This week’s top stories: Apple announces March event & WWDC 2018, a 13-inch Retina MacBook, and more

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In this week’s top stories: Apple announces an education-focused spring event, Fortnite launches for iOS, a new 13-inch Retina MacBook in June, and more. Read on for all of this week’s top stories. …

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New lower-cost 13-inch Retina MacBook reported to debut in June, iPad refresh coming

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Digitimes is reporting that Apple will release a brand new ‘entry-level’ 13-inch Retina MacBook in June, with a lower cost than the current 12-inch MacBook. According to the report, the 13-inch MacBook will feature a 2560×1600 panel, with a 226 PPI density – the same as the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

This sounds like a compelling product, with better specs at a significantly cheaper price. The report says the 13-inch Retina MacBook will be priced around the current MacBook Air’s $ 999 price tag.

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Apple to launch entry level 13.3-inch MacBook with Retina display in Q2, report says

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A report out of Asia on Sunday claims Apple is preparing a new entry level 13.3-inch MacBook offering that boasts a screen resolution comparable to a MacBook Pro, but comes with a price tag closer to that of a MacBook Air.
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Apple’s New Entry-Level MacBook to Come with Retina Display

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Following reports of Apple working on a new cheaper MacBook for this year, a new DigiTimes report claims that the 13.3-inch MacBook will come with a Retina Display. Continue reading
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New Entry-Level Mac Notebook Expected to Adopt Retina Display, Likely Launch at WWDC in June

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Earlier this month, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple is expected to introduce a cheaper MacBook Air sometime during the second quarter of the year, and a few days later a second report backed up Kuo’s claims with a claim of a price point starting at $799 or $899.


DigiTimes is now reporting that Apple is planning to launch a new 13.3-inch “entry-level MacBook” late in the second quarter of the year, which suggests an introduction at WWDC in June. While DigiTimes calls the notebook a “MacBook,” it is unclear whether it would be part of the MacBook or MacBook Air line, but the entry-level nature of the machine and the MacBook’s positioning at a similar 12-inch size suggests this new machine might be part of a refreshed MacBook Air family.

However the new entry-level machine is marketed, DigiTimes says the pricing will be the same as or slightly higher than the current MacBook Air, which starts at $999, and the machine will include a Retina display.

The 13.3-inch a-Si panels for the new notebook feature the same resolution as Apple’s 13.3-inch MacBook Pro at 2,560 by 1,600.

LG Display will begin supplying the panel in April with the new MacBook scheduled to enter mass production at the end of May or the beginning of June.

The report claims that Apple is targeting shipments of six million units of the new notebook through the end of the year, although DigiTimes analysts believe four million is a more likely figure considering the estimated pricing.

In addition to the new MacBook Air or MacBook, DigiTimes says Apple is also preparing updated entry-level iPad models for release in the second quarter and new iPad Pro models for the second half of the year.

Related Roundups: iPad Pro, MacBook Air, MacBook, iPad

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Google’s new AI algorithm can predict heart disease through retina scan

Google has announced its new AI algorithm that can detect heart diseases by retina scanning. Scientists from Google and its subsidiary health tech Verily claim that by deep scanning of a patient’s eye, the newly developed AI software is capable of accurately detecting data including age, blood pressure, and whether or not they smoke and more.  Furthermore, this can also detect the risk of a person suffering a major cardiac event with roughly more or less the same accuracy as current leading methods. the algorithm is said to make it simple for doctors to analyze a patient’s cardiovascular risk since it doesn’t require a blood test. However, even before this software is implemented, it needs to be tested for accuracy and perfected. Google says that using the deep learning algorithms trained on data from over 284,335 patients, it was able to predict CV risk factors from retinal images which also included eye scans as well as general medical data.The company claims that the algorithm was able to distinguish the retinal images of a smoker from that of a non-smoker 71% of the time. Neural networks were used to mine this information for patterns, learning to associate telltale signs in the eye scans with the metrics …
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HomePod: Retina for your ears

Apple’s new smart speaker, HomePod, was designed to be the simplest and best way to listen to Apple Music and AirPlay, and control HomeKit in your house.

Six or so years ago, a group within Apple started looking into making a speaker that could be placed almost anywhere in the home, would be simple to set up, and would sound incredible no matter where it was placed. Those requirements and constraints posed a significant challenge to the hardware and software engineering teams. What else is new? The solution they came up with became HomePod — a less-than-7-inch cylinder that doesn’t just fill a room but turns it into a full-on soundstage.

