Showing all posts tagged siri:

Listen To The Heart

I am now the proud owner of my third1 Alfa Romeo! Well, technically I’ve only made the down payment: the car itself will arrive in a couple of months, so a good late Christmas / early birthday present for me.

Much as I would have loved a Giulia Quadrifoglio, Italy’s horsepower tax (spit) tips that over from "maybe if I scrimp & save" to "sorry, not going to happen". What I really would have liked would have been a Giulia Sportwagon, but Alfa Romeo in their wisdom don’t make one of those. I wonder if this is the American influence speaking, as they have made wagon versions of all their previous cars, going back to the 33 Giardinetta?

Regardless, this lack of a wagon option means that I had a difficult decision between heart (Giulia Veloce – most of the good bits of the Quadrifoglio, but with a thriftier two-litre twin-turbo four-pot, sending 280 bhp to all four wheels) and head (Stelvio Bi-Tech – basically a Giulia on stilts and with a bigger boot).

I had a good long test drive of a Giulia Super, which the dealer had ready to go. This is basically the spec I wanted for a Veloce, but in a lower state of engine tune – 200 bhp instead of 280. As with most modern cars, the Giulia features keyless-go, which I don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. Alfa Romeo however have taken this excuse to put the start/stop button on the steering wheel, Ferrari-style, which is admittedly a gimmick, but a good one.

Straight away the impressions were good, with light and sensitive steering, reacting instantly to inputs and giving good feedback through the wheel. The Alfa is not only far lighter than the Beast, it’s also the lightest of its peers, usefully edging the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the Audi A4. You can feel this lightness as soon as you turn the wheel, with a level of agility and responsiveness the others struggle to match. The transmission sends drive to all four wheels, but in normal use it’s heavily rear-biased, which also helps.

Even in lukewarm 200 bhp spec, this motor pulls well. Again, the lack of weight helps here, but it’s a willing engine, and it sounds good too. The eight-speed ZF gearbox is technically the same unit as in the Volvo V70 I also drove, but the feeling could not be more different. Left to do its own thing, it shuffles gears quite competently, and indeed invisibly, especially in normal driving. However, should you be in the mood, there are those paddles behind the steering wheel… Slap the BMW-style gearstick left into manual mode, and you are in full control, and I do mean full. The dealer sales rep was sitting beside me, so I couldn’t get too extreme, but I tried hard to catch the system out, and I simply couldn’t.

Alfa Romeo also offers its DNA drive-mode selector, and the three modes are indeed usefully different. You start in N, for Normal, which is a good description. In this mode everything is, well, normal; the car will trickle around town quite happily without making a fuss, but will also downshift promptly if you put your foot down. D is for Dynamic mode, and everything gets just a bit sharper-edged; the engine note hardens, the transmission hangs on to gears for a bit longer, the traction control relaxes a bit (it can’t be turned fully off except on the Quadrifoglio), traction shifts entirely to the rear wheels, and so on. The test car did not have the sport suspension fitted that I specced for my own car, but that is also affected. The third option in the DNA system is A, the All-Weather mode, with the traction control primed and ready to step in at any moment. This mode can also be used for motorway cruising, as a sort of "eco" mode, where it is quiet and unobtrusive.

In addition to the shape of the gear lever, there is something else in the cabin that is eerily reminiscent of BMW, and that is the in-car entertainment system. There is a click-wheel which is pretty much identical to an iDrive controller, driving a menu system which is also very similar to the BMW setup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and indeed BMW’s iDrive is by far the best input system I have used. I can’t get on with Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, and Audi’s MMI is just a mess. Tesla-style systems that hide all the controls in a touchscreen are actively dangerous. Instead, the click-wheel systems that Alfa Romeo and BMW use allow drivers to memorise common paths through the system – two clicks left, press, three clicks right, press – for repeated tasks, without taking their eyes off the wheel.

