All posts by Stephen Darlington

Apple AirPods first thoughts

I got some Bluetooth headphones about a year ago as an experiment. They were cheap but more than lived up to expectations. The lack of wires really is a game changer, albeit a totally #firstworldproblems one.

But they had flaws. When Apple announced their AirPods I was intrigued. Would they fix the problems while keeping the benefits? At ten times more than my old headphones I hoped so.

They arrived only a few hours ago so this isn’t a thorough review but here are my initial thoughts.

Out of the tiny box, first impression is that they case has a surprising heft. Maybe the size makes you expect it to weigh the same as some dental floss but the reality is batteries are heavier than that!

The lid smoothly flips up and the headphones themselves don’t just fall out. Instead they’re held in by magnets and require a gentle tug to extract. Overall the hardware design is understated and thoughtful.

Open the lid and hold next to an iPhone and it pretty much immediately pairs. No pin codes, no janky on-off buttons, no confusing flashing lights or mystery buttons. Even better, the details sync between your devices. It appeared on my iPad and even my pre-Bluetooth 4 MacBook Pro (which doesn’t automatically “see” the AirPods but does connect just by clicking “Connect” in the menu).

The sound from my iPhone is fine. I’m no audiophile — I don’t even play one on TV — but it’s loud and clear. They don’t fall out of your ears, even if you try.

The one area I was skeptical about — Siri rather than real buttons — is still an area for concern. It took me a few attempts to activate it. It seems to require quite a decent jab to activate, which does eliminate the possibility of accidental usage. “Volume up,” “Volume down,” “Pause” and “Resume” all do what you’d expect. Siri even activates correctly on the Mac.

How well it works in practice will have to wait for “real world” testing. What I will say is that the “pause when you take one out of your ear” functionality works as advertised. I love it.

I’ve not reached the end of day one yet but impressions are good. They feel good and Just Work, which sounds like damning with faint praise unless you’ve used other Bluetooth devices.

But it’s going to take a while longer to determine whether they’re worth ten times the price of my old headphones.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Virtual Assistants

Virtual assistants are all the rage now, in the press if not in not people’s lives.

I am not claiming to do a thorough, like for like comparison. What follows is my subjective, personal experience. Your usage patterns, successes and failures may be different to mine, but I think my conclusions should broadly hold. We’ll see.

I’m comparing an Amazon Echo, an iPhone 6S and the Google app on that same iPhone. I know I’m not using Google Now in its native environment. That was unavoidable and may hobble it. You should bare that in mind if you use Android.

So this Sunday we were going to go to IKEA. It’s a Sunday and the opening hours are shorter than the rest of the week, but which ones?

“Alexa, Ikea Croydon opening hours today.”

Two things about this. First, I don’t really use a conversational style with my computers. That works in the adverts but I try to keep my interactions with inanimate objects short.

Second, none of the three systems had any real trouble understanding what I said. They may have difficulty understanding what I meant but the words themselves posed no problem. If you’ve used voice recognition software any time in the last twenty years this is amazing. (This is not to say that any are 100% accurate, just that the standard is very high and fairly consistent.)

Anyway, while Alexa completely understood the words I asked it, it wasn’t able to get an answer. It didn’t even punt it to Google or Bing.

Siri did better. It thought “Ikea Croydon” was ambiguous and asked me to confirm its guess (it had it right) and then spoke the correct answer.

Google Now went straight to the answer, though it only showed it on screen and didn’t speak it.

Of the three responses, I’d put Siri first and Alexa last. I think speaking the responses makes it more useful, even though I had to say exactly which IKEA I was going to and Google guessed correctly. Reasonable people could argue that Google’s response was better.

Next I asked for the weather: “What’s the weather in Croydon in Fahrenheit.” The catch is the ‘in Fahrenheit’ part, since I normally work in metric. Both Siri and Google Now got it right. Apple’s agent remembered my preference for Imperial measures for the current session, so immediately asking for another city gave the answer in Fahrenheit but later in the day it reverted to the correct measure.

Alexa wasn’t quite as good. It got the right weather but kept the default units. I won’t make the argument that this is another reason for people to give up Imperial measures.

Finally I asked all three whether there had been any problems reported on the Northern Line, the nearest line on the London Underground to my house.

Siri and Google both went to a search engine for the answer, just showing a list of sites that might have the answer but not actually showing the results.

Alexa doesn’t natively know the answer but it has an extensive directory of “skills” that you can add. I used one called “Tube Status.”

It can answer the question but you have to talk to it in a specific way. “Alexa, are there any problems reported on the Northern Line” fails. Instead you have to say, “Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern Line.” The “ask Tube Status about” bit is critical; without it, it doesn’t work.

In this case, Alexa comes first but with some caveats. Google and Apple come joint last. This is odd as both companies have the transit data available in their respective Maps app, but they’re currently not surfacing it to their voice assistants.

