Category Archives: Reviews

HomePod & Apple Audio

I’m not fully in Apple’s echosystem, owning just a MBPr for personal use, a work MBPr, a work Mac Mini, an iPad mini 2, and the latest addition which is an Apple TV. I guess I’m pretty deep in it! But my daily drivers are my Pixel and my home-build desktop running Win10, so it goes that I only tangentially use Apple’s hardware because I think they are pretty good. I kind of use MacOS begrudgingly but realize that a *nix environment with my work is very nice, a gap that Win10 is slowly bridging.

Digression aside, with WWDC wrapped up the only real interesting item to me is the HomePod. I am very lightly dabbing in the home IoT stuff with just a WeMo switch and my Google Home Assistant (and it comes with the Pixel too). HomePod just seemed timely because I recently upgraded my receiver to a Yamaha RX-V581 (attached to a Polk-powered 5.1 system) in my living room, and it allows for 96khz FLAC streaming. It sounded really good if you have properly high-dynamic-range music playing off it. Like, REALLY FREAKING GOOD.

I’m thinking about the HomePod in this context, in that it adds a voice assistant in the form of Siri in which can help you easily set the music you want, assuming you want to use its services. Well, that’s nice, because the immediate bottleneck in order to get the FLAC streaming going on my new receiver is getting the music set up for streaming. On the phone, I was able to use Yamaha’s MusicCast and that was fairly painless, but on the PC I had to use some homebrewed media server (MinimServer) to get high res FLAC to work. It’s not hard, just something you need to research. Wouldn’t it be easy to just Aux out from something like a HomePod?

Well it turns out if I hook up a Chromecast (which I did) to the receiver the same could happen. And the internet comments are right, Google already allows for this use case. It’s not first-party in that you have to get the devices or apps that allows for Chromecast streaming, or a Home Assistant which does it for you. But this is the thing Apple is good at–simplifying these kind of “a little nerdy” ways to get things to work.

I guess since my Apple TV is hooked up to it, I should be able to do it with that too, right? I guess Apple hasn’t opened up that use case yet. I imagine it’ll happen soon. And if I want to use AirPlay I can directly do it into the receiver, so it’s even easier there, it’s just Apple hasn’t enabled Siri enough in the way Google has for its Assistant.

All this is saying, is that I won’t be getting a HomePod because once again I am not really the kind of users they’re targetting. Not that I’m not in the high end market, but I’m not “sheeple” enough to appreciate their enhancements, and I want more flexibility and openness than what Apple is willing to give. And I prioritize differently in terms of my voice or smarthome assistant. So I guess it’s a variety of things.

Say what you want about Apple being an audio company; the EarPods are the #1 thing I want from Apple today, and what is stopping me from buying one is precisely because they have pretty bad sound compared to a similar pair of full wireless buds.  Why can’t they double down on some truly good IEM? Ear buds suck! Sigh.

Google Pixel Hot Take (72 Hours)

TL;DR after the jump.

The Pixel is a good phone with flaws, but that shouldn’t stop anyone because there are no perfect phones. Every phone has some flaws, and any claim of “best” is to be taken not just with a grain of salt but a confirmation of bias in the opinion. After all, there are only ‘better’ phones, and no perfect phone yet. I got the Pixel on a Monday (but didn’t open it till Tuesday) and I like it a lot, as I have no regret changing from a Nexus 6P. But you need to be cognizant of your own requirements and preferences before going into any high end smartphone purchase decision.

If that sounded a defensive way to open up a phone review, it’s because ultimately I feel the Pixel is a flawed phone. The ideal Google Phone probably won’t emerge until next year. Reason why here. But compared to other phones on the market, the Pixel is still the best or almost the best Android phone you can get.

The only real concern about the Pixel is the cost versus the value you get. I think at some level it’s hard to justify any phone over, say, $500, just because alternatively you can get a Nexus 5X or 6P or OnePlus 3 or something, and get on with your life. The extra $200-400 go pretty far and it’s up to each person to figure out if that distance covers the difference between the newest Pure Google experience and their best alternatives.

To help with that fundamental calculus, let me offer another delta-value, which is the difference of having a Nexus 6P when it was the newest Pure Google experience a  year ago, and the Pixel today. I can’t really speak from a place of who may be coming from a more “mundane” device, like someone who wants to upgrade from an iPhone 6 or your garden variety Android phone of 2 years+ vintage. I can speak to that this shiny New Google Device experience is better than the last one. How much better?

