HomePod- The best smart home speaker?

Apple has finally thrown their hat into the smart home speaker ring, but with an already saturated market, do they stand a chance to make an impact? Well, this is Apple we are talking about! They are never really the first to any market. The iPod wasn’t the first portable music player. The MacBook wasn’t the first laptop. The iPhone wasn’t the first smart phone. The iPad wasn’t the first tablet. But what Apple has done with each of these products is deliver a truly outstanding device that oozes quality and works far better than the competition, which are often less expensive devices, albeit less capable (arguably, and I’ll briefly explore this shortly). So, can the HomePod continue this trend and compete against some of the more established smart speakers on the market, which come at a much more pocket friendly price-tag?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
As with all Apple products, the unboxing is simple and quick; very Apple-like indeed. Once out of the box, the HomePod is much smaller than it looks in the pictures. It measures 6.8 inches tall, just slightly taller than my iPhone X. However, it is heavy for it’s size at 2.5kg. This makes it feel like a very solid and premium product. The base has an anti-slip rubber material with an Apple logo etched the bottom, and the top has controls for basic playback. There are no physical buttons, and all controls are operated through an LED touchscreen. The layout changes based on what the speaker is doing. Furthermore, the screen also displays a Siri animation (‘waveform’) to show you when it is listening. This is all wrapped in a woven fabric material which truly does look pretty amazing and premium.

HOW GOOD IS SIRI?
Siri has always been my smart assistant of choice. I am well aware that Siri is one of the weaker links (according to reviews) of the HomePod, however, for me personally, it has always been the best of the bunch. It has met my needs and I use Siri extensively on my iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. And more recently, on my MacBook Pro. I have tested the HomePod briefly with a few tasks; to send a message, turn my lights on/off and read my iCal. So far, so good!

MUSIC PLAYBACK
Now this is the main marketing point of the HomePod, and what Apple are really pushing the device as; a speaker that is “the true sound of home”. It features 7 tweeters, 6 microphones and a high-excursion subwoofer, all powered by an A8 chip. This is the same chipset used to power the iPhone 6, so should provide enough computing power to tackle anything that may be thrown at the HomePod. I am no audiophile, but do appreciate good quality music. I have the Bowers and Wilkins MM-1 speakers on my desktop set-up, which I have found to be truly exceptional over the years. The Echos are very mediocre, but have served their purpose well and are definitely ‘okay’. The HomePod, however, is in another league. The bass is much more punchy and pronounced, the treble is well balanced and I can ear each and every chord, chime and acoustic in my music playback. It almost sounds amazing coming out of such a small package.

The main gripe people have had with the HomePod is that it can only playback music from iTunes and Apple Music. No Spotify seems to be a deal breaker for many. I don’t have Spotify, but I also don’t use Apple Music either. The HomePod can however be used to stream music from your iOS device using AirPlay, but there is no bluetooth playback from other devices. I am very content with this, as iTunes is my main source of music playback, and I purchase a great deal of my digital content there with everything available on my iPhone/iPad.

HOMEPOD VS AMAZON ECHO
I have been using the Amazon Echo smart speakers since they launched in the UK in October 2016. I own 2 Echos, 1 Echo Show and an Echo Dot. This made me think long and hard before getting a HomePod, but this was always the plan (kind of). I have had quite a few frustrations, particularly with the Echo Show, were I just doesn’t pick-up my voice well. Many times have I had to say “computer” (my wake-word) repeatedly to get a response. I have also found Alexa to mis-hear what I say, despite speaking very clearly. Siri is much more responsive, and can respond to me from distances from which Echo cannot. I also have to speak much louder to get Echo to hear me, whereas the HomePod responds even when I speak at a more normal me. However, I have had no problems with the HomePod and Siri, despute speakng in a somehwat normal register.

