HomePod review: Sounds great but limited information and home control

Based on the early reviews, Apple’s HomePod sounds amazing. It’s so good according to some that it rivals audio equipment priced nearly three times the $ 349 you’ll pay Apple for a  HomePod. And in my testing, I agree: Apple has engineered an excellent sonic experience from a single unit. Plus the microphones are nearly flawless at hearing your voice commands regardless of how loud you’re playing music.

Is the speaker worth $ 349 when you can spend a similar amount on other smart speakers? That’s a difficult question to answer for a few reasons. Generally speaking, if you’re all in on iOS and Apple Music, plus you don’t mind waiting for Siri to get smarter, you’ll be happy with a HomePod. I qualify on the first part of that equation, but not the second. And to be honest, I’m not sure the HomePod sounds that much better than some other speakers that have more smarts.

By that I mean most of the “smarts” in the HomePod are in the sound experience. The device automatically configures itself for optimal sound when you first set it up. And HomePod repeats that algorithmic optimization whenever you move it. That’s smart. Does it really solve a problem though?

Credit: Apple

Yes, the intelligent configuration is impressive. It’s also easier than the process used on my Sonos One speakers: The Trueplay Tuning requires you to walk around your room as the Sonos app listens to tones from the speakers. This manual effort takes about a minute and, just like the HomePod setup process, it only works on Apple iOS devices.

Here’s the thing though: How often do you physically move speakers that plug into an outlet? Not that often, if at all after the initial setup. While Apple has made this process “magical”, it’s not something you do daily. HomePod will also dynamically adjust music in real time too, although I haven’t heard much of a difference with this feature.

Additionally, I did a bit of a blind listening test with my family and one of my tech-savvy friends, mainly because I didn’t really prefer the HomePod audio over a pair of Sonos One speakers in most cases. That may seem like an unfair comparison because the HomePod is a single unit, while a pair of speakers are obviously two units. So why the comparison from an audio standpoint? Because both setups cost the same: Sonos dropped the price of a Sonos One pair to $ 349 for a limited time.

I set up the listening tests using the same songs in various genres directly from Apple Music and at the same sound levels. More often than not, the Sonos Ones were the preferred option. Note that I’m not saying the Sonos “won” for a specific reason. While the HomePod may technically be the better device for accurate sound reproduction, it’s more important which speakers deliver the sound the listeners prefer. It’s subjective based on taste and hearing capabilities. David Pogue performed a similar blind test on video and nobody chose the HomePod as the overall winner either, further illustrating this subjectiveness.

To my ears, the HomePod is better in the lower, bass frequencies and is impressively good at bouncing sound off walls with its seven tweeters to create an immersive stage. One HomePod is surely better than one Sonos One. Add a second Sonos One though, and the stereo separation is clear, plus the mid-range and high frequencies are more nuanced to me. Again, this is subjective to my ears; I recommend testing any speaker with your preferred music genres.

Unfortunately, most of the “smarts” end there for HomePod and for that you can blame Siri. The best way I can put it is: Siri is fragmented between iOS devices and HomePod. You’d think everything Siri can do on an iPhone or iPad could be done on the HomePod. It’s not even close.

Sure, the HomePod has the basics. Obviously, Siri is super for voice control of specific music or for suggesting playback based on an activity. As I’m writing this review, I asked Siri to “play music for studying” and she was up to the task: I have some easy listening and acoustic hits playing. She knows the weather, the time, can set reminders, and can tell when my soccer team (technically, my English football club) plays next. And of course, she can control any HomeKit device in the home. This all works great.

Want to know your next Calendar appointment or want to create one? Nope. Need to set two timers with Siri? Sorry, she can only handle one at a time. Oh, and although HomePod works for speakerphone calls initiated from your phone, you can’t start a call from HomePod.

