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Apple HomePod

We got an Apple HomePod. I had fought a battle against any technology that required me to speak to it since I first heard about Bill Gates’s smart home in the late nineties, but the realization had set in that a legacy of pride and arrogance was getting in the way of something good. Ridiculous of a moniker as smart speaker may be, it is a conceptually sound concept, I feel like I can finally admit that now.

For Team Droulsen, the HomePod was a fairly simple choice. It has a soft design that tranquilly blends into the living room, and it puts the emphasis on being more speaker than smart. The sound quality is by some accounts comparable to traditional home audio setups that run around a grand, which should put HomePod’s otherwise steep $299 (plus a recommended $39 AppleCare+ plan) into some perspective. I may not be an audiophile, but even those of us with a mortal’s ear can appreciate HomePod’s output quality.

As is to be expected from Apple, the further invested you are in its ecosystem, the more of an advantage HomePod will give you. Apple’s eponymous music service is the only one that can be voice controlled through the speaker, although you can stream Spotify and similar services to it from your phone. Likewise, Apple TV users can wirelessly connect the set-top box to multiple HomePods. Even with only one speaker, the immersion and depth make it feel like you’re sitting in a small theater; with three — and I did have the pleasure of watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier this way — it’s an all-out trip.

HomePod in living room #1HomePod in living room #2HomePod in living room #3
HomePod: The perfect accoutrement for your shelfie!

Siri on HomePod is, as it is on other devices, a mixed bag. We have reached a general parity amongst smart assistants — check out Loup Ventures for more — but it could be argued that Apple isn’t focusing on the features the general public is interested in for speakers. For example, unlike Amazon’s Alexa, there is no way yet of setting up routines with Siri. That is, you cannot create a custom command like good morning to list weather, news, and traffic conditions. Siri can do all three, but, at least for now, you have to ask for each item separately.

There are also no apps — skills in the parlance of Alexa — so whatever Apple decides to give you through Siri is all you get.

The forthcoming iOS 13’s Shortcuts feature should fix the lack of routines this Autumn, though apps have not yet been announced. Apple does seem to be taking an incremental approach to HomePod’s software, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something in a year or so.

In fairness, Siri does do certain things better than other assistants, particularly related to music. Ask which song topped the chart on June 15th, 1991, and it will correctly identify Paula Abdul’s tearjerker, Rush Rush. Less mercifully, Siri can also play the song straight off the bat. Alexa settles with listing a few songs that charted on the date you feed it.

Should you not approve of a song, artist, or music style, you can let Siri know, and you will hear them less frequently. It seems to work well: We’ve yet to be further exposed to Michael Bublé after asking Siri to never, ever play his music again.

Where to put the thing

HomePod is a sturdy piece of engineering, and while the eight encapsulated speakers give the sound a hefty oomph, they do not make moving the unit between rooms particularly practical.

Living Room Dining Room Bedroom Kitchen Bathroom Outside
Yes Yes Yes No No No

As mentioned, the speaker is perfect for any living area — seemingly its primary design — and Apple has several curated sleep sound playlists, which are great for the bedroom. As for the kitchen, I’m not sure it’s an optimal spot for a HomePod unless you spend a lot of time there and in need of top-quality sound. Something with a screen, like Amazon’s Echo Show 5 would make more sense. HomePod isn’t able to read you recipes, while the Show will actually display them for you.

Chancing to get the speaker wet is a bit of a gamble, and HomePod is not particularly well suited for the bathroom or the porch. For the latter, something portable (and cheap) would make more sense, like Ultimate Ears’s Roll 2. It is waterproof, though it also faces instantly disqualification thanks to some suspect Zune-like marketing.

Roll 2 adZune ad

Zune, we hardly knew ye.

