What’s wrong with HomePod?

When Apple announced the HomePod, I wasn’t particularly excited.  Honestly, I don’t think too many people were except for the hardcore fanboys and the handful of people that are concerned with privacy and security but still want a smart assistant device in their home.

After a slightly delayed launch, initial reviews raved over the sound quality and criticized Siri’s capabilities.  The consensus seemed to be “if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, you’ll probably like the HomePod.”

This is not a review of the HomePod’s technology because that can be summed up in a paragraph.

The HomePod sounds incredible and is super easy to use.  It shines as an AirPlay target for AppleTV, and the far-field mics can hear you whisper from across the room.  Bizarrely, Siri does not answer general knowledge questions on HomePod like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s really not a whole lot else to say.  I could go on about how Siri is even more useless on HomePod than she is on iOS, or I could complain about lack of connectivity besides AirPlay – heck, I could whine about Apple Music being the only supported streaming service, but that’s not what this article is.  

The simple and honest truth is that every review was right – if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, the HomePod is incredible.  You already know Siri sucks, you don’t need Bluetooth since all your devices have AirPlay, and you probably have either Apple Music or music stored on your iPhone that HomePod can stream.

So why don’t we ever hear anything about HomePod anymore?  Why does it seem like the device isn’t selling well?

A common complaint about Apple products that I have seen for literally my entire tech-adjacent life is how overpriced they are.  10 years ago, I would argue that aside from the Mac Pro, Apple products weren’t overpriced – they were expensive.  That’s an important distinction, and back then, it was true.

These days, that’s not so much the case.  Apple hardware has slowly risen to absurd pricing levels, and while I’m not here to argue the value of the products or say that their pricing spells doom and gloom for the company, I am here to say how disappointing that fact is. 

The Sonos One supports AirPlay 2, has Alexa built in, and is currently on sale for $179.

I bought a HomePod on sale for $249 on Black Friday.  That’s a discount of $100 from Apple’s MSRP, which was a price that I simply could not justify.  At $249, it was still hard to justify, but at the very least, that sale did not price me out of the product like Apple’s MSRP did.  I simply was not interested at $349.

In the past, I always felt like I was paying a premium for a good product when I bought from Apple.  $249 for a HomePod feels like a premium, so what, exactly, is $349 supposed to feel like?

It’s no secret that Apple has been trying to increase their ASP (average selling price) across their line of products.  iPhones, iPads, and Macs cost more than ever, which means that Apple products are exclusionary.  That isn’t necessary as “evil” as it sounds, considering that with cheaper products, you’re paying less in money but more in data.  Privacy does have a cost, and cheap, privacy-focused products simply don’t seem to exist.

In all honesty, I could’ve written this article about any of the aforementioned products, but I chose HomePod specifically because it’s a new category that isn’t completely defined.  Apple can charge a premium for most of its products because people either see Apple as a market leader, a brand they trust, or just the trendy thing, and they will pay the price.  But for a category like this, it just doesn’t seem to be the best move. 

iPhone ASP courtesy of MacWorld

What’s wrong with the HomePod isn’t technical no matter how much anyone complains about Siri or what it lacks in connectivity – it’s the price.  At $349, I wouldn’t even consider buying one.  At $249, I’m considering how I could use a second one.

I suspect I’ll have a lot more to say about Apple’s higher-trending ASP in the near future.

The post What’s wrong with HomePod? appeared first on Philtered Tech.

Source: Philtered Tech

Quick blog update

I setup a feed import so that all posts to my tech blog and my author profile blog automatically get imported here.  I know that, for a while, I tried to separate everything, but it basically resulted in less activity across the board and made it harder to follow what I’m doing/working on.

PhilteredTech.com is still tech.  PhilipDiStefano.com is still my author profile site.  inphiltrate.com is now an amalgamation of everything except my writing blog (inphiltrate fiction).

Rough draft of Reiterate is done!

