Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

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My iPhone Home Screen for 2016

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Last year turned out to have quite a lot of changes for my iPhone, thanks in parts to the entry of the 2 major video streaming services into India. That along with some amount of app rationalisation on my part due to the constraints of a 16 GB iPhone led to a bit of diversity on the home screen unlike the last two years.

I was also quite tempted by the iPhone 7 plus and its dual lens camera (not to mention the 128 GB storage tier) as a replacement for my iPhone 5s, but a change of battery a few months back gave it a new lease of life. Plus I got an Apple Watch a few months ago (review coming up hopefully) to replace my Pebble Time (turned out to be just a month before the Pebble sale to Fitbit).

Coming to the apps:

  • No change in the first row, but the second row see some major changes with the Reminders app being relegated to a separate screen. Todoist continues to feature on the second row thanks to its IFTTT & cross platform support, and is now augmented by the Apple Watch app that makes it easy to refer to reminders on the go.
  • Alarmed finally moves off the screen making way for Due that’s a very similar app and has an Apple Watch app. This turned out to be the major reason for the switch. While Alarmed did expose the notification actions on the Apple Watch, there was no way to add reminders or act on dismissed notifications. Due fully support adding reminders through the Apple Watch and also gives access to the timers on the wrist.
  • I got rid of Inbox and consolidated my Gmail account into the Outlook app, mainly due to the space constraints. But, it doesn’t hurt to have the emails and calendars consolidated into one app, and it supports the Apple Watch as well with a full fledged app and complication.
  • Whatsapp also swaps places with Outlook based on my more frequent usage of Whatsapp due to the introduction of voice calls last year.
  • Messages continues to stick around along with Day One though the usage of both has reduced over the year. There was also a new version of Day One launched with web and IFTTT support, but I am sticking to the original version for the time being.
  • While I continue to use One Note as my primary note taking app, I have found the performance of the app to be quite poor on both the iPhone and Mi 4, and finally moved it out of my home screen. The Apple Watch app is also quite handy though it is of limited utility for note taking on the wrist. An honorable mention for the Zoho Notebook app that is cross platform just like One Note and also supports the Apple Watch, but not IFTTT. It also allows you to make audio notes from the wrist.
  • My trio of travel apps – Google Maps, Uber and Ola – remain in the same places and my reliance on each of them remains unchanged as well. That said, the apps themselves have changed quite a bit over the last year with Uber undergoing a major rebranding exercise and a complete overhaul of their iOS app. Ola has also expanded its range of services over the last year.
  • Oura is one of the new entrants to the home screen and it is the companion app to the Oura ring that I got in May 2016. I use it through the day to track my activities, starting off with my sleep first thing in the morning.
  • Streaks continues to remain on the home screen and I have tweaked the activities that I’m tracking to make them more automated where possible like the ones that read data from the Health app for steps, sleep and weight. It again has an Apple Watch to make it easier to track habits.
  • Netflix and Amazon Video don’t need much of an introduction of course and 2016 saw the entry of both the services in India albeit at either end of the year. I even upgraded my data plan so that I could watch shows on the go. Here again, the 16 GB storage of my iPhone 5s prevents me from downloading any shows though both apps support offline videos. Good thing I have my Mi 4, but Netflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on itNetflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on it.
  • The Money Pro app also finally displaces the MoneyBook app for my finance tracking. The main advantage was the search feature, making it easier to track expenses. The Apple Watch app also helps in making quick entries. It has a macOS app as well along with iCloud sync support.

A few other apps that don’t feature on the home screen but get used regularly are PayTM (was using it long before the demonetisation), Workflow, Pedometer++, Data Counter and Copied (a clipboard manager with a keyboard and widget) some of which I use through widgets or the Watch apps.

Dangal – Parenting for the millennials

The movie is definitely fun and inspiring with wonderful performances from the entire cast. Aamir Khan is very unlike himself as a senior citizen in the movie for sure. It was quite interesting to watch the Disney logo at the start as well and the movie fits in nicely with their image.