Summing it all up

Deciding which smart speaker is best for your needs comes with a lot of caveats. From the speakers I’ve been exposed to, HomePod is a great choice if your priorities are sound and aesthetics. Objectively, within those bounds, it is as good as it gets within its price range, provided you’re invested in Apple’s ecosystem. Start adding other admonitions — price, smart assistant, size, etc. — and your mileage may vary.

Subjectively, HomePod is our pick for living room audio, but we are willing to be convinced otherwise.

Purchase HomePod from Apple’s website for $299. Keep in mind it can often be found for $50, and even $100, less from Best Buy and Target.

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Current media consumption #1

It’s officially summer, and what better way to celebrate than staying inside and watch a bucketload of T.V.?

Here is what we’ve been enjoying over the last month or so:

Movies

Annihilation — Worth the hype, though the overlap on the Venn diagram between it and Troll 2 — nature possessing people — is worryingly large. Annihilation has a slightly better cast, though. Streams on Prime Video.

District 9 — Late to the party here, and the film was definitely more of a comedy than what I had expected. That’s fine, though I’m not entirely sure how well District 9 has aged, based on the hoopla around its release. Streams on Prime Video.

Halloween (2018) — Yet another Halloween timeline — making this number five — and one of A-movie caliber (making this number two). Great cast and cinematography back up a fun script, and I’ll rank it as my third favorite in the franchise, right after the original and number four. (And I stand firmly behind the latter!) Streams on Prime Video.

#screamersUsLong Lost

The Indiana Jones tetralogy — Because why not watch all four of ‘em? Standing: Raiders is still the best, and Crusade is more entertaining than it is given credit for. Temple was better than I remembered; Crystal Skull a whole lot worse. Streams on Netflix.

Long Lost — A happy accidental find: Man travels to his long lost brother’s remote mansion, and gets caught in a strange game of suspense with him and his girlfriend. It’s cringe-worthy and awkward at times — purposefully so — and the cast is excellent. It’s one of those movies most can get behind, even though few have heard of it. Streams on Prime Video.

MacGruber — It has developed quite the cult following over the last decade or so, and I can see why. It’s not a great movie, but it sure is funny. Val Kilmer makes a good over-the-top villain, too. Streams on Prime Video.

The Nun — Look, I tried, but I just can’t get into the whole Conjureverse or whatever they call it. It’s neither scary nor interesting nor enjoyable. Streams on HBO.

#screamers — I’m generally ambivalent to found footage films, but this one is, despite what IMDb claims, really quite excellent. It isn’t as much of a horror movie as a thriller that follows the team behind a YouTube-like site, trying to find the authors of their most popular scary videos. The script and acting are solid, and it’s a genuinely eerie, yet sometimes profound, watch. Streams on Prime Video and we reward it with a Droulsen Guide Underrated Gem accolade!

Truth or Dare — Not the Blumhouse produced one — I learned that soon enough — but one about a demon issuing truths and dares to a group of teens. They’re not particularly worthwhile, the truths, dares, teens, or movie. Streams on Prime Video.

Us — Loved this one, and found it right up there with Get Out. Creepy throughout, and the twist toward the end makes it worth a second viewing. Jordan Peele, you’re O.K. Streams anywhere you’re willing to pay for it from.

Shows

Arrested Development — Re-watching the show for the nth time, including the Fateful Consequences remix of season four for the first time. Still thinking I like the original format of that season better, but it’s interesting to watch it more in line with the previous three (and the fifth) seasons. It’s still a great, great show. Streams on Netflix.

LuciferOutlanderGood Omens

Good Omens — I could watch pretty much anything with David Tenant in it — what a pro! — and with the inclusion of Michael Sheen, Michael McKean and Jon Hamm (and a script by Neil Gaiman) this quirky end-of-the-world comedy is a must watch. Streams on Prime Video.

Lucifer — The new Netflix season works just as well as the previous network seasons. Streams on Netflix.

Outlander — Historical-ish, time traveler, melodrama. It’s surprisingly entertaining and even more surprisingly disturbing. Streams on Netflix.