I know I said a few updates ago that Reiterate might be done in Q4 2018.  Well, Q4 2018 is almost over, and I just finished the rough draft.  Part of the holdup was that Reiterate ended up being longer than I was expecting.  The other delay wasn’t really a delay as much as it was a poor estimate of when I’d be done.  I’ve still got tons of editing to do, so if I had to take another (very likely wildly inaccurate) guess of when Reiterate will be available, I’d say May 2019.

Source: PhilipDiStefano.com

Christmas Lily

I feel like I haven’t used my blog to share pictures in a long time, so I guess here’s Lily celebrating Christmas.

So, you want to buy a Windows laptop…

It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote about the incredibly lackluster laptop market, and I have to admit that as far as regular consumer laptops go, not a lot has changed.  Over the past half year or so, I’ve researched Windows laptops extensively, and guess what I ended up buying?

A 13″ MacBook Pro.  Sigh.

My new MacBook Pro

But that’s not really where the story starts.  No, instead this story begins around January when I decided that I’d probably be buying a laptop this year.  I’ve expressed my displeasure with Apple’s current laptops more than once on this site, and as a result, I set out to find a Windows laptop that would make me happy.

In the beginning, I was determined to buy a gaming laptop to replace both my desktop and my laptop, and after hours and hours of research, I narrowed my choices down the Razer Blade 15 and the MSI GS65.  In doing that research, I learned quite a few very alarming things about the Windows laptop market that I’ve been totally immune to since 2005 (when I bought my first Mac laptop).  Yes, I do have a Surface Pro 3, but I never really intended on that completely replacing my laptop.  Settle in, this is a fun list.

  • Trackpads on Windows laptop are either pretty good (read: not great) or awful.  You have to do research on every single model (even if you are just looking at Dell laptops) to make sure you’re getting a good one.  I would never buy a Windows laptop without a glass trackpad and Windows Precision Drivers, and even those are not as good as a MacBook’s.
  • Poor customer support/lack of local support options/quick turnaround for issues is a serious problem.  The best option seems to be buying from Microsoft with their Performance Guard warranty so you can return/repair/get help at Microsoft stores.
  • Screen/light bleed (bright spots on your display) is very common, but the quality varies a lot manufacturer to manufacturer.
  • Build quality varies wildly, including case flex (when the chassis gives if you press down on it) and screen flex, which I was horrified to learn was an actual problem in the Windows laptop world
  • A lot of Windows laptops have questionable cooling solutions and/or try to cram way too much hardware in way too little space, and, as a result, get pretty loud and hot.
  • No Windows laptop has speakers that come anywhere close to Apple’s.  Honestly, Apple’s laptop speakers are magic.  I have no idea how they manage that level of quality from those tiny speakers.
Razer Blade 15, fresh out of the box.

So, after considering all of this, I bought a Razer Blade 15 from the Microsoft Store.  I was drawn to the power and design, as Razer used a unibody design similar to Apple, and it had top-notch specs.  It didn’t solve two problems I have with Macs, though: the high refresh rate screen didn’t have a touch option, and the price was essentially equivalent to a 15″ MacBook Pro.

I brought the laptop home, got it setup, tried to play Fortnite on it, and the fans kicked on so loud that it was actually distracting me from the game.  That area above the keyboard was so hot that it felt like my finger was going to actually burn.  My device also had moderate screen bleed.

On the flip side, the design was “nice,” aside from the gamer-aesthetic Razer logo.  The trackpad was also probably the best I’ve used in a Windows laptop, maybe tied or slightly better than a Dell XPS.

But I returned it the next weekend.  It was too loud, too hot, and generally too imperfect to justify its price.  It was back to the drawing board.

I decided gaming laptops were clearly out, so next I’d find a good ultrabook.  I kept my eye on the Razer Blade Stealth, the Dell XPS 13, and sort of the Huawei Matebook X Pro.  Surfaces don’t have modern ports, and they’re expensive, so they were automatically disqualified.  Apple was also rumored to be updating the MacBook Air, which I was actually pretty excited about.

