Apple’s HomePod Is About To Be Released

Apple has received FCC approval for their long-awaited HomePod device. As Mac Rumors mentions, the approval means that Apple is free to begin selling the device at any time. This is good news for those who were “outraged” when Apple announced they were delaying the product back in November.

Apple claimed that it needed a little more time before the HomePod was ready for its customers. Instead of berating Apple, critics should have praised the Cupertino company, who has been, for the most part, an expert on quality control. Instead of releasing a product with many glitches just so they could make a lot of holiday money, Apple waited. Of course, it’s true that Apple can also afford to delay a major product.

Apple claims the HomePod is a “breakthrough speaker all around.” It not only has a woofer, but seven tweeters to produce consistent 360 degree audio. When you place the HomePod in any room, it allegedly automatically analyzes the acoustics, adjusts the sound based on the speaker’s location, and steers music in an optimal direction.

Click to play on YouTube.

Of course, the HomePod is also an assistant — a direct competitor to the Amazon Echo or Google Home devices. It works with Siri, the most loved digital assistant in the world, even though she certainly isn’t perfect. In order for companies to make their products compatible with the HomePod, they have to make them (or re-release them) with an MFi chip.

One can legitimately argue that Apple may be a little late to the market with the HomePod, especially since both Google and Amazon’s assistants have already taken residence in a lot of homes. Amazon’s Echo line, which uses Alexa as their assistant, has already set the standard in the way Apple used to with their products.

Amazon’s Echo allows you to play music, get directions, order an Uber, order from Amazon, return to Amazon, and do a bunch of other things. Of course, you can do the same thing you can with your phone, but there’s nothing cooler than being in the kitchen and then talking to Alexa like she is a true human. There is no button you need to press.

Google’s Home devices have earned high marks from critics, even if they don’t sell like Amazon’s. Last spring, CNET gave the original Home device four stars, especially complimenting how Home integrates with Google Calendar, Maps, and Chromecast. They really liked the way Home integrates with your digital music or video library.

Apple will likely take the best aspect of the Echo and Home, perfect them, and make millions rush to the Apple Store in order to get a HomePod, even if they don’t really need it. Apple may be late to the game, but they could make the other home assistants irrelevant. We will find out very soon.

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Three Weeks With Sennheiser’s Amazing Ambeo Smart Headset

Last month, I wrote about Sennheiser’s new AMBEO Smart Headset, a $300 device that works as both a 3D recording system and a noise-cancelling headset. I questioned if it could be the coolest new gadget on the market. After three weeks of using it, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The AMBEO isn’t a wireless headset — something I’ve been obsessed with on this blog. It’s actually a wired headset with a lightning port for you iOS device. Sennheiser claims it’s working on a version for Android phones. However, since the most popular Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8, record stereo sound, the AMBEO isn’t needed as much on those devices.

I’ve always questioned why Apple has never included stereo microphones on the iPad or iPhone, but plugging in the AMBEO headset takes care of that. You don’t need any special software at all (although there is an app from Sennheiser). Just record videos with the camera or any sound recording app and you can watch them with stereo audio. The sound is more “3D” than stereo as it records more realistic sound than anything I have recently heard. It’s like listening to “virtual reality” sound.

Here is a clip I recorded this past weekend and have uploaded to YouTube.

Click to play in YouTube.

The AMBEO only loses some quality when recording in Windy situations. However, there is a button on the AMBEO app that allows you to reduce wind noise, though it makes the sound less realistic. When I say realistic, I mean that if you close your eyes and listen to a recording you made, you feel like you are right back in the same place and time. You really have to listen to understand how well this records.

Of course, the AMBEO smart headset is made for listening as well, and it does a great job at that. Like other Sennheiser wired headsets, the AMBEO offers audiophile quality sound, which most people will love. But some who are used to the artificially pumped-up bass on headsets by Beats or even Bose may be a little disappointed.

The AMBEO Smart Headset offers decent noise cancellation.

The AMBEO also offers active noise cancellation, which works very well, but not as well as it does on recent headphones from both Bose and Sony. Still, for a feature that’s not advertised as a major one, it works well enough. You can also amplify noises around you, and that works better than just about any other amplification feature I’ve heard on competing headphones.

Sennheiser may have started a trend with these new 3D sound-recording headphones. At least for now, Sennheiser has created the ultimate device you never thought you needed until you tried it.

