Trying out the new Apple AirPods

We’ve been waiting on the arrival of a pair of Apple AirPods in this household for several weeks. To cut a long story short, they were a much-delayed Christmas present for @FrankDJS and proved very elusive online and in-store.

While I was passing the Regent Street Apple Store yesterday afternoon, I popped in on a whim and asked if they had any in stock. Much to my surprise, there was actually a staff member available to help me. It was an Apple Store, after all. To my even greater surprise, they had some AirPods in stock.

In less than two seconds, I decided to buy two pairs – one to replace the back-ordered pair for @FrankDJS and one for me, to try them out. I’ve seen what they’re going for on eBay, so I figured that if they didn’t work out, I could easily re-sell them.

At £159, they were probably the most significant impulse purchase I’ve made in some time.

As a mature human being and business owner, I had to prioritise doing some paperwork for my VAT return before I could unpack my set. All the time, hearing gasps of delight and joy from the other room, as @FrankDJS started to use his…

See below for some hastily-shot unpacking videos. I thought I’d put them next to my iMac’s keyboard to illustrate relative size.

I’ll be honest: I’ve used the for less than an hour. So my very quick review of them so far is:

  • They were super easy to set up. You simply open the lid of the little case they come in and the nearby iPhone starts to want to ‘pair’ with them. About two seconds later, they were paired and automatically (automagically?) named ‘Richard’s AirPods’. Bless. Much faster and more accurately than every other bluetooth device I’ve owned.
  • Unlike every other pair of headphones Apple have ever made, these actually fit in my ears. All others fall out like they were made for children, or they start to hurt in less than an hour. These fit nicely and there’s not a hint of discomfort.
  • They also stay in! I know this is a basic for earphones of any kind, but seeing as there’s no cable attached to them, their ability to stay put is of prime importance. Given their size, I’d hate to have one pop out while marching through a Tube station.
  • The sound is impressive! I’d travelled home using my Bose noise-cancelling earphones, and they’re definitely not comparable. But there is a nice amount of base and even with a TV playing loudly in the background, I could hear my music very clearly with volume only turned up half-way.

They’re simple to use – almost too simple. Once you have some music playing, you can pause the track by simply taking one of the AirPods out of your ear. Put it back in and the music starts up again. It’s a very natural gesture – think about when someone approaches you to ask a question while you’re listening to music. It’s obvious to both of you that you’re ready to speak.

If you tap the AirPod in your ear twice, you call up Siri. It hears me perfectly, even if I doesn’t respond accurately. Seriously, I’ve become a much bigger fan of Alexa since getting my Amazon Echo Dots. But with more (sigh) practice, I suppose I could get it to call people without taking my phone out of my pocket.

Does this sound a bit underwhelming? I’m sorry if it does.

The fast pairing and quality sound are impressive. But the lack of any volume control or track control (unless you use Siri) is less impressive. I have an Apple Watch, making it easy for me to control my music and podcasts playback without getting my phone out. But really – this should be an option on the AirPods themselves.

I’ve yet to wear them out of the house. This is important, given the funny looks I’ve seen other AirPods owners get, even in our own neighbourhood of Metropolitan Elite Gadgeteers. (That’s the phrase, right?)

I think these will be must useful to me for hands-free work calls while I’m at my desk (or one of the various hot desks I find myself at from time to time) and when I need to pack light. My Bose headphones are magnificent, but boy are they large. The AirPods, in their case, are minuscule by comparison.  They’re light and protected in the case.

But they’re still not connected by a cable or a cord. It’s unsettling. And that’s why I immediately ordered a cable to keep them together. I know I’m not alone, as I’ve seen a few people do this recently. But it means that when they’re not in active use, I can wear them around my neck.

I’ll come back in a few weeks with a more detailed breakdown and evaluation. Right now, I’m impressed and frustrated with their usability. Let’s see what a few weeks of usage does to that opinion…

Living with Alexa: a few weeks in. Just how useful is the Amazon Echo?

After a few weeks of daily use, it’s time to reflect on just how useful the Amazon Echo Dot really is. A hint? I now have two of them!

After my initial excitement at finally having an Amazon Echo Dot up and running at home, I thought it would be useful to provide an update – if only to see if my excitement has waned over the last few weeks.

Firstly, I now have two Dots in the apartment – one in the bedroom and one in my study. So that’s probably a good indication that the first one (bedroom) was working well. At £49 each (bought with Christmas gift vouchers) they represent a very accessible entry point to ‘speakables’ and the internet of things.

The two are used quite differently.

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How am I using Alexa?

In the bedroom, Alexa is used to stop and start streaming radio, set alarms for the morning, set sleep times (so the music ends after a period of time while I’m drifting off to sleep) and stream Spotify and podcasts. It’s basically a very simple entertainment device and alarm clock.

