Help me! I can’t justify getting a HomePod!

I really…REALLY…want to buy an Apple HomePod. This should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me. I’ve been a dedicated Apple fan for decades. Our home is filled with almost every product Apple sells — from iMacs to MacBooks to iPhones to iPads to Apple TVs. The HomePod would fit perfectly into our personal Apple ecosystem. And, from what I’ve read (as well as my own in-store testing), the HomePod sounds great — as good or better than any comparable digital speaker. Its price is on the high side — but not way out of line for what it delivers.

So what’s the problem? What’s stopping me from going immediately to my local Apple Store and grabbing one off the shelf?

The answer is that I don’t know what I’d do with the HomePod when I got it home. There is no appropriate place to plunk it down. Literally. To explain exactly what I mean here, allow me to take you on an audio-centric tour of our home.

We start at the lower level — the family room. Here you’ll find a full-featured home theater setup. At its core is a Denon receiver with a 5.1 set of Polk speakers. Connected to the Denon hub, via HDMI ports, are a television, a Blu-ray player, a TiVo DVR and an Apple TV. I see no advantages to including a HomePod in this setup.

Even if I just wanted to play Apple Music, the Denon supports AirPlay; I can stream directly from my iPad or iPhone to my home theater. Although some reviews have gushed about the HomePod’s “audiophile”-grade quality — capable of amply filling up a large room with booming sound, let’s be clear: there’s no way the HomePod comes close to what my home theater setup delivers. Praise for the HomePod’s sound is relative — it depends on what you’re comparing it to. If you think the HomePod represents the “best sound ever” — you’ve never experienced what truly great audio sounds like.

So…nope…no HomePod in the family room.

Climb the stairs to the main level of our house and you’ll be at the door to my office. Hmmm. Maybe the HomePod would fit here — connected to my iMac. Sorry, but no. Currently, the iMac’s audio-out goes to a pair of original Monsoon speakers (with its matching floor-standing subwoofer). This may well be the oldest computer accessory still in active use in my house — and there’s a good reason for this. Despite its age, the Monsoon remains one of the best desktop speakers ever created. The HomePod may be able to shake your desk at loud volumes, but so what? My Monsoons have been doing this for years…even when the volume is nowhere near its maximum. Plus, the Monsoon flat panels provide superb stereo separation — something a solo HomePod cannot do at all.

Strike two. The HomePod will not find a home in my office.

We now arrive at the final (non-bedroom) location in our house: the open-floor-plan living room/dining room/kitchen. Here, you’ll find a Yamaha YAS-706 soundbar (plus subwoofer) connected to a television and the usual collection of other peripherals. While not comparable in quality to the downstairs setup, the Yamaha is still capable of delivering distortion-free room-filling sound.

The soundbar supports both AirPlay and Bluetooth. Via AirPlay, I can send music from iTunes on my Mac — or from my iOS devices — directly to the Yamaha, without having to separately turn the soundbar on. It’s all automatic. Similarly, via Bluetooth, I can almost instantly connect the Yamaha to my second-generation Amazon Echo sitting nearby; this combines excellent sound quality with the convenience of Alexa voice commands.

Add it all up and there seems no benefit to a HomePod here. “Wait a minute!” you may be thinking, “How about replacing the Echo with a HomePod? You’ll have a better sounding speaker than the Echo and you can use Siri instead of Alexa.” True enough — except for one major caveat: My home is already immersed in the Alexa ecosystem. In addition to the afore-mentioned Echo, I have four other Alexa devices spread throughout our home!

With my current setup, I can simultaneously play music over three (non-Dot) Echoes — providing inexpensive Alexa-controlled multi-room sound. The HomePod won’t be able to match this until AirPlay 2 arrives. Yes, the Echo’s audio quality is inferior to the HomePod — but it’s still fine enough for quick and casual listening.

Of course, the Echoes do more than play music. They work with our Ecobee thermostat and several smart lights we’ve installed. We also use Alexa throughout the day — for timers, reminders, calendar events, shopping lists, movie times, weather, news and too many other tasks to list them all here. While I might be able to transfer the bulk of this to Siri — why bother? Especially when Siri remains the weakest feature of the HomePod. Plus, at $350 a pop, there is no way I am going to invest in five HomePods.

Bottom line: I don’t see a switch from Echo/Alexa to HomePod/Siri coming any time soon. As things now stand, every relevant location in our house contains technology that better serves our wants and needs than a HomePod would. As much as I would love to justify buying a HomePod, I can’t see how.

I’m sure many people live in places where a HomePod would be an ideal fit — especially if they have not already heavily invested in other alternatives. That’s great. But I’m also confident that my situation is not an unusual one. That is, a home, even one that is otherwise super-friendly to Apple, where the HomePod winds up being too little too late.

