HomePod early impressions

After a few days with the HomePod I have a few impressions: setup is easy, using it is fun, it sounds great, and it works with our Family Music subscription. No surprises. At first, amusingly, a few people were tongue-tied while adjusting to “Hey Siri” instead of “Alexa.” That was entertaining. To watch. The biggest absence I’ve noticed from the HomePod is audiophile pretentiousness. I’ll explain.

I’m not an audio professional but I have mixed sound for bands. I’ve built a sound booth. I’ve recorded albums. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars each on used mics and monitors. I found that my limited musical talent was in listening. I enjoy carefully positioning my studio monitors and parking myself in the sweet spot. I can also count on my digits the hours in a year spent listening this way. That is my audiophile pretentiousness. To most everyone else, my monitors are just the speakers that sound good with movies. That system is normally switched off with a power strip because it draws 10 watts even when “off.”

In our home with two tweens, there are typically concurrent activities in progress and music is often emanating from the tiny speakers of a “smart” device someone is using. Even when playing back music I enjoy, hearing it from more than a few feet away on those crappy little speaker(s) is as much painful as it is enjoyable.

We also have a Sony RDP docking station / AirPlay speaker. It gets hauled to where someone(s) will be working (garage, basement, etc.) for a while. The sound quality is quite good when listening in front of it. Unfortunately, its power cords, adapter, and enclosure are too large and too directional to earn a spot in the prime real estate that our lives revolve around. It also requires a separate “smart” device to stream to it. As an auxiliary speaker it gets used many dozens of hours per year.

Last year we added an Echo to the kitchen and we’ve settled into a usage pattern. In the past month we averaged 5 requests per day (play song X, set a timer, set an alarm, what is an acute triangle?, etc.). Alexa is VERY good at alarms and timers. She’s less good at answering questions. Requests to Alexa about information are usually followed up by asking Siri the same question. Alexa is even less good at playing music. The speaker quality is terrible, if we’re far from the Echo or the volume is loud we have to shout at it, and it lacks access to our iTunes library and/or Apple Music subscription. Yet we’ve listened to hundreds of hours of music on Alexa. It’s used because voice control makes it easy, it listens to everyone, and it’s in the kitchen.

I purchased the HomePod to displace this frequent pattern of listening to music on a cacophony of lousy speakers (Echo, tablets, laptops). The HomePod cleared that low bar brilliantly. On arrival day my middle schooler walked in the door from school, listened, looked about, saw the HomePod, and issued a “Hey Siri” command. She squealed with delight, “Siri finally listens to me!” (Siri on our iPhones does not listen to the kids, to our delight). We are all pleased.

Saturday my brother-in-law visited and spent a handful of hours listening. We picked songs we knew and loved and walked around the kitchen and adjoining living room listening. We agree with most honest (non-click-bait generators) reviews: the sound quality and stage is excellent. We can both identify areas where the experience is slightly different than standing in the sweet spot of our favored color and distortion free speakers or studio monitors. That ignores Apple’s achievement: everywhere else in the room the HomePod sounds substantially better than any comparably priced speaker.

The HomePod is less for the audiophile “soothe the hole in my wallet” listening that requires sitting in the narrow sweet spot of a tuned and expensive stereo system with expensive speakers. HomePod is for the every day listening done while cooking dinner, sweeping the floor, rescuing Roomba from misadventures, and the myriad other activities we do while moving about the house. As WinterCharm said well, with HomePod “the room is the sweet spot.”

Apple data centers on 100% renewable power

Apple is spending an eye popping $850 million to build a ginormous solar farm (280 megawatts) that will power their entire California operations. This new solar farm is not to be confused with the 70MW solar farm they’re building in Arizona, the $55 million “under way” third solar farm (17.5MW) in North Carolina, the two 20MW solar farms they’re building in China, or the existing 20MW solar farm near Reno, NV, or the two existing 20MW solar farms in N. Carolina.

The backstory is that in 2010, Apple wanted to buy renewable energy from Duke to power their Maiden N.C. data center. It wasn’t even legal in N. Carolina. In 2011 Apple bypassed the N.C. coal lobby by purchasing 100 acres of land and in 2012 they finished building (est. $100 million) the first non-utility 20MW solar farm. At the same time, they also built a 5MW fuel cell farm. In 2013 they doubled their fuel cell farm to 10MW and built another 20MW solar farm. Apple has since been producing 100% of the power they need in N.C.