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Dell’s Updated XPS 13 Continues To Redefine The Modern PC Laptop

The Dell XPS 13 laptop will likely end up as one of this decade’s top tech products. Dell unveiled the practically bezel-less laptop at CES in 2015. This blog gave the initial XPS 13 a bad review due to the machine constantly changing brightness levels, the less-than-average trackpad, and the less-than-advertised battery life.

But by the summer of 2015, Dell issued software fixes for most of the issues, and they easily had a MacBook Pro competitor. The 2016 version, released in November of 2015, was an even bigger winner. Now, Dell has revealed the updated 2018 XPS 13 at CES in Las Vegas. It’s (shockingly) smaller than the current model, thinner (impossible!) than the 2017 model, has a 4K option (instead of Quad HD+), comes in different colors, and (allegedly) doesn’t compromise any power.

But there are some things Dell “left off.” In keeping up with the times, they have deleted the USB-A ports and have replaced them with USB-C ports, two which have Thunderbolt capabilities. The SD slot is gone, but you will get a microSD slot instead.

Still, the XPS 13 has received great reviews. Laptop Magazine gives it four-and-a-half stars with an Editor’s Choice award.

“The Dell XPS 13 9370 offers strong performance, long battery life and a stunning screen in a chassis that’s slimmer and more attractive than ever,” says columnist Avram Piltch, adding that the battery life on the 1080p version is a lot better than the XPS 13 with the 4K screen.

Digital Trends is also impressed with the 2018 version of the XPS 13.

“Our brief time with the new XPS 13 left us impressed. It even retains a great keyboard with good key feel, something the XPS 15 2-in-1 sacrificed to shave off a few pounds.”

Dell’s XPS 13 keyboard has always been controversial, especially because there is minimal key travel that can annoy your fingers after awhile. But compared to the “Butterfly Keyboard” on Apple’s new MacBook products, travel on Dell’s keyboard feels like you are going from Alaska to Brazil. I prefer the keyboard on the Surface Book 2, but the device isn’t as portable as Dell’s.

The new Dell XPS 13 is now available for purchase.

The one thing I’m really curious about is the screen. Compared to recent notebooks by Microsoft and Apple, the late-2017 XPS 13′s screen appears somewhat washed out. Don’t get me wrong; anybody who looks at it will be impressed, but they’ll change their minds once the view the color vibrancy and contrast ratio on the new Surface Book 2 or MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. In many ways, vibrancy, color accuracy, and contrast ratio are more important than the actual screen resolution.

Still, the XPS 13 keeps proving that Dell has gone from a problematic company with quality control issues into a major PC notebook manufacturer. Dell certainly isn’t the next Apple, but they are getting closer.

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The HTC Vive Pro Looks Tempting, But Is It Too Late?

The HTC Vive Pro is coming!

Virtual reality was supposed to be the big new thing two years ago. It seemed like devices such as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the PlayStation VR would show up in homes everywhere. However, that hasn’t happened. Some would even say that VR is the new “3D,” and you know that’s not a good thing if you paid attention to the 3D hype earlier this decade.  This blog has done more than enough when it comes to explaining why current VR headsets just aren’t appealing to the mainstream, so I’ll stop at that right here.

But I would be completely dishonest if I said I wasn’t somewhat excited about the HTC Vive Pro, which was announced at CES on Monday morning. It will have a sharper lens (2880 x 1600 pixel resolution), built-in headphones, two microsphones for noise cancellation, and dual front-facing cameras. It will be available during the first quarter of 2017 to those who already own the Vive. Developers will get it later.

Click to play video.

At first, I was disappointed to learn that the Vive would still rely on those cool but outdated tracking stations. However, Rolling Stone just announced there would be a wireless add-on, something Vive users have been requesting since day one.

“In addition, HTC showed off the Vive Wireless Adaptor, which can hook onto either the original or Vive Pro and wirelessly connect to a nearby PC…It will use Intel’s WiGig technology to stream data over the air. It’ll be available in the summer of 2018.”

James Bricknell of Windows Central is impressed after having some hands-on time with the device. He notes that not only is the Vive Pro lighter, but that the audio is more immersive. Bricknell is especially impressed with the increased screen resolution, which he believes makes things more real while helping to reduce motion sickness.

All this sounds great, but it may be a little too late. The HTC Vive Pro is a nice upgrade, but it’s not a revolutionary change that will draw consumers in. It was really hoped that HTC would introduce a standalone headset that doesn’t depend on a PC, something that Samsung had teased a couple months back.