All is not completely lost. I can envision a second or third generation HomePod (perhaps even a line of HomePods at different price points) that would convince me to abandon my Echoes. But I can also imagine this never happening. For now, it’s a game of wait-and-see.

Posted in A/V equipment, Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | Leave a comment

Who are the strangers? Not Trump supporters

Trump supporters would have you believe they are the most aggrieved party in the country right now.

As covered in “Strangers in Their Own Land” (a recent book by Arlie Hochschild that is in many ways a sequel to “What’s the Matter With Kansas”), these feelings of resentment can lead voters to support political candidates and positions that are clearly against their economic self-interest.

In searching for a resolution to this seeming paradox, the author focuses on the feelings of disenfranchisement of Trump supporters in Louisiana…the sense that the country no longer works for them or cares about them. Despite working hard, they feel passed over — as various minority groups cut in line ahead of them. These folk feel especially aggrieved by the “liberal elites,” who reside primarily on the coasts and who, so they claim, look down on them and consider them to be “ignorant bumpkins.” In response, they support candidates such as Trump who appear to “get” them culturally.

Up to a point, I can be empathetic. But, in light of what has happened these past months, another part of me wants to scream: “What the hell are you talking about?” To see why, let’s twist the prism a bit and look again:

To start with, as seen in countless television interviews, Trump voters typically express at least equal, more often greater, contempt for the “libtards” they disdain…than the liberals have ever expressed towards them. Indeed, it often seems that the primary political agenda of these right-wingers is to oppose whatever it is that liberals want. “If liberals are upset, we must be doing something right” is their credo. The specifics of the issue hardly matter. And so they maintain their support for Trump because, no matter what else he is doing (even if it ultimately hurts his supporters), he is pissing off liberals. It’s hard to maintain empathy for such a position.

More importantly, let’s be clear about who’s actually in control of this country.

Of the 50 state governors, 34 are Republican. Republicans now control a record 68% of state legislative chambers. Together, this has allowed state governments to gerrymander election districts, pass voter suppression legislation — and carry out other similar actions — all designed to prevent political opposition from having a fair chance at winning upcoming elections.

At the national level, the U.S House of Representatives and the Senate are both controlled by Republicans…including a significant segment that represents the extreme right wing of the party. And, of course, our President is Republican. This is a rare trifecta of one-party control.

Since taking office, via executive orders and administrative appointments, Trump has tried to undo virtually everything Obama accomplished and pretty much everything progressives support (from Internet neutrality to consumer protections to immigration reform to support for international treaties to preservation of national monuments to sabotaging Obamacare — and on and on). And he is succeeding.

Look at the map below (taken from Time). Does this look like a country dominated by liberals? Certainly not from a geographic perspective. Demographic studies predict that, in a few years, 70% of our population will be concentrated in just 15 states. Put another way, 70% of our Senators will come from a 30% minority of our country, most of whom are Republican.

And thanks to Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court appointee, there remains a conservative majority on the Court…one that looks to be maintained for at least a generation. If Trump manages to stay in office long enough for another justice to exit, the size of the majority may grow — and the rest of the Federal courts will similarly shift dramatically in a conservative direction as he fills vacancies.

Meanwhile, in the media realm, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is a strongly conservative company that currently dominates radio station ownership. Fox News, a strongly right-wing slanted television station, is the most popular of all cable news stations.

Even the Russians have thrown their support to Trump, using computer hacking and other illegal means, to hurt Trump’s opposition.

Finally, these supposed “strangers in their own land” lament that their Christianity is under attack (pointing to such silly falsehoods as a prohibition against saying “Merry Christmas”). The truth is that “Christianity is the most adhered to religion in the United States, with 75% of polled American adults identifying themselves as Christian.” As a Jew and an atheist, it’s hard for me to accept that Christians are more subject to attack than the groups to which I belong — especially when we have a President that appears to give air cover to racists and bigots.

Yet…despite all of the above…Trump supporters continue to contend that they are the most aggrieved, persecuted and underrepresented group in this country. Don’t believe it. Yes, the demographics and economics of the country are changing…and some people are facing more hardships than others as a result. This is a recurring problem — and we need to work to solve it. However, there are plenty of underrepresented aggrieved people who are not white male working class conservative Christians living in the middle of the country. The solution is not for Trump supporters to “take their country back.” The country was never “theirs” to take back.

Essentially, if Trump supporters don’t like the way the country is being run, they can’t blame Democrats or liberals or Jews or African-Americans or immigrants or atheists. Wake up and look around at who’s actually running this country. No, you are not the strangers in your own land. Increasingly, it’s the rest of us who are.

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My picks for the cream of the crop from WWDC 2017

Tim Cook and company introduced an unusually large number and wide array of products at this year’s WWDC — revealed in a keynote that I believe was the longest one ever delivered by Apple. Although numerous summaries of the event have been posted by now, I wanted to offer my own list of the most notable items from Apple’s latest buffet.

