will be Apple Watch enabled and will help you record your fitness activities on that equipment when you swipe your watch near a certain area on the equipment.

Apple Music is improved on the watch with a new app.

The new WatchOS will be out this Fall with a pre-release version available to developers today.


Mac Updates:
Tim Cook introduced Craig Federighi to talk about macOS updates. macOS 10.13 will be called High Sierra, another stability update along the lines of Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion. Craig joked about the name’s obvious weed reference.

Craig promises these new features in 10.13:

Faster Safari web browsing with faster Javascript.

Safari will also block autoplaying video and audio on web pages. That’s great.

Safari will have “Intelligent Tracking Prevention” to prevent sites from identifying you across domains.

Search is better somehow. Apple didn’t really explain how

Mail gets a split view in full-screen mode to edit new messages alongside reading others and is also more optimized for storage.

Photos gets all kinds of improvements such as improvements in detecting faces.

Finally, Photos’ machine learning stuff gets synced across devices.

Photos also has way more advanced editing features on the Mac.

Apple’s Apple File System came to iOS recently to replace HFS+, APFS will be on High Sierra as well.

MacOS will also support h.265 for video compression, which will also be supported with dedicated hardware on Macs.

Craig boasted about their graphics API Metal for a while before announcing Metal 2 that is supposed to give a 10x draw call throughput improvement. It’ll also have better debugging and optimization tools.

Interestingly, Craig talked about how there is a new Thunderbolt 3 enclosure with an AMD Radeon RX 580 and USB-C hub available for developers who want to offload Metal GPU computation tasks to an external device from a Mac. It isn’t clear if this can offload desktop graphics rendering, as well, but you would assume so.

Craig announced VR support coming to the Mac from Valve with SteamVR and engines from Epic (Unreal) and Unity.

All systems that support Sierra will support High Sierra. It’ll be out this Fall with a public beta later in June.


Mac Hardware Updates
New iMacs are coming with 50% brighter displays and Kaby Lake chipsets from Intel. The iMacs are getting support for more RAM, 32 gigs on the 21.5 inch and 64 gigs on the 27. The 27 also gets fusion drives by default. The 21.5 iMac gets improved integrated graphics. The 4k 21.5 inch iMac gets the Radeon Pro 555 and 560 with up to 4 gigs of RAM.

The 27inch 5K iMac gets the Radeon Pro 570, 575, and 580 with up to 6 gigs of RAM.

MacBooks and MacBook Pros are also getting updated with new chipsets.

Industrial Light & Magic’s John Knoll & Epic’s Lauren Ridge showed up to give a VR demo running on the new iMacs. The demo featured live edits to a Star Wars scene in the Unreal Engine. It was incredibly awkward and didn’t demonstrate anything new over what Windows desktop machines could do last year.


iMac Pro

 

There’s a new 27 inch iMac Pro in Space Gray to offer an option for anyone missing the Mac Pro that hasn’t been updated in years. With copious options in CPU (up to 18 cores) and RAM (up to 128GB).

According to Apple it’ll be much cheaper than a comparable workstation that would cost over $7000, this one will start at $5000. It’ll be available this December.


iOS 11
Tim Cook boasted about iOS 10’s lack of fragmentation compared to Android and then reintroduced Craig Federighi to talk about iOS 11.

iMessage apps get an updated app drawer.

iMessages is now in the cloud to sync your message history to all of your devices, and it is still encrypted end-to-end, which should mean that Apple can’t access your messages in any situation. Although practically they could do so and you might not know about it.

Apple Pay is getting person-to-person payments, and it’ll have integration with Messages. Although it’ll store by default to an Apple Pay Wallet you can transfer money to your bank account. Sounds like the introduction of an Apple Bank.

Siri is getting an improved voice that sounds more natural and is still the only option with both male and female voices. Siri will also support translation in beta with some languages. SiriKit for developers will do more and support more applications. The last update only worked with a few custom actions like sending messages in third-party apps.

iPhone photos and videos are getting new compression formats that are supposedly much more efficient. The portrait camera is getting more features for a higher quality end-result.

Memories are enhanced. Video editing is supposed to be much improved as well.

Control Center is now modular and a single page. If you 3D touch a control module you get more controls and more information for that module as it expands to take up more space on the display.

The lock screen notification area will now expand with a swipe to display all of your notifications, not just the most recent ones.

Live Photos are improved, you can pick the key photo and loop the short video in live photos or choose other effects.

