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Newsletter Issue #951


The HomePod appears to be getting much more publicity than I expected, but maybe that’s just me. I also think the Amazon Echo is getting more coverage than it deserves, and possibly because the idea of talking to a portable speaker system essentially leaves me cold. Maybe when I’m too old to point and click and tap, I’ll rethink the matter.

In the meantime, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured commentator John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer. John’s talking points included the HomePod, and whether some of the critical reviewers, including Consumer Reports magazine, were expecting too much from it. He also brought up a possible sensitivity with nearby objects, where the presence of a salt shaker close to a HomePod seriously hurt sound quality. The discussion moved to 4K/UHD TV, which John says has finally come of age. In a slightly technical discussion, John explained how the expensive iMac Pro can exploit up to 18 cores and whether any of that holds any value for the typical Mac or PC user. There was also a discussion about a blogger’s curious and overwrought reaction to a pair of visits at an Apple Store that, after some delays, had a favorable result. And why is Apple’s complex product lineup “perfect?”

You also heard from Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV” and other titles, who explained how he got an Apple TV 4K at a big discount, and why he’s becoming disenchanted with the product and why he likes Google Chromecast  more and more. In turn, Gene reminded listeners that his VIZIO TV has an embedded Chromecast system known as SmartCast, and why he hasn’t used his Apple TV, an older model, in over two months. And what about the HomePod and the so-called scandal involving white rings being left on oiled or waxed wood surfaces by its silicone base? Should Apple have explained this limitation earlier? What about reports that the Sonos One leaves white traces from its silicone feet? Josh also explains why he’s about to give up on Apple Music.

True, Apple did release a support document about the “white trace gate” problem, why it happens and what to do about it, but only after the complaints arose. It sort of reminds me of the battery issue, where Apple at first failed to explain why iOS updates throttled performance on units with deteriorated batteries. In both cases, a greater effort to explain matters early on would have avoided lots of bad publicity, and maybe some potential class-action lawsuits.

It does seem as if some people are aching to sue Apple with the right excuse, even if the company is actually doing nothing wrong. When it comes to leaving white traces on certain wood surfaces, it appears that the Sonos One has a similar problem, but it also appears that company doesn’t document the effect, or maybe people have put up with the problem all along, and only its existence on the HomePod alerted the media that something must be wrong, even if Apple wasn’t the only guilty party.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and guest co-host Curtis Collins present long-time UFO researcher and author Jerome Clark, who will discuss an article he wrote for Fortean Times entitled, “Mr. Wilson and the aeronauts of 1897,” and whether some of those sightings were genuine events, an elaborate fiction or something else: what Jerry calls an “experience anomaly.” He’ll also cover the history of the field, and whether anything has been accomplished towards understanding the phenomenon . And why has he once again been drawn into the field after a period of relative inactivity? His books include the multivolume magnum opus, “The UFO Encyclopedia.” He’s also a songwriter whose music has been recorded or performed by musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Tom T. Hall.


The biggest issues with the media’s response about new Apple gear isn’t just Consumer Reports. True, the publications seems to have a penchant for inserting itself into the debate whenever something from Apple isn’t working as it’s supposed to do. The publication’s marketing team evidently realizes that any bad news about the company will get loads of hits.

So when the 2016 MacBook Pro delivered questionable battery life results, you can be sure that CR was ready to not recommend it in a preliminary review. But how many personal computers are even granted preliminary reviews?

It turned out that, yes, the problem was due to an obscure Apple bug. But it was only triggered when Safari was used in a special mode that was primarily meant for web developers. How that was supposed to represent an honest appraisal of its real battery life escapes me. Even when the problem was fixed, the results were still pretty funky compared to what other publications measured. So CR appears to reside in its own reality too.

In any case, CR has had nothing bad to say about Macs since then. But give it time.