LOCKED INTO THE APPLE ECO-SYSTEM
This is where the HomePod has picked-up the most criticism. It will come as no surprise that the HomePod is definitely built with the Apple consumer in-mind. For me personally, this is not at all a problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. I use a MacBook, iPad, iPhone, AirPods, etc. Everything works harmoniously together, and the HomePod is a welcome addition the this eco-system. Having Siri narrate/reply to my messages, add iCal entries and perform a number of other hands-free tasks I usually require my phone for is a huge convenience, particularly when I am unable to reach my phone.

CONCLUSION
I can see why there is some scepticism surrounding the HomePod. There are cheaper alternatives on the market that can essentially perform the same tasks you would expect from a smart home assistant, such as turning the lights on, asking for the weather, etc. The HomePod also lacks some of the “skills” from a lot of 3rd parties that the Echo offers, and you need to decide how important these are to you. I personally am fully integrated within the Apple Eco-system. I use an iPhone, iPad, MacBook and have an iCloud account. With all of this, it is natural to lean toward Siri as my personal assistant of choice. Furthermore, the sound quality of the HomePod is truly exceptional. I did have some doubts about spending £319 on a HomePod. In comparison, I spent a total of £360 of the four Echo devices I own, so not a lot more! (I purchased most of these on offer). The HomePod really is a great device, but probably only if you’re well integrated into the Apple ecosystem, and if you are, will probably be prepared to pay the premiun price-tag.

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Moving from the iPhone 8 to iPhone X

In September 2017, Apple unveiled (with much anticipation) the new iPhone X. Alongside it, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus were also announced. The 8 models were available to buy shortly after, shipping on the 23rd of September, but the X model was still a few months away, to be released on the 3rd of November. Not being much of a phone enthusiast (I use my iPad Pro for a lot of my iOS related tasks), and in an almost desperate need to upgrade my ageing (and somewhat failing) iPhone 6 Plus from 2014, I decided to purchase the iPhone 8. It was available ‘now’, and a worthy upgrade with a new A11 Bionic chip, wireless charging, a 4k camera and Touch ID 2, to name a few of the upgrades. Once the iPhone X was released, I was still fairly content with my iPhone 8. However, I felt that I was ‘missing out’ on the iPhone X hype. Take that for what it’s worth. I went to the Lakeside Apple Store and had a brief play with the X, but truth be told my mind was already made up. The very next morning, I logged onto the Apple Store’s website at 6am and (luckily?) managed to reserve a Space Grey 64GB iPhone X at Covent Garden for same-day pick-up. Not many stores had availability, and suffice to say, stock was gone within a few minutes.

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B&O Beoplay E8 by Bang & Olufsen – An AirPods beater?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The Beoplay E8s ship in a very nice box, and as with most modern gadgets, the contents are very simply presented and easy to unpack. Inside we have the earbuds, a set of spare adjustable silicone earpieces, charging/carry case (leather), a USB-to-micro USB charging cable, and the instructions/warranty information. Although made from plastic, the E8s are very well designed and have a solid, premium feel. I have the black version, and find that they do pick-up finger-prints very easily, though. The charging/carry case is a nice addition, yet almost essential as the earbuds can easily be misplaced. The case will also allow the earbuds to be charged whilst on the move, and increase their battery life. B&O claim that the earbuds will last up to 4 hours on a single charge, and the case can recharge them a further two times, meaning you should get up to 12 hours of music playback; more than enough for a single days use for even the most avid of users. The carry case also has a fabric lanyard, making it easier to hold.

COMFORT
At first glance, the Beoplay E8s appear to be fairly bulky. Each earpiece weighs 7.1g. For reference and in comparison, the Apple EarPods weigh 4.0g (each), making the B&Os significantly heavier. However, they are comfortable in my ears, and I have not felt them slipping. As my own preference, I do not wear these types of headphones (wireless earbuds) for running, nor would I find them comfortable for general training; I much prefer something like the PowerBeats for exercise, but I digress. Using the E8s on the train and in my daily commute, I faced no issues with them feeling out of place, even on a crowded train. I would exercise caution with any wireless earbuds, though.

