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.

Let’s Intimidate NASA

Image via NASA

Loren Grush for The Verge:

Two weeks ago, Sidd Bikkannavar flew back into the United States after spending a few weeks abroad in South America. An employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Bikkannavar had been on a personal trip, pursuing his hobby of racing solar-powered cars. He had recently joined a Chilean team, and spent the last weeks of January at a race in Patagonia.

Bikkannavar is a seasoned international traveller — but his return home to the US this time around was anything but routine. Bikkannavar left for South America on January 15th, under the Obama Administration. He flew back from Santiago, Chile to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30th, just over a week into the Trump Administration.

Bikkannavar says he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the CBP agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar’s phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn’t know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device.

Read the full article.

My conspiracy theory/guess is that it wasn’t his name (as the rest of the article supposes) that caused the detention. The detention was just a tool getting more access to JPL and NASA through the CBP even if it was temporary. The CBP has defied court orders in order to continue enforcing Trump’s constitutionally illegal ban on Muslims from seven countries. It wouldn’t be surprising if the CBP were being used to access information from (and intimidate) reality-based agencies of the government that won’t collaborate with Trump’s administration.

YouTube’s Upcoming Paywall

Micah Singleton writing about the changes:

The way you experience YouTube may be dramatically different before the end of the year. According to multiple sources, the world’s largest video-sharing site is preparing to launch its two separate subscription services before the end of 2015 – Music Key, which has been in beta since last November, and another unnamed service targeting YouTube’s premium content creators, which will come with a paywall. Taken together, YouTube will be a mix of free, ad-supported content and premium videos that sit behind a paywall.

How much do I have to pay YouTube to prevent copyright trollbots from destroying the service?