There’s quite a bit of a lesson for parenting as well over here, especially for the millennials of my generation. There were some cinematic liberties taken with the overall story, with Geeta’s final match in real life being a practical walkover (1-0, 7-0), and the role of the NSA coach as well as there would’ve been a lack of tension in the movie otherwise. It also turns out that she apparently won a gold for India in the 2009 Commonwealth Wrestling Championships, so her record leading up to the CWG 2010 was not as disheartening as shown.

Babita’s performance was also downplayed in the movie overall as she has a pretty decent record herself. Of course, the person people actually remember from CWG 2010 was not even mentioned, but he made sure that he was making news right after the release of the movie. Either way, it was a stark reminder of the fact that pretty the majority of Indian sports (that are not cricket) victories are in spite of the system and not because of it. This possibly makes the movie more important than Lagaan.

Where Apple is aiming the puck

There weren’t too many surprises on the hardware front with the iPhone 7 release with the usual stream of supply chain leaks and rumours over the last few weeks leading up to the launch. The event pretty much reemphasized that the smartphone market, particularly the high end, has pretty much matured and Apple checked off the niggles over the entry level storage. Apple also broke a trend of sorts with the external design not changing considerably over the previous “s” year, another sign of a maturing market.

There was also a lot of clarity in their positioning of the Apple Watch with the focus shifting to health and fitness, while reducing the emphasis on communication (at least for the time being). It is going to be a while before the Apple Watch is able to turn into a standalone device. The new models in tandem with WatchOS 3 do address some of the performance concerns with the first model, but we’re still some time away from an always on display.

Apple also doubled down on their strengths with the focus on platform exclusives, 3D Touch and pushing the envelope on the camera capabilities. They have also increased the feature gap between the regular and Plus model this year with the camera having a tangible difference in addition to the screen and battery size, along with the increased RAM.

There was of course the loss of the headphone jack that many had predicted and the switch to a non clickable home button. The former is something that many of the Android phone makers have tried to preempt, while the latter is something a majority of the non-iPhone owners are used to. As for the A10 chip, it was a validation of ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture that has been in use by the Android market for over 3 years. Big jumps in performance usually come through node shrinks, and with Moore’s law slowing Apple has its task cut out.

Here are a few thoughts on where things seem to be headed based on Apple’s moves this year:

  • They have pretty much set their sights on the pro camera market with the support for wider colour gamuts on the sensor and display. Plus (pun intended) there’s the dual camera lens bringing back a viable telephoto lens to the smartphone market (sort of – 56mm is closer to normal focal length). People who were hurt with Windows Phone and Nokia’s (Lumia 1020) demise have a proper alternative at last.
  • It’ll be a while before the longer focal length on the iPhone attains the quality of the wider one, but this is just the beginning and we can expect iterations to happen pretty quick now that the ball has been set rolling by the most focussed company. Also, you don’t have to look any farther than this comparison of the original iPhone camera to the iPhone 7 to see what can be done in 10 years.
  • Again, on the photography front, with the Plus introducing a second lens, we get closer to the “holy trinity” of prime lenses which typically refers to a wide-normal-telephoto combination of lenses to cover a majority of shooting options. Technically we’ve got the wide and normal lengths covered. Of course, the iPhone is not going to be replacing DSLRs for specialised purposes (birding, low light action) anytime soon, but you know where we’re headed.
  • This dual lens camera also enables the journey towards computer vision thanks to the depth of field perception. What is today a sort of gimmicky feature previously tried by Android phone makers can potentially be the stepping stone towards AR.
  • Those Intel fab rumours that have been around for the last couple of years might finally be coming true next year.
  • The currently gimmicky, but increasingly exhibited feature of 3D Touch is most likely a stepping stone to a future where the display lets you actually feel the textures of items shown. This would take interaction to the new level and iOS 10 has finally opened up the current haptic engine to developers. Just take a look at Apple’s patents to get a feel (yes) of where things are headed. Maybe it’ll arrive as soon as next year when people expect the 10th anniversary iPhone to have an all display front. Accessibility has been one of Apple’s strengths and they also support Braille displays with their iOS devices. This expertise might just help them overall bringing out the really 3D in the touch. As to what kind of stuff is possible, check out Disney Research (guess which companies share board members?).