Perhaps the most baffling omission though is in regards to HomeKit. In the iOS Home app you can create routines to group different HomeKit devices together and make them do things with a single Siri command. HomePod appears as a device in the Home app but you can’t include the speaker in a routine. I do this with my Google Home by telling it I want Relaxation Mode and it turns the lights on at 25% in my office while also firing up an acoustic playlist on the Sonos One. That can’t be replicated on HomePod, at least not yet.

Apple says that more features such as multi-room audio and stereo pairing of HomePods is coming later this year. I suspect Siri will be improved as well for things like calendar access and the ability to recognize multiple users. The latter is another big omission for me because HomePod is tied to a single iCloud account, meaning even if the calendar features were available, they would only work with my calendar account. My family would be out of luck, unless of course each person had their own HomePod. (That’s not happening.)

Circling back to the beginning, I do think iOS users with Apple Music and HomeKit devices will be thrilled with the sound and home control of HomePod, provided they can wait for Apple to address some of the gaps in Siri’s smarts. Just remember that HomePod only works with Apple Music (for now) and that it doesn’t work at all with Android phones even though it has a Bluetooth 5 radio inside and there’s an Android version of Apple Music. I wouldn’t be surprised if HomePod stays iOS only for a long time, or for good. So you’d better be sure you won’t switch away from iOS if buying a HomePod.

For me (and my ears), a pair of Sonos One speakers sounds very comparable to HomePod at the same price. They also work with dozens of streaming music services and have the more capable Alexa built in now with Google Assistant coming later this year. My HomePod was purchased out of pocket with our site reimbursing me; if I was spending my own money, I’d pass on HomePod for now with a wait-and-see attitude as Apple improves the smarts of its smart speaker.

We’ll keep using the HomePod over time to assess new features and functions as they become available. In the meantime, comment below or call in on our IoT Podcast Listener Hotline at 512-623-7424 if you have HomePod questions. 

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Apple Reveals Why it Waited to Disclose Information on Battery Management Feature in Older iPhones

Recently, Senator John Thune (R-SD) queried Apple in relation to the company’s decision to throttle iOS on older iPhones, and Apple has subsequently replied to the senator in a letter sent to the United States Senate. Continue reading
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iOS 11.3’s App Store brings back version number and size information for updates

Aside from a few major iPhone and iPad enhancements that are in tow for iOS 11.3, like battery health and power management which were previewed recently ahead of release this Spring, the software update brings back the version number and size information for app updates…. Read the rest of this post here

iOS 11.3’s App Store brings back version number and size information for updates” is an article by iDownloadBlog.com.
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Strava’s fitness tracking map reveals sensitive information about U.S. troops and foreign bases

The company’s Global Heat Map called a ‘clear security threat’ for inadvertently showing troop activities overseas.

The Pentagon has been interested in fitness trackers since it distributed Fitbits to U.S. troops in 2013. Unfortunately, now they will have a different concern as online fitness tracking has created a global map filled with potentially damaging and sensitive information about U.S. installations abroad. What started as a tool to help users get fit and stay fit has become a matter of national security.

At least that’s what international security analyst and expert Tobias Schneider thinks. The Washington Post reports that Strava’s Global Heatmap, an aggregate worldwide map of where and how we use our fitness trackers, includes information from U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East in sensitive installations.

The Global Heatmap was published in 2017, but the security oversight was only recently noticed. Now that it’s come to light (pardon the pun) people are zooming in to see if they can pinpoint places the Pentagon freely admits exist, but aren’t anything it likes to publicize. Especially when it comes to the exact location.

Many people wear their fitness trackers all day long to measure their total step counts, and soldiers appear to be no exception, meaning the maps reveal far more than just their exercise habits.

Lines of activity extending out of bases and back may indicate patrol routes. The map of Afghanistan appears as a spider web of lines connecting bases, showing supply routes, as does northeast Syria, where the United States maintains a network of mostly unpublicized bases. Concentrations of light inside a base may indicate where troops live, eat or work, suggesting possible targets for enemies.