1. The 10.5” iPad Pro

This is the big one for me. Over the past several years, I’ve migrated from my MacBook Pro to my 9.7” iPad Pro (with keyboard and pencil). I no longer use my MacBook at all. Although I remain content with my current iPad, I’m tempted to upgrade to the newer 10.5” iPad Pro. Why? Because it offers numerous useful new features: a larger display size (while maintaining about the same dimensions overall), greater speed, better cameras, USB-3 support and (based on what I’ve read) the impressive ProMotion display.

With any iPad Pro, the machines will take another leap forward when iOS 11 comes out this fall. This update has more — and more significant — iPad-specific new features than any two previous versions of iOS combined. I’m especially looking forward to the drag-and-drop capability, the Files app (at last!) and the redesigned more flexible Dock.

The new iPad Pro is by far the closest Apple has come to a tablet that can be a viable alternative to a laptop for many people. This is the future of Apple’s mobile hardware.

But let’s not get too carried away. I confess that I’m hedging my bet here. I have a desktop iMac (which I’m using right now to write this article). I intend to keep it. Yes, my iPad Pro has replaced my MacBook, but has not yet replaced my using a Mac altogether. In that regard, my views are similar to those of Brian Chen: If you do a lot of typing, the iPad Pro is not yet ready to be your sole device. When doing work, I also prefer the larger displays, multiple windows and superior file storage options of a Mac.

2. The iMac Pro

The all new iMac Pro (touted as the most powerful Mac of any kind that Apple has ever produced) is a stunner. Unfortunately, it won’t be available until the end of the year. Even then, unless you absolutely require what it delivers, you may hesitate at the price. The Pro starts at $5000 for a base model but will go much higher for a maxed out configuration (according to one article, a top end model may go as high as $17,000). Still, I recognize that the iMac Pro is an important and lust-worthy new entry.

In many ways, the iMac Pro is the successor to the ill-fated 2013 Mac Pro. In fact, rumors indicate that, until recently, that’s exactly what Apple intended it to be. However, as we now know, a still more high-end Mac Pro (with more customization options) is due in 2018. For the pro user, this is all great news. Apple is back in the pro market — in a big way.

Also noteworthy, although far less dramatic, Apple updated its existing iMac line-up. There are upgraded internals that add speed (starting with the Kaby Lake processor), Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports and continuing improvements to the brightness and color of the display.

I will not buying any of the new iMacs. Given my relatively modest needs, the Pro is clearly out of my price range. As for the other iMacs, I have no immediate need for Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C — and I am completely satisfied with my 2015 iMac’s speed and display. However, if you have an older iMac and have been debating getting a new one, these are  the updates you’ve been waiting for.

[Note: I did buy Apple’s new extended Magic Keyboard with numeric keypad; it’s something I’d hope to see since first purchasing my iMac.]

3. HomePod

Apple’s new entry into the audio-assistant and music speaker arena, HomePod, leaves me a bit perplexed.

On the one hand, I am immensely pleased that the product exists at all (although, as with the iMac Pro, it will not ship until December). Over the past months, I have many times lamented that Apple was passing up an opportunity to compete here. With the HomePod, Apple now has at least a chance to catch up with the Amazon Echo and other entrants in this category. And HomePod appears to be a worthy entry, with high enough quality sound to make it a competitor for Sonos speakers as well as for the Echo. This has huge potential for Apple — and I hope it succeeds.

Still, HomePod is not something I intend to buy — at least not for a long while. I am already too entrenched in the Echo eco-system — and see little advantage to switching. I suspect many others are in this same position.

For top sound quality, rather than a HomePod, I much prefer my Echo Dot connected to my Yamaha soundbar (which also serves as a speaker for my TV and can connect directly to Apple devices via AirPlay). The HomePod also loses on price. At $350 each ($700 for a pair, needed for a stereo effect), it is more expensive than any Echo and/or speaker setup most buyers would otherwise consider.

Perhaps its relatively high price is why Apple chose to market the HomePod primarily as a speaker alternative, rather than as an Alexa-like assistant and a HomeKit hub. While this initially struck me as an odd marketing decision, I suspect we will see Apple tout the non-music features of HomePod much more in 2018.

4. All the rest…

Although not on a par with the big three products covered above, Apple introduced numerous other worthwhile and newsworthy items at WWDC, primarily included as part of the iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra updates coming this fall. My favorites are:

• Apple peer-to-peer payments. A Venmo competitor, this will allow you to make peer-to-peer payments via Apple’s Messages app. Could this be the tipping point for the eventual end of cash? Maybe. We’ll see.

• Safari on Mac blocks auto-play videos and ad-tracking. It’s too early to know how well this will work, but if it’s effective, it will prevent two of the most currently annoying aspects of web browsing. Here’s hoping.

