Tag Archives: Music

HomePod: Sometimes great, sometimes just grrrrrrrrrrr.

Tuesday Morning
I’m getting out of bed as two dogs eagerly await a trip outside which they know will be followed by breakfast. I ask Siri to play the Postal Service. She responds: “Here you go” followed by music by the Postal Service. The music is at about 50% volume. Nice. But in three full days of use I’m feeling hesitant about HomePod and the Siri within. And the next moment illustrates why. I slip on my shoes and jacket and ask Siri to Pause. The music continues. I say it louder and the iPhone across the room pipes up: “You’ll need to unlock your iPhone first.” I ignore the iPhone and look directly at HomePod (5 feet away) and say louder as I get irritated “Hey Siri, pause!” Nothing. She does not hear me (maybe she’s  enjoying the music?). By now, the magic is long gone and is replaced by frustration. I raise my voice to the next level which is basically shouting and finally HomePod responds and pauses the music. Grrr.

I go outside with my canine friends and upon return ask Siri to turn off the porch light. The iPhone across the room responds and the light goes off. I ask her to play and the HomePod responds and the Postal Service resumes. I get my coffee and iPad and sit down to finish off this review. I lay the iPhone face down so it will no longer respond to Hey Siri. Then I say, Hey Siri, set the volume to 40%. Nothing. I say it louder and my kitchen light goes off followed by Siri happily saying “Good Night Enabled”. Grrrrrrrrrrrr. I say Hey Siri loudly and wait for the music to lower then say “set the Kitchen light to 40%” and she does. The music resumes and I say Hey Siri and again I wait then I say “Play the Owls” and she does. I’d forgotten that I also wanted to lower the volume. But see how this all starts to feel like work? There’s nothing magical or enjoyable about this experience.

Here’s what I wrote Sunday morning as I worked on this review:

“When I ordered the HomePod I had no doubt I would enjoy it. Unlike so many that have bemoaned the missing features I was happy to accept it for what Apple said it was. A great sounding speaker with Apple Music and Siri. Simple.

It really is that simple. See how I did that? Apple offered the HomePod and I looked at the features and I said yes please.

I then proceeded to write a generally positive review which is below and which was based on my initial impressions based on 1.5 days of use. By Monday I’d edited to add in more details, specifically the few failures I’d had with Siri and the frustration of iPhone answering when I didn’t want it to.

I went into the HomePod expecting a very positive experience. And it’s mostly played out that way. But it’s interesting that by Tuesday morning my expectation of failure and frustration have risen. Not because HomePod is becoming worse. I’d say it’s more about the gradual accumulation of failures. They are the exception to the rule but happen often enough to create a persistent sense of doubt.

Set-up
As has been reported. It’s just like the AirPods. I was done in two minutes. I did nothing other than plug it in and put my phone next to it. I tapped three or four buttons and entered a password. Set-up could not possibly be any easier.

Siri
In a few days of use I’m happy to report that HomePod has performed very well. In almost every request I have made Siri has provided exactly what I asked. My hope and expectation would be that Siri on HomePod would hear my requests at normal room voice. While iPad and iPhone both work very well, probably at about 85% accuracy I have to be certain to speak loudly if I’m at a distance. Not a yell1, but just at or above normal conversational levels. With HomePod on a shelf in my tiny house, Siri has responded quickly and with nearly 100% accuracy and that’s with music playing at a fairly good volume. Not only do I not have to raise my voice, I’ve been careful to keep it at normal conversational tones or slightly lower. I’ll say that my level is probably slightly lower than what most people in the same room would easily understand with the music playing.

For the best experience with any iOS device I’ve learned not to wait for Siri. I just say Hey Siri and naturally continue with the rest of my request. This took a little practice because earlier on I think Siri required a slight pause or so it seemed. Not any more. But there’s no doubt, Siri is still makes mistakes even when requesting music which is supposedly her strongest skill set.

The first was not surprising. I requested music by Don Pullen, a jazz musician that a friend recommended. I’d never listened to him before and no matter how I said his name Siri just couldn’t get it. She couldn’t do it from iPhone or iPad either. Something about my pronunciation? I tried, probably 15 times with no success. I did however discover several artists with names that sound similar to Don Pullen. I finally turned on type to Siri and typed it in and sure enough, it worked. I expect there are other names, be they musicians or things outside of Music that Siri just has a hard time understanding. I’ve encountered it before but not too often. The upside, the next morning I requested Don Pullen and Siri correctly played Don Pullen. Ah, sweet relief. A sign that she is “learning”?