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The quick guide: 12 hours or more in Oslo

Hitting up Oslo? Here’s our three-part guide to Norway’s capital: Quick layover, Local oddities and things to try, and, Eat and drink.

Quick layover

From Gardermoen Oslo airport: The airport train is the fastest and most convenient mean of transport. Note how everyone is leaving their luggage on the racks without being worried about theft. Tickets run around $22 at the time of writing.

Fika: A.k.a. coffee and a snack. Oslo is is considered a major hub for high quality coffee, and a great spot for a fika is Fuglen (Universitetsgata 2), with its authentic 1950s-1970s interiors. Grab one of the light-roasted coffees – they do an excellent AeroPress – and eat a kanelbolle, a not-too-sweet type of cinnamon roll. Notice the outdoor seating with sheepskin blankets. Very common in the cold Norwegian climate, where they still cherish the outdoors.

Coffee and bunOslo Royal Palace

Tronsmo: There are plenty of good bookstores in Oslo, and our favorite is Tronsmo (Kristian Augusts gate 19), just a few blocks from Fuglen. Here you’ll find unique titles in both English and Norsk (Norwegian), as well as a basement dedicated to comic books.

The National Gallery: Munch, Kittelsen, Krogh… They’re all here, as is the famous Scream. Just a skip and a hop from Tronsmo, Nasjonalgalleriet (Universitetsgata 13) has free entry on Sundays. (Make sure you are prepped on your art theft history.)

The Royal Palace: You can walk all the way up to the palace (Slottsplassen 1), no fence in sight. You also have the chance to see the changing of the guard at 13:30 (1:30 p.m.).

Frognerparken: Take the tram through the embassy district up to Frognerparken (Kirkeveien), home of the famous Vigeland statue park. Get a picture with the screaming boy, Sinnataggen, and make sure to walk through the whole the park. Monolitten (The Monolith) toward the end is worth seeing up close.

Aker Brygge: Take the metro back downtown to the National Theater stop, and walk to the harbor, home of Aker Brygge, with shops, restaurants, and galleries. Check out the Astrup Fernley Museum (Strandpromenaden 2) if you like modern art. Grab a shrimp sandwich at Kaffebrenneriet (Fjordalléen 7), and order an eplemos, a type of apple juice. Refreshing and not too sweet. Take note of the large brown building consisting of three cubes nearby: The city hall is colloquially dubbed the brown cheese.

Grünerløkka: Grab a tram, metro, or simply take a brisk urban hike to Oslo’s hippest neighborhood, Grünerløkka. Here you can visit the shop of one of coffee’s biggest superstars, Tim Wendelboe (Grüners gate 1). Their pour-overs are excellent. Notice all the kids in strollers taking naps in sleeping bags outside of stores and cafés, while their guardians are inside shopping. Norwegians love fresh air and aren’t worried about kidnappings.

Tacos: Norway is all about Mexican food, though up until recently, that equated to grocery store taco kits, known as fredags tacoen (The Friday taco, named after the day it usually is devoured). Recently, more traditional Mexican restaurants have started popping up, and Tijuana (Thorvald Meyers gate 61) is a local ’løkka favorite. Be warned: prices run higher than what one would expect for a street taco in the U.S.

The Opera House: Cross down to Oslo Sentralstasjon metro stop (the central station), and check out Operahuset (Kirsten Flagstadsplass 1). Designed by internationally renowned design firm, Snøhetta, The Norwegian National Opera House has won many architectural accolades.

Local oddities and things to try

Doing the tourist things is all well and good, but there is more to Oslo than what you find in your average brochure.

Oslo opera houseHolmekollen

Holmenkollbanen: You could jump on a tour bus to get to the world-famous Holmenkollen ski-jump, but taking Metro Line 1 gives you an experience even before you arrive. Snaking through residential neighborhoods with swanky hillside houses, it allows you to get a great view of the city. While at Holmenkollen, give the ski-jump zip-line a try, and visit 23-foot tall troll across the road.