  • The 6P has good hardware, but it’s not Huawei’s best bet, just one of their better ones. The Pixel might be HTC’s best phone.
  • Software-wise, the biggest advantage to Android 6/7 was the power management. The Pixel takes it up a notch (FWIW Pixel XL owners were reporting 1+ day batt life across the board).
  • Arguably the best camera although what really shines is the HDR+, much like Nexus 6P but better compared to rival phone cameras.
  • The new on-board features, such as live help and unlimited Google Photo storage @ full size, are of some value. I don’t even count the assistant integration, although that’s nice.

The real driving reason to buy a Pixel is because this is Google’s first start-to-finish product. That allows them to innovate in the software in a way that has only been possible to see in iPhone and the Microsoft Surface (and the Surface Studio is a prime example of it), because they can control both the hardware and software in the minute. I can say that Google delivered a little of that in this first iteration. A lot of the above bullets are more “business” reasons in that some of Google’s strengths are their ecosystem/services, and it would be more kosher to embrace a phone that didn’t belong to an Android OEM. For that, you have to look at the camera–i is the crown jewel of Android integration and Google engineering.

Which is to say, it’s kind of like a Nexus phone in that the Pixel has some breakthroughs, but it also has some rough edges. It’s just that, by far, the Pixel is the most polished Nexus phone if it was one. Which is good, because you expect that given the price gap.

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Hot Take: PicoBrew Pico Review

[The “Hot Take” qualifier added as I’ve only used it twice, among other things.]

I got my Kickstarter edition PicoBrew Pico device in late August, and have brewed up my 2 packs that were part of the Kickstarter rewards. Here’s my take.

Being Early Bird backer #205 I got my machine pretty quickly. A hardware kickstarter like this was bound to be delayed and the guys at PicoBrew didn’t disappoint. Overall I think they did a good job on the Kickstarter*. They conveyed enough information to keep us sated, although it was not as frequently as some people may have wanted. More importantly the delay was not too too long, but it was long enough that my folks who retired to Taiwan missed out on the first batch, as they had to leave the same week when my package arrived.

I realized part of the delay has a lot to do with getting the Pico Packs set up so they can crank them out fast. With fast brewing you can turn around a batch in a week, and it ain’t all that much beer per batch–about 1.3 gallons give or take. Recently they just emailed all backers that the Pico Pack marketplace is in business, and it was definitely not too soon for people who have already started brewing.

Aside: What is kind of tricky is that these batches of beer packs do have a shelf life, so I don’t think stocking up on them during the free shipping promo is the wisest. The order I placed a week ago has already shipped.

As for the main dealie of working and brewing the beer via Pico, well, overall I am satisfied but I think they fall short to be the Kureig of beer. As at least some were claiming that (none from the company). Regardless, there are a bunch of things they could improve, and it depends on the philosophy behind the point of the Pico device.

I feel what they have created is not so much Kureig, but just a Bread Machine. You gotta put the stuff in the thing and let it cook, and the biggest gain out of a bread machine, is that you can customize it to a degree and you can have very freshly baked bread whenever you want, provided the prep is done ahead of time. I don’t know if you know this but beer is similar to bread that freshness counts for a lot in the taste, living up to the moniker liquid bread.

Prior to the Pico I’ve only made beer via canned wort mixes, so I don’t know all the pain of making beer from scratch, but that experience was sufficiently educational that I understand the overall process. Once you remove the whole creation aspect of beer making–everything related to the ingredients–it becomes a process where you simply “brew” it up and let it ferment.

That part is pretty simple and I think the Pico did a good job. What is lacking is kind of the rest. The racking process worked pretty well, and I had no issues except the serving keg’s serving plug had an issue. Using a CO2 cartridge is definitely better than bottle/keg conditioning.

The main problem I have with Pico is cleaning. It is a major time consuming aspect of brewing beer. It should surprise nobody but I think more importantly, this is a very manual task that the system doesn’t really explain to you in detail. The flushing of PIco system can take upward of 30 minutes cumulatively, not even using the first-time flush feature. That’s just running water through all the pipes, kind of. Then after brewing, you have to clean the brewing keg, which takes at least 30 minutes as you have to dissemble the keg (mainly the o-ring-sealed keg inlet and outlet). Then there’s cleaning of the serving keg. I got one of the racking pipe dirty and I’m not sure if I can clean it properly as some beer got stuck in it and now it has discolored. The best I could do is soak the inside with H2O2 and hope for the best. Maybe get a wad of wires and try to clean it out in the future?

So another thing they need is the ability to sell spare parts. It’s going to be necessary.

Given there is no good way to streamline the cleaning, each time I brew I spend over an hour just to clean the thing, and cleaning well is imperative to a good brew. I didn’t clean well after the first batch and my second batch didn’t come out as good as I’d expect, so there’s that.

