February 8, 2018

Apple Watch is a huge success. I think HomePod will follow a similar path.

Canalys:

Apple Watch shipments beat expectations, topping 18 million in 2017, up by more than 54% on 2016. The Series 3 was the key growth driver, as total shipments of the latest version of Apple’s Watch were just under 9 million, making up nearly half of all shipments in 2017. Apple’s Q4 performance was impressive in itself, as shipments grew by more than 32% over Q4 2016 to 8 million, the highest ever number of shipments in a single quarter, not just for Apple, but for any wearable vendor.

I recognize that these are vastly different products, but Apple’s success with Apple Watch after much skepticism from the market reminds me strongly of the imminent rollout of HomePod.

The early watchOS experience is quite different from what we’ve got today. Complications (the hot spots on the watch face that update with things like notifications, current weather, etc.) and Activities integration are but two major changes that rolled out over time and significantly changed Apple Watch’s usefulness.

What’s critical to me is that those changes rolled out as free software updates. And they work on the original hardware. I have on my wrist a Series 0 Apple Watch (the very first publicly available model) and it works with the latest rev of watchOS. It can be a bit slow at times, but other than that, it works perfectly.

The point is, Apple Watch at birth was almost nothing like what we have today. And I believe the same thing will be true for HomePod. Yes, there are limitations on what we can get from Siri today, limitations on what and how we connect to HomePod. But I believe a year or two will bring a sea change of improvements and functionality. And I believe those changes will continue to work on the existing hardware.

Eddy Cue took the stage for an Apple Music Q&A at Variety’s Pollstar conference:

Eddy Cue, Apple senior vice president of software and services, says the goal is for everyone to have nothing in their pockets.

Well, other than an iPhone, he said, laughing.

Demonstrating the seemingly small but life-changing tech Apple is known for, Cue explained how he goes to work without even carrying keys or a wallet. “Not having keys to anything is really nice,” Cue said. “It’s simple, but it’s a big deal.”

And:

“Anytime you want to purchase something, the number of clicks, the number of things you have to do, you see dropoff,” Cue said. “Depending on how many there are, there are always huge dropoffs. With Apple Pay, you see something you want, you basically do the face ID and you’re done. It’s very easy to complete the transactions.”

And:

“For us, one of weirdest things in the music industry is the lack of transparency,” Cue said. “One of things that we want to do, specifically when we think from an artist point of view, we want to make information available to them as we have, so they can see what is actually happening,” Cue said. “Obviously it’s great for live because you can see where your fan base is, but it’s great for marketing. You can see the effects of what you’re doing basically in near-real time,” such as being on an A-list playlist.

Eddy also talks about the live concert experience and bringing that to more people. Interesting post.

February 7, 2018

Falcon Heavy test flight

Hyperbole aside, (no Ars Technica – this wasn’t “the moment SpaceX opened the cosmos to the masses”), it was still a pretty cool launch and the simultaneous landings of the two outer cores (the third middle core was lost at sea) was incredible.

I love these two Open Culture stories:

“How ancient Greek statues really looked: research reveals their bold, bright colors and patterns”

“The Met digitally restores the colors of an ancient Egyptian temple, using projection mapping technology”

Like most of us, I thought the statues and monuments we saw of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and others were a dull white or a boring sandy brown colour. It wasn’t until I traveled to Egypt a few years ago. The tour guide pointed out that of course the things we were looking at were painted in their original form. I realized we aren’t seeing these antiquities as they were originally made. These stories and videos help us imagine what they actually might have looked like.

The Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street firm is in talks to offer financing to shoppers buying phones, watches and other gadgets from Apple, people familiar with the matter said. Customers purchasing a $1,000 iPhone X could take out a loan from Goldman instead of charging it to credit cards that often carry high interest rates.

Goldman charges 12% interest on its average Marcus loans. Credit cards can charge upward of 20% and carry late fees and other charges.

Partnerships with big retailers like Apple are key. They can deliver millions of customers that Goldman would struggle to find on its own.

As Ben Bajarin said on Twitter, “The Bank of Apple is coming.”

Aaron Miller:

The HomePod team set out—six years ago—to design a speaker. And not just any speaker. They wanted to make a really great speaker that only Apple could make, one with a brain that could adapt to its surroundings.

Miller pointed me to his post via Twitter and I think it’s a really good take on the disconnect I’ve been feeling regarding many HomePod reviews – “smart speaker vs smart assistant”.

I take Apple at its word that this is a “smart speaker” and I think that’s how it should be reviewed – “How does it sound/work as a speaker?” But so many are comparing it to the virtual assistants of Amazon and Google (where it justifiably pales in comparison).