PAIRING
Pairing the earbuds was a little troublesome with my iPhone 8, but we got there in the end. The entire process took around 5 minutes, but should only take less than a minute. To pair the earbuds, tap/press the right earbud to turn them on. Once on, press and hold on both the earbuds for 5 seconds and they will enter pairing mode. From there, select the device from your Bluetooth settings on your phone/tablet and they should pair. This is a one time process and when you subsequently take the earbuds out of the case and put them in your ears, they should connect to your device automatically. It took me a few attempts to initially connect them to my phone, but once connected, they functioned as expected. Simply remove the earbuds from the case, insert into your ears, and finally press the right earbud to connect to your device. A discreet audible chime will let you know that the connection was successful.

There are a few observations I have made about the way the earbuds pair. The right earbud seems to serve as the ‘main’ connection to your device, and the left earbud then connects to the right earbud as well. The earbuds must be within close range of each other to play music. For example, if I take the earbuds out of my ears and move them away from each other, music will continue to play on the right earbud, but not the left. But if I move them closer together, music will play from both again. Another important point is that playback does not stop if I remove one earbud; this is something I don’t like, particularly if I am outside and briefly need to speak with someone. I will have to manually tap the right earbud to pause music before removing it from my ear, or I will lose my place in my audiobook.

GESTURES
A unique aspect of the Beoplay E8s are the various swipe and tap gestures. These allow you to control basic music playback by pausing music, adjusting the volume, skipping between tracks and even activating your chosen voice assistant. In theory, this is a great idea! However, in practice, I found this doesn’t work too well. For example, a single tap on the right earbud is supposed to pause music, and a single tap again is required to resume. When I have tried to resume music, a single tap is not sufficient, and only a double-tap resumes playback. However, as can be seen from the tap gestures I have mentioned below, a double-tap is supposed to skip forward a track. In some cases, this does happen, and it is a little frustrating at times when these gestures don’t work as stated. On a positive note, the volume up and down presses work well.

RIGHT AIRBUD
Play/pause: Single tap
Next track: Double tap
Volume up: Touch and hold
Voice activation: x3 tap
Accept call: Single tap
Reject call: Touch and hold (5s)
End call: Double tap

LEFT AIRBUD
Previous track: Double tap
Volume down: Touch and hold
Accept call: Single tap
Reject call: Touch and hold (5s)
End call: Double tap

SOUND QUALITY
I am no audiophile, but really do appreciate good quality sound. I listen (mainly) to movie soundtracks/scores, as well as anything else that takes my liking. The sound from the Beoplay E8s is very impressive, and notably better than the Apple AirPods. My music is loud and punchy, there is no distortion at maximum volumes, and bass/treble are well balanced. The only thing I can be critical about is that the sound feels a little flat overall; definitely not a major concern and I am being a little pedantic to mention this. There is a slight amount of sound leakage, but not enough to draw unwanted attention (unless you’re in a very quiet room at maximum volume). Voice calls are also very clear, and the built-in mic allows for easy communication. I have tested the earbuds by phoning home a few times, and have not had any issues with not being heard, despite being outside with wind/noise.

CONCLUSIONS
The B&O Beoplay E8s are a very well designed, high quality, and functional set of premium earbuds. The live up to the B&O name, and the sound quality is one of the best that I have had the pleasure of testing and using in a set of wireless earbuds. Their bulky appearance may be a little off-putting at first, but once in your ears, you will realise that these are a very comfortable set of headphones. Functionally, there are a few annoyances, particularly with the gestures, but this is not enough to put me off and I take these as a bonus, as my Apple AirPods lack these all together. Conclusively, I would highly recommend the E8s, despite their premium price-tag.

Video review to follow later this week. Stay tuned and subscribe to my YouTube channel! http://www.youtube.com/andykumar

Leather Sleeve for 12‑inch MacBook – Worth it?

With the release of the iPhone X, Apple also (quietly) made a few other silent additions to it’s product line-up. I logged onto the Apple Store to order the Apple Watch Charging Cradle (review for that to follow soon!), and was pleasantly surprised to see that a leather sleeve for the 12” MacBook had been added to the store. This is an official Apple product, and looks remarkably similar to the leather sleeve for the iPad Pro, which I purchased with my 10.5” iPad Pro earlier this year. I already knew that the quality for this was top-notch, and as I often struggled to protect my 12” MacBook, felt it would be a good option to consider. However, priced at £149.99, it definitely isn’t cheap! But is it still worth it?