Maps gets improved maps for inside buildings like malls and airports. Navigation gets speed limits and lane-guidance. There’s a new feature for drivers called Do Not Disturb while Driving, it’ll be automatically suggested while driving and hide notifications. It can also notify anyone texting you that you’re driving and that you won’t see their messages unless they’re on a VIP list or they can break through by responding with “urgent.”

AirPlay 2 supports multi-room speaker systems from all iOS devices as well as the 4th generation Apple TV.

Apple Music can optionally share your playlists and music library with your friends, developers can also access this information through new APIs.

Phil Schiller appeared on stage to announce some updates coming for developers and users. The iOS App Store gets a complete redesign that looks more like Apple Music. A new Today screen shows off new cards with different stories about new apps. There are new dedicated screens for showing off games and a different screen for non-game apps. Category editors can display videos demonstrating tips and tricks for different apps.

Craig came back to talk about other technology improvements, including ARKit for augmented reality. It’ll work with Unity, Unreal Engine, and Apple’s SceneKit. Craig demonstrated 3D objects like coffee cups and lamps displayed on surfaces like tables that are detected instead of just having the 3D objects overlaid on what the camera sees without any interaction with real-world objects. An updated version of Pokemon Go will support this new ARKit and display Pokemon on the ground instead of just floating in the air.

Peter Jackson’s WingnutAR team appeared on stage to demonstrate an AR application running on an iPad with a science fiction action scene. Using AR to display a pre-configured action sequence is pretty boring, honestly.


The 10.5 inch iPad Pro

Apple introduced a new iPad Pro with a 10.5 inch display and an A10x processor. Joz told us that this supports a full-size software keyboard along with a better keyboard case. It’ll have a better refresh rate that looks smoother when motion is displayed on the screen, so Apple called this ProMotion. It’ll also dynamically adjust the display refresh rate for whatever the content is you’re working on, for better performance or battery life at a slower refresh rate.

The new 10.5 inch iPad Pro also has the same camera as the iPhone 7 and the base model has 64 gigs of storage. They’re available for order today and will ship next week.

Craig came back to talk about iOS improvements for the iPad. The dock can now have a large amount of apps. It can be pulled up from the bottom of the screen in any app. You can pull apps out of the dock into a slide-over multi-tasking split-view. iOS 11 will also support drag and drop. There’s a new Files app that supports iCloud drive and third-party cloud file management services like Dropbox.

The Notes app now supports handwritten notes that get interpreted using OCR as text by the system for searching and can scan a document for editing.

The 12.9 (let’s be honest, 13) inch iPad Pro also gets the new display, processor, increased base storage (64GB) and other features. All of these iPads 10.5 and 12.9 also have the 2nd generation TouchID sensor with quicker fingerprint recognition, but still appear to have physical home buttons instead of the haptic-driven virtual home buttons of the iPhones 7 and 7 Plus.


HomePod

Phil Schiller came back on stage to talk about “Reinventing Home Music” with a new speaker from Apple called HomePod. The first non-Beats branded speaker from Apple since the iPod Hi-Fi. HomePod is a rotund  7-inch tall device with a little bit of an urn shape and has its own A8 chip inside. Supposedly this speaker is very advanced and detects the kind of environment it is in to adjust for different types of rooms and adjust the audio for clarity. It’ll also work with another HomePod automatically for better stereo separation.

Of course, this speaker will support Siri and be Apple’s competitor to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home device as was rumored for months. Apple says that this speaker will have advanced Siri functionality that is tailored specifically to it.

The HomePod will be $349, in white and space gray, this December.


Overall, this feels like Apple trying to catch up, in VR and AR, with a speaker for Siri and finally getting updates to the iPad Pro and an iMac Pro to help reassure Mac Pro users like video editors that Apple hasn’t completely abandoned them when the Mac Pro still doesn’t have a release scheduled beyond “not this year.”

It’s good to see VR on the Mac, but nothing today addressed the desire for a desktop Mac for gamers to play VR applications unless you want a machine with a built-in display and a GPU you can’t upgrade. As terrible as Nvidia can be as we’ve seen with the GTX 970 memory debacle, I don’t ever want to buy a desktop with an AMD graphics chipset.

I would probably want a HomePod as Apple is the only company offering an AI assistant speaker that gives a damn about privacy and isn’t just trying to sell you shit through their store like Amazon with their Echo.