After reading Miller’s piece, I think Apple may have made a marketing error in calling the HomePod a smart speaker. Reviewers are getting hung up on the “smart” part and assuming it means and is comparable to devices like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. But what if we redefine smart? Think of the things almost all the reviewers have commented on regarding the HomePod as a standalone music player. The sound quality is universally described as excellent. The design of the internals is mindboggling. The technology for “forming sound” is beyond what anyone else is doing, certainly at this price point.

So, if you think of the HomePod as a speaker leaps and bounds beyond the “intelligence” of any other speaker, then it’s an amazing device. It’s definitely a “smart speaker”. But it’s not a particularly good virtual assistant. It wasn’t designed to be – at least not yet.

Maybe if Apple had called the HomePod a “super speaker” or something else and more directly avoided the comparison to “smart” devices like the Echo and the Home, they wouldn’t be having so many tech reviewers reviewing a Ferrari as if it were a Corolla.

HomePod reviews of note. And one not so much.

Yesterday saw a river of HomePod reviews. Here are a few that struck me, each with its own unique spin.

For starters, if you have not yet already, spend a few minutes with Jim Dalrymple’s take on HomePod. Jim is passionate about music, is an excellent guitarist, and has a real musician’s take.

With Jim’s review as foundation, take a look at these three reviews:

  • Rene Ritchie, iMore: HomePod: Retina for your ears. I love Rene’s analogy comparing HomePod’s computation audio to iPhone and portrait mode. Rene’s review might be the most technically detailed of all the reviews I’ve read. He asks a lot of interesting questions, lays out understandable answers.

  • Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch: A four-sentence HomePod review (with appendices). Here’s the four sentences:

Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is stymied by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.

What follows is the review itself. Keep an eye out for the discussion of Siri detection (how HomePod picks up a Siri request with music playing or background noise competing with your voice) as well as Matthew’s appreciation of the HomePod power cord.

  • John Gruber, Daring Fireball: HomePod. John’s review starts with a tweet-sized summary:

Apple says HomePod:

  • Has great audio quality.
  • Is easy to set up.
  • Makes it easy to play audio content from Apple (Apple Music, iTunes Store, iCloud Music Library, podcasts from iTunes’s directory).
  • Has primary interaction via Siri. You just talk to HomePod.
  • Allows secondary interaction using HomePod as an AirPlay speaker.

All of this is true.

Great summary. What follows is really worth reading. John avoids all boilerplate, digging into the good and the bad. Pay special attention to the “What’s missing” section towards the top. Every one of these rang true for me. Other than the lack of a line-in jack (I’ll address that in a sec), each of these issues can be addressed, should Apple choose to, in a future software release.

As to the line-in jack, I get that some people are bothered by this, but this is a speaker made for wireless. To me, a wired input would be old school in a bad way. And if the need is large enough, surely someone will step in with a product that allows you to plug any audio source in, then wirelessly bridge that signal to HomePod via AirPlay.

The final review in my list is sort of an anti-review. This one is from the New York Times and, as is often the case with the Times, is a curmudgeonly take with the title, Apple’s HomePod Has Arrived. Don’t Rush to Buy It. The core of this review is a complaint about Siri:

Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate, even though that is the primary way you interact with it. Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Siri doesn’t even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.

Two points here:

  1. Know going in that the Siri domain on HomePod is limited, a subset of the Siri domain on your iPhone. This is no secret, and the reviewer should not have been surprised by this.

  2. Anyone paying attention knows that HomePod is first and foremost about music, about audio. This review doesn’t even look at audio until near the end of the article.

I find reviews like this mind-bogglingly irresponsible. Clearly, Siri is an issue, but that itself is not the story. This feels like an unbalanced slam. Read the other reviews instead. They all carry the good and the bad, they’ll let you know what’s what.

Chris Welch, The Verge:

Spotify is removing itself from a number of home audio speakers and receivers from the likes of Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Bang & Olufsen, Pioneer, and Yamaha. Some devices are losing Spotify integration completely, while others will require firmware updates if users want to continue receiving built-in access to their music. The products in question were once all able to independently play Spotify over the internet — no smartphone required.

And:

[Spotify] announced this change was coming months and months ago. But at that time, things were still working as normal for users who would ultimately be impacted by the move. Over the last few weeks, the cutoff has actually occurred, and Spotify is getting a slew of complaints in its support forums about the lost functionality.

Curious timing. Is this strategy shift by Spotify related to Friday’s HomePod release? I can’t quite connect the dots, but hard to believe this is unrelated to HomePod, or to this Wall Street Journal report:

Apple Music is on the verge of overtaking Spotify AB in U.S. paid subscribers, a sign that the music-streaming world’s dominant force is facing growing competition ahead of its hotly anticipated public stock offering.

Interesting.

Jeremy Burge, Emojipedia:

WhatsApp used Apple emojis on Android for years, and only recently created its own emoji set for use on Android and the web. Slack, too, offered Apple emojis on all platforms until today.

Whether these changes were due to pressure from Apple, or a growing realisation that this might not be the right way to go about cross-platform use, we don’t know for sure.

