Beard Blog Tech Reviews: Apple HomePod

The gadget you don’t need until you have one

HomePod: The iPod that lives in your home

HomePod

The latest product from tech giant Apple is their own take on the very popular “lady in a cylinder”. The HomePod aims to fill the gap where the competition lacks in areas such as sound quality, ease of use, and aesthetics. I’ve spent the last month with the HomePod, testing everything I could.

It Packs a Punch

The Apple HomePod is a small cylindrical device that is about the size of a two liter soda bottle, with the top cut off. It’s covered in a thick mesh that feels soft but also sturdy at the same time. Inside, the HomePod packs a large upward facing subwoofer and seven tweeters around the bottom circumference. In between those there is a six microphone array for hearing your voice as well as to fine tune the sound based on the surroundings. The speakers and microphones are controlled by a stripped-down version of the fourth generation Apple TV. The processing power allows you to shout anything at it and it responds very quickly. 

High Fidelity

I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I enjoy high quality music when I can get it. When I listen to music over bluetooth in my car I can hear the lower quality compared to playing over USB. That’s about the extent of my sound quality identifying experience. The HomePod does a great job of producing great sound in a small package. It sits next to my forty-eight inch, nine speaker sound bar, and the HomePod has noticeably better sound.

The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.”

The sound output fills my living room with high fidelity music so well that you would think I have a 7.1 surround sound system setup.

Apple’s Music

The HomePod only knows one music service and that’s Apple’s own Apple Music. That means the HomePod cannot play music from Spotify, Tidal, Google, or any other music service out there. You can play songs from Apple’s giant library, your own iTunes library, or songs you’ve previously purchased from iTunes, so there is a lot of variety. If that is not enough for you, you can still stream whatever you like from an iOS device to the speaker, just like you AirPlay to an Apple TV. The benefit of using Apple Music on the HomePod is you don’t need your iPhone or iPad to play it. In fact, if you turned off all your devices, it will still be able to play music from Apple’s streaming service. If you’re thinking of getting a HomePod, switching to or signing up for Apple Music is definitely worth it.

Hey Siri

Beyond playing great music, the HomePod packs the same helpful assistant as iPhones and iPads. Her name is Siri and she is very willing to help you any way she can. The HomePod doesn’t have a screen or a way for you to interact with anything, so Siri is limited. Speaking “Hey Siri…” into the air turns her attention towards you as she hangs on your next words. I’ve had moderate success with asking Siri random questions. I’ve been using Siri for a long time so I know how to ask her things and what she can and can’t do. Here are some things I asked my HomePod that resulted in the correct answer on the first try: What is 60g in oz?; What is the scientific name for a sloth?; How many tablespoons are in 20oz?; Who is Michael B. Jordan?; Who sings purple rain?

Contrary to your iPhone, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t know who you are. Whomever sets up the HomePod initially can choose to allow some details to be passed through the Apple account, but it’s still very limited. The nice thing about this is anyone that can yell “Hey Siri!” can control the HomePod. This can also cause some disagreements between people who want to hear two different songs.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head, I can shout out loud and have it played

One place where the HomePod excels over the competition is how well it can hear you. Even at whisper with music playing the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” command. I was in my kitchen cooking with the exhaust fan on, the HomePod was about twenty feet away with a wall between us. The HomePod was playing something from Apple Music when I said “Hey Siri skip” at a volume that a person next to me would struggle to hear. The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.” The next song began to play and I was taken aback by how well it could hear my over all the noise.

The Kit of Home

Another way Siri on the HomePod is helpful is by controlling HomeKit devices. These are smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s home ecosystem. I have structured the smart devices in my home around this ecosystem allowing me to take full advantage of Siri for automation and control. By shouting at the HomePod I can close my garage doors, turn up the heat, turn on/off lights, and trigger scenes I have setup. homepod The HomePod also acts as a HomeKit bridge that allows you to (if you don’t already have an Apple TV) access your HomeKit devices from outside your home network. 

Who should buy one?

If you’re deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem (which is easy to do) with a subscription to Apple Music, HomeKit compatible devices (Philips Hue bulbs fit this bill), like listening to music in your home, and use an iOS device; the HomePod is definitely for you.

It’s going to be hard to find a lot of people that meet those criteria, which is Apple’s fault, but at the same time it helps get more people into their ecosystem.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head (which happens almost every morning) I can shout out loud and have it played, and it sounds great!