I’m not going to review it right now. Not exactly. HomePod isn’t yet available where I live, in Canada. But I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the people at Apple that brought HomePod to market, to see the audio lab where it was tested and iterated on, and to hear their vision for the smart speaker. That includes Kate Bergeron, Vice President of Hardware Engineering, Gary Geaves, Senior Director of Audio Design and Engineering, and Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing.

I’ve also had the chance to live with HomePod for almost a week now, both in the U.S. and at home, and to get a sense of who it’s for and how it fits into the Apple ecosystem.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

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HomePod in Brief

For people who want:

  • Phenomenal sound in a small package that can be placed anywhere.
  • On-device Apple Music, iTunes Music & Podcast, and iTunes Match.
  • HomeKit compatibility.
  • AirPlay streaming.
  • Ambient Siri.
  • Privacy focus.

Not for people who want:

  • Traditional speaker components or a dedicated home theater system.
  • On-device Spotify, Audible, or other non-Apple services.
  • Android compatibility.
  • Bluetooth streaming.
  • Alexa or Google Assistant.
  • A cheap, data-subsidized home assistant.

HomePod is the simplest and best way to listen to Apple Music, iTunes Music & Podcasts, and iTunes Matched songs, and to AirPlay audio from iPhone, iPad, and Mac. You can place it anywhere, from the corner of a room to the center of a deck, and it will immediately measure and adapt to create a rich, immersive soundstage with clear, crisp audio and little or no perceptible distortion regardless of how softly or loudly you pump the volume.

Siri lets you easily control audio, HomeKit home automation accessories, ask general information questions, and interface with messaging, to-do, and note-taking apps.

There’s no on-device support for other music or audio services, you can’t stream over Bluetooth, it requires an iOS device to set up, it’s only officially available in a handful of countries at launch, Siri offers significantly fewer integrations than Amazon’s Alexa, and multi-device and multi-room functionality will only become available later this year. If any of those are dealbreakers, HomePod isn’t for you.

If you’re all in on Apple Music & Podcasts, HomeKit is your home automation system of choice, you’re all about the AirPlay, and you’re happy with how Siri handles all the basic tasks, including playing songs, setting timers, and telling you about the weather, then HomePod will provide you with significantly better audio quality than any smart speaker to date. (And many traditional speaker systems that cost twice as much or more.)

HomePod Unboxing

Included in the HomePod box is… the HomePod. Plus a round Apple sticker and getting started tips. And that’s it.

HomePod Design

For fans of big, traditional, booming speakers, HomePod is a departure. It’s not industrial. It’s not exposed. It’s not a hotrod or rocket-inspired tower for the home. It also doesn’t look like a shoebox, scratching post, air freshener, or whatever else has been inspiring the current smart speakers on the market. HomePod’s aesthetic is utterly Apple.

Minimalist in form, Homepod resembles the 2013 Mac Pro — or an iPod spun 360 degrees. Where it breaks from Apple tradition is the surface material: Available in white or space gray, it’s not smooth, bead-blasted aluminum or polished ceramic or shiny, molded plastic. It’s highly textured, acoustically transparent cloth mesh that covers sides, curving up from the small, Apple logo-adorned base to the touch screen at the top.

The only interruption in an otherwise perfectly, symmetrically spun design is the power cord that snakes out of the bottom.

The power cord is also made of a similar-feeling cloth-like material, which is a significant difference from Apple’s previous power cords. I like it and, If it proves more durable than the plastic-coated USB power cables, I want it everywhere.

The screen on the top shows Siri’s waveform animation. It’s the same circular version that’s found on iOS 11 for iPhone and iPad. You can:

  • Tap to play/pause
  • Double tap to skip back
  • Triple tap to skip forward
  • Tap and hold to invoke Siri.

There all also + and – buttons on either side that let you manually control volume, should you ever want or need to.

Overall, HomePod is cute, if I had to put a word to it. I don’t know if it’ll please people who love showing off the size of their speakers, but I think it’ll appeal to exactly the customer base Apple’s targeting: people who want something that looks good and sounds great in any room of their home.

HomePod Set Up

Setting up HomePod is ridiculously easy — provided you have an iPhone or iPad. That’s because HomePod is currently, specifically aimed at Apple Music and AirPlay customers. Sure, Apple Music is also on Android. Yes, HTC phones and a very few Android apps like doubleTwist Pro support AirPlay. But that’s to supplement a primarily iOS-driven experience, either for an individual or family. So, for the vast majority of people, being an iOS accessory won’t be an issue.