Other apps such as Signal and Telegram continue to use Apple emojis on Android.

That’s Android. How about using Apple emoji in your iOS app?

Last week app developer Sam Eckert reported that an update to his iOS app BitTracker was rejected by Apple due to lack of compliance with its guidelines for trademarks and copyrights.

Specifically, emoji use in BitTracker was called out as being problematic in both the iPhone app, and a small 📉 Chart Decreasing emoji used in the watchOS app was also an issue.

Jeremy goes on to show more examples of app rejection, and Apple’s inconsistency in using emoji in their own teaching materials.

At the very least, Apple is sending mixed signals. It’d be good to have a clear sense of what will fly and what won’t in terms of using Apple emoji in your own app.

Android Nougat, which first shipped in August 2016, finally surpasses Marshmallow as most used Android version

Up until this week, the most used version of Android was Marshmallow, which shipped in October of 2015. That has now changed.

As you can see in this official Android pie chart, Android Nougat (which shipped in August 2016) has just squeaked by, with an adoption rate of 28.5% (as opposed to Marshmallow’s 28.1%).

Here’s the current (as of January 18th) iOS adoption picture:

iOS 11, which shipped this past September, is used on 65% of devices. Fragmentation is still a big issue for Android. If nothing else, those old versions of Android carry the malware susceptibilities that, presumably, have been patched in the most recent version of Android, called Oreo.

The capper? Oreo was released one month before iOS 11 and has an adoption rate of about 1%.

Simply put, if you use BBEdit (I use it all the time, so check it out if you don’t already own it), you should upgrade to 12.1.

Here’s a link to the BBEdit 12.1 release notes, so you can see what’s new.

It still doesn’t suck.

February 6, 2018

“The blue marble”

This guy is a mad genius. I hope he continues to use his powers for good and never evil.

/Film:

In this special Oscars edition of The Morning Watch, explore the differences between sound mixing and sound editing so you know what each technical category is rewarding when the trophies are handed out on Sunday, March 4. After you learn the differences between each take an in-depth look at what exactly goes into sound mixing vs sound editing in motion pictures.

This is a great series of videos explaining the differences between sound mixing vs sound editing by Oscar winner Walter Murch. I don’t know much about sound but I know I’d watch Murch explain the phone book. Always an interesting guy to listen to.

Review: Apple HomePod

I’ve been using the HomePod for almost a week now. The device is part technological marvel with a little bit of magic thrown in to make it a really compelling device for every home.

Before I get into specifics, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Dave Mark for his help, both in working through the content and firing a lot of questions my way.

Two topics in particular both Dave and I thought were important to cover were how friends can use your HomePod with any music service, such as Pandora, when they visit, and how Siri on HomePod knows when it should respond to your request, or when a request should be handled by Siri on your iPhone or Apple Watch.

However, the first thing I’d like to talk about is the setup, and then I’ll move on to one of the most important aspects of HomePod, the sound.

Setup is a breeze

Apple is so good at giving us a quick and easy setup for devices and HomePod is no different.

When you plug in HomePod, you just need to hold your iPhone close to it and it will open a card asking if you want to set up the device.

Tap Set Up.

It asks you what room you’re setting it up in.

It asks permission to enable personal requests.

Agree to the Terms and Conditions.

Transfer your Accounts and Settings. This is your Siri preferences, Apple Music, Wi-Fi networks, etc.

And that’s it, HomePod is set up and ready to go. It took a couple of minutes, if that, and I was up and running.

It’s a music speaker

First and foremost, HomePod is a music speaker, and it excels at that task. I’ve compared HomePod to Sonos One, Google Max, and Amazon Echo to get a feeling for how each sounds in the same environment.

To be absolutely clear, there was no comparison in sound quality. HomePod offered so much more quality that it was quite literally laughable to hear the others. The only speaker that sounded decent was the Sonos One, but even it couldn’t compete with HomePod.

It’s hard to explain the sound of HomePod, but you get a feeling that the sound is enveloping you, even when using just one speaker. There is a sense that this is how the songwriter and producer wanted the song to be heard when they recorded it.

The other speakers gave the feeling that music was just being blasted straight at me and not allowing me to become part of the experience. HomePod sounds great wherever you are in the room—there really is no particular sweet spot to hear the music, it just sounds great everywhere.

There is nothing in HomePod that is off the shelf—Apple designed it to provide what it considers to be the perfect listening experience. There are seven tweeters, each with its own amplifier and transducer, and a horn on each tweeter that allows for directional control of what you’re hearing.

One of the things I wondered a great deal about was bass. Could something the size of HomePod deliver quality bass on songs that relied on it for their sound? And how would HomePod handle the rumble and vibrations that we often get from speaker systems on songs that contain a lot of strong bass.