So, where does this leave me personally? Well, I just replaced my iPhone 5s battery and it should last me another year quite easily given that the performance has all but improved with iOS 10 (I doubt anyone with a 3 year old Android phone can say the same thing). The iPhone 7 Plus camera is really tempting me to give up my DSLR entirely (I really love shooting with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which on a cropped body like the 550D gives an 80mm equivalent focal length), it’s just the first iteration and I find the 5.5″ size too big. Apple Pay has also not launched in India either, so I’m not missing any major feature with the 5s barring the screen size and camera (I do use a Mi 4 as well, so the screen size is even less of an issue). Then there’s the next year’s iPhone of course.

Retirement savings plan post Budget 2016

Looks like the best retirement planning that salaried employees can do given the intentions of the government to tax the EPF (or interest on EPF), is to shut down the PF before the new rules come into effect and move the balance to a tax free account in a Swiss Bank. Then all you have to do is open up a Swiss or EU company and invest in a made in India food business back home. Given some of the entrepreneurial friendly policies being introduced of late, this can only mean a secure future post retirement.

Jokes apart, it seems that this EPF taxation plan is the first step of a bigger plan that is not going to get discussed till the uproar over the issue dies down. This policy pretty much ensures that voluntary PF contributions are going to stop and that can only mean more disposable income in the hands of the salaried.

So, not only does this increase the funds for the Swachh Bharat and Agriculture schemes, but also for the increased service taxes. In the long term, this means that government has lesser interest to pay out due the lower voluntary PF contributions, plus some of that interest goes back to their kitty thanks to the taxes.

Thoughts on the Sep 2015 Apple event

Looks like Apple is revamping their event calendar and spacing out the events a bit more reasonable with one at the start and one towards the end. It was also a pretty busy event with ton of new launches and quite a few items that were skipped altogether – most notably the Mac OS X update. Of course the gist most of the announcements made in the event were known beforehand, but there were some surprises nonetheless.

The long rumoured iPad Pro finally made its debut and pretty much validated the strategy that Microsoft had pioneered with their Surface Pro series – you need a screen larger than 10″, split screen multitasking and a keyboard to make tablets more productive. And then of course there was the Apple Pencil which was again expected given the need for precision & flexibility when drawing. The 2 biggest takeaways was first, Microsoft demoing Office in the session that pretty much sums up the vastly different approach taken in the Satya Nadella era, and second the near doubling of quoted performance of the iPad Pro over the Air 2. This definitely makes the writing clearer on the wall for Intel, as the iPad Air 2 was nearly half as fast as the Core M processors and this should bring the performance in the same ballpark. In fact, in the last few years, Apple has probably been the biggest factor behind Intel’s innovations given the dearth of competition from AMD.

The fact that there was no other iPad update, unless you count the passing mention of the iPad mini 4, shows the speed at which the tablet market has matured and reached a good enough state. Arguably, the iPad 2 was at a good enough state in terms of hardware power and is still being supported with iOS 9. The iPad Pro is Apple’s attempt to grow the tablet market beyond home users and into the enterprise segment. That will definitely take a good deal of time given that most enterprises are Microsoft strongholds and the cost factor will prevent them from outright replacing PCs. Also, whatever the demos may want you to believe, most enterprise workers do not get to do such fancy stuff with their devices.

Health seems to have become the main usage focus for the Apple Watch given the proportion of time given for fitness and health related aspects. This is also probably one of the scenarios where the performance of the Watch will not be constrained as a first generation hardware. The partnership with Hermes also emphasised the luxury status of the Watch, and unless the pricing changes over the years (unusual for new launches), price will remain one of the major roadblocks to its adoption. The second generation of the Watch is likely to improve the internals significantly, and we are likely to have a white iPhone moment in the future with a round Apple Watch.

Then there was the Apple TV that at last gave us a glimpse of Steve Jobs famous “I finally cracked it” quote. Technology was definitely not one of the factors that had held back the Apple TV from being launched in the last couple of years, as the real battle is with the content providers rather than any of the other apps. In fact, it will probably be a while before people outside the US or some of the typical Apple strongholds will get much in form of regional content on the Apple TV. There was also no mention of HomeKit in the entire session, and this likely means that while the hardware is probably present in the new TV, the ecosystem has some way to go. The Apple TV also affirms the A8s new role as the venerable A5s long term replacement given that the iPod Touch and iPad Mini 4 upgrade to A8.