Once you plug HomePod in, it takes about 10 seconds to boot up. You can tell it’s ready to rock when the screen lights up with the circular Siri waveform and it plays its deep, rumbling power-up tone.

Bring your iPhone or iPad close, and you get a slide-up panel that’ll be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever set up AirPods or used iOS 11’s new Automatic Setup to transfer setting from an old iPhone or iPad to a new one.

Tap the Set Up button, choose the (HomeKit) location of your HomePod, and then choose if you want to allow personal requests, namely Messages, Reminders, and Notes.

Any time your iOS device is on the same network as HomePod, it can send and receive your Messages, manage and alert you to your Reminders, and take or check your Notes. But that means anyone else can hear and interact with them as well. If the convenience is worth it to you, turn it on. If you prefer keeping your personal information secure, turn it off.

HomePod then transfers over your settings, including Wi-Fi and your iCloud account (and iTunes account if they’re separate).

I’ve gone through the setup process a dozen or so times now. Most of the time it took about a minute, start to finish. Once it was much faster and once it failed and I had to start again. Having a solid connection and being right next to your HomePod is key.

Once setup is complete, Siri says hello, tells you the type of content and information you can ask for, and prompts you to ask for some music and give it a try.

And that’s it. Seriously. You don’t even have to do any audio tuning. HomePod does that all on its own during the first few seconds of the first song it prompted you to play.

It makes everything from “mic in the sweet spot” home theater to Sonos Trueplay feel archaic by comparison.

HomePod Technology

Apple was a computer company. Apple became a phone company. And a camera company. And, over the last few years, a speaker company. That’s something some in the industry have trouble accepting. Computational photography, yes. Computational speakers, sure. But how Apple takes its strength in computing and uses it to expand into and push forward a widening range of product categories is key not just to understanding HomePod, but to understanding everything that comes next.

Granted, the speaker company part is recent. For years the knock on Apple was that it was the company of iPod and iTunes and yet couldn’t ship a decent speaker in any of its devices. (iPod Hi-Fi being the exception.)

Then came iPad Pro, with a deep, clear, four-speaker system that cleverly maintained stereo positioning even as you rotated the screen. Then came the new iPhone speakers, new MacBook Pro speakers, AirPods, and new iMac Pro speakers. All of them are significantly better than what Apple had produced before. In the case of AirPods, significantly more clever as well.

It’s the result of a dedicated effort made by Apple over the last few years to recruit some of the best audio engineering talent in the business, meld them with Apple’s core technology and software teams, and provide them with the support and facilities to some of the most interesting work in the field.

Apple’s custom anechoic chamber in Cupertino used to develop the beam-forming speaker array and high excursion woofer in HomePod.

During my tour of Apple’s sound lab, I got a chance to meet some of those people and see one of the largest and most sophisticated array of audio testing and tuning equipment in the world. There was a room within a room, separated by air and steel and concrete, designed to eliminate any and all vibrations. There was a room with configurable panels designed to duplicate the average atmosphere derived from the home environment of all of Apple’s internal testers. There was a room, also shielded by concrete and steel, that eliminated all external noise down to a disturbingly unnatural -2db.

And there were cardboard and foam spikes, speakers and microphones, and instruments everywhere, to measure and assess every sound, echo, vibration, noise, and aspect of HomePod.

A small chamber in Apple’s Noise & Vibration lab used to detect unwanted noises during HomePod development.

All of this to ensure HomePod could achieve the design goals set out from the start — small enough to put almost anywhere, incredibly easy to set up and use, and sound great no matter where you put it.

To do that, Apple put a seven-tweeter array at the bottom of HomePod. Each has its own amp and, thanks to its folded horn design, it lets HomePod precisely place crisp, clean high-frequency sound in any and all directions.

On top of that is a six-microphone array that listens not just for Siri commands, but for the reflection of sound off corners, walls, furniture, and more.

Next up is a high-excursion woofer with a custom Apple amp and dynamic processing to continuously adjust the low frequencies, so you have deep, full base throughout the room, regardless of whether the volume is low or high.

Capping it all off is an Apple A8 system-on-a-chip – the same chip found in iPhone 6 and Apple TV (4th generation). This is where Apple’s investment in custom silicon keeps paying off. While Apple wasn’t always a speaker company, it’s become one over the years. Speaker companies haven’t become computer companies, though. And most the other entrants in the smart speaker space aren’t speaker or computer companies — their strengths are in online services.