Measuring the Competition

Apple is late to the “lady in a can” game, which seems to be their modus operandi as of late. There is plenty of competition in this space and surprisingly the first mover here was Amazon with their Echo line. Amazon has released nine products with their Alexa assistant before the HomePod shipped. Google now has three different types of devices that use the Google Assistant for your home. Amazon, Google and Apple’s devices all have the same functions; play music, control smart devices, and try to answer your dimwitted questions.

Which one is the best? That’s a hard question to answer for everyone, and each person you ask might have a different answer. The best one for you is which system you’re invested in. Do you have Apple products throughout your home or are you more in the Google ecosystem? Amazon has the advantage of being the cheaper solution and throwing their products at consumers every way possible. It’s more likely you know someone with an Amazon product in their house than the other two.

HomePod

Apple’s HomePod is another great first generation product. A lot of people are comparing it to the the original Apple Watch, which is fair. Both of those devices are late entries to a new market for Apple and so far, both have been received very well. My time with the HomePod has been great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. I’m looking forward to the near future where Apple makes smaller/cheaper versions of the HomePod that I can stick in various places in my house.

In summary, John Gruber put it best when he wrote, “What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home.”.

 

Read more of my tech reviews here!

Apple iPhone X Beard Blog Review

The iPhone of the future, today!

iPhone x

Apple’s new flagship iPhone has been on sale for almost three weeks and you can’t go anywhere without hearing about it. The iPhone X (pronounced ”iPhone ten”) is the biggest change we’ve seen to the iPhone in a really long time. It’s also the first iPhone since the original where people were excited to see it and asked me how I liked it. It’s a lot like when I first started wearing my original Apple Watch, but a lot more people know about the iPhone X. The following review will be my opinion of the new iPhone, not so much the technical attributes it posses. Furthermore if you’re curious about the technical stuff check out Apple.com.

Screen

The first thing you notice on the new iPhone X is the screen. It’s big, bright, and very colorful. The screen goes from top to bottom and left to right covering the entire top side of the phone. This new OLED screen is my favorite part of the iPhone X. All the colors are vibrant and the black levels are so dark you can’t tell where the screen starts and stops. As a result this makes the iPhone X screen very pleasing to the eye.

iPhone X 7 plus
iPhone 7 Plus (left) iPhone X (right)

When the screen is fully lit up you can see a tiny notch at the top of the screen where the earpiece is. This notch holds all the fancy iPhone X sensors that I’ll get to in the next section. The screen itself actually flows under this notch so anything that would be shown the in the notch section of the screen will be hidden. In photos, reviews, and talking about it the notch seems like a bigger deal than it actually is. After a day of using the iPhone X the notch becomes unnoticeable and unobtrusive. Most of all, this notched screen design will become one of the most iconic phone designs we’ll ever see.

Face ID

Gone are the days of using your unique fingerprint to unlock your iPhone. Now the iPhone X comes with Face ID (replacing Touch ID) as the biometric authentication process. To put it simple, Face ID uses the features of your face to unlock your phone. This process works in the dark, in the sunlight, and most noteworthy even when you’re wearing sunglasses.

My experience with Face ID has been fantastic. My iPhone unlocks more reliably than when I used Touch ID on my iPhone 7 Plus. There are a couple instances where Face ID doesn’t work, but they are very minimal and easy to live with.

iphone x trudepth
TruDepth Camera system

Consequently the iPhone X doesn’t like my Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses so I have to slide them down to unlock my phone when wearing those. In contrast, My aviator-style Ray-Ban sunglasses work just fine.

Face ID is definitely the future and it can only get better from here. I was skeptical at first, just like I was before trying Touch ID, because all the previous face detection systems were utter garbage. Face ID has lived up to Apple’s marketing and I can’t wait to have Face ID on all the products I use.

Cameras

As an amateur photographer my smartphone camera is very important to me. The iPhone is not my only camera but I like to take a lot of photos with it because it’s smaller, lighter, and always with me unlike my Nikon DSLR. Last year I was excited by the new dual rear cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus. The added “telephoto” camera is very versatile and is even better on the iPhone X. The new cameras work very well in low light and the image is very clear. Previous iPhones seem to have a small increase in camera ability, but the fact that both cameras work identically at two different focal lengths is a huge leap over previous generations.

“It looks pretty, it feels great, and is a blast to use.”