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Kindle Oasis (2017) – Hands on and first impressions

I’ve been using the original Paperwhite which I purchased back in fall 2012, and it’s proven to be an invaluable tool for my reading addictions. Over the next few years, Amazon have released a number of upgrades to the original Paperwhite, improving the contrast resolution and specs, as well as expanded the Kindle range with the likes of the Voyage and Oasis. The temptation to upgrade to one of these later models has been ever-present, yet I managed to move my cursor away from the “add to basket” icon on countless occasions. A few months ago, I dabbled over the thought of buying a Kindle Oasis for a while, but noticed that stock levels seemed to be scarce. This was not without reason, as I quickly became aware that a new revised update to the Oasis was on the way.

Roll on to the 11th of October, and I received an email from Amazon, inviting me to preorder the all-new Kindle Oasis, thus confirming these rumours. ‘Now’ is the time to upgrade, I thought! I received my Kindle today on the 31st of October and it was on-time and well packaged. The box itself is compact, and very minimalist. Inside we have the brand-new Oasis itself, a charging cable and some documentation. So, what new features does the Kindle Oasis have over the original, and is it worth the upgrade, particularly if you’re coming from a 5 year old Kindle like me. Here’s what’s new.

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Apple Watch Series 3 – Stainless Steel Space Black

A few weeks ago, I upgraded my launch Apple Watch (Series 0) to the newly released Apple Watch Series 3. I opted for the aluminium Sports model in Space Grey; the same model and colour I owned before. I was in awe. The new model was faster, had a vastly improved battery life, was now water-proof with GPS, and overall, provided far better watch experience. I was happy. However, I then decided to return this model in favour of the LTE version. This cost £70 more, but had double the storage (8 to 16GB), the option for LTE (should I wish to activate this in the future), but perhaps the biggest reason I decided to go for this model was the ceramic back. The non-LTE version features a composite (plastic) back, and I was concerned about scratches. Okay, so I wore the new LTE model with a ceramic back for around 3 days, before having buyers remorse once again. Shouldn’t I have just opted for the the stainless steel model? I had always liked the look of the Space Black stainless steel version. I thought about this briefly, and then finally pulled the trigger.

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Apple Watch series 3 – Worth the upgrade?

I have owned my original Apple Watch since it launched back in 2015. I was immensely excited, and wore it almost every-day over that summer. However, I continually found myself turning to my fenix 3, and my love affair with the Apple Watch soon started to dwindle. Sure I continued to use it, but probably not as much as I had initially anticipated. It was a nice enough watch, but I often found it slow and lacking in features. The fenix 3 really was my watch of choice for the vast majority of 2016. In April of 2017, I then upgraded to the forerunner 935. And for the past 6 months, I’ve been using the the 935 as both my daily and sports watch, wearing it pretty much 24/7. At this point, my Apple Watch had not been switched on in months. After watching the WWDC Keynote by Apple in June 2017, I took notice of how far along the Apple Watch had come, and with the promise of Watch OS4 on the horizon, began to pay interest once more. Roll onto the September Keynote, Apple finally unveiled the Apple Watch Series 3. Coming in 2 flavours, both LTE or GPS, I knew that the Apple Watch had not only progressed in terms of OS, but hardware, too.

After some contemplation, I ordered the Apple Watch Series 3 on the 26th of September, taking delivery for it the following day. My model of choice was the 42mm Space Grey aluminium with a grey sport band. I opted for the non-LTE model, as the LTE version is only available with EE in the UK. I may have been tempted to fork out for LTE, but there still seem to be a few technical kinks to iron out, stock issues as well as my mobile being with O2. Perhaps sometime in the future then for LTE. But for now, even GPS is a huge incentive over the launch Apple Watch. So, was it worht the upgrade?

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