I don’t intend to spend much time with the Giulia’s onboard systems, though, since it has a very good CarPlay implementation. Upon connecting the phone, the whole screen – a very nice 8.8" TFT, merged beautifully into the curve of the dashboard – is taken over by the CarPlay display, which can be navigated using that wonderfully tactile click-wheel, with its direct haptic feedback. Plus of course there’s Siri, available through her own button on the steering wheel, who will read you messages and take dictation in return.

Everything you touch in the Giulia’s cabin feels premium. In classic Alfa style, the instruments are very much focused on the driver, but all the control surfaces are pleasant, the ICE is competent but not intrusive, and all the other controls fall easily to the hand. The steering wheel in particular is a joy, adjusting easily to suit even my difficult requirements: I have long legs and so I sit quite far back, but even though I also have long arms, I like the steering wheel relatively close to me, low down but not so much that it obstructs the instruments. The sports seats also provide great lateral support during cornering.

When it comes to practical aspects, the boot is larger than I expected, but still compromised (as compared to a wagon) by a big cross-member that sits below the rear screen. Rear leg room is also perfectly adequate, even behind me, but not perhaps ample. These considerations persuaded me to also test-drive the Stelvio SUV.

This is basically the same car, just with longer suspension travel and a larger boot (and apparently slightly more rear leg room). This time I did get to drive the 280 bhp engine, but while I could feel the extra power, its impact was somewhat blunted by the extra weight. The Stelvio is still a light car for what it is, but it’s inevitably taller than the Giulia, and you do feel that when cornering. There is apparently an active suspension pack which mitigates some of the body roll, but it’s throwing technology at a physics problem which can be avoided by simply not jacking a Giulia up on stilts in the first place. I also don’t particularly like the fact that you can see the much smaller real exhaust tips hiding in plain sight inside the massive chromed fake tips. Petty, I know, but there it is.

Ultimately what made my decision was that, after the Beast, I’ve had my fill of SUVs and want to get back low to the ground. I would have happily bought a Giulia Sportwagon, but since Alfa Romeo won’t sell me one, I think I can make the saloon work. The Stelvio is a fine SUV and I would have been happy with it, but the Giulia is just better at being a car.

I did make a bit of a gamble on the colour, opting for what is apparently the rarest colour in the gamut: Grigio Lipari. In the configurator it looks almost burgundy, but in person it’s a rich grey-blue, shifting between one and the other depending on the light, with reddish flecks embedded beneath the surface. I think it will look great, especially with the diamond-cut version of the classic Alfa "telephone dial" wheels, but we shall see when it arrives.

I’m just happy to have rejoined the ranks of the Alfisti.


  1. I previously owned a 156 with the last generation of the venerable Busso V6 engine, as well as a 147 Blackline with every "sport" option in Alfa’s catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and neither ever gave me any trouble. So much for Alfas’ high-maintenance reputation! 

How Do You Say Apple In Mandarin?

I noticed this aside in a CBInsights piece on the state of AI assistants in China:

Among US big tech, only Apple’s Siri supports Mandarin on the iPhone. The company’s Homepod smart speaker only supports English, and is not available in China.

This sounds very much like my ongoing issue with the lack of Siri support on AppleTV. Siri is available on iOS in many different languages, but for whatever reason, Apple does not capitalise on that capability to deliver Siri functionality on its other devices.

The assumption is that this behaviour is driven by App Store issues:

I have never watched the Godfather films (I know, I know), and with some intercontinental travel coming up, I thought this would be a good time to load them up on my iPad and finally catch up - forty years late, but who’s counting?

Since I no longer have any truck with physical media, my first stop was iTunes. At first I thought they did not have the films, but this turned out to be because I live in Italy, and so they are listed as Il Padrino. Fair enough, except that it’s not just the title card that’s Italian; the only soundtrack available is an Italian dub. It’s not even the original, it’s a re-dub, and the reviews are all one-stars complaining about the new dub.

Of course iTunes has all three Godfather films in the US store, but Apple in their wisdom tie your iTunes account to the country your credit card is registered in. This means I can’t simply download the English-language version from the US store.

However, when it is keeping Apple out of a market the size of China, which its competitors are unable to enter because of their lack of language support, I would suggest that it is high time to figure out a way around this problem.

