I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

A short iPhone 8 Plus review..

I took the day off today to await the delivery of my new iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Watch Series 3 watch.  The first thing to note is that I’m coming from an iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch series 2.  So why do this?  All devices run iOS 11 and WatchOS 4, so what’s new?

The iPhone 8 Plus has the A11 “Bionic” processor which is, according to benchmarks, the fastest processor ever in a smartphone – on par with the performance of my MacBook Pro 13″.  As this article quotes, “it is legitimate to directly compare scores across platforms” but “laptops are better at delivering sustained performance over a longer period, as opposed to the shorter max burst performance that benchmarks like Geekbench 4 are designed to measure. In other words, the iPhone 8 simply doesn’t have the thermals and heat dissipation necessary to replace your laptop.

Holding the iPhone 8 Plus you’ll notice that it is heavier than the 7 Plus.  This is because Apple has returned to using glass on the back – necessary for wireless (read: induction) charging to function properly.  But the extra weight feels right, and it makes the whole phone look very professional.  That said, I’ve stuck it in my old 7 Plus Apple leather case.

Moving to the 8 Plus couldn’t have been easier.  As soon as the phone had switched on, the 7 Plus knew its time was up.  It immediately offered to transfer its data to the new phone, and I didn’t have to do very much.  So within about 10-15 minutes, I had a fully working iPhone 8 Plus.  Passwords for the various services one uses don’t transfer – so you’ll have to re-authenticate.  That was the longest part of the process.  Setting up two-factor authentication again is a PITA.

The 8 Plus’ True Tone display is brilliant.  Formally only an iPad Pro feature, you won’t notice it in day to day use – but comparing it against the 7 Plus was like night and day.  The 8 Plus display looked so much better regarding colour balance.

The camera on the iPhone 8 Plus is perhaps one of the biggest features I wanted.  And no wonder – it’s just been rated the best smartphone camera on the image quality rating site, DxOMark.  It comes in with a mark of 94.  I’m sure that the iPhone X will outdo that a little, but for now, you’re getting the best smartphone camera on the market.

I’m not going to do much testing of the camera myself until next week – I’m waiting for MacOS High Sierra to be released.  The iPhone 8 Plus uses the new JPEG container format, HEIF (high-efficiency image format) which compresses photos up to 2 times without losing any quality.  And likewise, it also uses HEVC (high-efficiency video codec) for video – which is fast becoming the de facto standard for video (and especially 4K / UHD).  High Sierra will support that out of the box, but in the meantime, the 8 Plus can export to older formats for systems not capable of handling HEIF/HEVC.  I’m not holding my breath for Google (such as Chrome) to support it – they’re using their own codec, and this is a contention point for the new Apple TV 4K – it won’t be able to play YouTube videos in 4K because Google uses something called V9, and Apple uses HEVC.  I do think Google is being silly here since all TVs support HEVC.  I don’t know any that supports V9 or at least both HEVC and V9.

Overall, I like the familiarity of the iPhone 8 Plus.  I use it as I would the 7 Plus, but under the hood is a beast of a system that will keep on top of things for the next couple of years.

Apple’s September 12th presentation – some thoughts..

As a massive Apple fan who occasionally wishes he wasn’t (hence my failed attempts to go back to Windows, move to Android, etc.), yesterday’s announcements of the Apple Watch series 3, the Apple TV 4K, the iPhone 8/8 Plus and the iPhone X made for interesting viewing.

I think I may well be replacing my current 4th generation Apple TV with the 4K model for several reasons:

  • Apple is finally showing commitment to UK TV content.  Maybe they had to step on a few feet at a number of UK broadcasters to do this, but regardless of however they did it, us Brits are getting access to the Apple TV app at long last.
  • 4K HDR content that costs the same as HD content.  That’s a HUGE deal for two reasons – we should be able to get more 4K content and it won’t cost us the kind of prices being charged on UHD Blu-Ray.
  • Following on from the above – if you buy a Apple 4K TV, if there is any matching content you’ve purchased that’s available in 4K – you’ll get an upgrade from HD to 4K absolutely free of charge.

So I’m happy.  Or rather, I’m not entirely happy, as the prices of the boxes are rather steep.  But hopefully, an Apple TV 4K should last a good number of years without having needing another major hardware refresh.

The Apple Watch series 3.  For me, this isn’t that important.  I’m happy enough with my series 2.  I don’t need a cellular connection.  The one and only thing that’s of interest is the ability to charge it wirelessly.

Which brings us onto the iPhones.  I’m a bit confused with what Apple is trying to achieve here with the iPhone X and the iPhone 8/8 Plus.  The iPhone X seems very experimental.  While I’m sure Apple has solved the biggest problems with facial recognition (which Samsung absolutely has not), I think there will be problems.  The iPhone X is the first generation of its kind, and there are bound to be a few issues here and there – and while the OLED display with super thin bezels is appealing, the lack of a touch ID (at least as a backup/alternative for Face ID) and the silly pricing puts it out of my reach.