Then Apple released the update, and they used a Y series CPU.  Yes, I know it’s 7w, but I’m not buying a Y series CPU again.  Apple had once again disappointed me with their laptop offerings.

First off, the Huawei seemed like the best deal, but no matter how I tried to slice it, the design was such a personality-less ripoff and the device was known to have just enough common issues that I knew I’d be disappointed with it.  I didn’t want to have to take apart the laptop to put a piece of paper under the trackpad to make it not rattle, which is a very real and common thing people have to do with that computer.

Dell is also hard for me to stomach.  The XPS line is pretty nice – the design is premium, and it has personality; however, that personality is decidedly “Dell.”  The carbon fiber palmrest design and the general Dell aesthetic is not my thing.  Plus, I keep telling myself after all the issues I have with other Dell products in my life, I probably shouldn’t keep buying Dell stuff.

Finally, I wasn’t a fan of the bezels on the Razer Blade Stealth, but it seemed like the best option.  That is, until I found out all of the issues people seem to have with it besides Razer’s already infamous customer support.  Apparently the screen is prone to phantom touches, and it’s so common that people just disable the touchscreen and live with it.  Come on, this is totally unacceptable.

It was at this point, months later, that I gave up.  Apple does not make the laptop I need, but I was left with no other options.  I could either buy a laptop that had meh power but the right price point (MacBook Air), or I could buy a 13″ MacBook Pro, which had the power the Air should’ve had along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t need and a price tag I didn’t want.

This was a long, difficult process for me, and I am a tech person.  I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be for the average person laptop shopping right now.  Apple really would’ve killed it if the MacBook Air would’ve come out at a lower price and also offered a U series chip at a mid-tier price point (~$1300).  That said, I do like the MacBook Pro.  I’m dealing with the keyboard and still trying to find a use for the Touch Bar, but I’m sure I’ll have a whole article about that later.

If you’ve gotten this far, sighed, and realized I wasn’t going to make a recommendation, don’t fret, here it is: if you don’t want a Mac, and you want an ultrabook, get an XPS 13.  The other options are just not suitable for most consumers.  If you enjoy or can deal with Dell Aesthetic™, the XPS 13 (and 15, for that matter) is a quality machine, and they will back it up with decent support.  Bonus points if you buy an XPS 13 at a Microsoft Store.  Heck, even if you don’t buy it there, I think you can still bring it in to them for free basic troubleshooting.

The post So, you want to buy a Windows laptop… appeared first on Philtered Tech.

Source: Philtered Tech

The old people app

I recently heard two very conflicting viewpoints on Facebook.  On a tech podcast, a host said that kids today call Facebook “the old people app,” which is something I’ve been hearing for a while.  But a colleague told me that from what he’s seen administering a Facebook group, there’s actually tons of kids on it.  He believes Facebook skipped a generation, since there was, no doubt, an age group for a while that shunned Facebook.

Honestly, I’m inclined to believe my colleague over the tech podcast considering that tech journalists don’t live in the real world.  I wish the tech podcast was right (and maybe they are, I haven’t looked into it), but regardless, I guess that’s enough intro to what that post is about.

About a week and a half ago, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone.  There are quite a few reasons, but the gist of it is A) I’m tired of seeing people’s crappy political opinions and B) Facebook as a company is an untrustworthy trash heap, and I want less of it in my life.  I’m not deleting it entirely (I still check it on my computer/iPad, just not on my phone), and I still have Messenger and Instagram on my phone (at least, for now).

I have, over the course of a couple years, been drastically reducing how much I post on Facebook, now I guess I’m just looking at it less too.  I wish I could get rid of it, but I feel like I need it to keep in touch with certain people and to (don’t laugh) promote what I’m working on, aka, my novels, blogs, etc.