Here’s hoping…

Apple Abroad

I am broadly bullish about Apple’s purchase of digital magazine subscription service Texture. I do however have concerns about Apple’s ability and willingness to deliver this service internationally. This concern is based on many past examples of Apple rolling out services to the US (and maybe UK) first, and the rest of the world only slowly, piecemeal, and according to no obvious or consistent logic.

Subscription hell is a real problem, and it creates a substantial barrier for users considering new subscriptions. Even if the financial element were removed, I have had to adopt a strict one-in, one-out policy for podcasts, because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to listen to them all. (It doesn’t help when The Talk Show does one of its three-hour-long monster episodes, either.) Add a price component to that decision, and I’m even more reluctant to spend money on something I may not use enough to justify the cost. I would love to subscribe to the Financial Times and the Economist, but there is no way I could get through that much (excellent) writing, and they are pretty expensive subscriptions.

On the other hand, the idea of paying for one Netflix-style sub that includes a whole bunch of magazines, so that I can read what I want, seems pretty attractive on the surface. Even better if I can change the mix of consumption from one month (beach holiday) to the next (international business travel) without having to set up a whole bunch of new subs, with all the attendant friction.

Here’s the problem, though. Apple has form in releasing services in the US, and then only rolling them out internationally at a glacially slow pace. I realise that many commentators may not be aware of this issue, so let’s have a quick rundown, just off the top of my head.

News

Apple’s News app is still only officially available in the US, UK, and Australia. Luckily this restriction is pretty easy to fool by setting your iOS device to a region where it is supported, and there you go – the News app is now available on your home screen. Still, it seems an odd miss for what they regularly claim as a strategic service.

Siri on AppleTV

I have ranted before about the shameful lack of Siri on AppleTV, but this issue still hasn’t been resolved. Worse, the list of countries where Siri is available on AppleTV makes no sense. What concerns me, obviously, is the absence of Italy, especially when much smaller countries (the Netherlands? Norway?) are included, but there are other oddities. For instance, French is fine in France and Canada, but not in Belgium. Why? Quebec French is far more different than Belgian French. Also, Siri works just fine in way more countries and languages than are on that list, so it’s far from obvious why it’s not available on tvOS.

The worst is that it is not possible to get around this one, as the restriction is tied to the country where the user’s Apple ID is registered, and that in turn is tied inextricably to the credit card’s billing address. Short of registering a whole new credit card, if you live outside one of the blessed countries, you’re not going to be able to use the Siri remote for its intended function. Given that nobody likes that remote, and fully 20% of its button complement is dedicated to Siri, this limitation substantially detracts from the usage experience of what is already a pretty expensive device.

Apple Pay in Messages

As with Siri on tvOS, this is a weird restriction, given that Apple Pay works fine in many countries – but is not available in Messages. I could understand if this were a banking restriction, but why not enable payment in Apple Store vouchers? Given my monthly spend, I’d be happy to take the occasional bar tab in store credit, and put it towards my iCloud, Apple Music, other subscriptions, and occasional apps. But no, I’m not allowed to do that.

TV app

Returning to the TV theme, if you’re outside a fairly short list of countries, you are still using the old Video app on iOS and tvOS, not the new TV app. Given that the TV app was announced in October of 2016 and launched at the end of that year, this is a pretty long wait. It’s especially annoying if you regularly use both the iTunes Store and a local iTunes library, as those live in separate places, especially in light of the next item.

iTunes Store

Even when a service is available, that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere. One of the most glaring examples is that I still can’t buy TV shows through the Italian iTunes Store. I’m not quite sure why this is, unless it’s weird geographical licensing hangovers. Cable TV providers, Amazon, and Netflix all seem to have worked out licensing for simulcast with the US, though, so it is possible to solve this.

Movies are another problem, because even when they are available, sometimes (but not always!) the only audio track is the Italian dubbed version, which I do not want. Seriously, Apple – literally every DVD has multiple audio tracks; could you at least do the same with Movies in the iTunes Store?

