The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Saturday, 27 January 2018]

A report from surveillance cylinder land as we wait for HomePod

Nic reports his experiences so far with voice computing from Amazon and Google and is a bit mystified at the reaction to Apple’s HomePod.

Whether it’s from long-standing Star Trek-fandom or general sci-fi nerdiness, I’ve been very excited about the possibilities of voice computing since the release of the Amazon Echo.

Being able to talk to air and have things happen is pretty close to magical.

Being a huge nerd, once I had an Echo surveillance cylinder in my house I very excitedly changed the wake word to “computer,” so I could get that whole Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise vibe going.

But then I had to change it back to “Alexa” since I listen to a lot of nerd podcasts that use the word “computer” way too often. So that was sad for me.

Pout.

My home has both an Echo and a Google Home, since I’m interested enough in voice control to try out both contenders for the throne.

I’m happy to report that after over a year of daily usage, I can strongly recommend, well, either.

Really, they’re both fine and it comes pretty much down to the ecosystem you want to romp around in.

Want to buy things from Amazon? The Echo it is. Use Google services a lot? Google Home it is.

A note on surveillance

I’m cavalierly dumping the cylinders into the category “surveillance cylinders.” Because in order to do what you ask of them, they have to listen to you at all times.

But they are not massively privacy-invading, at least according to how Google and Amazon explain the functionality.

Basically, they sit around and listen to everything going on around them, but only wake up when they hear the wake word. At that point, they’ll light up to indicate they are active and will then send your voice commands to servers somewhere on the Internet for parsing.

Amazon and Google do, however, keep logs of everything you’ve asked your cylinder, and that log is tied to your account.

This is yet another area where Apple’s stance on privacy becomes important: Apple doesn’t want to sell you laundry detergent or serve you ads, so the company doesn’t need to keep individual data. Instead, the commands you give HomePod are anonymized and aggregated.

And all the cylinders have manual off switches on the microphones so you can be sure they’re not listening.

Although at some point you have to decide whether you trust the companies. It simply boils down to that.

My actual usage

The more important question is, after enough time of having surveillance cylinders in my life that the novelty wore off, what did I end up using the cylinders for?

Here’s a rundown.

Morning briefing

It’s great to be able to set up the information you want to get while getting ready for the day—it feels very go-go CEO-ish.

When it comes to the morning briefing, the Echo gets the nod as it includes a custom daily message, often one where Amazon tests out new features of Alexa’s voice. It also contains some of the most egregious dad jokes you’ve ever been subjected to. If you have a strong tolerance for hideous puns, it’s fun.

Google Home is strictly business. No dad jokes from the hive mind. And it has a super annoying bug where it refuses to include the daily commute in the morning briefing. It’s maddening. I’ve done everything, including re-setting up the device, but it refuses to include the commute in the briefing. It’ll tell me if I ask for it specifically, but in the briefing? Nope. Good job, global AI company.

Podcast and music listening

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and it’s great to connect my phone via Bluetooth and have them spooled up.

Which brings us to audio quality. Both Echo and Google Home are terrible speakers. Terrible. Which makes sense because physics—they’re simply physically too small to move a lot of air. They’re fine for spoken word, but an atrocity when it comes to music.

Some people do use them as audio sources since it’s so easy to speak to the air and have music appear. Which is indeed glorious.

Here’s the straight scoop: If you’re the kind of person who is satisfied with the audio quality of Google Home or Echo, you are not even in the neighborhood of being an audiophile.

Which should make you happy, and especially should make your wallet very happy. Good audio is stupidly expensive, so if you are happy with listening to your music through a tiny cylinder, good for you! Do something else with your money!

Audiophilia is a very, oh so very, expensive condition to maintain. It isn’t treatable, it can only be maintained, and the cost is literally “how much do you have?” You have a million dollars? Great, buy a sound system for a million dollars. You have $2,000? Great, buy a sound system for $2,000.

If you have the money, you can spend it on audio. And then you can argue with other audiophiles on forums and declare them all boorish philistines.

Fun.

In the world of normal human beings trying to get through their time on Earth, the $349 Apple is asking for HomePod is a serious amount of money. In the world of audiophilia, it’s what you pay for a cable.

Note: I haven’t heard the Google Home Max, so can’t make comment on its audio quality, but from the reviews it seems at minimum decent.

Still, you can connect either cylinder to your good stereo and listen through it, which gives you the best of both worlds.

Sonos was the first company on the scene with mesh-based whole-home audio. And it was glorious. I think. Cause I couldn’t even contemplate dropping that much money on disposable audio equipment.

But the concept was great—play music in sync all over your home and control it from one location.

