We take a look at the high and lows of Apple products in 2018 and speculate wildly on what might be around the corner...
I love the HomePod. More than most Apple tech, the HomePod lives in the kitchen and so is at the heart of our family. This means that my kids, wife and I all use the HomePod on a regular basis. Mostly for Apple Music, sometimes for AirPlay when I will push a podcast to the speakers (I have two!) and occasionally for Siri, when we ask it to set timers and alarms for cooking. Yes my iPhone or Apple Watch remain my most used gadgets, but the HomePod is there in the heart of the home as an everyday kicthen appliance. Not bad for a new product.
Given that I already had an iPhone X, I skipped any upgrade this year, but I am well impressed by the new iPhone XR. Great colours (especially Product RED) and a nice lower price compared to the XS, this is the sweet spot amongst the iPhone range. Also, once you upgrade to a X, XR or XS, you just can’t go back to the older screen shape.
Certainly my favourite Apple product of 2018. The iPad Pro is very fast- so much that I don’t even think about opening times and lags these days. These speeds, combined with the amazing screen which gives so much more working space, makes this my favourite work device. I have made a commitment to the iPad and try to take it to meetings and for short work trips. The Apple Folio Keyboard isn’t perfect, but it is small and thin enough to mean it does not distract from the iPad’s thinness while allowing for decent typing speeds. Overall this device is a slick piece of premium kit. On top of this, the new Apple Pencil and its charging method on the side of the iPad Pro is fantastic- the perfect pairing.
Speaking of speed, the new Apple Watch Series 4 is a transformation over my Previous Series 2. It is hard to write about speed differences, but the way the Series 4 Wstch feels is amazing- it reacts immediately to touch, something which did not happen with previous models. This immediate reaction time plus the new Watch faces makes it a completely new device compared to previous generations. I also bought the cellular version, so I await news from Apple and Vodafone/3 on support in Ireland...
At this stage I’m not quite sure what the MacBook is for? With the launch of the new MacBook Air, alongside the MacBook Pro, the MacBook sits alone with a niche role. It seems to be the lightest and thinnest model, even though the MacBook Air would point to this! But with one port and the smallest screen, it seems to be useful for those needing the smallest laptop for travel, but as an underpowered laptop it is not so clear what its audience is. Apple really need to sort out their laptop segments here and who they are aiming this laptop at.
The absence of an Apple display for those who want to connect their Mac mini or laptop to a big screen is shocking. The number of Dell and other screens I have set up this year should be a curse on Apple’s reputation. It is madness to have Apple users buy LG and other models, spoiling their setup with these ugly plastic monstrosities. Having a great screen should be an Apple priority for 2019, as it should have been in 2018.
Ho-hum. OK I know there are lots of under-the-hood improvements here but Mojave is a fairly minor upgrade and we miss the headline features of Mac OS from the past. Having a News app and Home app really doesn’t rock our world and it is a pity we are seeing more and more of these incremental updates in Mac OS, with no big splashes.
...Things to Come in 2019:
Ok this is all idle speculation, but here is what we would like to see in 2019...
- a cheaper intro Mac laptop, aimed at education and students. The current MacBook and MacBook Air lines are just a tough too high in price (or begin with lousy storage amounts) and we feel there needs to be a great €999 laptop for education
- we have mixed feeling about the Mac Pro, but as a headline for the Mac range we would love to see a great pro Mac. Would we buy it; unlikely. But it does signal the state of the Mac range for pros and so we love the idea that the video editing and photography market is properly catered for
- more countries rolling out cellular support for the Apple Watch. And having said this, more countries selling the HomePod too. Apple have been very slow to roll out both. Why? Lack of interest by carriers? Lack of sales by Apple? Whatever the reason, the country range needs to improve to makes these products truly global
- new AirPods? Seems likely they are coming this year and we are curious as to what they will improve here... Such a great little product right now and a great symbol of Apple’s design success.
The new Apple speaker, the HomePod, is not available in Ireland just yet, but I drove up to Northern Ireland to pick one up on the weekend of its launch. I had some ideas and limits on what to expect- I did not want an Amazon Echo. The Echo is a great product but it simply wasn’t for me; I wouldn’t use an audio assistant for information, I wanted a good music system in my kitchen, and so the HomePod was the right fit. I think many people see these two products as being in the same category, whereas I see two types of customers with different needs.
So in the end the HomePod fits my views and needs, and to that end it has fitted perfectly into my home setup. I placed it in the kitchen, on my wooden kitchen counter, and can report that I have had no issues related to marks on the surface! The setup was incredibly simple with my iPhone recognising the HomePod close.by and asking me a few questions- almost identical to the setup of the Apple AirPods. When I think back to the voice recognition training required for Dragon Dictate (and years ago with IBM ViaVoice!), the technology has come so far. Yes it still has its quirks, but the improvements are incredible.
The main headline here is the sound- it sounds great. After a few days I began to wonder just how different it was as I had become used to the new sound, I turned on my old Beats speaker to compare- and this is when you realise just how good it is. My poor Beats Pill is really no rival and very outclassed, so the test is unfair, but I did think it was a good speaker to use in the kicthen. I am no audio expert but the sound quality on the HomePod is strong and clear and any speaker I had used in the past sounded boxy and mono by comparison.
When it comes to interaction with the HomePod, Siri is a mixed bag. I can see why people would get frustrated with it, or possibly with any speech control system. Most of the time it plays what I ask for, but with so many mixes of songs, it can easily play a version of what you asked for, but not THE version you were after. For example I asked it for “Duel of the Fates by John Williams”, from the Star Wars soundtrack, as this is a strong classical piece and tests the speakers nicely! But John Williams is not the artist, he is the composer and so Siri did not seem to understand and played other tracks with “Duels” and “Fates” in the title. It got there when I asked for “Star Wars Duel of the Fates” and so there is a bit of adjusting involved where you adapt to Siri, possibly even more than Siri adapts to you. Overall my interaction makes me feel it is adequate to good, if not by any means perfect. Sometimes I reach for my iPhone and just Airplay sound to the HomePod, simply because I can’t think of the name of the track I want and find it easier to browse on my phone screen. There is also an element of not wanting to speak out loud to it- I find tapping on the phone easier. So I probably use Siri 50% of the time to start music and AirPlay the other 50%.
But I now regularly ask Siri for a playlist which I have setup in Apple Music and off it goes- perfect each time. My kids have had fun asking for songs and they too know how to ask, adapting the structure of their sentences to gain better accuracy. It is like Siri has rules for manners- you must ask the right way.
It does also have some nice touches- asking for the news headlines gives a BBC news summary for the day, which is a handy way to get up to date when arrriving home. The ability to ask Siri to set a timer is invaluable in the kitchen and items such as weather reports are nice touches, if things I use quite infrequently.
Lastly, the microphone in the HomePod does an amazing job in recognising speech despite the din! I can have the cooker extractor fan on next to the HomePod, with the kids chatting away, and Siri will still be able to recognise my “Hey Siri” request and interpret the instructions through the noise. Same for music; if a track is playing I can speak to Siri to change to a new song and it recognises my instruction as if the room was silent.
Overall the HomePod is pricey, but not too pricey for a great equality speaker. It matches my expectations and exceeds them in terms of sound and microphone recognition. The accuracy of its responses will change over time as Apple updates its systems as there is room for improvement there. But overall I am pleased with my purchase and it is a nice addition to my home