I don’t think I will be updating my HTC Vive, which is barely used anymore, even if if the update is only a couple hundred dollars extra (price hasn’t been confirmed yet). But I would definitely be the first one to at least give the new Vive Pro a try.

 

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Samsung Galaxy S9: First Major Smartphone Of 2018 Is Coming

Leaked picture of Samsung Galaxy S9

The new year has started, and the first major smartphone of the year, the Galaxy S9, is starting to gain hype. Judging by the pictures and leaks, the Galaxy S9 and its big brother, the S9 Plus, won’t be radically different from the S8 and S8+.

The new S9 series will likely be announced next month during the the Mobile World Conference. It could actually go on sale in early March, but most sources are pointing to a late-March release. Samsung certainly shouldn’t be in a rush to release a new smartphone, especially since they are still coasting off the (well deserved) success of the Galaxy Note 8.

Both devices are said to have a fingerprint scanner that is separated from the camera lens. Even though both the S8 and S8+ received excellent reviews, many complained that the fingerprint scanner was too close to the camera lens, and it was easy to miss it while smudging the lens.

The Galaxy Note 8 fixed this problem, so it’s logical that the S9 and S9+ will follow. But there are also reports that both phones will have under-the-screen fingerprint scanners. Samsung wanted to do this with the Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note 8, but couldn’t perfect the technology in time.

The Galaxy S9 looks very similar to the S8

Both the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are said to have smaller bezels, but aren’t the bezels around Samsung’s latest devices already small enough? It’s too easy to accidentally touch the screen while your holding the device.  The Galaxy S9 is said to have a single-lens camera, while the S9 Plus is said to have a dual-lens camera.

As BGR points out, new photos of what appears to be the S9+ with the dual-lens camera have leaked. There doesn’t appear to be a fingerprint scanner, so perhaps the under-the-screen fingerprint rumor is true. The phone appears to be very much like the Galaxy Note 8, which isn’t a bad thing. But it’s also sort of boring. Samsung has been playing it very safe since the Note 7 debacle, but now that it’s (sort of) forgotten about, perhaps it’s time for the Korean company to take risks again.

It’s important to note that early leaks of a device don’t necessarily mean it’s the final product. As we have seen from Apple in the past, some of the leaked iPhones just ended up being prototypes. Let’s hope the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are a lot more adventurous and help make 2018 another great year for smartphones.

 

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UberEats Shows How Far Technology Has Come

Besides blogging, I do some work in the entertainment field. The film and television industry is pretty much on hold during the holiday season. It’s no surprise I didn’t save money for this, so I started driving for UberEats. I was dreading it at first, but now am absolutely fascinated by the service, even if I want to pull my hair out at times.

Once you are approved and download the app, it’s pretty simple. You go to the Home screen and move the blue button to “Online.”

Then, it starts. You get a message for a pickup that you can either accept or ignore (you’ll want to accept as much as possible if you want to keep getting work). Then, Uber’s map will lead you to the restaurant. It will also lead you to the address where you have to drop the food off at. At least it’s supposed to. Personally, I prefer using Google Maps, but then it’s a hassle going through an extra step.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the map and direction on Uber’s app, but I am still pretty fascinated by it. One has to remember that Google had more than 10 years to perfect maps, while Uber’s GPS is still pretty new. And they get it right more than 90 percent of the time. Yes, I have ended up on the complete wrong street and at a person’s house rather than a restaurant. And, one time, I ended up in a dead-end street and couldn’t go further. But that barely happens. One has to give a lot of credit to Uber’s engineers for how much accuracy they have achieved in such a short period of time. Anybody remember Apple Maps?

Uber allows you to do everything within their app. When you arrive at the restaurant, you can click that the order was accepted or that it is not ready. Sometimes, I have become very angry when waiting more than 15 minutes at a restaurant for the order since it takes away time from other orders and more cash. But, within the app, you can notify Uber about this. I’ve done it three times and they have compensated me all those times. It’s easy for them to verify how long you’ve been at a restaurant since your location becomes stagnant.

Once you pick up the food, there is a direct link to send a message to the person you need to deliver to. I usually use this to let the person know I’m on my way, although they can see this through their app. Both you and the customer can see exactly how close you are to the final delivery. They are notified when you are there. People usually come out to your car, although some give special directions to bring the food inside. This only becomes a problem when there is no parking or if they live in a huge maze-like building on the top floor.

UberEats earnings are updated instantly after each trip.

Through the Earnings section, you can check how much money you’ve made right after your delivery. You can also check how much money you’ve made for the week. If you want to cash out, all you have to do is press a blue button (and pay 50 cents — which is reasonable compared to other services). You can also view your ratings and other details.