Apple built a woofer with a custom amplifier to handle bass in HomePod. The woofer is suspended in the HomePod so even strong bass is not going to vibrate the device. What’s more, HomePod uses the A8 chip to analyze the music that’s about to be played in a few milliseconds and then dynamically tunes the low frequencies.

I tried several songs with strong bass to see how this would work. I used “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Dawn Patrol” by Megadeth—both bass heavy songs.

In both songs, you could feel the air being pushed by HomePod’s woofer, but it never distorted or vibrated, even at full volume.

I mentioned earlier that there really was no specific sweet spot in the room when listening to HomePod. That’s because HomePod analyzes the acoustics in a room and adjusts the speakers based on where it’s located. It knows where it is in every room and gives you the best sound it can based on that location.

The best part of this feature is that it does it automatically and it does it so quickly, you’ll never know it even happened. With its built-in accelerometer, HomePod knows if it’s been moved, even an inch, and will re-poll the room to make sure you’re still getting the best sound. You can move it to a different room, or just slide it over a few inches on the mantle and HomePod will automatically adjust itself.

One of the other songs that I tested HomePod with was “Demons” by Jasmine Thompson. This is just her and a piano, so there isn’t a lot of bass, but there is a lot of treble, mids, and detail in her voice that HomePod could screw up.

It didn’t.

You could hear her breathe between lyrics. Everything was very clear and warm, which is critical for such a soft, meaningful song.

The good news is that all of this hardware goodness will work even if you use another music service, but I’ll talk about that in a little bit.

Apple Music, For You, and HomePod

One thing about having multiple people access the HomePod that bothered me was that it would affect my “For You” section in Apple Music.

When you love songs, play songs and add songs to your library, Apple Music will suggest similar music, assuming that is what you want. If someone else, or a group of people come over and start playing genres you don’t like, it would screw everything up.

Well, it turns out I didn’t have to worry about that after all. There is a setting in the Home app that allows you to prevent the music played on HomePod from affecting the “For You” section of Apple Music.

I was very happy to see that.

Siri

One of the most amazing things about HomePod is the one thing I wasn’t sure would work so well—Siri.

With Megadeth playing at 80 percent volume on HomePod (Yes, that’s loud), I stood 20-25 feet away and said “Hey Siri,” in a normal speaking voice. I expected no response. However, the music immediately lowers and Siri was ready for me to ask a question or give it an instruction.

I’ve played around with this more than anything else on HomePod, trying to get Siri to fail. It just doesn’t. I have HomePod sitting on my mantle right next to a Sonos Playbar that I use for my TV. With the TV on normal volume, I said “Hey Siri” and it immediately came on. That was amazing to me.

I use Siri for more than just playing music. Since I recently tried to improve my cooking skills, I’m forever adding things to my Groceries Reminder list. I just say “Hey Siri, add eggs to my Groceries List,” and it’s done. I can even say, “Hey Siri, what’s on my Groceries List” and Siri will read all the items back to me.

One of the fun things about Siri on the HomePod is how she responds. I have HomePod on my mantle, so I can’t see the light on top of the device that shines when Siri has been activated. That could obviously be a problem and a bit confusing, but Apple thought of that too.

When you say “Hey Siri,” and wait for a second, saying nothing, Siri will say “Uh huh” or “Um hmm,” to alert you that she’s listening. It’s a very subtle, but effective cue that lets you know Siri is ready for you.

One thing to note is that Siri’s volume is the same as the volume of the music that is playing, so if the music is loud, Siri will be too. If you’re not sure if you had the music loud the last time you used HomePod, you can adjust the volume before using it by saying, “Hey Siri, adjust the volume to 30 percent.”

I love that I can ask Siri questions about the music that’s playing, like “What song is this?” and “Tell me more about this artist.”

There are so many things you can do with Siri to enhance the listening experience. It’s like having the old album liner notes read to you.

It’s important to note that all communication between Siri and Apple is encrypted, so they have no way of knowing what you’re asking HomePod or what the response is. Privacy is important to Apple on all of its products.

Which Siri will answer?

If you have a number of different devices in the same room, you may wonder which Siri will respond to your request. For example, you set up a new HomePod, you’re wearing an Apple Watch, an iPad is on the table, and your iPhone is in your pocket.

Then you say, “Hey Siri.”

This is one of the really smart things that happens that we expect Apple to be able to figure out, and they did.

Siri polls all of your devices over Bluetooth to figure out which device should handle your request. Everything being equal, HomePod will respond. However, the system is smart enough to know if HomePod or another device should answer.

For instance, if you raise your wrist and say, “Hey Siri,” the combined devices will assume you want Siri on your Apple Watch. If you’re using your iPhone, then you probably want that device to respond. If you’re just sitting, not touching any device, then HomePod will take over.

That is very smart.

Touch interface

If for some reason, you didn’t want to use Siri, HomePod has a touch interface built-in on the top of the device.