So, anyway, I do still post a lot on Twitter, but that platform is usually pretty vapid (that’s not an insult, I like having a platform that is just stream-of-consciousness for mostly unimportant thoughts), so I was thinking maybe I could start blogging more often and just get a plugin for WordPress that cross-posts my posts to Facebook and Twitter (rather than doing it manually).  I suppose I’d still be giving Zuck data that way…I’m not sure that I care too much about links to my own site though.  Besides, as I’ve heard it put best, if you’re not on Facebook, Zuck still knows everything about you from the you-shaped hole in your friends’ accounts.

Crisis Averted

My calendar says August 29th, 2018 today.  Crisis averted, I guess. 😉

Source: PhilipDiStefano.com

Happy Iterate Day!

If you’ve read Iterate, then you know that one of the central themes of the story is a time loop that revolves around August 28th, 2018.  Well, that is today, so on that note, Happy Iterate Day!  To celebrate, I wanted to make the Kindle version free for today, but I found out when I went to make the price change that you cannot make a book on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform free unless it’s enrolled in KDP Select.  I would have no issue with that, except KDP Select has an exclusivity agreement that I am not comfortable with.  As a result, I can’t make the Kindle version of Iterate free today.  However, I can still give it away, just not quite as easily!  If you would like a free copy of Iterate, please Tweet at me.  This offer stands until the end of August.

I also figured there is probably no better day to give more information on the sequel, which has been in the works since a few weeks after I published Iterate.  The moment I cemented the title for Iterate was when I also knew that the sequel would be called Reiterate.  It was an obvious choice for both books, which made the usually daunting task of picking a title pretty easy in both cases.

Clearly, I’ve been sitting on that tidbit for a while, but that’s not all that I have to share.  The first draft of Reiterate is currently sitting just shy of 41,000 words, and I would be shocked if the finished first draft is anything less than 60,000 words.  It’s hard to truly estimate a word length for a story you’re not done telling, but if my guess is correct, that would make Reiterate longer than Iterate by a bit.

I am still trying to release Reiterate in Q4 of this year (meaning sometime before January 1st, 2019), but that date may have been a bit too ambitious.  Regardless, it will be done when it’s done, and I’m pretty excited with how it’s turning out.

Source: PhilipDiStefano.com

Music and Me

It feels really strange to admit this, but for years now, music has not played a very significant role in my life.  These posts are now all hidden, but if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you may remember the many times that I’ve written about all of the ways that music induces emotions from me – elation at the news of new album releases, being in awe of amazing lyrics, grief when bands broke up or went on a hiatus, being bummed out that I couldn’t make it to concerts or that artists just didn’t go to Louisiana – this is just a small part how music has affected me in the past.

I still listen to music on occasions, but not in the same way.  Sometimes I get a song stuck in my head, so I listen to it a few times, and that’s that. Most reliably, I’ll listen to music while I’m writing, but it’s a very specific album that I’ve probably listened to hundreds of times that helps me concentrate (R/D’s “Liquid Heart Keeper“).

Really, the biggest impact music still has on my life is that every once in a while when I’m feeling nostalgic about something, I dig up an old song and relive that moment that ties me to the song.  That was really the inspiration for me writing this post out – “Eden” by The Mayfield Four randomly popped into my head, and I instantly had flashbacks of hanging out in that weird little atrium in the geology building at LSU.  This, in turn, made me remember trying to read “Neuromancer” for the first time in that same room, and also, perhaps more importantly, brought back fond memories of writing garbage romantic flash fiction in the hall outside of one of my geology classrooms while waiting for the current class to leave so I could go in.

Another really strange feeling I’ve experienced before from music is a bizarre sense of nostalgia while listening to songs about things I’ve literally never lived out.  I suppose you could say those songs were powerful enough to transport me somewhere else and give me that brief sensation of living vicariously.

But nowadays, I just can’t seem to get into any new music.  It just feels like that part of me is gone, replaced by podcast after podcast after podcast.  And maybe that’s a good thing too; I certainly enjoy my podcasts, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to feel the same way about music again.