Last but not the least, the iPhone 6s\6s+ updates were also along expected lines and oddly enough relegated to the end of the show. Force Touch or rather 3D Touch definitely opens up a new dimension of interaction, but the real innovation will be when we have touchscreens that are able to simulate the feel of different surfaces. The camera improvements were also pretty much mandatory given the older 8 MP sensors inability to shoot 4K videos. The unusual part of the new devices was the increase in weight of both models by almost 10% and an almost imperceptible increase in size. Then there were a bunch of touted features that have been seen before in other phones on the Android and Windows side of the fence like moving photos (HTC Zoe) and using the display as a flash (LG).

Overall, the product launches rounded off a very busy year for Apple, but there was a sense of deja vu with many of the showcased features which other companies have previously demonstrated to about 80% of their potential. It is however, the last 20% of spit, polish and sweat that typically separates the Apple experiences from the rest.

Pebble Time: In hand and First impressions

I was one of the late backers of the Pebble Time smartwatch, and finally received it today. I backed it after the Apple watch event in early March and deciding that the first gen Apple watch was a bit too expensive for me. I also got lucky with the Pebble Kickstarter campaign and managed to switch my initial pledge of $169 to the early bird $159 when people had started backing out towards the end of the campaign.

The shipment was delayed by nearly a month, but that’s not too bad by Kickstarter standards, and as I had opted for the expedited option with prepaid duties and taxes, I received my package within a week of dispatch. I did have to stay in regular touch with the DHL support, first for the KYC documents and then for the description letter to the customs team. There was also the currency goofup on the invoice with labels in EUR though the payments had been in USD. This was something many of the Indian backers who received their packages before me had observed on the campaign portal. Fortunately for me, the DHL team seems to have managed to sort out these issues with the customs to ensure that I received the package just a day later than their estimate.

Anyway, coming to the Pebble Time, it is definitely quite lightweight and pretty comfortable to wear. The silicone strap seems quite comfortable as well and the material feels just like those silicone cupcake moulds and other similar kitchen accessories that one sees in stores. As for the display, it is fairly colourful, but a bit dim even with the backlight as many reviewers and users have observed. It is especially problematic in the current monsoon season with cloudy skies most of the time. That said, I’m sure app and watchface developers will start optimizing their products for the display in the coming months to improve readability. The double bezel is also on the thicker side by modern gadget standards, but haven’t found it to be very distracting so far. As for the coating on the steel frame, I suspect Pebble might be facing the same durability challenges as Apple did with the iPhone 5 black version, given the scratch reports from early users.

I opted to pair the Pebble Time with my iPhone 5s instead of the Mi 4, and loaded a bunch of apps and watchfaces on it including the PebbUp watchfaces that I’d backed on Kickstarter. The notifications have been trickling in since the pairing as well and the vibration is fairly gentle. I’d already done some notification management on my iPhone, so haven’t been getting flooded thus far, and even cricket scores are showing up thanks to the ESPNCricinfo app alerts.

I also did a full charge of the Pebble while installing the apps though it was well over 60% when I got it. It charged up pretty quick even from a laptop USB port. Also, no faulty cable.

Some of the other things I’d like to test in the coming weeks are Android support and voice replies, fitness tracking (already installed some apps), usage at work (currently working from home with a broken arm) and of course the battery life. In the meantime, checkout the unboxing and initial setup photos below.

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From Piku to Dil Dhadakne Do

I ended up watching quite a few movies over the last 2 weeks starting from Piku and then doing Bombay Velvet and Tanu weds Manu returns in one day, and ending with the first day last show of Dil Dhadakne Do yesterday. 4 in 1 post coming up:

Piku

Shhojit Sircar’s latest creation puts Bongs front and centre in the character list with superb performances. It made me feel both conservative due to Piku & her father’s philosophies that did not echo with me, and nostalgic with the ancient family mansion that I could really relate to. Watching it in Kolkata also helped set the atmosphere. Moving on to the tech:

  • The first meeting room scene with Lenovo laptops raised some hopes of making the movie less fruity, but that turned out to be the only non-Apple spot
  • Wonder why Piku had an ancient iMac at work when she was using a MacBook most of the time…
  • iPhones galore in the movie, and I’m pretty certain that Deepika Padukone is an iPhone user given the way she used the volume keys to click a shot on the move
  • Also found it interesting that they did away with the front seat head rests in the Innova in the Delhi-Kolkata stretch, only to have them come back on the return trip

Bombay Velvet

Enjoyed the movie more than I expected and it was in some ways a documentary for how Bombay evolved into its current state. Pretty good job by the creators with the retro setting except for the cage fight portions which felt out of place. Also marked Karan Johar’s proper screen debut after his small part in DDLJ.