You can tap to play or pause, double-tap to go to the next song, triple-tap to go to the previous song, touch and hold to use Siri, and adjust the volume.

I’ve only used these controls once—Siri can handle everything you do with the touch interface, so I didn’t see the point.

It’s not just for music

I mentioned earlier that I use Siri and HomePod to add items to my Groceries List. Because everything syncs to all of my devices, anything I add to that list will go to my iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

What’s more, anyone in the house can add items to that list and it will sync with my devices, so my shopping list will be complete the next time I go to the store.

HomePod can also read your Messages when they come in, and you can send Messages just using Siri on HomePod. I did this a few times, just to test it out, but most of the time I still use my iPhone to send Messages. Maybe it’s just habit on my part, but it’s nice to have the option.

If you accept a phone call on your iPhone, you can easily hand it off to HomePod using the audio button on the call screen. It’s not surprising that with its six microphone array, HomePod makes for a great device to use when chatting with someone.

You can ask HomePod other questions too. It can get the latest news, traffic, sports, weather, measurements, and currency conversions, among many other things.

If you have a smart home setup, HomePod can control those devices too, and it does it intelligently. For instance, if you’re in the kitchen and you want to raise the blinds, you can just say, “Hey Siri, raise the blinds,” and it will do it. You don’t have to tell HomePod where you are, it already knows what room you are in, so the blinds throughout the house won’t go up.

While HomePod excels at playing music, and for me, that’s its main job, it’s not just a one trick pony.

Sharing HomePod with friends

I always have people come over and want me to listen to a new song they heard, or sometimes, that they wrote. HomePod makes it easy for those people to share the device.

There are a couple of ways that the owner of the HomePod can control who is able to use the device. In the Home app, just go to Settings and you will see a section called “People.” You can manually add people that will be allowed to control your accessories, so you can really restrict access to the HomePod.

If you scroll down in settings a little more, you will see “Allow Speaker Access.” You can set this to “Everyone,” which is open, “Anyone On the Same Network,” which is your Wi-Fi network, and “Only People Sharing This Home,” which are the people you invited to control you devices.

There is also an option to require a password, so even if you did grant someone access, you can just change the password and they will not be able to access your HomePod.

If your friends are on your Wi-Fi network, they can start to play a song from any other service, and then tap the audio button in the app. One of the items you can choose to AirPlay the music to is HomePod. It’s very quick and simple to use.

I played a song from one of my Playlists on the iPhone to HomePod and I was still able to use Siri to skip songs, but once I asked Siri to play Classic Rock, it reverted back to Apple Music on HomePod, which is the way it should work.

The great thing is that even when people share music from other services, HomePod will still perform all of the advanced audio monitoring that it does for you. The hardware is still going to perform, regardless of the audio source.

The inevitable comparisons

I don’t own an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or any other home assistant device. The main reason is that I could never justify the expense when I couldn’t figure out how it was going to help me in my daily life.

I have used an Echo when at a friend’s house, and what intrigued me is that they used it a lot to play music.

As I’ve said already, there is just no comparison when you compare these devices to HomePod’s sound quality—they suck. For me, having Siri control my music with access to Apple Music and the superior sound would have been enough. Adding in the ability to access other synced tasks in the Apple ecosystem just added that little bit extra.

There may be things that the other devices can do, like shopping from Amazon or adding items to Google Express shopping, but none of those are that important to me. I have access to my Groceries shopping list, I can add notes, take phone calls, send Messages, control my home, and ask Siri tons of questions. On top of all that, I have one of the best sounding speakers on the market.

It’s hardly even a fair fight.

Two strange things

Through my week of using HomePod, I only ran into two things that really made me scratch my head and wonder why.

The first is that Siri on HomePod doesn’t have access to my calendar, so I can’t set an appointment. This seemed weird to me because it does have access to my Reminders, Notes, and Messages—why not Calendar?

When I asked Siri to set an appointment, she simply responded and said she didn’t have access to my calendars.

The other oddity was when I was playing music on my HomePod and how my Apple Watch dealt with that.

When you play music on your iPhone, the song and other information shows up on the screen of your Apple Watch. That’s convenient because you can control what’s playing, volume and other settings directly from your watch.

However, when a song is playing on my HomePod, it showed up on my Apple Watch as coming from my iPhone, even though there is nothing playing on my iPhone. When I try to skip the song, the screen on my watch reverts back to the last song that was playing on my iPhone.

It doesn’t do anything bad or affect the way HomePod works, it’s just a weird little thing that happens and I have no explanation why.

Bottom Line

I’ve been very impressed with HomePod in the week I’ve been using it. The sound when playing music is incredible, and certainly many times better than any smart speaker on the market today.

With its access to Reminders, Notes and Messages, HomePod was able to add some functionality, but for me its number one job is as an amazing music speaker.

HomePod is smart, it looks great, and it sounds incredible. I don’t know what else you would want in a home smart speaker.