With A8, Apple adds to the raw speaker hardware with real-time modeling for the woofer, faster than real-time buffering, direct and ambient audio up-mixing, beamforming, machine learning — all the buzzwords! — echo cancellation, and the ability to analyze and place center vocals in the middle of the room and bounce or otherwise project ambient reverb, backup vocals, and left and right channel data to fill the room.

There’s even an accelerometer so, if you move HomePod on a shelf or table, it’ll automatically re-run its spatial awareness set up, and be completely re-adjusted for its new position in just a few seconds.

An extremely quiet Noise & Vibration chamber in Apple’s sound lab in Cupertino used to measure the noise floor of HomePod.

Apple didn’t stop at the science either. The company’s resident audiophiles tuned HomePod so that it would produce music and sound in a way that appeals to humans.

Like Portrait Mode photography on iPhone, it’s software that allows the hardware to do more than it would otherwise be capable of, and art that takes the science to the next level. Instead of getting bokeh from relatively tiny lenses, it gets room-filling sound from a relatively tiny speaker. And instead of film grain, it’s sound profiles that appeal to us not just at the sensory but the emotional level.

Apple is also continuing its tradition of building computational advances on top of first-class hardware. Just like you can’t really do Portrait Mode photography without two high-quality lenses, you can’t really produce soundstage audio without high-quality tweeters and woofers, and you can’t achieve art unless you involve artists in the process.

As you can no doubt tell, I’m legitimately excited about computational audio and video. This is just a first step, but it’s a solid enough one that I can’t wait to see what comes next.

HomePod and Music

If you’re not an audiophile or fussy about your speakers, will you notice a difference with HomePod? That’s the question I had going into the first round of “Pepsi challenges” at WWDC back in in June of 2016, and the more recent round coinciding with launch. I’ve listened to MP3s on tiny mobile speakers for years and it really hasn’t bothered me. So what would HomePod have to offer?

A lot, it turns out. Even compared to the Sonos system I’ve had at home for the last half-decade. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s also unmistakable. HomePod instantly makes a Trueplay-tuned Sonos system sound flat and almost muddy. It reminds me of how happy I was with standard resolution displays before Retina or standard dynamic range before HDR: Once you experience something better, it’s hard to go back. (I’m focusing on Sonos because Echo and Google Max weren’t in the same audio quality or room-filling league.)

Whether that difference in audio quality is worth the difference in price is another question. By low-end, data subsidized home assistant standards, HomePod is expensive. By even moderately priced proper speaker standards, HomePod would probably still be cheap at twice the price. (There’s literally no limit on what you can spend on audio kit, so the measure I use is audio efficiency — quality at price.)

HomePod was designed for music. It can do a lot of other things, but it was primarily meant for music in general and Apple Music & Podcasts, iTunes Music & Match, and AirPlay in particular.

That’s great if you and/or your family subscribes to Apple Music, listens to Apple Podcasts, has bought a lot of music from the iTunes Store, has or continues to subscribe to iTunes Match, and prefers iOS devices and AirPlay.

Apple’s own services as the only first-class option will no doubt frustrate some potential HomePod customers. Namely, those who prefer other audio services, also own Android devices, and who want Bluetooth streaming.

I know some will cry “lock in!” but I don’t think that’s the case. Apple TV has Netflix and even Amazon Prime Video on its platform. AirPods offer Bluetooth streaming.

I think this is simply version one. And, for version one, it makes sense for Apple to optimize for the services the company has complete knowledge of, access to, and control over. That means everything from the way the files are encoded and served, to the metadata and Siri domains, could be iterated and optimized to get exactly the results Apple wanted.

(That includes HomePod not counting against any Apple Music device or concurrent stream limit — set it up one or more HomePods with your iPhone or iPad, leave the house with that device, and anyone who stays or comes home can still listen to Apple Music on any or all the HomePods you’ve set up.)

No doubt Apple will be monitoring reception and the company has a history of iterating swiftly. And HomePod hardware is already so solid, a lot could be done just in software, depending on how Apple chooses to move forward.

For now, Apple Music is already hugely popular in North America, and could soon overtake Spotify in the U.S.. iTunes has also been the dominant music store for over a decade. That means, especially for people already deep into the Apple ecosystem, HomePod will provide a terrific experience right out of the gate.