The front camera hasn’t been changed, but it’s been supplemented by the new TruDepth Camera sensors which include infrared and depth sensors. The iPhone X’s front camera takes the same photos as the iPhone 7 but you now get depth mapping which adds the ability to take Portrait Mode photos. This still evolving feature is fun and looks cool, but it’s not a game changer. As a result I’d take the real depth of field on my DSLR any day.

Animojis

The iPhone X’s front facing TruDepth Camera system isn’t just for photos, Animoji is Apple’s way of putting you facial expressions on your favorite emoji characters. This is probably the killer feature of the iPhone X.

iphone-x-animoji
Panda Animoji

Being able to send someone a short video of your expressions and voice is endless fun and entertainment. This is one of the few areas Apple has been an innovator and I would bet it pays off big now and in the future.

Pros / Cons

The iPhone X isn’t perfect, but at the same time, it’s a huge leap forward for tech nerds like myself.

Pros

  • Great rear dual camera system
  • OLED screen is stunning in person
  • Face ID is more secure and easier to use

Cons

  • No home button; New interface could be confusing to some
  • Battery life is slightly worse than my iPhone 7 Plus, but still lasts all day
  • Front camera resolution could be better


Who should buy the iPhone X?
Apple fans who want the latest tech, photographers wanting the best
smartphone cameras, and techie people who like being on the cutting edge.

Who shouldn’t buy the iPhone X?
Users who want the same old iPhone interface, people who don’t want the latest technology, or folks who are afraid of the price.

The price of greatness

Let’s talk about price for a moment. All you read on the internet, hear on the news, and talk about at work is how this iPhone costs $1000+. While that is true, it’s not that big of a deal. Now let’s break it down a little bit.

Here are the costs of the current iPhone offerings and storage capacity respectively:

  • iPhone 8 (64GB/128GB) ———— $699/$849 or $35$41 per month
  • iPhone 8 Plus (64GB/256GB) —- $799/$949 or $40/46 per month
  • iPhone X (64GB/128GB) ———— $999/$1149 or $50/$56 per month

You can see the new iPhones range from $699 up to $1149. The iPhone X is not some outrageously priced hunk of junk. It’s worth the premium over the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. It comes down to if you can afford it or justify to yourself that you want to buy the iPhone X.iphone-x-2

Most buyers will be financing this phone through carriers or Apple. Not many people will be shelling out cash for any of these iPhones. Also for even further comparison the top of the line Samsung Galaxy Note 8 costs $950.

In conclusion, the iPhone X is the future of what we’ll expect to see over the next few years and it’s going to be great. After three years of the same stagnant design Apple hit it out the park with the iPhone X. It looks pretty, it feels great, and is a blast to use.

How Do You Send Money?

Besides writing a check, how else can you send money to someone?

It’s 2017 and most people I know still write checks to give money to someone else. You would think by now technology has solved this problem of carrying a checkbook, writing out specific information, and bringing that to the bank. This ancient technique has finally been updates, for the most part.

There are numerous ways to send money to another individual or business, whether is to pay a bill or a gift, a lot of services exist for this sole purpose. Venmo, PayPal, Square, and PopMoney are three popular services, but it seems most banks offer their own version. These money sharing services often charge a fee when using a credit card, but most of the time there is no charge to use debit from your checking account. The issue with using an app to send money is that the funds live in the app and the recipient has to withdraw or transfer the money to use it. In rare instances, someone may keep the funds in the app and use it elsewhere, this is common when using PayPal. Think of someone you know that you’ve written a check to in the past. Odds are that they wouldn’t know what to do if you send them money via Venmo.

Enter Apple’s solution to this problem: Apple Pay. Ever since Apple debuted Apple Pay in 2014, I’ve been wondering how I can use this to pay another individual. While not as simple as holding your iPhone up to an NFC reader, Apple proves they have taken the time to think this through. Basically, you can send someone money through your iPhone to another person who has also has an Phone through the iMessages app. The way they do this is by giving you an Apple Pay gift card that you can load money on to send to other people. The great thing about this gift card is you can use the loaded/transferred funds anywhere that accepts Apple Pay, right from your iPhone. You can also transfer this money to your bank account, which should be free to do. If you send money to another person through Apple Pay by using a credit card, you’ll be charged a fee of about 3% of your transfer amount. This is to pay the credit card fees, so Apple isn’t making any money of this transaction. This transfer fee is standard throughout all the popular money sending services, but differs in actual percentage.

vamers-fyi-gadgetology-wwdc-2017-ios-11-gets-better-imessage-p2p-apple-pay-03

A lot of retailers are moving to this “gift card” scenario where you load money on to a card and use that to pay, usually through a smartphone app. Starbucks is the biggest one I’ve used and they entice you to use it with rewards resulting in free items. The kicker with Starbucks is you can reload your card using Apple Pay, which makes this new system work.