Inside Apple’s HomePod Audio Lab

Apple didn’t build its audio products by choosing off-the-shelf components that any other company can use—it designed and built them from scratch. The testing for all its products happens in the company’s audio lab in Cupertino, Calif. Last week, they took me on a tour of the lab to show me what’s involved in making an audio product at Apple.

“This impacts all of the products, it’s not just about HomePod,” said Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President Worldwide Marketing. “It’s about speakers in iPhone, the quad speakers in iPad, what we put into Macs, microphone pick up, AirPods, and Siri and Apple TV. All of those products at one point in the development cycle came through here.”

In fact, products will make several trips to the audio labs. As prototypes are made and tested, they get sent back to the lab to be tested, tuned, and retested. This continues until they are satisfied with every aspect of how the audio performs.

Kate Bergeron, Apple’s Vice President, Hardware Engineering, said the HomePod project started six years ago—that gives an idea of how long Apple has been testing and working on that particular product.

“HomePod started by us asking a question: What would it mean if we decided to design a loud speaker where we could put it in any room, and that room wouldn’t affect the sound quality,” said Bergeron.

She said that when the project started, it was a very small, focused team. When they felt they had something compelling, they went to the executive team at Apple to present their idea. After HomePod got the go ahead, they moved into the next stage of development, which included a number of other teams inside Apple that would handle thermals, compute, power, wireless, and the different sensors found in HomePod.

I had a look at a HomePod that was taken apart and put on a table. Every aspect of the device was designed by Apple, specifically for the HomePod. Even the fabric mesh that covers HomePod was designed by the acoustic team in collaboration with other Apple teams to make sure it was acoustically transparent, but still met all of Apple’s other standards.

“We think we’ve built up the biggest acoustics and audio team on the planet,” said Gary Geaves, Apple’s Senior Director, Audio Design and Engineering. “We’ve drawn on many of the elite audio brands and universities to build a team that’s fantastic. The reason we wanted to build that team was certainly for HomePod, but to also to double-down on audio across all of Apple’s products.”

The audio team also has some of the best gear in the world to work with. Apple built an anechoic chamber specifically to build and test HomePod. The chamber is non-reflective and echo free, so it is a perfect environment for testing audio.

Apple’s custom anechoic chamber in Cupertino used to develop the beam-forming speaker array and high excursion woofer in HomePod

Apple’s anechoic chamber is a room, built within another room and set on isolating springs so vibrations from the outside are kept out of the testing environment. It’s also one of the largest anechoic chambers in the United States.

“Anechoic chambers are a standard tool for loud speaker development, but it is especially so for a product like HomePod where we were really interested in the directional behavior,” said Geaves. “Not only how it sounds in one direction, but all directions. That’s a critical component of why HomePod works like it does and enables the system to adapt to the environments the system is placed in.”

Another chamber was built to develop voice detection algorithms so Siri could hear you even in loud environments.

“We went out to hundreds of employees rooms and took thousands of measurements in each room,” Geaves. “That allowed us to characterize each of those acoustic spaces and come up with an average for all of those rooms in terms of reverberation.”

When applied to Siri, this testing allows it to pick up your voice when you dictate or ask it a question, while ignoring the background noise. For HomePod, it allows Siri to know when you’re talking to it, even when music is coming out of the speaker that Siri is attached to.

A small chamber in Apple’s Noise & Vibration lab used to detect unwanted noises during HomePod development.

The noise and vibration lab was set up years ago to work on unwanted noise from Macs. At the time, this lab was very focused on fan and hard drive noise, but over the years it has expanded into electronic noise as well.

The last chamber I saw was designed to listen specifically for electronic noise. For example, you don’t want HomePod to make any kind of noise when it’s plugged in, but not in use. If it was sitting on your night table, you wouldn’t want a hum or buzz coming from it.

Geaves said that the extent you have to isolate this chamber is even more important because you are listening for really small sounds.

An extremely quiet Noise & Vibration chamber in Apple’s sound lab in Cupertino used to measure the noise floor of HomePod.

The chamber itself sits on 28 tons of concrete. The panels are one foot thick which is another 27 tons of material, and there are 80 isolating mounts between the actual chamber and the concrete slab it sits on.

The chamber is designed to be -2 dBA, which is lower than the threshold of human hearing. This basically provides complete silence.

As you might expect, development of HomePod has led to advancements in other Apple products, as well. Geaves confirmed that when I asked him during the tour.

“There’s been certain catalysts in the development of HomePod that are feeding other products,” said Geaves. “That’s one of our advantages—we work on a bunch of different areas of audio.”

My time at Apple’s audio lab was really eye opening. I got a real sense for the tremendous lengths Apple will go to make sure their products are second to none.