So what about the iPhone X? The critics pounced on it more than a year before it was released. They had the illusion that Apple abandoned the Touch ID fingerprint sensor mainly because it was unable to embed the feature beneath an edge-to-edge OLED display. The possibility that Apple had been working on Face ID for a while, and decided it was a better feature, escaped them.

At least until the product was released, and it was discovered that Apple’s facial recognition may not be perfect,  but it was more perfect than the fingerprint sensor and it pretty well worked as advertised.

CR did find a way to downgrade the iPhone X, however. After 50 tumbles, it sustained more damage than the iPhone 8, but it didn’t seem to fare any worse than the Samsung Galaxy S8. But the Samsung still rates above the iPhone, perhaps because it promises longer battery life. But is that the main reason to select it instead? Clearly the public had other ideas.

For the longest time, the Apple Watch was given a less-than-stellar rating by some. Certainly it was a work in progress, and customers were slow to embrace it as completely and lovingly as an iPhone. Still, the smartwatch market pretty much tanked, whereas the Apple Watch came to be the dominant player. With 2017 sales estimated at over 50% higher than the previous year, a proper approach has clearly been found, with the emphasis on fitness.

Fitbit? Fitbit who?

The HomePod was dismissed early on because, at $349, it was too expensive. Compare it to iPhone X, which, at $999, was criticized for being an overpriced luxury device, perhaps an indulgence. But evidently customers felt otherwise, because Apple reported that it had more sales than any other smartphone on the planet during the relatively short time it was on sale last year.

This year, the critics are complaining that demand has suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed, but supply chain talk can be very misleading. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that from time to time, but he’s been ignored. Maybe they feel anything he says must be corporate spin and nothing more.

Now any argument against HomePod pricing fades quickly when you consider the $399 Google Home Max as a competing product, which it is.

Indeed, the usual comparisons cover the Max, the HomePod and the $200 Sonos One. Results haven’t been consistent. So CR rated the HomePod’s audio quality somewhat inferior, other tests put the HomePod ahead. But CR doesn’t exist in an alternate universe here. Yahoo Finance’s David Pogue ran a blind test with this trio, and the HomePod brought up the rear there too.

That doesn’t mean CR and Pogue should be ignored. I’ve known David for years, and he’s always impressed me as being honest in his commentaries. Remember, too, that loudspeakers don’t sound the same to everyone, and preferences will vary all over the place. So it’s not unlikely that the listeners chosen by CR and Pogue came to nearly identical conclusions.

Now I do have some concerns about CR’s listening environment, where it appears they are putting different speakers right up next to one another. Is that the proper way to test a system with built-in auto-configure capability that senses wall reflections, and will it defeat the value of that feature? I have to recall what The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro told me on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, that keeping it near a salt shaker fouled up its ability to self-configure and thus deliver superior audio.

But most people do agree that the HomePod’s built-in Siri underperforms and lacks important features. It would also be nice not to be tethered to Apple’s music services. Would it really do harm to add support for Spotify, Google Play Music and other services? After all, Apple Music is available to Android users?

True, you can stream content from your Mac or iOS device, but the HomePod’s Siri is essentially deaf to them in terms of voice control.

Remember that Apple’s services are largely used to tie you into the company’s ecosystem and push profitable gadget sales. But that doesn’t stop Google or Microsoft from selling their software and services on Apple’s platforms. Google search earns billions in ad revenue from its default placement on macOS and iOS gear.

So giving HomePod users more options will only improve sales. The iPod didn’t come into its own until the iTunes platform moved to Windows.

Although the HomePod isn’t on my personal shopping list, I’m sure none of the reported glitches and limitations are lost to Apple and that there will be improvements going forward. Most important, Siri needs to get better. That it suffers compared to Google and Amazon Alexa, despite being there first. is not a good thing. I have no doubt Apple can retain privacy but still expand Siri’s ability to recognize commands and deliver accurate results.

For now, my use of Siri on any Apple device is still mostly limited to alarms. Except on my Mac, which doesn’t have an alarm.


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

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