And sometimes films or books simply aren’t available in the Italian store, but they are in the US store. It’s not a licensing issue, because Amazon carries them quite happily in both countries. A couple of times I have asked authors on Twitter whether they know what is going on, but they are just as mystified as I am.

It Works In My Country

There is a more complete list of iOS feature availability out there, and I would love if someone were able to explain the logic behind the different availability of seemingly similar functionality in certain countries – and the different lists of countries for seemingly identical features! Right now, Apple’s attitude seems to be a variation of the classic support response, “it works on my machine": “but it works in my country…".

And that’s why I worry about Apple’s supposed Texture-based revamp of Apple News: maybe it gets locked down so I can’t have it at all, or maybe it’s neutered so I can’t access the full selection of magazines, or some other annoyance. I just wish Apple would introduce an “International" region, where as long as you accept to do everything in English, they just give you full access and call it good, without making us jump through all these ridiculous hoops.

A Conversation about AppleTV

A frustrating conversation with AppleSupport over Twitter DM:

Me: I can't enable Siri on my AppleTV, despite language & locale being set to en-US. Is this because my iTunes Store account is tied to the Italian Store?

@AppleSupport: If your Apple ID is tied to the Italian Store, then Siri won't work for your Apple TV as it's not available in Italy at this time.

Me: Why? The whole OS is in English, and I only want Siri to speak English. Plus it works on iOS; why make tvOS different? It should key off language & locale, not where my credit card bills are sent.

@AppleSupport: If the feature isn't available to a specific country, then any Apple ID connected to the country will not be able to access the feature when it's used on the Apple TV. You can keep an eye on this article to see when Siri will be available for Italy under the 'Here's where you can use Siri' section: apple.co/1ppjfUB1

Ugh. This is classic Apple, not giving any explanation.

My assumption is that the limitation is precisely because my Apple ID ties me to the Italian iTunes Store, and to its catalogue. I have complained before about the problems this causes. The way this would affect Siri would be me saying: "Hey Siri, please play The Godfather" and Siri not being able to find it - because in the Italian iTunes Store it’s listed as Il Padrino.

The obvious solution is to let people choose which iTunes Store they want to purchase from, but I suspect this will never happen, for two reasons. One is that Apple is presumably constrained by the licenses from the content owners only to specific countries. In the same way, DVDs (remember DVDs?) were locked to specific regions, and multi-region DVD players were grey-market items.

The other reason is that mine is an edge case, shared only by a relatively small number of expats and other deracinated cosmopolitans. Edge cases that affect Apple employees and their testers get addressed quickly, as John Gruber and Serenity Caldwell discussed referring to the use case of multiple Watches connected to a single iPhone. Anything that does not affect those users? Wait and hope.

We saw the same thing around the initial roll-out of Maps, with high quality data for the Bay Area, and problems elsewhere. The first version of the Watch arguably had the same issue, with one entire physical control dedicated to a feature that was only useful to people all of whose friends were Watch users - not the best idea for a product whose appeal at launch was unclear, and most of whose buyers would be the first adopter in their circle of friends.

I suppose this is almost the definition of a first-world problem, but it’s still frustrating to me when Apple stumbles on something this easy to fix.2


  1. From that page: "Siri is currently available on Apple TV (4th generation) in these countries and languages: Australia (English), Canada (English, French), Germany (German), France (French), Mexico (Spanish), Netherlands (Dutch), Norway (Norwegian Bokmål), Japan (Japanese), Spain (Spanish), Sweden (Swedish), UK (English), US (English, Spanish)." Seriously? Dutch and Norwegian before Italian? NL population is 16.8 M, NO population is 5 M, and Italy is nearly 60 M - not counting Italian-speaking Switzerland. Maybe there’s less AppleTV penetration, but it’s not exactly a small market, and Siri has been able to speak Italian almost since launch. 

  2. My other pet peeve: the Control Center on iOS should allow users to 3D-Touch the wifi and Bluetooth controls to select networks and devices respectively. Especially for Bluetooth, the extra step of going into Settings > Bluetooth and waiting for the device to connect adds annoyance and friction when I just want to listen to a podcast or some music.