February 5, 2018

MacRumors:

Lifeprint, a company known for its iPhone-compatible ZINK photo printer, recently introduced a new, larger photo printer that’s able to print images that are 3 by 4.5 inches instead of 2 by 3 inches, the normal standard size for mini printers designed for the iPhone.

The new Lifeprint 3×4.5 Hyperphoto Printer for iPhone, priced at $150, is an Apple exclusive that’s designed to give customers a quick and easy way to instantly print their iPhone photos.

Good review of the pros and cons. I’d love to have a “quickie” printer for on the go prints but the downsides of the low picture quality and hugely expensive paper make these kinds of printers a no buy for me.

Ars Technica:

Apple’s decision to throttle performance was the right one. But while many of the conspiracy theories are baseless, the controversy nevertheless exposed some of the deepest weaknesses endemic in Apple’s design philosophy and in its public relations and marketing strategy.

Explanation of what happened and why. There’s good and bad in Apple’s reasoning for doing it but, as I’ve often said, their lack of explanation and “full disclosure” can sometimes bite them in the ass.

New York Daily News:

The iPhones, much like their Nokia predecessors, mark a quantum leap in policing, where everything from 911 dispatches to criminal background checks and real-time video can be quickly accessed.

When cops are responding to a job, the phone will automatically provide them with the criminal history of the location, such as how many 911 calls have been at the address in the past and what type of calls. The phone also tells the officers if any wanted felons are at the address.

All of the information is prioritized based on the emergency the officers are responding to.

It would be really interesting to see how this works in the hands of the police and the backend data management would be an immense challenge.

“Three Minutes”

Apple:

“Three Minutes” is a short film by Peter Chan.

If your family reunion only lasts three minutes, what will you do? A unique Chinese New Year story shot on iPhone X by director Peter Chan.

The annual Chinese New Year migration is the largest in the world. This story of just one small piece of it is lovely and poignant.

iOS 11, HomePod, and trust

Last night, we had a nice little gathering to watch the Super Bowl. As everyone got settled in to watch the game, they pulled out their phones, as one does.

Suddenly, an alert appeared on my phone, one I’ve never seen before, asking me if it was OK to share my WiFi password with one of our guests. I tapped OK and they were logged on to our WiFi.

I’d heard about this behavior (I believe it shipped with the very first version of iOS 11), but never encountered it before. It felt a bit like opening an AirPods case near my iPhone. The alert just popped up, took over the screen.

Benjamin Mayo did a writeup of this behavior back in June 2017. If you follow the link, you can see what the alert looks like.

So what does this have to do with HomePod? Fair question.

Imagine that you lived next door to a big guy, a big guy with a beard who loved Heineken and Ozzie. We’ll call him Jim. What’s to prevent Jim from AirPlaying in to your HomePod, blasting Ozzie at top volume any time he liked?

As far as I can tell, you have to be on the same WiFi network as a HomePod in able to AirPlay in. So if Jim is not on my WiFi network, he has no access to my HomePod.

But suppose he comes over for coffee that one time, and I give him access to my WiFi in the scenario described above. Short of my changing my WiFi password, what’s to prevent Jim from Ozzying up my HomePod any time he likes?

There is a pairing process that is required to set up your HomePod, tie it to an Apple Music account. One question is, is that initial iOS device required in order to play music on HomePod? From everything I’ve read, it seems the only requirement for access is being on the same WiFi network as the HomePod.

To bring this all home, a second question is, once someone gains access to your WiFi, do they then have access to your HomePod? Does the scenario at the top give temporary access, say, for one day, or is it permanent access to your WiFi network?

It’s all about trust.

Just to be clear, I’m not worried that this is some sort of security hole. Just as Apple deals with this sort of protocol between other devices, I feel certain that there is a solution in place. I’m just curious about the details.

I’ll dig into this more once I get my paws on my very own HomePod. Meanwhile, if you know the answers to any of these questions, please do ping me.

David Pogue, Yahoo:

In a devastatingly effective demo, Apple lines up four of these things: The Google Home Max ($400), Sonos One ($200), Amazon Echo ($100), and the HomePod. They’re volume-matched and rigged to an A/B/C/D switch, so a single song can hop from one to the other. (Apple even installed a halo backlight behind each speaker that illuminated to show you which one was playing.)

The HomePod sounded the best. Its bass, in particular, was amazing: full and deep, but also distinct and never muddy — you could hear the actual pitch of the bass notes, not just the thud. That, unsurprisingly, is where other small speakers have trouble.

And:

The real shock was the Google Home Max, a massive, 12-pound machine that’s supposed to be all about the sound; it sounded like cardboard compared with the HomePod and Sonos.

Heh. Like cardboard. Nice.

I’ve yet to read a review that didn’t place HomePod on top of the heap. David Pogue’s comments about hearing “the actual pitch of the bass notes, not just the thud”, jibes with what I’ve heard from people who’ve spend quality time with a HomePod.

Friday. Can’t wait.