Much like with iPhone or Apple Watch with AirPods, you can ask for anything from Apple Music’s extensive catalog of over 45 million songs, two million artists, and tens of thousands of playlists, and it’ll start playing close to immediately. It’s like being Tony Stark and asking Jarvis to drop the needle. (And yes, I’ve filed a radar for that exact command phrase — rdar://37141564.)

Apple has also worked to make Siri a better DJ — or musicologist as the company refers to it. To start with, Siri uses machine learning to figure out not just what you asked it to play, but what you like to play. In order for assistants to become truly smart they’ll need to evolve from merely understanding what we say to understanding us, and this is step in that direction.

Siri has also been trained in not just genres but moods and activities, and you can ask for them either separately or in combination.

  • Genres: Alternative, Brazilian, Chicago Blues, Country Rock, Electric Blues, French Pop, Grunge, Indie, Dance, Pop, Rock, and Smooth Jazz.

  • Moods: Affectionate Blue, Chill, Lively, Safe for Kids, Soothing, Unwind, Upbeat, Warm, and Whimsical.

  • Activities: Bedtime, Break Up, Cardio, Cooking, Dancing, Dinner Party, Meditating, Party Music, Studying, and Waking Up.

You can ask for the latest songs by an artist, award-winning and nominated songs, the album a song is from, artists performing with or songs featuring other artists. You can also ask about music, including what’s playing, who’s playing, when a song was released, and general information about songs and albums.

I’ve hit a few walls and experienced a few collisions but, all in all, it’s worked really well. This is how deep and responsive every Siri domain should be. (And should have been for a while now.)

The same is true with Apple Podcasts. You do have to be specific at times — asking for The Talk Show got me the original 5by5 version, while asking for The Talk Show with John Gruber got me the current version and latest episode. (Asking for Vector mostly got me the current version of Vector, but I tweaked the title to Vector with Rene Ritchie to similarly prevent confusion with the older version.)

For everything else, from Spotify to Google Play Music, Overcast to Pocket Cast, Audible to audio files you ripped or made yourself but never matches to Apple’s servers, you have to AirPlay.

It’s easy enough to use, especially with the new multi-device Control Center interface, and has been rock solid so far in my testing, but it requires another Apple device, takes extra step, and doesn’t qualify for Siri control beyond the most basic start/stop commands.

SiriKit — Apple’s application programming interface (API) for setting domains and intents so other apps can integrate into voice control — for audio can’t come fast enough.

AirPlay 2

When HomePod was originally announced, AirPlay 2 was announced along with it. The next generation of Apple’s streaming media protocol, it would let HomePod — and other compatible devices — do everything from forming “stereo” pairs to handling multi-room audio.

Unfortunately, AirPlay 2 hasn’t shipped yet. So for now, you can still have multiple HomePods but each operates and has to be targeted separately.

(That doesn’t mean HomePod is currently limited to “mono” audio. One HomePod can still project a full 3D soundstage throughout a room. It simply means you can’t pair HomePods to create a richer, bigger 3D soundstage — not until AirPlay 2 ships.)

HomePod and Apple TV

There’s no “soundbar” or Apple TV mode to make HomePod the dedicated speaker for your home theater. Like any other non-Apple Music or iTunes source, if you want audio from your Apple TV to come out your HomePod, you’ll need to stream it over AirPlay.

The good news is, Apple has made it ridiculously easy to do. Simply choose your HomePod as the source from Settings> Video and Audio > Audio Output; or from the swipe down info screen if you’re already watching. From then on, unless and until some other source interrupts it, your Apple TV will stick to the HomePod.

Having used a Sonos Soundbar for years, HomePod sounds about the same to me. Maybe a tad cleaner. That’s impressive given its smaller size and far narrower separation. Even more impressive is that it stays in sync with zero latency as far as I could tell, and that’s over AirPlay, not an optical audio cable like Sonos.

Sonos also has a dedicated Sub, the floor-shaking rumble of which HomePod was not designed to replicate. If you had Sonos surround speakers as well – I used a pair of Play:3 — and you want to replace them with HomePod, you’ll probably want to do it with a pair. It’ll give you a better, fuller, bigger soundstage for your home theater.

(It technically won’t be 5.1, but only because concepts like 5.1 speaker systems — center, left, right, surround left, surround right, and subwoofer – are disappearing in a post-computational audio world.)