Apple Pay person-to-person will be launching later this fall. This new money transfer system will take a very long time to catch on, if ever. The older generations, who actually use smartphones, will probably never get on this program. Don’t expect that $10 birthday check from your grandparents to go away any time soon.

Will you turn on this new iPhone feature?

This fall Apple will be releasing a new feature for your iPhone that could save your life!

Do Not Disturb… While Driving!

A new feature included with the upcoming release of iOS 11 will put your iPhone into Do Not Disturb mode while you are driving in your car. If you are not familiar with Apple’s Do Not Disturb mode, it suppresses all notifications and sounds while enabled. This is especially useful while you sleep if you keep your iPhone near you all night long. The kicker for the driving mode is when you get an iMessage it will reply to that person with a customizable message describing how you are driving and not getting notifications. If for some reason this person needs to reach you, they can reply URGENT to the automated message and their original message will be sent through. You can even set a contact list of people who get right through to you, bypassing Do Not Disturb. Of course this is all fine until you want to use your iPhone while you’re in the car. When you go to unlock your iPhone while Do Not Disturb is on you’ll see a pop-up on your screen letting you know this mode is turned on. You’ll need to tap I’m Not Driving to let your iPhone know that it’s safe to turn off Do Not Disturb mode. This is just another step Apple is taking to ensure your are driving safely.

dnd

You should turn this on.

The number of cell phone related car accidents is on the rise and while we wait for autonomous cars, this is a great step to lower the number of incidents. This can also be a way for some people to break the awful habit of having to look at their phones every second of the day. Your eyes and mind should be focused on the road and other drivers, not your SnapChat or Instagram feed. I’m hoping Apple puts out a huge ad campaign around this feature so that more people will use it. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Apple should turn this on by default, but it definitely deserves some attention.

Ive been testing this mode for about a month now and it has been great. I’ve been guilty of checking my notifications, sending messages, and browsing social media in traffic or at a stoplight. I’m ready to kick that habit and Apple’s new Do Not Disturb while Driving is a great feature

What’s next for Apple’s flagship iPhone?

iPhone 7s, iPhone 8, or iPhone Pro?

For the past seven years, Apple has released a new flagship iPhone in the fall, usually at the tail-end of September. This year will be no different as we prepare for what might be the biggest iPhone change since the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. With so many rumors swirling around the ether, it’s hard to sort through trash to find treasure. Let’s only talk about the facts that can be verified or have a higher degree of likeliness.

iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus

Just like the last 3 years, we’re going to see another pair of similarly featured phones in two sizes. The smaller of the two will retain the 4.7” diagonal screen size with a single rear camera. The Plus variant will continue to have a 5.5” diagonal screen with dual rear cameras. This is not any big change over last year’s duo. The only two big changes I can see happening on this front are the addition of wireless charging and increased water/dust resistance.

If you’re not familiar with mobile device wireless charging that’s been around for quite some time in Android phones, it’s close proximity power transfer. Your device sits on a conductive pad that transfers power to your device through the back of the case. It’s not truly wireless because this conductive pad needs to be plugged in with a wire, and your device still needs to contact the pad to receive power.

Other features in these models that could make an appearance are new color finishes, better image signal processing, and higher storage tiers.

iPhone Pro

The rumor of an Apple iPhone Pro surfaced last summer when there was traces of a better, more expensive iPhone 7 Plus. This has since transformed into an all new form factor that will debut this year. The new form factor will sport a 5.8” diagonal screen, but the case of the iPhone will be much smaller aligning the physical size of the device directly between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. The new screen will be powered by OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) which will give us deeper blacks and use less energy. The reduced footprint of the phone presents some challenges for making an edge-to-edge screen. The front facing camera and sensors will not be set in the screen, so there will be a small notch on the upper part of the screen. This notch will house the all-new front facing cameras, infrared sensors, and speaker.