Fortnite is great

In my last post, I briefly mentioned that I’ve been playing Fortnite a lot, which if you know me, you may find a little weird considering I normally don’t play competitive shooters.  One player shooters, yes.  Multiplayer online games, yes.  A combination of the two…not so much.  In that same vein, I wanted to explain why Fortnite is so great and why you may want to consider playing it if you’re not already.

3 Fortnite characters standing in a group

Image courtesy of Epic Games

First, what is Fortnite?  Well, to explain that, here’s a quick history lesson.

Just over a year ago, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) was released and received extremely positively.  PUBG certainly wasn’t the first game of its kind, but it undeniably popularized the battle royale style of game.  That is, 100 players on a map, one team wins (or if you’re playing solo mode, then one person wins).  What’s more, PUBG popularized how these types of games work, which was essentially you start off in a vehicle in the sky and parachute down to the map (which is an island in basically all of the battle royale games I’ve seen).  Once you land, you have to quickly pick up a weapon and other loot to survive and take down other players.  There are more mechanics depending on the game, but that’s the gist of it.

When PUBG came out, Epic was busy developing what is currently known as Fortnite: Save the World, which is a player-versus-enemy co-op game where you fight monsters with weapons and the aid of materials you can use to build forts (you can craft individual walls, stairs, ceilings, floors, etc).  Epic saw the attention PUBG was getting and realized they had all of the assets available to essentially clone PUBG, and they did exactly that.  Two months later they released Fortnite Battle Royale, which from this point on, I’ll just refer to as Fortnite since, funny enough, even though Save the World was the original incarnation of the game, Battle Royale is what anyone who mentions Fortnite is actually talking about.

PUBG logo

Image courtesy of Venture Beat

That said, Fortnite is currently one of the most popular games in the world.  Last week on Twitch, I saw 700,000 people streaming Fortnite.  Next most popular was League of Legends at 100,000, then PUBG was in third at somewhere over 70,000.  So if Fortnite is essentially a clone of PUBG, how did it essentially stomp the game it copied into the ground?

First and foremost, Fortnite is free.  Save the World isn’t currently free, but when it exits its early access period, it will be free.  PUBG is not free, and I feel like that alone bears significant weight, especially among younger audiences with less disposable income.  So yeah, that’s reason number one, and it’s a big one.

I’ve only played PUBG once, and it was on mobile, but I still feel weirdly qualified to talk about it because I’ve watched Polygon’s video team stream that game every week for 1-2 hours for just over a year.  The one time I did play it, there was no learning curve since I already knew practically everything about the game.  Since Fortnite is nearly identical to PUBG, I already knew how to play Fortnite except for the crafting stuff, which was easy enough to learn the basics of.  Also, I pay a decent amount of attention to video game news in general, so the world of PUBG news isn’t exactly foreign.

First off, Epic makes a lot of interesting and thoughtful changes to Fortnite.  When they add something to the game that players don’t like (for example, an overpowered gun), they actually monitor this feedback and make adjustments accordingly.  Epic employees regularly post in /r/FortniteBR confirming bugs, providing comments on community feedback, and a host of other things.  I’m not sure how Bluehole (PUBG’s developers) handle that kind of stuff, but based on feedback I’ve heard, I’m guessing not super well.

Fortnite also runs really well on the platforms I’ve played it on (PC and iOS), and it’s available on almost every major platform and console, with Android support coming soon and also being the final missing piece.  Now, I can’t play on my 12″ MacBook or my Surface Pro 3, but it doesn’t take a beefy machine to run Fortnite with playable graphics.  The mobile client is also surprisingly good considering how hard it is to play that type of game on a touchscreen.  PUBG’s iOS client is actually pretty good too, but the details that Epic put into the Fortnite mobile client to make it playable versus being on a computer or a console are really thoughtful.  There’s an auto-shoot option and a visual alert that notifies you when there is shooting, a chest, or footprints nearby – all aids to things that are made more difficult on a phone or tablet.