Oslomarka: Want to go for a hike or a cross-country ski trip in the winter? Holmenkollen is located in a large, woodsy area, and marked trails make it easy to find your way around. Norwegians routinely take their Søndagstur (Sunday hike) there.

Fretex (Olaf Ryes Plass 3): There are plenty of Fretex (i.e., Salvation Army) stores around Oslo, and if you’re looking for Norwegian knitwear, sweaters, mittens, or socks, this is where you’ll want to go. Items run a fraction of the price of what you’ll find in tourist stores.

Ekebergparken (Kongsveien 21): Located on the hilltop where Munch painted Scream, is a somewhat strange, modern-art, sculpture park. You can wander and enjoy the nature around it, and grab a drink at Ekebergrestauranten with its views over Oslo. (The park is free; the restaurant decidedly not.)

Søndagsmarkedet på Blå (Brenneriveien 9 C): A quirky market in and around Blå, a long-standing nightclub, with all kinds of artisan goods. It’s open between noon and 17:00 (5:00 p.m.) on Sundays.

Eat and drink

You could try a three-Michelin star rated restaurant, but we these options won’t hit your pocketbook quite as hard.

Christiania (Nedre Vollgate 19): Classic Norwegian dishes with a continental twist, and a large selection of cocktails, wine, and beer. Christiania — named after Oslo’s name during the Danish rule (1523–1533; 1537–1814) — is famous for its cozy atmosphere, and you can experience traditional hygge here.

Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri (Stortingsgata 20): The Amundsen brew-house is a more casual spot, and features tasty sandwiches and other bar staples. Their fries with aioli are excellent. Among the large beer selection, you can find brews from Amundsen itself.

Pizza Ricetta (Toftesgate 15a): You can learn a lot about a country through their pizza. Ricetta does great take-out, and their eponymous pie with meatballs and ham runs for less than 100 NOK ($13 at the time of writing) – an almost unheard of deal in this expensive city.

Pizza RicettaChristiania

Mocca (Niels Juels gate 70) and Java (Ullevaalsveien 47): Wendelboe’s and Fuglen might be better known, but the sibling coffee houses Mocca and Java deliver even better coffee. The latter is a great place for people watching, too.

Pascal (Ullevaalsveien 47 A): Literally next door to Java lies one of three Pascal locations. A French-inspired bistro, Pascal is well-known for its cakes, though we are partial to the macarons.

Mathallen (Maridalsveien 17): The Oslo food-hall features everything from tapas to traditional Norwegian food. It’s a good place to browse, and see what types of food the town has to offer. Many of the booths also have restaurants around town.

Pølse med lompe: Try an hot-dog in lefse for a good introduction to Norwegian kiosk (akin to mini-marts) culture. Add ketchup, mustard, and even shrimp-salad for a time-honored Norwegian experience. Keep an eye out for Narvesen, which is Norway’s largest chain of kiosks.

7-Eleven: Yes, the American chain, but you’d never think so when you step inside. Here you get bakery grade fresh bread and baked goods, alongside your typical chips and sodas. Try a rosinbolle (raisin bun) for a classic Norwegian treat; Solo is an orange soda, as traditional in Norway as Coke is in the U.S.

Beer and wine: Norway’s booze system is intricate. If you’re looking for liquor, wine, or beer higher than 4.7% A.B.V. in stores, you’ll have to go to Vinmonopolet (Wine Monopoly), the state-run liquor stores. Beer and cider, 4.7% or less, can be found in stores until 20:00 (8:00 p.m.) on weekdays, and 18:00 (6:00 p.m.) on Saturday. On Sundays, you can only get alcoholic beverages from restaurants or bars.

Want more?

Many of the locations here can be seen in the Norwegian movie, Elling. It’s a true Droulsen Guide Recommended Movie™.

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