Another fail that seems like a learning process for Siri, the first time I requested REM Unplugged 1991/21: The Complete Sessions she failed because I didn’t have the full name. I just said REM Unplugged and she started playing a radio station for REM. When I said the album’s full name it worked. I went back a few hours later and just said REM Unplugged and it worked. Again, my hope is that she learns what it is I’m listening to so that in the future a long album name or a tricky artist name will not confuse her. Will see see how it plays out (literally!).

Yet another failure, and this one really surprised me. I’ve listened to the album “Living Room Songs” by Olafur Arnalds quite a bit. I requested Living Room Songs and she began playing the album Living Room by AJR. Never heard of it, never listened to it. So, that’s a BIG fail. There’s nothing difficult about understanding “Living Room Songs” which is an album in my “Heavy Rotation” list. That’s the worst kind of fail.

One last trouble spot worth mentioning. I have Hey Siri turned on on both my iPhone and Apple Watch. Most of the time the HomePod picks up but not always. On several occasions both the phone and watch have responded. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping the phone face down but I shouldn’t have to remember to do that. I definitely see room for improvement on this.

I’ve requested the other usual things during the day with great success: the latest news, played the most recent episode of one of my regular podcasts, gotten the weather forecast, current temperature, sent a few texts, used various Homekit devices, checked the open hours of a local store and created a few reminders. It all worked the first time.

There were a couple of nice little surprises. In changing the volume, it’s possible to just request that it be “turned up a little bit” or “down a little bit”. I’m guessing that there is a good bit of that natural language knowledge built in and we only ever discover it by accident. Also, I discovered that when watching video on the AppleTV, if the audio is set to HomePod, Siri works for playback control so there’s no need for the Apple remote! This works very well. Not only can Siri pause playback but fast forward and rewind as well.

Audio Quality
Of course Apple has marketed HomePod first and foremost as a high quality speaker, a smart Siri speaker second. I agree with the general consensus that the audio quality is indeed superb. For music and as a sound system for my tv, I am very satisfied. My ears are not as well tuned as some so I don’t hear the details of the 3D “soundstage” that some have described. I subscribe to Apple Music so that’s all that matters to me and it works very well. Other services or third party podcast apps, can be played from a Mac or iOS device via AirPlay to HomePod. I also use Apple’s Podcast app (specifically for the Siri integration) so it’s not an issue for me.

Voice First: Tasks and Music
The idea of voice first computing has caught on among some in the tech community who are certain that it is the future. I certainly have doubts. Even assuming perfect hardware that always hears perfectly and parses natural language requests perfectly (we’re not there yet) I certainly have problems with the cognitive load of voice computing. I’ll allow that it might just be a question of retraining our minds for awhile. It’s probably also a process of figuring out which things are better suited for voice. Certain tasks are super easy and tend to work with Siri via whatever device. This is the list of usual things people are doing because they require very little thinking: setting timers, alarms, reminders, controlling devices, getting the weather.

But let’s talk about HomePod and Siri as a “musicologist” for a moment. An interesting thing about playing music, at least for me, is I often don’t know what it is I want to play. When I was a kid I had a crate of records and a box of cassette tapes. I could easily rattle off 10 to 20 of my current favorites. Overtime it changed and the list grew. But it was always a list I could easily remember. Enter iTunes and eventually Apple Music. My music library has grown by leaps and bounds. My old favorites are still there but they are now surrounded by a seemingly endless stream of possibility. In a very strange way, choosing music is now kind of difficult because it’s overwhelming. On the one hand I absolutely love discovering new music. I’m listening to music I never would have known of were it not for Apple Music. I’ve discovered I actually like certain kinds of jazz. I’m listening to an amazing variety of ambient and electronic music. Through playlists I’ve discovered all sorts of things. But if I don’t have a screen in front of me the chances of remembering much of it is nil. If I’m lucky I might remember the name of a playlist but even that is difficult as there are so many being offered up.

So while music on the HomePod sounds fantastic when it’s playing I often have these moments of “what next?” And in those moments my mind is often blank and I need a screen to see what’s possible. I’m really curious to know how other people who are using voice only music devices decide what they want to play next.

Conclusion
There isn’t one. This is the kind of device that I want to have. I’m glad I have it. I enjoy it immensely. It is a superb experience until it isn’t which is when I want to throw it out a window. Hey Apple, thanks?