• Apple File System (APFS) on macOS High Sierra. “With macOS High Sierra, we’re introducing the Apple File System to Mac, with an advanced architecture that brings a new level of security and responsiveness.” This is the first major overall to the file system since the introduction of HFS Plus almost two decades ago. With the almost total conversion to SSDs, rather than mechanical hard drives, it’s a much needed shift.

• Augmented Reality. iOS 11 will include Augmented Reality capabilities. I’m not sure how practical they will be initially, but I’m eager to try them out. In any case, it’s important for Apple to make a move in this increasingly critical area.

• Amazon on Apple TV. I prefer using Apple TV, over the numerous other options I have, for viewing Netflix and HBO GO. That’s why it’s been irritating to have to switch out of Apple TV when I want to view Amazon Prime video. No more. Amazon is coming to Apple TV this fall!

Posted in A/V equipment, Apple Inc, Entertainment, iOS, iPad, Mac, Technology | 3 Comments

Apple faces uphill battle with its rumored Echo competitor

Recently, I’ve been reading rumors that Apple is working on a new device, one that utilizes both Siri and AirPlay, intended to be Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo. If the rumors are correct, we should see this device before the end of the year, maybe as soon as next month at WWDC.

I purchased an original Echo when it was still in the “available only by invitation” stage and have since added two Echo Dots. They remain my favorite technology purchases of the past few years. The Echo is not perfect, far from it. I wish it could answer more questions more intelligently. But, when it’s pumping gas on all cylinders, it is magical.

So what would it take to get me to abandon the Echo in favor of Apple’s rumored competitor? The answer is “a lot.” Frankly, I’m not sure Apple is up to the task.

Apple does have a couple of “built-in” advantages.

The biggest one is that an Apple device would almost certainly integrate better with all my other Apple equipment (Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs). That won’t matter to those who are not entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, but it’s a big one for me.

Second, I expect that Apple’s device will protect my privacy better than the Echo does (indeed, the Echo has been criticized as being more of an Amazon marketing tool than a personal assistant). But I made my peace with this awhile back and have, so far, not regretted it.

It’s also true that Apple has a history of achieving great success with products that were not first out-of-the-gate. Apple often spins this as an advantage: “We may not be first. But that’s because we have patience. We wait until we can get it right. We don’t want to sell something that’s a beta version of what we intend to finish years from now — just to be first. And users reward us for this.”

This strategy has certainly worked well in several instances. The perfect example is the original iPod. The iPod was not the first mp3 player to come to market. But it was the first to do so in a way that made using an mp3 player enjoyable for just about anyone, not just geeks. The combination of a hard drive, a click wheel, an LCD screen and syncing with iTunes — was the equivalent of an earthquake on the landscape.

A similar statement could be said about the iPhone, which again was not the first smartphone to arrive. It offered critical advantages that rendered competing products immediately obsolete. This catapulted it to success.

In my opinion, that’s what Apple will need to do once again if it hopes to overcome the Echo’s inertia advantage of a several year head start. This is the crux of the problem: What exactly can Apple do, at this point, that would make their new product even close to the equivalent of the arrival of the iPod?

Frankly, I can’t imagine anything Apple can do here. Perhaps that is a symptom of my limited imagination. After all, I didn’t picture the iPod in my head back before Apple released it. But I suspect the problem today is not with my imagination. Rather it is with the realities of how good the Amazon Echo currently is. At best, Apple has a steep uphill climb ahead of it.

Beyond adding critical new features, Apple also has to overcome some deficiencies in its current Siri implementation. In particular, “Hey Siri” has never worked as reliably as “Alexa.” Half the time, even if I say “Hey Siri” while standing over my iPad, nothing happens. In contrast, the Echo responds almost 100% of the time, even if I am in another room.

Maybe Apple has more time to “get it right” than I imagine. Maybe Apple can gain a foothold this year and slowly work to overtake the Echo. Again, I doubt it. In this regard, I look at the Apple TV. When it came out, it was in even better positioned than an Echo competitor would now be. One could claim the Apple TV was the first product of its type. But Apple never fully capitalized on this advantage. While it continued to debate what to do with its “hobby” project, along came Roku, Chromecast, Fire and others. Apple TV is now an also-ran in the “streaming video device” market, far from the dominant figure. If Apple had never released the Apple TV years ago and came out with it today, it would likely fail — perhaps saved from oblivion only because of its unique integration with iTunes. This seems closer to what Apple’s Echo competitor is facing than the iPod comparison.

I look forward to seeing what Apple has hidden behind its curtain. I still get pumped about the prospect of great new products from Apple. I previously expressed hope that Apple would eventually release an Echo competitor. It looks as if this may finally happen. Still, I am pessimistic about the likely result. I will be happy to be wrong. But I’m not counting on it.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, Technology | 1 Comment