The “Smoking kills” displayed throughout the movie should’ve probably been replaced with “Smokers kill” given the trigger happy hero. I also suspect a spike in the search for performances of a certain Rosie in Goa after the release of the movie.

Tanu weds Manu returns

Watched this right after Bombay Velvet on the same day, and I ended up enjoying it even more than Piku. If the first part was a surprise hit, then the second was an even bigger surprise. Not much to say here other than appreciate the performances all around.

Dil Dhadakne Do

Watched the 10:30 pm show and enjoyed it as much as the other movies even though it was nearly 2:45 hours long. Pretty enjoyable movie with the typical Zoya-Farhan Akhtar touch of silent moments that speak tons. Not quite in the league to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara in my books, but the key conflicts are quite relatable though they happen to the rich and famous. However, this movie pretty much showcases how far we’ve come since the days movies focused on Indian poverty, and anyone watching this movie would think that Indians are globe trotting Apple fanboys. And that brings me to the tech:

  • Another ancient, but large screen iMac being used by Kabir at home. Guess the rich and famous don’t always live on the edge of tech.
  • Ayesha makes a good impression as a budding entrepreneur with her simple encased smartphone, but right after that we are treated to a travel site office that’s almost entirely based on iMacs. A design firm with iMacs I could’ve digested, but this was a bit too much. Then again, I’ve not visited any travel site office.
  • Then of course there’s a sort of laptop class barrier on the cruise ship with the really rich separated from the not so rich in the form of MacBooks and PCs.
  • Sunny (Farhan Akhtar) choosing to use a mirrorless over a DSLR and the absence of any DSLR in the movie shows how things have changed in just 2-3 years.

PK go home or ET meets Satyameva Jayate

ET

One of the main objectives behind watching PK for me was to make this post. So here goes:

  • If you thought the PK poster was controversial, just imagine what would’ve happened had he landed in an urban area and encountered an iPod Shuffle carrying thief.
  • I half expected to have an ET like cycle sequence given the carrier equipped cycle that Jaggu was riding in her intro sequence.
  • The initial Jaggu courtship track has got to be one of the shortest on record in Bollywood.
  • A 6 hour handholding session to just learn a language or two, and nothing else! The Hollywood aliens are much much faster at this kind of data transfer.
  • There are way too many dancing cars in Rajasthan & Delhi, given PK’s constantly changing wardrobe.
  • I seriously wonder what people in embassies do.
  • Then again, solving romantic issues with a call to an embassy is probably better than the use of vacuum cleaners to deliver babies.
  • If you do want to watch aliens listening to earth music, check out Guardians of the Galaxy.
  • If there’s a sequel, will it be called Prrish?
  • Parting thought – imagine PK & friends feeling depressed and doing the cheering up dance sequence on his home planet.

Thinking about the next iPhone

The rumour mill is really heating up, and there have been quite a few leaks showing a larger iPhone. Healthkit is also getting more features in the new betas, including built in support for step counting.

What will be more interesting this time will be what Apple does with the internals, particularly the SoC and camera. On the SoC front, we’ve been stuck on the 28nm node for almost a couple of years, and they’ve already played the 64-bit card to improve performance last year. Maybe they’ll astound everyone by announcing that the new SoC (A8?) is fabricated on Intel’s facilities on their next-gen 14nm process. In fact, even using Intel’s mature 22nm process would be pretty revolutionary. There have been regular rumours of such partnerships over the last few years, so maybe this is the year of the switch?

On the camera front, the decreasing thickness of the iPhones will surely limit the sensor size & optics. The 5s was probably the limit for the 8MP sensor size. This is going to be a really interesting area as Apple has thus far never traded off device aesthetics for camera specs.