What really has put me off the iPhone X are people inevitably using Face ID at the barriers of London Underground stations and when boarding London buses.  I can just see it now – the phone doesn’t unlock, or they’re leaving the unlocking until the last minute and it delays the flow of traffic through the barriers or boarding the bus.  This is the first generation of Face ID.  I expect there will be issues.

Then there is the iPhone X’s Super Retina Display.  One of the biggest problems I have with iOS at the moment is that there are still too many developers not updating their apps to make full use of the FHD (full high definition) iPhone 6/7 Plus display.  Take National Rail’s iOS app, for example – it looks big and chunky because the development team hasn’t updated the app to take advantage of the higher resolutions of recent phones.  There are quite a few other developers guilty of this.

What I think will happen is that we’ll see one last iteration of the iPhone 6/7/8 form factor in the iPhone 9, then we’ll see the iPhone 11 which will merge everything together and will see a much lower price point as Apple fixes everything from what’s been gleaned from the public using the iPhone X.  I do not wish to be a paying beta tester for Apple (not while I have to pay through the nose for their equipment – hence why I never run any of their public betas), so the iPhone X is out for me.  Which is cool.  It’s not for everybody.

But the iPhone 8 Plus.  Now that’s tempting.  While it looks like an iPhone 7 Plus (which in itself is no bad thing), it gets wireless charging.  When I’ve briefly had Samsung phones, the ability to charge the device wirelessly was a tremendous benefit.  Now Apple is going wireless charging, this is going to be HUGE.  The True Tone display of the 10.5 iPad Pro is beautiful, so I’m glad that the iPhone 8 Plus is getting that (though it’s a shame that none of the new iPhone models are not getting the 120Hz ProMotion technology).  I’m also pleased to see the cameras get some subtle upgrades too, including new sensors and filters.  Will it surpass that of the Galaxy Note 8?  I’m not so sure, but Apple has always had pretty decent cameras and they’ve been good enough for me.

The next few months are going to be very interesting indeed as people get their hands on these new devices.  I really do hope that Apple has solved the facial recognition problem – but it’s far too early, and far too expensive, to be taking a gamble at this time.

Game of Phones part.. oh, I’ve lost track now.. and the big screen experience at home

September is traditionally the time in which the two biggest players in the smartphone market release (or at least announce) their newest flagship phones to the masses.

Apple is due to announce the new iPhone 8 range of phones on September 12th, whereas Samsung is releasing the new Galaxy Note 8 a few days later.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve really struggled to move to Android and have always returned to iOS.  When I got the Galaxy Note 7, I absolutely loved that phone, but the whole battery/recall situation was unpleasant enough (which also took me to the Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel XL) that I just bit the bullet and went back to an iPhone.  Earlier this year I had a brief encounter with the Galaxy S8+, but one of my most valued (and most used) applications kept crashing under Android and that forced me back to the iPhone – again.

Right now I’m thinking the best strategy would simply to keep using the iPhone 7 Plus that I have and wait it out until later next year to see what’s happened between the Note 8 and iPhone 8.  But I really like the look of the Note 8 – it’s square shape, the S-Pen and the dual cameras (both of which feature optical image stabilisation – a first for any smartphone) all appeal.  I liked that I could jot down phone numbers or write notes when the screen was off with the Note 7.  That’s great value to me.  With the iPhone 8, I stay within the Apple ecosystem with the Apple Watch and the MacBook Pro 2017 Kaby Lake (13″).

Speaking of the MacBook Pro, I decided that, as I will be occasionally working from home with my new job (which is going great, BTW – there’s a LOT to keep me occupied) to buy myself a monitor.  I’ve been using laptops almost exclusively close to nearly 15 years, and I’d never thought about buying an external monitor to use with them.  Back at Memset, I had a single monitor (21″) that kept me going for 5 years (whereas colleagues had multiple monitors) that I hooked up to my MacBook Air.  It was okay, and as such, I felt that I didn’t really need that sort of set-up at home.  This new job, on the other hand, gives me two 21″ monitors out the box on a desktop based Ubuntu OS (it was running Windows).

So last week, having endured two weeks where I had to work at least one day per week at home due to the South Western Railway signal/Waterloo upgrade situation, I decided that what I really needed to be able to work comfortably at home with a trillion SSH sessions going on, a web browser or three, and a Slack session all running at the same time was a monitor.  I had a look at Ultra HD/4K monitors and ruled them out due to cost.  I think it may be another year or two before costs are driven down.   So I had a look at a decent 21-24″ full HD monitor that would be both cost-effective and last me for a couple of years (or more).