“So, what is so great about this that it warrants an article?” one may ask.

Just ten years ago, something like this wasn’t possible. There were GPS systems and Map apps on cellular devices, but data speeds were still way too slow to make anything like this work. If you delivered pizza, Chinese food, or anything else just ten years ago, you understand how far more difficult the process was.

Furthermore, the UberEats program not only makes life easier for consumers, but helps restaurants make more money as well. Furthermore, it gives jobs to many people. In other words, the program really helps strengthen the economy. And while it’s true that nobody is going to become rich by becoming an UberEats driver, it will help them at least keep paying their bills during slow times. I can certainly vouch for that. Now, it’s time to go make another delivery.

 

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CES 2018 Preview: Smart Home, TV, And VR Devices

It’s that time of the year again where preparations are going on for the Consumer Electronics Show, which begins on January 9. I was invited to this show (finally!), but I may not be able to make it. And if I don’t make it, I won’t exactly be devistated.

It looks like 2018′s show could concentrate heavily on smart devices for your home. It’s something I’ve never been thrilled about. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really have a home. But it’s also because I’ve tried all the smart home devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home and wasn’t totally blown away (more on that in another story).

According to CNET, we could see many devices that have integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s upcoming HomeKit. Of course, Apple’s HomePod speaker didn’t make it in time for the holidays, but that doesn’t mean that third-party devices won’t demonstrate compatible devices.

Of course, it wouldn’t be CES without new smart TVs. And this year could see top brands showing off more OLED screen television sets as well as new 8K screens. Korea’s ETNews claims that Samsung will show an 8K television bigger than 100 inches.

Then, there will likely be a demonstration of new VR devices. HTC could be debuting its new standalone Vive Focus VR headset. It’s also possible Samsung could show up with their upcoming standalone headset. Judging by past CES events, it’s more than likely that Oculus will show up with something new. Let’s hope there are AR devices in addition to the barrage of VR ones attendees will be overwhelmed with.

Samsung's new foldable phone is coming, but it probably won't look like this.

Then, of course, there will be smartphones. Will we finally see the Galaxy X, Samsung’s mythical foldable smartphone?According to Tech Radar, Samsung could be actually launching the phone in 2018. Wouldn’t CES be the perfect venue to introduce the new phone?

I don’t expect to see new innovative laptops at CES. There will be a lot of hybrids. There will be a lot of 13-inch and 15-inch laptops that are extremely light. The only hybrid that could be exciting these days would be a MacBook Touch. But could we see a new category of mini hybrids? The concept of the ultra-mobile PC failed in the late 2000′s, but perhaps it could make a comeback.

Whether I attend CES or not, I can promise you that there will be a lot to report on starting January 9. Stay tuned, and have a great new year!

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Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Platform Is 2017′s Biggest Tech Disappointment

Windows Mixed Reality is a poor attempt at VR.

You have to hand it to Microsoft, a company that has had (for the most part) a great year. 2017′s Surface Pro made Microsoft’s smaller laptop/tablet hybrid the device Microsoft has been trying to make since 2o13. Then, there’s the Surface Laptop, which earned incredible reviews. My personal favorite product of the year is the Surface Book 2 – a laptop (with a detachable screen) that even outdoes the 2017 MacBook Pro.

The only area where Microsoft went wrong in 2017 was a very important one — virtual reality. With the platform losing ground, Microsoft had the chance to give VR the shot it desperately needed with it’s new Mixed Reality hardware and software. However, they failed miserably with faulty hardware and software.

I reviewed the Samsung Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality Headset last month. I used it with the Surface Book 2, which has a discreet graphics chip and should have been able to handle the VR experience. It ended up being one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my almost ten years of reviewing products. The software would often freeze, or the screen would become distorted. Instead of pleasure, Microsoft’s new VR world gave me an absolute headache.

Samsung's HMD Odyssey headset looks great on paper, but is a nightmare to use in the real world.

But I’ve tried other Mixed Reality Headsets, such as ones by Dell and HP, at the Microsoft Store. And the experience was better, but still lacking. The Mixed Reality platform was supposed to provide a mobile experience that had the HTC Vive’s motion tracking (without the huge tracking stations) along with the the Gear VR’s portability. The experience lacks the best aspects of both.

