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  • Newsletter Issue #950

    February 12th, 2018

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    On this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured commentator and podcaster Kirk McElhearn. He focused the discussion on reports that Apple has lost the services of a showrunner, Bryan Fuller, for its planned “Amazing Stories” reboot and whether that was due to taking an approach that’s too restrained, too family friendly. Kirk and Gene agreed about a possible way Apple will distribute these new shows. They also talked about the potential value of ad blockers, or lack thereof,, which remove the ads from a site you’re viewing. The discussion moved to Kirk’s concerns about the HomePod, not about its sound quality but whether Siri will be able to understand complicated requests to play music.

    I’ll get to the HomePod concerns in the next article. Meantime, I was pleased that Kirk agreed with me about the distribution scheme for the forthcoming Apple TV programming, which is via Apple Music. As Apple works to boost its music streaming service, and no doubt to differentiate itself in more ways from market leader Spotify, offering TV shows as a value-added extra might surely boost conversions from the 90-day trials to paid memberships. Maybe even toss in some other shows and movies licensed from the entertainment companies.

    At one time, it was thought that Apple might be considering a way to enter the video streaming business to compete with Netflix, but that rumor vanished from the tech media amid reports that the entertainment companies just wouldn’t agree to Apple’s terms. True or not, just duplicating what existing services offer is not going to convince people to try yet another service. Offering a dozen or so original shows won’t do it either, however. I expect there is series overload already what with so many brilliant scripted dramas in production.

    Apple VP Eddy Cue says the company will make an announcement about its TV plans soon. Meantime, even the show business trades are filled with stories about yet more additions to the programming roster.

    You’ll also heard from columnist Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Finance, Wirecutter and other publications. He discussed in detail his trip to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, the most powerful rocket ship the company has developed so far. Rob also explained what happened when he got lost. He briefly talked about his expectations for Apple’s smart speaker, the HomePod, before discussing unexpected privacy issues involving an activity-tracking social network known as Strava, and the downsides of publicly revealing the location of its users, especially if that location is a secret U.S. military base. The privacy of connected cars was also discussed, particularly concerns about all that driving data a car collects, which can be used by insurance company, with a plugin receiver, to track your driving record. Gene and Rob also talked about whether car makers should make it easy for you to erase your data when you trade in the vehicle or it’s totaled.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time paranormal investigator Stan Gordon. Every year mysterious incidents occur in Pennsylvania and 2017 was a very active year for strange phenomena of various kinds. Observations of mysterious objects in the sky were reported in daylight as well as at night. People reported very close range encounters with mini-UFOs. There were numerous reports of strange creatures being seen as well. Stan has been researching UFO sightings, Bigfoot encounters, and other mysterious events in Pennsylvania since 1959. Since then, he has been involved with the investigation of thousands of unusual incidents. He is the primary investigator of the 1965 UFO crash incident that occurred near Kecksburg, PA.

    HOME POD: THE EARLY CONCERNS

    In the old days when I filled my home with high-end audio gear, I might have actually considered buying a HomePod or at least requesting one for review. Anything new and different was always on my radar — way back when.

    But over the years, my listening routine has been simplified. Over a decade ago, I sold a fairly elaborate audio system, worth over $10,000, to raise cash to help out a relative facing financial ruin. I did pretty well in the transaction, actually; some of those components were considered classics, but I wasn’t displeased to let them go. It had been months since I turned the system on, and my listening habits largely focused on playing music and online radio on my Mac. In our bedroom, we’d use a soundbar hooked up to our TV and Blu-ray player.

    There was no need for any other components, since I just didn’t have the time to set up a separate listening area anymore and hang out on a sofa. And, no, I wasn’t into listening to music on an iPod. I just never became accustomed to using headphones except for my radio shows. I wasn’t a fan of the Sony Walkman either in its day.

    Where does that leave the HomePod?

    Well, its portability, and ability to tune itself to just about any listening environment, at least according to Apple’s promises and many of the early reviews, ought to provide a suitable compromise. I thought how it might work if it could be set up as a replacement for my soundbar, but wouldn’t that require an AirPlay source? A VIZIO TV would hardly rate, and I haven’t touched my third-generation Apple TV since early December. I can’t see a need for it anymore, since I don’t have much of a movie library, and the TV’s built-in Chromecast gets the job done with apps from Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and other services.

    And call me old fashioned (or cheap), but I don’t live in anything resembling a connected home. I have no qualms about setting the washing machine and dryer manually, for example. Apple’s HomeKit might suit if you’re buying a new home or remodeling the old one, and want to buy the latest and greatest semi-automated appliances. But that’s not my scene either.

    Long and short is that I am certainly curious about the HomePod, but I don’t see it as an essential appliance for me at this point. I’m not a luddite, as you well know. I don’t have an Apple Watch either, but that’s something I would probably buy if I had the spare cash.

    However, that doesn’t mean the HomePod is going to become another iPod Hi-Fi. At a time where smart speakers are becoming more essential to more people, Apple will surely find its place in the sun. Unlike most of the competition from Amazon and Google, audio quality is the main focus.

    So what do the reviews show?

    Well before he even had a chance to try one out, Kirk McElhearn, a long-time friend and frequent guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, was concerned that the HomePod’s Siri connection would be unable to decode his eclectic musical tastes. He mentioned a number of examples during our last episode that he thought would fool “her.”

    Certainly that seems reasonable enough. Veteran industry analyst Gene Munster tested Siri’s AI capabilities against Google, Alexa and Cortana. Unfortunately, HomePod brought up the rear, scoring 52.3% correct responses to some 782 queries using a sampling of three units. At the top of the heap was Google, achieving 81%.

    One key reason is that the HomePod version of Siri doesn’t recognize navigation, calling, email and calendar events. Should Apple add these features, which can probably be done with a software update, it’s score would rise to 67%. Machine learning and further improvements might boost the score even further, but right now HomePod does its best work with music.

    But Kirk’s real problem is with the audio. In his initial review, he remarked that sound quality was all over the place. With some music, it was great, with other musical selections, it was merely good, but on some material, it was perfectly awful. At its worst, audio quality was muddy and bassy.

    In a later review, Kirk tested the HomePod as a listening device for his TV. But he didn’t find it suitable to put it mildly.

    The problem is that it sounds terrible. The overly bassy sound of the HomePod, which can work with some music, but not all, is horrible with video content. Voices are far too deep, and the lack of a solid mid-range makes them sound artificial. Add to that the sort of faux surround sound reverb that the HomePod applies, and it makes the audio sound strange.

    Well there goes my hope that a pair of HomePods might be a suitable replacement for my VIZIO soundbar.

    Long and short is that, as with any audio gear, you should consider a listening test with your favorite music before buying one. If you can’t find a place to run it through its paces, you might want to consult the reviews and see if it will suit your needs.

    But remember, the software is at version one or thereabouts. Nothing stops Apple from tweaking the audio algorithms to provide an improved balance with different types of source material. At the same time, you shouldn’t consider yourself a beta tester. If you buy a HomePod, and it’s not your cup of tea, just return it and consider other options.

    Of course, the first iPhone wasn’t perfect either, and the first Apple Watch was clearly a work in progress. I’ll follow the progress of the HomePod with interest, and I will listen to one next time I visit an Apple Store. But I’m not going to base my conclusions on Kirk’s priorities. They aren’t mine, and may not be those of other reviewers, since HomePod has received largely favorable reviews from a variety of publications.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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