  1. Well, sometimes a yell is actually required. ↩︎

Finding Trust and Delight in the Apple Ecosystem

I am increasingly happy to be in Apple’s always improving ecosystem. No, more than happy, I’m delighted. Really. It’s fantastic. The devices and services tie together so smoothly. I cannot imagine a better experience. iCloud has evolved into something that just works all of the time. I can’t think of the last time I encountered something that didn’t work. From Music to Photos to the syncing of documents, notes, Safari data, etc.

Example. A few minutes ago I was listening to some music via my Apple TV and browsing Twitter. I came across this tweet:

David Chartier @chartier

This stuff is so much fun. Upbeat, instrumental, little quirky, foot tappin work music. https://itun.es/us/kHQC6?i=980592724

I’ve clicked on his Music suggestions before and enjoyed them so I tapped. I paused playback on the AppleTV and began listening to the this new album on Apple Music on the iPad. Perfect. With a tap I added it to my library and marked it as loved. I know that when I go for my walk in 10 minutes that album will be waiting under the recently played category on my iPhone. It’s also showing up now on my AppleTV. Because it’s something my sister and brother might enjoy I shared it with them via Messages with a couple taps.

Another example. I finally enabled iCloud Photo Library on my phone and two iPads. I’ve not turned it on my Mac yet as that library is long overdue for a clean-up. Within a day the photos on the three iOS devices were synced. This could be better if the people/face recognition synced between them. But as is it worked flawlessly.

Syncing between devices seems flawless for everything. Whether I’m adding a reminder or calendar event, a note or link for Safari’s Reading list, I know that it will be there. Same for editing documents. Same thing for podcasts. I happily choose to use the Apple Podcasts app. It gets the job done. And it’s super nice to know that when I pause a podcast on my iPad and grab the iPhone for a walk I can pick-up playback right where I left off.

Siri and HomeKit

These are getting progressively better. I’ve been using Siri fairly consistently for the past three years and the improvements have been easily noticeable. It’s not 100% but it is so much better. I still get misses but they are, by far, the exception. And I’m not just talking about asking for the weather or setting timers or alarms. I can ask how late a business is open or request Siri to call a business. Or ask her to do math. Or ask her when my niece’s birthday is.

And when used with HomeKit devices it truly seems like magic. Walking up in the driveway in the evening after a walk and asking Siri to turn on the porch light or the window AC and then seeing (or hearing) the result seconds later makes me smile every time. My last action each evening before going to bed is to ask Siri to turn off my light across the room. So much better than trying to convince my cat and dog that they need to move so I can get up and do it. That’s right, it’s all for the comfort of my animal companions. I do it all for them. Also worth noting, devices with Hey Siri do a great job of negotiating which device will answer.

AirPods

What can I say that hasn’t been said by many others? AirPods are fantastic. I wear mine many hours everyday, usually with the iPhone while walking but sometimes while at the iPad. Regardless, I know that they will work with any device with no hassle with what seems like magic switching between devices. It’s not likely that I will ever buy another non-Apple speaker or headphone set. What’s the point? And I’ll add that a part of what makes these seem like magic are two details: Siri and the extended range. If I happen to leave my phone and go into a different room or outside while listening to music or having a conversation my connection is solid for at least 25 feet. It’s nice to have the freedom to forget the phone or to deliberately leave it sitting on a desk or table knowing that my connection is fine as I roam about. Also, Siri’s accuracy is even better with the AirPods. Using Siri with AirPods is, currently, the best possible Siri experience. We’re a long way from the AI found in the movie Her but until then I’ll happily use Siri and the AirPods.

Trust and Delight

Those two words sum it up for me. At this point I trust this ecosystem. As a whole it performs at something like 99% and thanks to that dependability I am constantly delighted. It’s been a long road getting here but I really feel like we’re there and it’s very nice to have arrived.

Streaming iTunes Content via Home Sharing is Terrible


I’m currently enjoying a recent switch to Apple Music but often when I’m at home I still want to listen to my local iTunes content. Now that I have the Air Pods I’d really like to be able to do this via Home Sharing to the iPad because it’s the device I’m likely using. But you know, the Home Sharing from iTunes to an iOS device is terrible. TERRIBLE. In my experience it’s always been terrible.