One could have predicted that the new platform would be a letdown when Microsoft decided to title it “Mixed Reality.” It’s a fancy name that makes one think they’ll be experiencing augmented reality (like the HoloLens) and virtual reality in the same headset. However, VR is the only thing you’ll experience, and the experience is a major disappointment. Microsoft should have spent more time perfecting the technology instead of rushing it to the marketplace.

Microsoft’s VR failure has put another negative notch in the VR belt. The only hope for VR will come from Samsung and HTC  — both which are making standalone headsets that have inside-out positional tracking. If those don’t succeed, you can file VR in the same category as 3D: Failed Nostalgia.

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Is Sennheiser’s AMBEO Smart Headset The Coolest New Gadget?

The coolest new gadget on the market?

I’ve covered headphones so much for this blog that I thought it would be okay to take a little break. But then, I noticed that Sennheiser has just released new headset, but these aren’t typical for any audio company.

The AMBEO Smart Headset, which is made for iOS devices, is basically for people who not only want to listen to music, but also want to shoot videos that have 3D stereo sound. They are not wireless headphones; instead, they come with a lighting port connector that skips the need for another annoying dongle.

The iPhone X doesn't take videos with stereo sound.

Geoffrey Morrison of Forbes says the new AMBEO is his favorite headset of the year.

“So what are these things? Awesome, that’s what. Travelers, video bloggers, 3D audio lovers, I’m not sure what the exact Venn diagram is of people who would want/need these headphones. I have to assume it’s tiny, which makes it even more bizarre that they exist at all.”

It’s obvious that the AMBEO is a niche item, but it may not be as niche as one would think. There are a growing number of people who want stereo sound from their iOS videos. It’s quite ironic that Apple makes devices (especially the iPhone X) that take breathtaking video clips, but only output them in monaural quality. Samsung’s devices have taken videos with stereo sound since 2011.

Sennheiser's niche headphones could break through to the mainstream.

The music listening experience may be a “besides the point” aspect of the AMBEO headphones, but it’s still considered to be pretty good. Sennheiser’s headset has active noise cancellation, which Nerd Techy claims isn’t the best compared to other brands, but still very good.

The site also claims that the sound quality is typical Sennheiser — in other words, great. But other sites have claimed that the audio quality is slightly lacking. There is an equalizer in the Sennheiser app required to use these headphones, so perhaps that can influence the sound quality. However, these headphones obviously aren’t made for bass lovers.

Sennheiser claims that they will make a version of the AMBEO headset for Android devices. However, it might not be that appealing since top Android devices by Samsung, Google, and HTC already record excellent stereo sound alone or with videos. But Sennheiser is certainly onto something with these headphones, which may find a larger audience in the near future.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 8: Best Smartphone of 2017

It’s now that time of year where we discuss the best and worst from the past 12 months. Choosing the best smartphone of 2017 is a difficult task, especially because it was a groundbreaking year.

Apple finally released its upgraded iPhone X. And though it is certainly a great phone, it didn’t completely live up to its hype as the new “Jesus Phone.” The Face ID is a great concept, but doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. But at least it works better than the facial recognition feature on the Galaxy Note 8. However, the Note 8 also has a rear fingerprint scanner, and it works better than Apple’s Face ID. Yeah, it’s a little annoying to have the scanner on  the back, but at least it’s there. Both Apple and Samsung couldn’t get an under-the-screen fingerprint scanner working, but Apple thought it was a great idea to completely leave this off.

The Smartphone of the Year Award is certainly a toss-up between the Galaxy Note 8 and the iPhone X, but the former wins.  Hardware wise, the Galaxy Note 8 is easily ahead of the iPhone — it has a higher-resolution screen, and it is the perfect digital note-taking device with the included S Pen. For some reason, Apple decided not to make any of their latest iPhones compatible with the Apple Pencil. However, that may change in 2018.

The dual-lens camera on the Galaxy Note 8 is also a champ, and I’ve learned to love it more as time goes by. It beats out every other smartphone when used as a video camera since it takes clips in stereo sound. The stereo mics are located on each side of the device, and the space between them makes the stereo separation really dominating.

The Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t have stereo speakers like the iPhone does for listening to music and watching movies, but the monaural speaker has a lot of “oomph” to it, and the sound, even at high volume, doesn’t get distorted. It’s still best to use the Note 8 with a pair of stereo headphones, and you have the option of using either wired or wireless cans.

The Galaxy Note 8 really defines “smartphone” in that it can do everything and do it very well. It’s hard to imagine how Samsung will top the Note 8 with the Note 9 in 2018. However, one can always count on Samsung to break new ground.

 

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