While I believe that Tim Cook is sincere about reducing Apple’s carbon footprint, I also think it’s likely that spending over a billion dollars on solar panels is a very good investment. Apple is famously cash rich and by spending today and owning the solar farms, Apple fixes their energy prices at today’s rates for the next 30 years. Apple has taken a large and variable cost and turned it into a fixed cost that is no longer subject to price inflation or fluctuation. What Apple is also purchasing is energy stability.

Apple is also becoming an energy supplier. For the first 10 years, PG&E will purchase 150MW of production and Apple gets 130MW.  In the last 20 years, Apple gets 100% of production. It’s likely that their operations will have expanded to utilize the power (as has the NC data center) but if not, they’ll have little trouble selling their surplus capacity.

While Apple was first in the, “okay then, we’ll build it ourselves” solar game, the even bigger story is that 2014 was the year solar arrived in Main Street USA. In just 2014, nearly 70% of the worlds solar power generation came online with several companies having more installed solar than Apple: Wal-Mart (105MW), Kohl’s (50MW), and Costco (48MW). IKEA is not far behind with 39MW. Apple isn’t even the largest purchaser of solar as Intel, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Dell, and Johnson & Johnson all purchase more solar power than Apple. What was so special about solar in 2014?

Swanson’s Law observes that solar modules tend to drop in price by 20% for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. Apple deployed 60MW between 2012-2014 and during that same time, photo voltaic capacity more than doubled. By being out in front and building not just demand, but also solar capacity, Apple helped 2014 be the year of solar grid parity in 3 NE states, California, Arizona, and Hawaii. It is predicted that grid parity will arrive in “many” US markets in 2015 and Deutsche Bank predicts solar grid parity for all 50 states in 2016. With Apple deploying another 407MW of solar In just 2015-2016, that prediction seems like slam dunk.

TV in the 21st century

Projector technology finally became bright enough to use in daylit rooms (~2000 lumens) and dipped below $1k for HD models. I picked up a projector last year and then an AppleTV over the holidays. My entertainment center is now miniscule compared to times past.

  • Epson Powerlite 720P HD projector
  • 26″ LCD HDTV
  • HDMI 4 x 2 switch
  • Logitech Z-5500 5.1 speaker system
  • Apple TV
  • 4 HDMI cables (projector cable is 30′ long)
  • 1 Toslink cable

The only ‘analog’ cabling is from the Logitech amp to the speakers. The HDMI switch is a splitter with one cable going to the Projector and another to the TV. It drives both simultaneously with no hiccups. It has 4 inputs, with one from the AppleTV, another for my laptop, and 2 for future use. Audio is routed to the TV via HDMI and from the TV to the Logitech control center via Toslink.

The only fiddling with cables required is when using my laptop. I have to connect a HDMI<->DVI adapter to my MacBook Pro for video, and connect the Toslink cable from the Logitech to my laptop. Between the Apple TV and laptop, I can stream iTunes, NetFlix, and Amazon movies to both screens.

A hard won lesson on investing

I started saving for my retirement in 1991 because my employer offered matching contributions. Matching money is free money so I saved exactly as much as they would match. Since I started at $7/hr, two percent of my check was about $6 per week. It’s a trifling amount but when I quit to found MichWeb 3 years later, I had saved about $900.

I paid no attention to that account until Kysor was acquired a couple years later. I was forced to roll over my retirement account and the dollar value was quite surprising. I had invested $900, the company match had kicked in another $900, and over 5 years it had grown to around $5,000. I invested for the match but learned a valuable lesson on leveraging compound interest.

Years later I read a book by Peter Lynch. One of his most famous bits of investing advice is, “buy what you know.” Instead of taking the advice of Wall Street or your neighbor, invest in companies whose products you are familiar with. If you eat Cheerios every morning, General Mills might be a good stock for you. If you ride a hog, Harley Davidson might be a great choice.

I know AAPL because of my familiarity with their products. For several years, I got into the habit of buying their stock at $15 and selling at $25. That was fun until one day I sold and the stock never came back down! After months of waiting, I bought back at (gulp) double the price I had sold at. This brings me to my hardest won lesson on investing: every notable error I’ve made investing was a sale. Over all, I’d be better off if I had never sold anything.

I ran the numbers to answer a nagging question, “How much more would we have in our retirement accounts if I had never sold AAPL stock?” $15,950. Tomorrow, that number will be even bigger.