That experience is actually a pretty good overall summary. Alexa can do a lot, possibly more than either Siri or Google Now, but it’s not so good at understanding what you’re asking without help. Google has its vast trove of data to virtual hand and uses it to make clever inferences about what you mean rather than what you asked. Siri tries to have more of a personality and otherwise falls somewhere between the two. In some areas the fact that it has less data than Google is a feature (privacy!) but that can limit its options.

I have a hard time saying one is better than the other. They’re all flawed, they all got some stuff right and wrong. It’s early days and rather than showing one is better than the others, it really shows differing priorities. Amazon emphasises its API, Apple its privacy, Google its data. They’re all right. An ideal system would have all of those. And in the future they probably will.

Dongles

When I got my new MacBook it wasn’t complete. I sat it down on my desk and nothing would connect.

I tried to plug in my monitor, but I needed a dongle to connect to my DVI monitor. My FireWire external hard-drive needed an adapter. I had to get a card reader as my camera takes CompactFlash cards. Even my USB hub needed replacing because my new computer came with a newer, faster USB standard.

This wasn’t last week and this wasn’t a 2016 MacBook Pro. This was in 2011 when I replaced by Core2 Duo MacBook with a MacBook Pro 15″. Different monitor port. FireWire 800 rather than FireWire 400. The USB ports upgraded to USB 2.

This is why I am mystified that, a week after Apple’s event, people are still complaining that they might have to buy some dongles when they upgrade. I have to buy a few adapters every time I buy a new computer.

Am I saying that I love to carry round a bag of adapters (and lose them)? No, of course not. But I do love carrying around a computer that doesn’t have all the legacy crap that most Windows laptops still have. A colleague got a new laptop last month and it had a VGA port (first launched in 1987) that he’ll almost certainly never use!

In a short time we’ll have Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C peripherals and everything will be much better. This is the price we pay for being trailblazers but I, for one, think it’s worth it.

1000

According to WordPress, this is my one thousandth post here. I’m not sure how (or whether) I should celebrate this occasion but thought it was worth noting.

ZX81.org.uk has been around in one form or another since 1999. It’s survived the dot com boom and bust, it made it through the financial crisis and austerity. It’s been my “home” for longer than any physical location. It’s outlasted six employers (excluding myself, when I was self-employed) and I’ve had it longer than I’ve known my wife or had children.

Time constraints mean that I don’t post here as often as I used to so who knows how long the next thousand will take to write…?

The Short-Sighted Game

I’m sure that you’ve read Fast Company article about Apple playing the long game. It’s fascinating and, despite the deliberately click-bait title I’ve used here, I think it’s generally true for Apple.

However, there is one area where they don’t get things right. Here’s where I think Cook does it again:

“When you look at most of the solutions, whether it’s devices, or things coming up out of Big Pharma, first and foremost, they are done to get the reimbursement [from an insurance provider]. Not thinking about what helps the patient. So if you don’t care about reimbursement, which we have the privilege of doing, that may even make the smartphone market look small.”

The problem I see here the pure USA-first vision. Big Pharma is big all over the world, but there are only a few places where the insurance providers have such a great stake in heath care.

It’s easy to get stuck in a US, or even Silicon Valley, bubble, not realising that the rest of the world works differently. This time it’s health care. Last time it was thinking that everyone uses swipe credit cards.

These are great markets in America, meanwhile a billion Indians are having a hard time getting an Apple product and the Chinese are putting up obstacles. A company the size of Apple can’t afford to think only in terms of opportunites in the US. Clearly isn’t not going to fail with this attitude but it could limit its future growth.

iOS 10

As I wrote before, iOS 10 is an odd release to talk about before it’s  generally available. Like iOS 8 — but unlike iOS 7 — almost all the good stuff is hidden in APIs, for use by developers. Which means that it’s probably going to be a nice update, but until apps are available it’s difficult to tell.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting visible. Here are a few things that struck me.

  • You get used to the the “lift to show the lock screen” feature on the 6s very quickly. It really is hard to go back to actually pressing a button to see notifications. I know, this is totally a first world problem
  • Visual changes are subtle but mostly an improvement. I’ve not measured it but it feels that some of the animations are quick which helps overall
  • “Share…” button when you long press a link in Mail. This makes sorting through iOS Dev Weekly (among others) so much easier
  • Notifications really are much richer though we’ll only see the full benefit when apps are updated. Messages is almost worth it alone but makes other notifications all the more annoying as they just open the app
  • Updates to the Music app are great. They even fixed the “add to next” / “add to up next” bug
  • The updates to Messages really requires everyone to be on iOS 10. Messages look weird on iOS 9 and lower. For example, if you ‘like’ the message “Hello”, the older OS sees it as “Liked ‘Hello'”. Which, needless to say, is confusing

The final thing that I wanted to mention, is that after using iOS 10 on my main device for a few weeks, work gave my an iPhone SE which came with iOS 9. It immediately felt weird and I missed lots of stuff I’d barely noticed getting used to.

Maybe that’s the best proof of the pudding. It may not be dramatic but I miss it when it’s gone.