The bedroom Dot is permanently plugged in to a Beats Pill bluetooth speaker, which really makes it great for listening to music. But even without another speaker, the Dot’s built-in speaker is perfectly adequate for listening to podcasts and spoken-word radio. I just prefer something with more base when listening to music. But it’s strictly not absolutely necessary.

In the study, I’ve plugged the Dot into the external speakers attached to my iMac. There, I mainly use it for timers while I’m working, to get weather reports, to control Spotify while it’s playing and for simple internet searches and calculations. I also use it sometimes to add tasks to ToDoist, thanks to a handy integration.

Some lessons learnt

With a few weeks of daily use under my belt, I’d make the following observations:

  • Alexa is incredibly easy to use. The voice is responsive, pleasant to listen to and understands the huge majority of my questions. You just need to start each query with “Alexa”.
  • Using the “Alexa” word means you’re a lot less likely to accidentally activate the Echo. While you can change this activation phrase to “Computer”, I can’t imagine living with that for more than a few hours – regardless of its geeky value.
  • However, that said, I frequently need to mute Alexa wile I’m on business calls or video conferences, as it seems easily activated while there are a few people talking. And that’s awkward (if amusing) when taking to clients and colleagues!
  • Using my voice to turn off my morning alarm and then get Radio 4 going actually seems to help wake me up. I used to rely on the alarms in my iPhone to wake me up, but it’s just too easy to turn them off and roll over, back to sleep. Maybe that’s just me?
  • I know I’m not getting the full value out of the devices, as they’re not connected to lights or other home appliances. We simply don’t have the need – yet! It might be nice to control the lights with Alexa, but that’s so far down the list of household maintenance priorities, it’s not worth thinking about.

At this point, I still rate Alexa as being more helpful and useful than Siri. Let’s see what Apple does with Siri this year, but it’ll take a lot to displace Alexa in our home. We both love using the Dots and they’re now part of our daily routine.

The initial awkwardness of talking to an inanimate object is long passed and yes, I sometimes find myself saying “Alexa thank you” after “she” has done something, smiling when I year “You’re very welcome”.

Any improvements?

There are still a couple things I wished worked better, and I thin these could all be ‘solved’ with software updates:

  • While Alexa can access my Google calendar, it can only connect to one at a time. I’ve linked my personal Google account to it, so when I ask what’s on my agenda, it only lists in my personal calendar, ignoring my work calendar, which sits in a separate Google Apps account. So, it’s not particularly useful from that perspective.
  • It doesn’t integrate with my preferred podcast player, Pocket Casts. So when I play a podcast via Alexa, it streams it from somewhere, but my Pocket Casts account has no idea and so new podcasts still remain unplayed in my account. No syncing, which can get confusing after a while. A minor problem, but one I’d like to see them address.
  • Alexa will respond to anyone who speaks to it. It doesn’t recognise my voice specifically, so there are security implications! It’s linked to my account, but responds to (most of) @FrankDJS’s commands. Maybe voice recognition will come in future editions.

The bottom line

I think the Amazon Echo Dot is a great device for people who want to test the utility of a speakable device in their home – without shelling out hundreds of pounds. It’s incredibly easy to use and with the power of IFTTT integration, you can make it work with dozens of systems and apps.

Missing my Apple Watch… 

In a sleep-deprived flurry of OMG this morning, I somehow left home without my Apple Watch.

I know, right? Talk about a First World Problem. Actually, someone did:

Anyway, as I waited for my DLR into town, I realised it was too late to go home to get it and hopped on the train without much more thought about it.

But wow – what a difference it made. I realise this evening that I’m a 100% Apple Watch devotee. I missed my notifications, I missed tracking my activity, I missed being able to (basically) check the time without getting my phone out of my pocket. Really, I lost count of the number of times I raised my wrist, only to be disappointed by the bare (if tanned) skin that I saw instead of a watch screen.

Effectively, by leaving it at home for a day, I moved from the hypothetical “How much do you really use your Apple Watch?” to the actual “I use it a lot and I miss it like hell.”

Panic over and it’s safely back on my wrist once more.

There’s probably a very deep philosophical point to be made about having to experience loss to know the value of something – I’m just still amazed I managed to walk out the front door without it.

And if that’s the worst thing that happens to me this week, then I’ll be a very, very lucky man.

Alexa? Welcome home.

I bought an Amazon Echo Dot last weekend, with the various Amazon vouchers I got from my family for Christmas. I’d been thinking about getting the ‘full’ Echo model – you know, the one that looks like the monolith from 2001?

I opted for the Dot after some intensive online research (a good 15 minutes of flicking between the usual websites) illustrated that the only difference between them is the speaker. I figured that I could plug the dot into one of the bluetooth speakers we have at home and it would effectively do the same thing.