Without going into the details, I think some of the steps can be streamlined, if some equipment were designed a certain way. The initial brewing process can be time consuming as well if you take care to clean each step. But these are not as big of problem to me as that Pico doesn’t do a lot to help you clean better in terms of what you needed to do to clean.

That said, none of these are permanent problems and they can improve on it even now. Selling parts. Selling cleaning kits (like the powder thing they recommend). Do a better job showing people how to clean. Improve some of their stuff so it’s easier to clean.

In that sense that’s what Kickstarter is about. You are beta-testing their kit in a way, and when I back stuff I count on the potential of things shaking out well, not just the pledged rewards. In a V2 Pico they should be able to address all these things, as well as their current online store.

On the value prospect of Pico, I think if you live near a well-stocked liquor store with a wide selection of brews, you probably won’t be missing much. I think the PIco Packs generally will break even with the same quantity of beer / beer type as ones you get in store. That doesn’t include the $500+ you invested in the kit however, and instead you have to spend hours cleaning to get about a 12-pack of beer. Actually usually Pico packs are a little more expensive than bottled.

The real promise Pico brings is the reverse-engineered recipes of other famous or limited edition brews. Think of it as an alternative to a liquor store instead of a replacement. There are countless microbreweries in the USA alone, and you can get entries from all over the world with this system. So in that sense Pico addresses the greatest driver for drinking microbrews–if everything pans out with PicoBrew’s large-scale plans–the ability to try a new beer forever. Or, that old beer you can’t find anymore. (Or, the beer that is sold only in certain breweries and draws lines hours long, ahem.)

To bridge the gap, Pico promises a sous vide kit. I hope that comes through soon.

As for the two Kickstarter reward beer packs: Tweatie and Buffalo Sweat…the milk sugar in the latter is a nice touch but it’s the batch I messed up. The Tweatie was a nice American beer however, and I rec that one.

*I have done enough Kickstarters I think, to be somewhat of a judge of these things.

Pebble Time Steel First Month Look

It’s actually only 3 weeks, oops.

I got the Pebble Time Steel gold version. My friends got the steel grey and black ones. They were definitely not as cool looking as the gold one. From a looks perspective the red leather band is a home run, paired with the gold. Black bezel also even looked OK like this.

And here we get to the heart of the problem with the Pebble Time Steel, and Pebble Time in general–that display just does not look good. Colors are dimmed and contrast is like 3/4 of what it was on the original Pebble. Why? Because the new display is a TFT LCD where the crystal layer has to be semi transparent in order to work passively and work with a backlight. When light is filtered partly by the LCD layer, this is how you generate different colors. The original Pebble is B&W, so it either completely blocked light or none at all, giving you better contrast than the Pebble Time screen. Both old and the Pebble Time has so-so viewing angle but the Time really loses out in the dark versus the original Pebble.

The Pebble Time Steel has the added problem of, I think, really demure styling. This watch would work well for women, if it’s a tad on the big side. But that also means it’s quite small as far as smartwatches go and great for people who doesn’t have manly wrists. It looked definitely more stylish than the original pebble, which is something people who dig the Pebble Steel might not prefer–that one is bigger and manly.

I think it does not lose to the Apple Watch on looks, side by side. It definitely does not look as manly, though, without that large crown and less angular styling. I think if you are the stereotypical urban hipster tho, it will look good.

Pebble recently unveiled the Pebble Time Round which looks wicked, but if it follows the same design language, it will be for people looking for a wristwatch for women or people who want something that’s design-wise smart but not aggressive. We don’t know what display it will have, but looks like it’ll be the same as the other Pebble Times.

Pebble Time’s display is slightly worse than Pebble Time Steel’s display because the steel forces the way the glass bond to the display to be closer. It improves the viewing angle and slight ups the contrast. I think this makes Pebble Time Steel a no-brainer choice over the Pebble Time pretty much all around. The styling isn’t even that different between the grey or black ones. They are really two watch lines that aren’t different enough design-wise to be saying you prefer one over the other, especially given the extra $150 you can get more battery life and more durability, and slightly improved display.

To be honest, functionality is already pretty OK for the Pebble. What has to be improved is the looks. I don’t think the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel has achieved enough to call it that. Maybe the PT Round? It is definitely differently looking.

As for the software, it’s faster and less buggy. It uses a different companion app than the Pebble/Pebble Steel. I run it on android, and it’s solid. What I don’t like is the timeline interface, because it’s kind of useless and I don’t want to be pressing a lot of buttons on the watch. Maybe once devs can hook better Pebble apps into it?

The new reply and voice dictate is definitely nice and I appreciate it, even if I don’t see myself using it just because it takes a little getting used to and I’ll have to force myself into doing it. Not a killer app but definitely cool once someone figures out how to integrate it into Google Now.