One alternative is Plex which is what I’m using to stream local content to the iPad or iPhone. Because Apple treats Home Sharing as an afterthought on the new AppleTV I switched to Plex there as well. On an iOS device I can open the Plex app and be streaming music or any other content in just a few seconds. It’s flawless and fast. If I try the same using the new TV app or Music I just get a very slow loading indicator that never actually finishing loading. Actually, it might finish loading 1 in 10 times. Again, Plex loads nearly instantly.

So, Plex it is and that’s not a complaint because they have built a beautiful app. In fact, as apps go, it’s gorgeous and incredibly easy to use. Over the years I made the effort to add metadata so iTunes and the AppleTV would show nice descriptions and art. With Plex that’s not needed as Plex does all the work on it’s own and does fantastic job of it.

Yet another benefit is that with Plex I get fantastic searching abilities on the AppleTV or iOS devices. Search is nearly instant. By comparison, Apple’s native offerings do not offer search of Home Sharing libraries only streaming services.

It bugs me that Apple treats Home Sharing with such disdain after years of encouraging people to buy content from iTunes, anyone with a large library that would like to share content in the home is out of luck. But as it turns out it’s not a problem thanks to Plex.

Note: This post started as a tweet but it occurred to me that I should at least make a note here first. So it was intended to be a paragraph complaining about Apple’s Music and TV clients on iOS. But it seems to have turned into a little love note to Plex.

From Pandora to Apple Music

This isn’t a review so much as a few notes comparing Pandora and Apple Music. In the past my music was artist based. I’d load up an iPod with several gigs of my favorite music and go. I didn’t bother much with playlists as I would just listen to albums. With the iPhone storage was at a premium and I started keeping far less music on the device. Usually just a handful but still it was album based listening with maybe a couple of playlists. I avoided streaming music due to data limitations until Sprint started offering an unlimited plan at which point I began streaming Pandora. I initially went with Pandora because I’d read that the data rate was a bit lower and even though I have an “unlimited” plan my understanding is that it’s actually something more like 23 GB per month which is still quite a bit. After three months I seem to only been using 15 gigs a month with about 3 gigs of that being Pandora. The idea was to evaluate the selection offered by Pandora and to keep an eye on the data usage.

In three months I’ve come to realize that I enjoy that I do not need to think about the specific artists. I just pick a genre or an artist-based playlist and listen. It was more like radio but without the commercials or playlists but without the effort of creating them. Very nice. But there are a couple things I don’t like: too much repetition of songs and lack of Siri integration. So, I thought it time to give Apple Music another go. I want to track the data usage as well as the selection and the benefits of Siri integration. I only just activated my account today so I haven’t used it enough to comment on data usage or variety though I’ve read that the library is MUCH larger than Pandora’s and at twice the cost I fully expect a better selection! In addition to the music there are several live streaming news stations such as. PRI, NPR and a few others. Excellent.

Siri works great with Apple Music and with the AirPods the experience is really fantastic. Not knowing what to expect I asked Siri: “Play some light ambient music” and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact I got exactly what I wanted and I was surprised because I don’t know that it is a predefined category or genre, it’s just want I wanted. Next I asked for Americana. Again, I got what I asked for though I expected it because I think it is a pretty clear genre. I’ve also asked for acid jazz and avant-garde jazz both of which produced great results. I didn’t have to think about an artist. Next I asked for ambient dream pop and again, not disappointed. It’s just been a day and just a few hours of listening but thus far I’d say this is exactly what I was hoping for. At one point I even forgot to preface the request with “Play some” and just said “Irish folk music” and it worked.

What about asking Siri for specific artists? I asked for Sigur Ros and got a nice mix from a variety of the band’s albums. I asked for “Lisa Hannigan’s most recent album” and I got it. I suspect that this will work well for any artist in the catalog.

With Siri I have full control and can repeat songs, jump to the next, shuffle and, of course, pause and play. After nearly a month with the AirPods I’ve got the double-tap force just right and have had almost no errors activating Siri. Much of my use of Music is while walking and having full control while leaving the phone in my pocket is amazing and is exactly what I was hoping for with a switch to Apple Music.

So, what’s the downside? I don’t mind the extra $5/month. I’ll have to monitor the data. In one day of streaming I used 500mb which is a good bit more than Pandora. I expected it would be more. I did do a bit more walking than normal but not much more. Will wait and see. That comes out to 15GB/ month just for music streaming. I should be alright. With other data usage that will end up being about 22-25GB/month which puts me near the upper limit of what Sprint considers normal for an Unlimited plan according to what I’ve read here.