Except for £49, rather than £149!

And it’s about a fifth of the size of the Amazon Echo and much less obtrusive in the home. I don’t really want the apartment looking like I’m completely obsessed with gadgets. Even if I am…

It arrived on Sunday and I set it up in a flurry of geeky excitement only matched by the time I got my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. The excitement of trying something very, very new. To me, at least. Using verbal commands with a system built for just that.

I’ve previously found Siri to be unreliable and far less competent and consistently accurate than Google assistant. But the online demos I’ve watched illustrated what the Echo – with its built-in ‘Alexa’ assistant – can do were inspiring.

Set-up took less than 10 minutes. I spent more time in fact organising cables behind my bedside table. As that’s where the echo is now located, plugged in to the Beats Pill bluetooth speaker.

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Yeah, yeah…but is it any good?

Yes. Yes, it is. It responds to common-sense commands when you want to listen to music (via Spotify!), when you want to set an alarm, set a sleep timer, listen to the radio… all as you would expect.

“Alexa…play Radio 4”. Boom! Radio 4 comes out perfectly of the Beats Pill speaker sitting next to the Echo.

“Alexa…play my dinner jazz playlist on Spotify”

“Alexa…wake me up at 6am tomorrow morning”

“Alexa…go to sleep in 30 minutes”

Well, you get the picture. It’s extremely intuitive and I haven’t really encountered any situations where it’s not obvious how to ask Alexa to do stuff. And Alexa confirms in a very easy to understand and natural-sounding voice. Soothing, even.

But wait, there’s more!

Quite literally, in fact. I so fell in love with Alexa, I ordered another Echo dot for my study. The external speakers attached to my iMac died a couple of weeks ago. I can’t complain – they were SO old. When I started to think about buying new ones, I realised I could get speakers to connect to another Echo (Alexa’s sister, if you like) who could help me out when I’m at work.

So far (and I’ve not had a lot of time to experiment this week), I’ve connected it to Spotify, my Google Calendar and ToDoist. All of which work very, very well. I’m sure there’s a ton more I can do with it all, but that’s for this weekend. Right now, I’m just happy that Alexa has lived up to my expectations.

I just wish more things (and people) responded so helpfully when I ask them… And I’m very excited to see where Amazon take this platform. Especially as they’re licensing the technology out vendors making everything from fridges to cars.

Sad to see Pebble go

I only caught up on this news last night. It seems Pebble, maker of the super-useful and low-cost smart-watches, is gone. It’s been bought by Fitbit and will no longer sell its watches.

Although I’m an Apple Watch user, I’ve owned a Pebble in the past. I loved it – the battery lasted for days and days (compared to the roughly 24 hours of an Apple Watch), was easy to use and the developer community was great!

Continue reading “Sad to see Pebble go”

An iPad Productivity Boost

The only gadget I actually bought when we were in Japan in October was the Smart Keyboard for my 9.7″ iPad Pro. If you don’t read the remainder of this post, in terms of a review, I can only express my regret for not having picked one up months ago!

Continue reading “An iPad Productivity Boost”

Some significant Android regret

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I’m going to admit something pretty difficult now. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a couple of weeks now, so this post will serve as a kind of confession.

really regret selling my Nexus 6P.

You hear that? I’m sitting here, listening to a podcast on my iPhone 7 Plus and I’m pining after a phone that Google doesn’t even sell anymore. W the actual F?

If I’m honest, it’s less about the Nexus and more about Android. I miss Android. I miss Google Now and how it understood virtually every single verbal instruction I issued. It worked. The interface was so much more usable than previous iterations of Android and the first I’d used that didn’t feel like an experiment.

So what the hell is wrong with my new iPhone 7 Plus then? Absolutely nothing. It has an amazing screen, a superb camera and is lightning fast. That said, Siri still sucks. Especially when compared to Google Now (or Google Assistant, as it’s now called on Google’s new Pixel phones).

I have a three year old Nexus 7 tablet, and it does a better job of understanding my verbal instructions than my brand new iPhone. That’s not right. And yes, I’ve tried may different combinations of speaking to the iPhone and even when it does understand me, its responses are very limited compared to Google.

I challenged it to tell me the names of some capital cities from around the world.

United Kingdom? London! France? Paris! Ireland? Mega-long pause and then “here are some articles I found for you on the web about ‘what is the capital of Ireland'”. Seeing as Apple makes all its billions in Ireland (the magic of accounting), I’d have thought Siri would know what its capital is…

I know this is probably some form of sacrilege, but I felt slightly disappointed when Google announced its new Pixel phones. Disappointed in that I wanted one so badly. Yes, they’re pretty much as expensive as a new iPhone, but with the power of Google built right in. The Google app on iOS is severely limited compared to its Android equivalent.

