HomePod is out in the wild

In my last newsletter, I wrote about all the new and updated Apple products that had been introduced during the year. As of the writing of that newsletter, the HomePod had yet to be actually released. It has now been made available.

Reviews have been mostly positive, but the Siri-enabled home theater speaker isn’t setting the world on fire yet. But as with a lot of Apple products, time will tell whether the speaker has “legs” or not.

For myself, I don’t see one in my near future. I know that the audio quality is supposed to be amazing. And supposedly the thing is able to give a stereo-like audio field. It has multiple speakers within it, and bounces the sound off your walls. But I am a big fan of surround sound.

I set up our home theater years ago with a modestly priced Onkyo 6.1 surround sound system. That means 3 speakers up front (Left-Center-Right) and 3 in back (Left-Center-Right). The “.1” is the sub-woofer for low end, which can sit about anywhere, but in our situation lives up front just below and to the right of the screen. If you sit at a certain place on our couch, big action-picture sound f/x literally blow you away with a blast of air from the front port on the speaker. Cheap thrills! But there is no way the one HomePod speaker can match that surround sound field, with sound coming from every direction. A future software update is supposed to enable pairing with another HomePod for a stereo setup. But my 11 year old system, which came with all speakers and an AV receiver gives me true surround sound for around the same price of just one HomePod.

I think HomePod would be a great option for those who might be in the market for a sound-bar type speaker. That I can see. A lot of folks don’t want to wire all these speakers around your living room. But if you want surround sound, which is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, Broadcast TV (Free!), AppleTV, etc., I say go with a true home theater surround sound system.

Drawing with iPad Pro

So what Apple gear would I spend my hard-earned sheckles on? Glad you asked! By last summer it had become increasingly clear that I needed to replace my aged White MacBook. I hated to admit it, as at almost 10 years old I still just could not kill it! I used it every day for years but the thing would not die. I had updated the internal storage to a solid state drive (SSD) a couple years ago, replacing the old-school, spinning disk hard drive. That update breathed new life into the machine. The SSD with its low power consumption extended battery life, and its high speed made everything faster, especially loading applications and rebooting. But it topped out at Os X Lion 10.7. Our current macOs is at 10.13. Lion is positively ancient.

I weighed the options and looked at MacBook Pro, MacBook, and MacBook Air. But something about the new iPad Pro was tugging at me. As an illustrator, an iPad Pro married with the Apple Pencil was very alluring.

My reservations were based around my computer consulting and troubleshooting needs. I need to be able to troubleshoot small networks, WiFi installations and modems. I especially needed to have a wired connection for ethernet. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get an adapter for that. I did some research and went to the Apple Store in Holyoke. No one there had tried what I wanted to do, so it was a bit of a learning curve for them as well! It turned out that I could indeed have a wired connection using a USB to Ethernet adapter, in tandem with the Apple Camera Connector Kit. The Camera Kit was necessary not only for the USB port, but to enable the iPad to be connected to power at the same time. The iPad Pro’s internal battery alone is not able to power the USB - Ethernet adapter. We also discovered that the more recent, higher powered power adapter is necessary, not the smaller adapters that came with the early iPhones and iPod. The old ones don’t give enough juice. I almost gave up on this, when we tried a newer power adapter and “voila”.

With my biggest question answered, I decided to take the plunge and go for the “big” 12.9” iPad Pro. I purchased the Logitech “Logi” case and keyboard to go with it. The greatest features about it are the kickstand, the backlit keyboard and the holder to keep the Apple Pencil with it. I like this case and keyboard a lot, and the keyboard feels better to me than the Apple Smart keyboard. But the case’s backing and kickstand make for a great deal more heft. There is an achilles heel as well: if you stuff the iPad Pro into a tight bag, the pressure presses down on the music “Play” button on the keyboard and starts music playback. This can also occur if you carry the iPad Pro near the keyboard hinge. Don’t squeeze too hard! Very annoying, and a huge oversight by Logitech.