Apple and NASA collaborate on short film to celebrate Juno Mission: ‘Visions of Harmony’

As an avid amateur astronomer, NASA supporter and all around science nerd I was pretty happy to read today that Apple has partnered with NASA to produce a nine minute short film to celebrate the Juno spacecraft entering Jupiter’s orbit. The film is available on iTunes and Apple Music for free and is called “Visions of Harmony.” On a personal note, as is often true for many amateur astronomers, Jupiter was one of the first things I looked at with my own telescope when I was a 9th grader working on a science fair project. The view through that little telescope was breathtaking though strangely, it didn’t quite seem real and it was a moment I’ve never forgotten.
From the NASA website:

NASA announced a collaboration with Apple that will serve to enhance the agency’s efforts to inform and excite the public about dramatic missions of exploration like Juno. “Destination: Juno” is a synergy between two seemingly disparate worlds: popular music and interplanetary exploration. The works resulting from this collaboration showcase exploratory sounds from artists who have been inspired by Juno and other NASA missions, including Brad Paisley, Corinne Bailey Rae, GZA, Jim James featuring Lydia Tyrell, QUIÑ, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Weezer and Zoé.

Apple has captured moments in this journey with a behind-the-scenes documentary spearheaded by the Juno mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton, and scored by Academy Award winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The content is available on various Apple platforms. Other Juno-related content, including educational opportunities with Bill Nye on and an “Interactive Guide to NASA’s Juno Mission,” will roll out over the course of a year and throughout the length of the Juno mission.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

One thing I can say from personal experience as an amateur astronomer is that music does indeed go very well with our exploration of the Cosmos. When I go out to spend an evening at the telescope observing distant galaxies or planets in our solar system I always have a bluetooth speaker with which to play my “Stargazing” playlist. While the quiet sounds of nature are always a nice soundtrack it’s usually when I have music playing that I’m most likely to have those moments which seem most otherworldly. There’s nothing quite like looking through a telescope at Jupiter or something more distant such as galaxy that has been sending its combined starlight out into the universe for 12 million years. That’s the kind of visual experience that is wonderfully enhanced by music.

To go along with the short film, Apple has created a new featured section on Apple Music called “Destination: Jupiter” that highlights the short film as well as the music that appears in it. I’ve not yet listened but it includes tracks by Trent Reznor, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Quin. The film not only includes live music by the above artists but also an interview with Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton.

NASA missions into the solar system are always exciting. Years of planning followed by years in space and then months to years of data collection. Juno, launched in August 2011, will have been traveling just shy of five years when it enters  a polar orbit on July 4. 

The spacecraft is to be placed in a polar orbit to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Juno will also search for clues about how the planet formed, including whether it has a rocky core, the amount of water present within the deep atmosphere, mass distribution, and its deep winds, which can reach speeds of 618 kilometers per hour (384 mph).

According to Apple the goal of its partnership with NASA is to educate and inspire people, while also highlighting the link between exploring space and making music. From USA Today: “The goal is to make science and technology more accessible and relatable to everyone.” – Apple vice-president Robert Kondrk.
For those that might ask, what’s the connection between space exploration and creative expression? I would answer that there’s nothing we might do that requires the imagination and creativity like space exploration does. Science, in a general way, is often rooted in a creative process. Much of what Einstein accomplished had it’s origins in creative thought experiments in which he imagined different scenarios so that he might work through. And he isn’t the only one to have used such thought experiments! Spend some time browsing around the fantastic NASA website, have a look at the many ongoing missions and past missions and consider the beautiful dance of science and creativity that goes into the designing of our space telescopes, rovers, and orbiters. NASA often exhibits the best of humanity. Okay, now I’m gushing. This is what happens when I’m allowed at the keyboard unsupervised while on the topic of NASA.

Also, in case you missed it, one last bit of NASA news. Earlier this month, NASA released an application for iOS and the fourth-gen Apple TV. The app includes live streaming NASA TV, a real-time view of the Earth from the International Space Station, as well as on-demand access to over 10,000 NASA videos and more than 15,000 photos, either individually or as a slideshow. It’s a fantastic tool for exploring our solar system from the comfort of your couch. From your Apple TV search for NASA in the App Store. Or, from your iOS device get it from the iTunes App Store.

To view the new Apple Music/NASA short film, head to Apple Music.