This new form factor will also be the first iPhone ever without a home button. It is said the the home button function will be built into the screen, which will allow Apple to use the area where the home button previously sat. After the debut of 3D Touch and last year’s virtual home button, this seems like the culmination of research and evolution finally coming to fruition. Not much else is known at this point on the new yet-to-be named iPhone Pro. Speculation prices this iPhone above the current offering somewhere between $999 and $1499. Pricing that depends on what storage is offered and who they market this device to.

iPhone 8

Naming an iPhone is always kept under wraps until presentation day, so we never know for sure what these things are going to be called. Ever since the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone releases have followed a X/Xs naming scheme. Canonically, the non-s years brought redesigns whereas the s years brought speed and internal improvements. This pattern was pretty much broken the last two years when we got almost all new iPhones with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, and not-quite-redesigned iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. My gut feeling tells me that Apple won’t break their trend of naming devices in order, regardless of what the new features are. I anticipate us seeing the iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus. The outlier is the Pro model… They should just call it iPhone Pro or attach it to this generation by going with iPhone 7s Pro. I’ve seen some grumblings of Apple following the iPad trend and using generic names like iPhone, iPhone Plus, and iPhone Pro.

What Apple debuts is sure to be a hit and will sell millions of units. It’s going to be great to be able to have a premium model in addition to two already great form factors.

The Apple Watch : A Retrospective

On April 25, 2015, I received my first generation Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch. You can read my original review here, where I talk about moving away from traditional watches and a Fitbit. Now, a year later I still have my same Apple Watch, and a whole new love for it.

Over the last 12 months, I have worn my Apple Watch 99% of the time I was awake. There may have been a day or two I forgot to put it on or did not charge it. After so long, it now becomes habit to want to check my wrist for messages, activity, and weather. At it’s core, which is receiving iPhone notifications, telling the time and showing me on-demand information on the watch face, the Apple Watch is a necessary device for my lifestyle.

Between my wife and I, we accumulated a good collection of sport bands in various colors to keep the look fresh. One of the joys of the Apple Watch is changing the band every morning to better match my clothing choice for the day.

I’ll admit that I don’t use the Apple Watch to it’s full technological extent. Third-party apps, different faces, and glances have all become secondary features. The watch is now more of an appliance in my life and a fashion accessory. That’s more than I can say for my iPhone which is somewhat an appliance, but more an entertainment device.

After a year, what I use my Apple Watch for is very simple:

  • Telling time (like a traditional watch)
  • Keeping track of time (alarms, timers, etc.)
  • Checking the weather (watch face complication)
  • Tracking activity (workouts, steps, standing, etc.)
  • Getting alerts from my iPhone (iMessages, emails, etc.)

That’s about it. Can’t imagine what my day would be like without it.

As Apple said, this is a very personal device indeed.

 

How an iPad Can Replace your Laptop or Desktop Computer

Home computing is not the way it once was. 15 years ago every home had a big white/off-white box in one room of the house where people would spend hours typing and clicking away. Today, you do that same time wasting twice as fast and from your couch in front of the TV. We are getting much better at consuming multiple sources at once, but the content is being more dumbed down because it’s usually distracted by another source. Whatever the case may be, we may need to better think how the home computer is classified. Continue reading “How an iPad Can Replace your Laptop or Desktop Computer”

The Future is Not Here…

…and we may never see it!

When we read about the future in books or watched it on the silver screen, everything seemed so integrated and smooth. Now that we’re finally here [the future] is convoluted, fragmented, and restricted. Let me explain each of those as I drive my point home.

Continue reading “The Future is Not Here…”

The 2015 Beard Blog Holiday Tech Gift Guide

Back in my day, toys were the rage of the holiday season. Everyone wanted the coolest, most popular toy, and stores had trouble keeping up supplies. From ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ to ‘Zhu Zhu Pets’ we’ve see our fair share of off-the-wall gifts of the year. Nowadays, the climate has shifted to technology. Kids and adults alike want the latest craze in technology whether it be wearables, tablets, or video games, nothing is out of bounds. Continue reading “The 2015 Beard Blog Holiday Tech Gift Guide”

iPad Pro mini review

It’s huge, bigger than you expect. Just like when I switched to the iPhone 6 Plus, the size becomes normal after a few hours of use. I have yet to get the Keyboard or Pencil yet due to supply constraints. Other than that, it’s fast and the benchmarks tell me it’s faster than my two year old MacBook Pro. I have yet to see this but time will tell. The future for the iPad Pro looks bright, I’m just waiting to see the light.