If I had my ‘druthers, I would also have the Apple Smart Keyboard ($160), or at least the Smart Cover ($70). It doesn’t have a case on the back, which for me is a plus. I am not a fan of cases for any of the iOS stuff. The whole point is the thinness and lightness. Putting a big old plastic case on it defeats the purpose. I don’t care what you say about protecting your investment. Apple has spent a boatload of money on building iPhones and iPads to last. The evidence bears this out.

I configured everything to compare favorably with the entry level MacBook Pro. I got the max RAM, and the biggest SSD. And of course the Apple Pencil. All this put me at about the same price as the MacBook Pro but with way more storage capacity, and of course the Pencil. I thought it was a great deal.

It looks cool, but is it usable?

For the first couple months I didn’t end up using the Pencil much. I did find that some apps, most notably Numbers and GarageBand, did benefit from the accuracy that the stylus gives you. But for most day-to-day stuff, it was quicker just to use my fingers.

Then I finally had occasion to use it on a new drawing project. I am prepping to re-release the catalog of my old band Ostrich Farm. One of the records had artwork that I was never happy with, so I decided to create new artwork for this 20th anniversary release.

I tried several apps for iOS that were highly recommended and optimized for Apple Pencil including Concepts, Procreate, Nebo, Pixelmator and Paper. Each of them had something I liked. Concepts seemed best for technical drawing; Paper best for quick and dirty sketches. But I arrived on Procreate as the best option. It is like Photoshop in a way, but better suited for drawing. It’s possible to work very quickly and the interface doesn’t get in your way. I loved working with this app and will do so again soon.

I started my artwork with a ‘real world’, old-school pencil drawing of the four characters featured in the piece. I scanned the pencil drawing into the computer and transferred to the iPad Pro via Air Drop. In retrospect, I needn’t have done this, and could have done it all in the box. But I wasn’t ready for that yet. Baby steps. Plus I have a nice memento that I can hang on the wall.

All of the rest of the art was done in Procreate, using Apple Pencil. I ‘inked’ and colored the pencil sketch, like I would’ve done back in the day when I was a comic-book artist. I also painted the background, using brushes modeled after many different types of real-world oil and watercolor brushes.

I’ve used Wacom tablets in the past. They were ok, but you had to get used to looking up at the screen while drawing, not at the surface under your ‘pen’(Unless you had the Cintiq). And there was always a time-lag, especially in Photoshop. The program would not keep up with your pen. Very frustrating.
Those concerns all melt away with this new system. The high screen refresh-rate of the iPad Pro helps in keeping up with your strokes. It’s very smooth. And you can employ real world techniques like tilting your Pencil to the side if you want to shade in an area.

A tip for drawing “in the box”

Like Photoshop and Illustrator, the Procreate app utilizes ‘Layers’. Analogous to plastic acetate or tracing paper, this allows you to play with stacking order of parts of your drawing and to keep elements separate so you can move them around. You can also do things like keeping your pencil outlines on one layer, and your colors in another. It sounds like a hassle, but in actuality it can save you hours of time if you do just a little planning and housekeeping. Artists out there know how many pieces have been ruined by a misstep here or there. Now you don’t have to worry about wrecking your art and starting over again. Keep things organized and separated by layers, and the world is your oyster.

Plus there’s always the “undo” button. If only real life had an “undo”. I would stay up all night hitting undo until I undid the 2016 election if I could! :-)

All in all, I’m very happy with my purchase. Does it totally replace a Mac laptop? No. I still see a need for one, even for myself, alongside the iPad Pro. But it’s a professional piece of gear and I wholeheartedly endorse it. And if you’re an artist, you gotta try it. I advise you to really give it a workout with any of the apps I mentioned above. It truly is “magical”.

But wait, there’s more!

A nifty feature of the Procreate app is it’s time-lapse capturing ability. Enjoy this movie that shows the creation of this piece, stroke-by-stroke. How cool is that?

Make Your Mac Sing!