I looked at a Samsung curved monitor, then ruled that out as it looked too odd.  Then there was the LG 25UM58-P-25 21:9 aspect ratio ultra-wide monitor, which looks incredible, but I wondered if it would fit on my desk.  I finally settled down on a Dell 2418H InfinityEdge display from John Lewis. £200.  It’s a lovely display and comes with its own speakers (tuned by Waves Maxx Audio) that sit within the stand.  The quality of the image is fantastic.  Yes, you can see the pixels in text given that it’s only a Full HD display and the Mac is capable of driving much higher resolutions – but for my needs it’s perfectly fine (the laptop screen runs at 1600×900 and this display runs at 1980×1080 – then when you combine both screens, I have substantially more real screen estate to play with now).

I also had to buy a new dongle for the Mac because of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports don’t allow me to directly hook up to an external monitor without one.  I settled for a Cable Matters USB-C to 4K HDMI multiport adapter.  This also gives me a gigabit ethernet port and two USB 3 ports.  And it works brilliantly.  It also works with my Dell XPS 13 (9350) too.

Speaking of the Dell XPS 13 9350, I think it may be time to say goodbye to the only decent Windows machine I’ve used in the past year.  Dell is just about to refresh the line with the brand spanking new 8th generation Intel processors which bring quad core processing to 13″ notebooks for the very first time.  So if anybody is looking out for a very good Windows laptop with 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD, and still carries an on-site warranty until 2019 – please get in touch (details in the About Martyn page – link on the left).

iPad Pro 10.5″ is getting closer to replacing your computer

I am a big fan of Apple’s tablet range, and having owned the previous generation 12.9″ iPad Pro and the 9.7″ iPad Pro, they were pretty decent beasts.  But they were not enough to replace my laptop.

A year and a bit on since the 12.9″ iPad Pro was launched, Apple have jazzed up the the iPad Pro range with a new 12.9″ model, and a brand new 10.5″ model replacing the 9.7″.

I have just replaced the 9.7″ with the 10.5″ model which now comes with a staggering 512Gb of storage.  I’ve already filled it with 200Gb of TV shows (ready for my upcoming cruise).  The A10X Fusion chip that’s driving the new 10.5″ and 12.9 iPad Pro is nothing short of remarkable.  The benchmarks alone put this thing up into the MacBook Pro processing range for some tests.

But what’s particularly special about the new 10.5″ and 12.9″ iPad Pros is the display.  The ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate is nothing short of a revolution in tablet display tech.  Heck, even most modern monitors can’t achieve this level – not unless you go for specialist gaming or creative monitors costing many hundreds of pounds.  “Smooth as butter” is probably the aptest description I can give to anything utilising 120Hz refresh.  Swiping between pages or scrolling up and down in Empire Magazine’s app gives you a whole new experience of reading material on this device.  The Times and Sunday Times electronic newspapers are similarly impressive when scrolling through articles or swiping through pages.  The additional inch of screen real estate also makes reading electronic comics much easier too.  And the whole thing – especially as Apple no longer provide back covers for the iPad Pros – feels lighter than the previous gen. It feels very comfortable in one hand.

The 120Hz ProMotion feature also comes into play if you’re drawing or writing with the Apple Pencil.  Latency has been reduced to 20ms, and it’s as close to instantaneous response as you’re going to get (well, until the next generation of ProMotion at least).  I can provide a better signature with this thing.  Writing on the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil is a much better experience.

The only thing I would mention is that everything feels a little too big when it comes to icon arrangements on the home screen.  I’ve made the text smaller, but there’s still a lot more space between the icons.  I’d like a feature like the iPhone Plus 7 where I can condense the space a bit more.  Similarly, the smaller font I’ve selected makes the tablet font rendering in some apps look a bit odd.  At times it feels like I’m using .. da da daaaa .. Android.  So I think Apple has got to do a bit more work smoothing out font rendering a bit more.  That said, this problem may go away in iOS 11 – an OS that will take iPads to a whole new level (seriously, this WILL make the tablet looks and feel like a proper computer from what I saw during the live WWDC video stream) .

(Note: the 10.5″ Ipad Pro’s display is a little too large to read novels, so I’ll always carry my e-Ink Kindle with me, but it’s ideal for reference material.  As I have taken advantage of a few Humble Bundle reference books over the past couple of years, I have quite a few O’Reilly and other technical books which render fantastically well on this device under iBooks)

So to the naysayers that thought the iPad had run out of steam.  Oh no.  No, no, no.  Apple have only just started.  I am delighted with the 10.5″ iPad Pro.  The storage space, the display, the lightness, AND with the leather pouch (ooer-missus), to protect both the device and the Apple Pencil will ensure that it’ll be a brilliant second computer to carry around with me – and will be used daily.