I think it’s incredibly important to backup your photos onto some form of removable media, tuck it away somewhere safe. This is in addition to your Time Machine or cloud backup.

Personally, I periodically backup all my photos to a single removable drive and store the drive in a safe deposit box.

All that said, this is a terrific article, with detail on prepping for backup, locating all relevant files, importing/moving as needed, and more. Worth reading and passing along.

What Google Assistant thinks about HomePod

Here ya go:

I asked Siri what she thought about Google Max and Amazon Echo and got a lot of generic responses. Interesting that Google created such a specific, tailored response to HomePod.

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

The Financial Times today highlighted a limited number of reports from users experiencing delays with incoming phone calls on the iPhone X. Apple later confirmed to MacRumors that it is “looking into these reports.”

And:

The report, which links to a few discussions on the Apple Support Communities, notes that hundreds of customers have complained that the iPhone X’s display experiences delays in turning on for up to 10 seconds during incoming phone calls, preventing these users from tapping the Accept or Decline buttons.

Sounds like a very small pool of people have this issue, but it also sounds like this has been around a while (here’s a Reddit comment on this from two months ago) and is still not solved.

HomePod inventory tightening

While HomePod is still available for delivery this Friday, supply for in-store pickup is disappearing.

I logged in to the Apple Store HomePod page to check stock this morning and found this message on every zip code I checked:

I checked both Space Gray and White. Add to that this post by Benjamin Mayo for 9to5Mac, who notes that shipping estimates have slipped to February 13th in the UK. This is the first sign we’ve seen of tightening HomePod supply.

February 3, 2018

Since launching Hodinkee in 2008, Clymer has become famous to the kind folks who obsess over the subtle differences between two Philippe Patek special editions. The site serves both collectors who spend $40,000 on a rare watch, as well as those who aspire to do so, and Clymer now brushes shoulders with watch-loving celebrities while hosting the site’s video interview series, recently chatting about the Nivada Grenchen Depthmaster with chef Alton Brown and Rolexes with golfer Jack Nicklaus.

The site is unabashed watch porn.

Sploid:

At some point in your life you’ve almost certainly marveled at the classic drinking bird toy, and probably lost a few brain cells trying to figure out how it works. Don’t be ashamed if you never successfully unravelled the science, though, as engineerguy Bill Hammack explains, even Einstein apparently couldn’t crack it.

So how does it work? Einstein refused to disassemble the toy to reveal its secrets, but Hammack did, and the science and engineering that power it are utterly fascinating. Invented in 1946 by a Bell Labs scientists named Miles V. Sullivan, the drinking bird’s most interesting illusion isn’t its thirst, it’s the liquid inside.

Holy crap. This is brilliant. I often wondered as a kid why this happened. I haven’t seen one of these drinking birds in years.

February 2, 2018

Bloomberg:

The word “Alexa” is uttered 10 times during the Super Bowl spot, but thankfully, the Amazon Echo in your living room isn’t going to perk up and try to respond. An Amazon spokeswoman is guarded about explaining exactly why, saying only, “We do alter our Alexa advertisements … to minimize Echo devices falsely responding in customer’s homes.”

A September 2014 Amazon patent titled “Audible command filtering” describes techniques to prevent Alexa from waking up “as part of a broadcast watched by a large population (such as during a popular sporting event),” annoying customers and overloading Amazon’s servers with millions of simultaneous requests.

The patent broadly describes two techniques.

I can’t decide whether this is creepy or cool….maybe creepycool?

AppleInsider:

Apple is criticized for making much of its revenues from one hit product: iPhone. However, its newest foray into Wearables has not only become its fastest-growing revenue source behind iPhone, but is also larger and growing more rapidly than other top tech firms’ hyped future growth segments, such as Amazon’s ads business, Google’s Cloud and Alphabet’s Other Bets.

Apple Watch has also consistently reached 50 percent growth in both units and revenue for the fourth consecutive quarter, highlighting a solid base of demand for the company’s highly personal, ultra mobile and super integrated Wearables.

All those stories about “Apple Watch isn’t selling” can stop now. While I still don’t like the fact Apple hasn’t announced sales figures for the Apple Watch (a la Amazon and the Echo and Kindle), Ben Bajarin said on Twitter:

Working on updating my smartwatch market/sales model and it is at the point where it isn’t really worth updating any numbers but Apple Watch. Apple has ~75% of the wearables market (not just smartwatches).

Wow.

Lifehacker:

Software updates are usually a good thing. They can bring new features and important security updates to whatever device you’re using with little to no effort on your part. If you have a Mac computer, however, you’re probably sick and tired of seeing that same “Updates Available” notification pop-up on your computer every day.

Luckily, there are a few ways to get rid of them depending on how responsible (or irresponsible) you want to be. Here’s what you need to know.

As a follow up to this post, this is a much better way to turn off updates. Who knew it was so easy?