Battery-life-wise it’s great. Seven days minimum with a wonky PlexFit on it even.

I can get a Pebble Time Round for $200. I might bite. I don’t know. I dig that white one. Maybe for Christmas to give to somebody?

Moto X Pure Edition (Style) 2015 First Week Look

Received it last Friday, so I’ve had about 9 days with the phone as of this writing.

My last phone was the 2014 Moto X, so this is an incremental change. My biases are well-stated on this blog, but to sum it up: I don’t like phablets, I hate TouchWiz, and I am used to the vanilla variety of Android.

I haven’t really paid attention to CPU specs on phones. I still remember having a discussion with a friend about how he and his coworker dissed on people who wanted phones with good hand-feel, and would rather compare specs. I guess I’m biased against that kind of thought, because 99% of the use cases don’t even require that much processing power. My mom’s Moto G first generation still runs like a champ even browsing the web. Instead, increasingly it’s about the UX, starting from the build quality, hand feel, and the user interface and the stuff you put in there to satisfy use cases.

Let me just quote this:

Smartphones have become boring to me these days. They all can do the same thing; resolutions are high enough that they don’t really matter anymore; processors can handle everything you throw at them; batteries last nearly all day; and some of the latest cameras on Android handsets have essentially caught up with the iPhone

The funny thing is I jumped on the Moto X 2015 version because of CPU specs and better display. Enter IDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls Starlight Stage (DereSute for short, or SS). The spiritual successor of IDOLM@STER Shiny Festa married with Love Live School Idol Festival, this game does real-time rendering of 3D models dancing, and will take a chunk of not just your battery life but CPU. Plus since DereSute is a rhythm game, the interface is extremely unforgiving to any performance hiccups. Comparing the performance of this game on the 2014 Moto X and 2015 Moto X, the improvements are well worth it:

  • Moto X 2014 can run at full visuals (there are 4 levels you can choose from) for maybe 10 songs before running out of power, the 2015 version can do so about twice as long (I haven’t tried).
  • Moto X 2014 lags a good deal at highest level, Moto X 2015 not really at the second highest, and barely so at the highest.

Both Moto X features Qualcomm’s fast charging technology, so stick that 3.0A charger in there for 50% @ 15 minutes. It comes really handy for DereSute. But to put things into perspective; if I played Project Diva on the Vita and it uses up all the power after 20 songs, I’d think something is wrong with my Vita. So something is odd about this phone? For normal every day use I get through a day no problem, but I think I played DereSute everyday so it’s not a good measure.

Back to you regular programming. The new TFT screen takes getting used to; the contrast difference is the first thing that strikes me. I think it takes getting used to because I have to invert a lot of the app’s skins so it’s black-on-white rather than white-on-black as you’d with an OLED display. OTOH if people tell you 1080 is enough on a flagship phone display they are drunk or have never seen a good QHD screen on a handheld device. Maybe if your screen is 1/2 of the size of this one? The pixel density is highly appreciated. I think when those 4K screens comes out in a few months (Sony, LG, the Huawei Nexus) we’ll have some actual opinions to press against.

The size and heft of the 2015 Moto X is squarely in phablet territory. I have hands that are not very big–big for an Asian but not big for average White guy, so this thing is a challenge to use one-handed. The 2014 Moto X was already not quite an one-handed phone with the bumper, and the 2015 Moto X is just something I’ll have to get used to.

I opted for the leather back. it’s nice, and even more so if you take some time and put some oil on it… My dad put some special seed oil on it that he reserves for his hair and it actually changed the color tone of the thing, which makes it much closer to pigskin brown than the lighter brown you associate with autumn fashion…

I think the leather back makes the phone more slippery than if you opted for some grippy plastic, and with a big phone that’s recipe for drops. This year’s Moto X Pure Edition package comes with a bumper which is something you should put on immediately for this reason. BTW that bumper is not the greatest, but right now you don’t have a choice (I plan to swap it out soon I guess).

The camera is indeed much better than the 2014 X, but that doesn’t say a lot. I think we finally can call this camera “flagship” quality, but it doesn’t compare to what the latest iPhones can do. I’m going to ignore the “Siri” type functions, but Moto X has always been pretty good about this, including the latest iteration.

Dual speakers make playing DereSute nice and handy. If the phone is not plugged in my hand can get in the way of the ambient sensor and change the backlight, something to think about in general for all these phones. But this is where LCD screens kind of suck versus OLED screens, at lower brightness…

So, to sum it up:

Pro: It’s fast. Clean Android UX, Moto maker. With key accessories included it’s even more affordable than you think.
Con: Phablet and weighty, still can be faster and have more battery life for DereSute.