But, here I am. An iPhone, an Apple Watch, an iPad and two Apple computers. They’re not going anywhere any time soon. But I have to admit that in a year, I’ll be seriously considering walking away from iOS and moving to Android. It will of course depend on the state of Google’s handsets (I’m not interested in anything from Samsung – no matter how cold it gets in London each winter, I don’t need a mobile that sets itself on fire to keep me warm!), but given how I’m using my phone, the leap to another platform would be more like crossing the street.

The vast majority of my apps are cross platform. I use Google Photos over Apple’s photo service. I don’t use Apple’s Podcasts app. I use Google for my contacts, calendars and email. I use Spotify, not Apple Music. I could go on, but you get the picture…

As for the Apple Watch, it’s a thing of beauty. But I got almost as much use out of the considerably cheaper and more ‘fun’ Pebble watch. Its battery lasted for days and days and it didn’t pretty much everything I needed from a smartwatch.

So why the hell have I once again found myself knee-deep in Apple devices?

The impact of Apple’s marketing. Honestly. I was sucked in, hook, line and sinker. I don’t think I was mis-sold anything (apart from Siri, which really doesn’t behave as advertised), I just managed to convince myself that I had to go with the upgrades.

Yes, the old tech was sold and it took the sting out of my new purchases. Plus, my phone is a business expense, so didn’t come out of my personal pocket. But really, it’s about the principle of the thing. I didn’t need that upgrade. I simply lusted after it.

And if I had my time over again? I’d go for one of the new Pebble watches and a Pixel XL.

Boom. There you go. My confession for the week. And I feel better for sharing it.

In the year ahead, I think we’re going to see an arm’s race in terms of verbal interfaces with technology – or ‘speakables’. Apple has Siri, Google as its Google Assistant and Amazon has the Echo. So far, it looks like Google and Amazon are light-years ahead of Apple in this space. Earlier this week. Nilay Patel and Walt Mossberg discussed this very topic on their excellent podcast and Siri was found to be lacking in several areas.

I really enjoyed speaking to Google Now on my Nexus 6P – setting timers, setting reminders, adding appointments to my calendar, searching the net. Attempting the same with Siri is simply a chore and I’ve all but stopped doing it.

I think what it boils down to is this: my iOS devices mostly work as I need them to. I get stuff done and they’re there when I need them. They’re slick and beautiful.

But they’re not fun to use.

I miss Android.

Testing the iPhone 7 Plus camera

I’ve had the new iPhone 7 Plus for a little over a week, but I’ve still managed to put it through its paces, indoors and out, and I thought I’d share a few of those photos here. Overall, I’m really impressed with the quality of pics.

The camera app seems faster and more responsive than in my iPhone 6s Plus (of course, it could be my imagination!) and the focus is sharper. But have a look below and let me know what you think. Photos were taken in a variety of locations and conditions – there’s no central theme at all!

I’ve included a few shots from last week’s overnight trip to Dublin and some from outside a local bar here in Canary Wharf.

I haven’t shot any video with it yet, but might do during this week’s trip to Barcelona and Sitges. At this rate, it’s beginning to feel like a high quality camera with a mobile phone attached.

Unboxing the iPhone 7 Plus

Excitement levels to the max! I actually got my iPhone 7 Plus yesterday, but it was delivered while I was working up in Birmingham and I was just too exhausted to even look at it when I got in.

Ten hours of sleep later, I backed up my iPhone 6s Plus to my iMac, then set up the new iPhone 7 Plus using that back-up. All in all, it took about 30mins from the moment I opened the new phone’s pristine packaging.

Now, for your viewing pleasure, some hastily-taken and bleary-eyed photos of the new objective of desire on my desk

I’ve made a few phone calls, listened to a couple of podcasts and done a bit of tweeting with the new phone. It’s good. No, it’s great. It’s super-fast and responsive and while it’ll take a bit of getting used to, the new ‘taptic’ home button is a nice idea.

I’ve had to use the lightning-to-wired headphone dongle that came with it (super light, but I’m worried it’ll break easily?) as I don’t have a lightweight pair of bluetooth headphones. And based on how much cash I’ve thrown Apple’s way this month, it’ll be a while before I buy any! It’s not a deal-breaker, but the fact that my phone is matte black and the adaptor is shiny white really makes it stand out. And, dare I say, look quite cheap and nasty.

The above pics were taken with the iPhone 6s Plus, so I’m looking forward to giving the iPhone 7’s camera a go this weekend to see just how much better it is. Expect a fuller review of the new phone in the coming weeks, once I’ve used it more and taken it on a few trips.

But so far, so good.