Apart from the money, what kept me away from Sonos was that I really loathe having my speakers tied to technology. Speakers are something you keep for a lifetime, or until somebody cranks the stereo too much at a glorious, drunken party and blows the tweeters. But Sonos were quite expensive (for non-audiophiles) speakers that are worthless if the company goes out of business. Yes, if Sonos goes out of business, your expensive speaker system becomes landfill.

Hmmm. That doesn’t seem great.

I’m obviously not against disposable electronics, what with all the phones, tablets and other electronic detritus I’ve cast away over the years. But speakers—it just seems wrong. They should last forever.

Which is why I’m fine with surveillance cylinders that sound crappy. Least they can be connected to good speakers and you can have the magic of calling up music from the air and also have audio quality as good as you’re willing to spend.

On that topic, if you’re not independently wealthy and looking for things to blow your money on, but a normal person who would like decent sound, I really like the ELAC B6 speakers. My full review here.

And Sonos has competition these days: Google is throwing its weight behind its Cast technology, which works really well and provides good audio quality, provided you hook up the little Cast pucks to decent sound systems.

And Amazon has introduced multi-room audio to the Echo line. You can buy cheap Echo Dots, hook them up to your amplifiers around the house, and boom, budget Sonos.

Both Chromecast and Echo multi-room are nice in that you use regular audio equipment and augment it with electronic pucks. Once the pucks are upgraded or obsolete, just replace them, but keep the core of your audio system, the expensive part.

But if you’re an iPhone user, Chromecast can be cumbersome and lacks support from many apps, especially Apple Music. Since of course Apple wants to push its competing technology, AirPlay.

It’s annoying to have these these technology wars, but it’s still a young market, so just part of the landscape, I suppose. Still, Grrr.

It’s bad when mommy and daddy are fighting and all you can do is hide under your bed.

Home control

I’ve resisted the temptation to go hog wild with home automation, since that’s another market still in its infancy with competing, incompatible standards. To dip my toes, I purchased a Samsung Smart Home Kit, which is compatible with both Echo and Google Home. If you want to roll up your sleeves it’s also compatible, sort of, with Apple’s HomeKit.

Home Hub is pretty nice and Samsung is continuing to improve it, but yes, early days it is.

Nascent as this market still is, telling your cylinder to turn lights on and off is nonetheless delightfully Star Trek.

But you have to make sure whatever gear you buy is supported by your surveillance cylinder and that the manufacturer is committed to updating the gear as the cylinders advance.

Home automation is one of those fields that just resists convergence with all its might. My theory is that it’s so, so nerd heavy that the people involved simply can’t see beyond technology into usability. But that’s just a theory I will fill your head with any chance I get.

Enter HomePod

And soon Apple’s mysteriously delayed HomePod will be upon us.

I’d really like to know what the delay was all about and why Apple choose to unveil it as early as June 2017. But that’s neither here nor there.

Expectations are low for HomePod. Low, low, low. There’s the delay, the fact that AirPlay 2 (which will make it into a Sonos competitor) is delayed to an unspecified date after the speaker itself is released, and of course the cost of $349.

Early impressions from people in the nerdosphere who have heard the things in person say that they indeed sound very good, surprisingly good for the sound and price, but we’ll see once they land.

Add to the concerns that Siri’s reputation is not good. As some wit said on Twitter, using Siri is like being mugged by RoboCop.

For a company that claims to have “music in our DNA,” HiFi audio has been the reef Apple keeps floundering on for a long time.

The company’s previous attempts in the HiFi market have tried to find some mystical not-audiophile who has money and who hasn’t bought a ridiculously expensive sound system but who nevertheless likes music enough to spend significant money on the Apple product.

This particular unicorn has so far stayed hidden in the forest.

We’ll see if HomePod will be the virgin that attracts it.

Narrator: It won’t.

HomePod is a midrange HiFi speaker with surveillance cylinder capabilities in a world of cheap cylinders hooked up to good HiFi systems, people who are happy with the sound of the cheap cylinders, and Sonos whole-home audio systems.

It’s an odd product. It’s also an extremely Apple-y product, in that Apple has wanted to create a mass-market HiFi product since forever.

And strangely enough, I, personally, feel good about it. I want one of these things.

Conclusion

Should you buy a surveillance cylinder? As stated up top, I’m bullish on the concept of voice computing—actually, I’m bullish as heck on the whole concept of ambient computing, where technology moves into our surroundings and augments our reality, but that’s another post.

If you have the $50 or so to spend on a mini-puck, I recommend it. If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun.

Pick the ecosystem you want to be a part of and go to town!

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!”

Note: Some links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase something from them I get a tiny kickback, which is greatly appreciated.

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