I don’t know if Apple would ever make its own HomeBar or HomeTheater expressly for Apple TV, with dedicated Dolby Atmos-like capabilities. But, HomePod already sounds so good I’m hoping the company is thinking about it.

HomePod and HomeKit

I’ve been using HomeKit since it was released, mostly for Hue lights and smart plugs. Recently, when I moved, I went all-in. Now, I have more lights, more plugs, an August lock, a Hunter fan, switches, motion sensors, and shades on the way. Controlling it all with Apple Watch or iPhone was good. Controlling it with HomePod is great. At least mostly.

Siri not only has a personality, which makes it more natural and enjoyable to interact with than a nameless assistant or “computer”, but it’s on every Apple device. Unlike exclusively home-bound assistants, if you leave and forget to lock the door or turn off the lights or a plug, you don’t have to run back to within yelling range. You simply talk to Siri on your iPhone or whatever other device is convenient.

But there’s absolutely something to be said for having an always plugged in device with a beam-forming microphone array at home. Ambient control, so to speak.

That way, if your phone is in your pocket, your tablet in another room, your watch busy charging, or your hands are simply full, you can just speak “Hey, Siri” and enter any command you want.

At least almost any command. Because HomePod can’t authenticate your identity the way iPhone or iPad can, it can’t be used to unlock secure HomeKit accessories, like locks and garage doors, the way iPhone or iPad can. In that way, HomePod is like Apple TV — it can lock doors, either via direct command or scene or automation, but it can’t unlock them again.

It’s annoying if your hands are full and you want to open the door for a guest. But it prevents a would-be home invader from yelling “Hey Siri, open the door” through the window so their accomplice can burst into your house.

(Using an Apple Watch or iPhone as a trusted device that, if present, would allow unlocking wouldn’t be any safe. Absent a direct action like raising your wrist or pressing the digital crown to trigger Siri, or authenticating with Touch ID or Face ID to authorize the command, someone could still yell in and unlock your house.)

Cross-talk – if other people begin chatting at the same or louder volume after you’ve triggered Siri but before you’ve finish issuing your command(s) — can cause problems.

Otherwise, for all the basic stuff, HomePod works well. Even when music is playing loudly, it understands commands to change the color of lights, turn on plugs or fans, lock doors, etc. all spoken at a normal volume.

Like Apple TV, it also works as a HomeKit hub. That not only means you can control your HomeKit accessories with your iOS devices while you’re away from home, it means you gain extended range for your Bluetooth accessories.

It’s a shame Apple hasn’t been keeping up with its router business. Apple TV, HomePod, and a next-generation AirPort would make for a powerful mesh network offering.

HomePod as Personal Assistant

Every device you have with Siri on board, when in close proximity to each other, forms a private, Bluetooth network. When you say “Hey, Siri”, all your devices within the range of your voice wake up and begin parsing what you say next. Then, they vote among themselves as to which device should answer. The other devices go back to sleep and chosen device answers.

It’s a good system, but it’s far from perfect. If you stretch while wearing an Apple Watch, the movement could be interpreted as you using your watch and bias the vote towards it and away from the iPhone on the table beside you.

When you’re in a room with HomePod, it seems to take over most if not all Siri requests. Often that’s exactly the right thing to do. A few times, when it has to do with things HomePod expressly can’t handle – like unlocking doors or making dinner reservations – it’ll often pick up the request anyway… only to direct you back to the iPhone sitting on the table beside you…

What Siri on HomePod does, though, it does very well. I’ve used it in my bedroom to ask about the weather and play podcasts before I go to sleep. I’ve used it in the dining room to play music for guests and answer triva questions about sports. I’ve used it in the kitchen to set timers and convert measurements, and I’ve used it in the living room to control everything in my house.

I haven’t had even a single case of Siri saying it can’t do something we all know it can do, and in fact does do as soon as you repeat the question. (Something that happens randomly but frequently enough on iPhone that it leads you to believe there’s one server out there that hasn’t been updated and just waits to catch your commands when it knows it’ll frustrate you the most.)

As is, HomePod covers most of the tasks that most people use a digital assistant for most of the time. But there’s no denying Amazon’s Alexa currently does much, much more.

On the surface, Apple’s SiriKit domains and intents system looks much more robust and scalable than Amazon’s skills, but Apple still has to make it scale. SiriKit on HomePod, for example, currently only supports messaging apps, to do apps, and note apps. That’s not only much less than Alexa, it’s less than what Apple already supports on iPhone.