Strava, a popular app for runners and cyclers alike, is available for many fitness devices, including Fitbit, Android Wear, and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. The 2017 map doesn’t show any live data, but the information available provides what would normally be classified data for anyone too see. Including the site of a U.S. base that is yet to be announced.

At a site in northern Syria near a dam, where analysts have suspected the U.S. military is building a base, the map shows a small blob of activity accompanied by an intense line along the nearby dam, suggesting that the personnel at the site jog regularly along the dam

Not only U.S. sites have been exposed through the map, as suspected Russian and Syrian bases are visible, too. Interestingly enough, no Iranian bases are seen. Security experts say this suggests they “either don’t use fitness trackers or prudently turn them off.” This is an important minor detail — users are told about how their activity is tracked and given an easy option to shut down any sending of fitness data. Enough users to give a clear picture of sites the Pentagon would rather not be publicized aren’t doing it. I imagine that has come to a sudden halt.

Read the fine print on every app you download and install, folks.

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A New Information Engine is Pushing the Boundaries of Thermodynamics

Conventional Thermodynamics

Physicists have created a device that has experimentally exceeded the conventional second law of thermodynamics. The device is an information engine, which converts information into work, and it is the first such engine to conform to a newly proposed “generalized” second law of thermodynamics. The paper which details this boundary-breaking engine is detailed in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Traditionally, the second law of thermodynamics states that total entropy (a measure of disorder) cannot decrease over time in an isolated system where energy and matter can neither come in or out. According to this law, there is a limit to the amount of energy that can be converted into work, because the conversion cannot be 100 percent efficient.

But researchers from the Institute for Basic Science in Ulsan, South Korea and the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology found a way to surpass this ceiling of efficiency, suggesting that there is still much to be understood about the mysterious relationship between information and thermodynamics.

They did this by creating an information engine, which is sometimes called “Maxwell’s demon,” using a particle trapped by light at room temperature. Because of randomly fluctuating heat, the particle moves slightly, its motions tracked by a photodiode. If the particle moves significantly in a specified direction, the light trap moves in the direction of the particle, following it.

An artist’s interpretation of the experiment. Image Credit: Govind Paneru and coauthors.
An artist’s interpretation of the experiment featuring “Maxwell’s demon.” Image Credit: Govind Paneru and coauthors.

After many repetitions over time, this information engine can transport the particle in the specified direction just by extracting work from the information gleaned from the random thermal changes. In this system, there is no free energy component, so that does not have an effect.

Pushing Boundaries

The results of this “demon” device supported the possibility of a lossless engine, in which virtually all of the available information is converted into work. This represents a new frontier in thermodynamics.

“Thinking about engines has driven the progress of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics ever since Carnot set a limit on the efficiency of heat engines in 1824,” physicist Hyuk Kyu Pak, an author of this study, stated to Phys.org. “Adding information processing in the form of ‘demons’ set new limitations, and it was essential to verify the new limits in experiment.”

Not only dis this experimental device surpass conventional thermodynamics, it also raised the question of whether the efficiency with which information can be converted into work is actually limited at all. So, to explore this potential and why this information engine crossed such boundaries, the physicists turned to the newly theorized generalized second law of thermodynamics.

While the conventional law constrains the work “created” in an information engine only by the difference between the beginning and final free energy states, the generalized law adds a second constraint — the amount of available information. This second component extends the boundary initially created by the conventional law, allowing for a system to be more effective through the extra work that can be extracted from information.

The new theory predicted the results of the experiment almost perfectly, with the information engine achieving about 98.5 percent of the highest efficiency allowed by the generalized second law.

So far, this study proves only that you can push the limitations of conventional thermodynamics (still, a significant and extraordinary feat). But, while this could lead to future boundary-pushing research and allow physicists to better understand the relationship between information and thermodynamics, Pak told Phys.org that there are potential applications “to create hybrids of biological systems and engineered ones, even in the living cell,” using nanotechnology.

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