Another thing Fortnite does really well is monetization.  Yes, you can play it 100% free and experience absolutely no disadvantage in gameplay compared to someone that’s spent $1,000 on cosmetic items.  Fortnite allows you to purchase V Bucks, and V Bucks are used to buy cosmetic items, emotes (usually various dances), and of course, the Battle Pass.

Image of Fornite's season 5 battle pass showing tiers and items gained

Season 5 battle pass, image courtesy of Forbes

Epic really knocked it out of the park with the Battle Pass, because unlike PUBG’s monetization system (loot boxes, which are essentially gambling), you always know exactly what you get with the Battle Pass, and you get it by playing the game and completing quests.  Nothing is random, period.  If you’re a better player, you get more experience, which means you level up faster, which means you reach higher tiers of the Battle Pass and receive the items associated with it.

Purchasing a Battle Pass costs 950 V Bucks per season, which is equivalent to $10 with 50 V Bucks leftover, as you can buy 1,000 V Bucks for $10.  Each Battle Pass lasts for one season, and one season lasts for 10 weeks.  But wait, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to pay $10 every 10 weeks.  If you just play the game, some tiers in the Battle Pass reward 100 V Bucks, so essentially, if you earn and save 950 V Bucks worth of your rewards every season, you only need to spend $10 one time, then play the game, and you’ve got a perpetual Battle Pass for as long as you keep earning enough rewards.  And yes, it is totally doable to do just that, but you might be enticed to buy emotes or costumes.

Oh, and the most important thing about the Battle Pass?  It actually makes the game, which is already fun to play for free, more fun by providing additional Battle Pass-only quests and secrets (I only just learned about secret Battle Stars yesterday!).

Unlike PUBG, Fortnite only has one map, but it gets updated and changed every season.  My last blog post was called “RIP Moisty Mire” because Epic removed the swamp that took up the entire southeast portion of the map and replaced it with a desert for season 5.  In season 4, a meteorite struck the location in the center of the map (Dusty Depot) and turned it into Dusty Divot.  And it’s not just simple stuff like that; the seasons are themed and bring along interesting changes.  At the end of season 3, players knew something on the map was going to get wiped out because you could see the meteorite in the sky, so there was a lot of speculation on what would happen.  When the meteorite did hit in season 4, there was a new consumable item called “hop rocks” (essentially meteorite fragments) that allowed players to jump higher.  At the end of season 4, a rocket that had been on the map for a while took off and smashed into the sky, cracking it like glass and introducing “drifts.”  Random stuff started appearing and disappearing on the map, and like I said, an entire section of the map disappeared and got replaced.  It’s just a really cool method of storytelling for a game mode that really doesn’t even need a story (but I’m absolutely glad that it sort of has one).

If I had to point out a weak point of Fortnite, it’s that there are a lot of people that play, and the game is immensely popular among audiences ranging from teens to adults.  That means you’ll probably have teenagers on your team, and if you have voice chat on, you will hate your life.  I keep it turned off, and I’m thankful Epic gives me the option to do so.  It also sucks when you’re playing squad mode (teams of 4), and some random jackass refuses to land with the rest of the team.  It puts everyone, including the solo person, at a disadvantage compared to a team that sticks together and lands in the same area.  You can play solo or duo mode (or only play with friends you trust to not be jerks) to avoid this, but it’s a part of squad mode life if you’re playing with randos.

Finally, I just want to say that Fortnite gameplay is really fun, even if it’s fundamentally frustrating.  You’ll probably die most of the time wherever you land, you’ll probably win very infrequently (only one person/team can win out of 100 people, after all), and you’ll probably get sniped out of nowhere right after you pick up the best close-range gun in the game.  That’s a part of competitive shooters, and yet, that challenge is what makes it fun.  I personally consider it a win if I at least take someone else out before dying.  Of course, if you don’t like shooters, you probably won’t like Fortnite, but I’d also point out that I typically don’t like competitive shooters or third person shooters, yet here I am, telling you that the competitive, third person shooter called Fortnite is a blast.