HomePod is also single user at launch. There’s no Voice ID system to allow different people to, for example, pull their personal messages, to dos, and notes. Apple is actually doing the opposite with HomePod — designing it to be a family system that will understand anyone and everyone in the room. To that end, it doesn’t learn individual voices or sync that learning the way an iPhone or iPad does.

That could change with future updates, but it will be interesting to see, philosophically, how Apple balances the generic assistance of the many against the deeply personal assistance of the few or the one.

HomePod Security and Privacy

I don’t want an open Amazon or Google microphone in my house. Call me whatever names you feel you must, but the idea of companies that monetize my data and behavior being given my conversations and activities for free, and in so doing creating a second or multiple additional points for data breach or abuse, has always felt like a bad deal to me. (I can’t use Google Assistant in general because, every time I decline to give it access to my web and app data, it declines to turn on — which feels coercive, given how much it could still do absent that data.)

Apple, by virtue of its business model, has no interest in storing my personal data any longer than it absolutely has to, and no interest in monetizing my behavior.

So not only does it keep Siri offline until it hits the trigger phrase, once it goes online it generates an anonymous token ID and transmits all data with end-to-end encryption. That way, never have to worry about entire meeting transcripts being stored in logs, employees violating my privacy and snooping on me, or my past data being exposed over due to some future bug, partnership, or request.

That’s not to say I don’t want Apple using my data to provide me with better direct services. I just want my data to be used for my benefit, not for the company’s bottom line. Not unless I start getting a share of the money they make off of it. (Which is way more valuable than any ‘free” app or service offered as compensation to date.)

If — big if — Apple can scale reliability and functionality up to and until they hit a secure, private, yet deeply contextual, borderline prescient SiriOS, the company could ride the Ai wave the way its ridden the mobile wave to date.

You can also turn off “Hey, Siri” for HomePod in the Home app, or say “Hey, Siri, stop listening”. At that point, the microphone is dead until you either turn it back on in the Home app, or tap the top of HomePod and say “Hey, Siri, start listening”. It’s great for those moments, short or extended, when you want to make absolutely sure Siri isn’t listening.

You can also toggle personal requests on or off at any time, even if you’re just in the other room and don’t want to leave guests or kids with an open, messaging-capable, microphone. Just to Home > Add Home (the arrow icon at the top left) > tap on your profile pic, and toggle Personal Requests on or off at any time.

And you can control speaker access for AirPlay from the same place in the Home app, so you can allow everyone, only those on the same network as HomePod (i.e. you’ve given access to your Wi-Fi), or only people you’ve shared your Home with via HomeKit.

You can even require a password if you want to, for example, prevent a well-bearded man from drive-by Ozzy streaming attacks.

HomePod Accessibility

Apple’s ability to consistently ship brand new products with accessibility features offered from day one isn’t just impressive, it’s noteworthy.

HomePod specifically offers, via the Home app on iOS, VoiceOver and Touch Accommodations for the physical controls on the device. That includes speaking rate, double tap timeout, and audio ducking, as well as hold duration, ignore repeat, and tap assistance.

HomePod Buyers Guide

White or space gray? One, a studio pair, or several around the house? if you’re interested in a great sounding speaker and ubiquitous computing device for your home — whether to control your music, tell you about the news, turn off your living room lights, or just because you want a robot to talk to — here’s how to pick the perfect HomePod — or HomePods — for you!

Read the 2018 HomePod Buyers Guide

HomePod Conclusion

The first iPod was limited. So too the first iPhone, Apple TV, iPad, and Apple Watch. But they were compelling enough that you wanted to get in on them early and enjoy the ride. Apple iterated quickly as well, through both software and hardware updates, and each quickly became a leader in its product category. Most became its product category.

One day, HomePod might be part of a greater SiriOS mesh that, like in the movie Her, defines our interactive computing experience. For now, it’s just a beginning.

Like Retina for ears or Portrait Mode for music, it shows what’s possible when software lets hardware move beyond its physical limitations. it’s the start of another revolution in personal technology.

It’s certainly not perfect, at least not yet. There are severe limits to the services it integrates with and the assistance it provides. So much so that HomePod will really only appeal to customers already deeply enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem. But for those customers, it absolutely nails exactly what Apple set out to deliver: a speaker that can be placed almost anywhere in the home, is simple to set up, and sounds incredible no matter where it’s placed.

See at Apple

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