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  • Camruinn Morgan-Rumsey

Right now the internet is packed full of reminders to get out and vote. Snapchat wants to know if I'm registered every time I open it, Instagram is constantly asking me if I know where I can vote on Nov. 3, and it takes those on my Twitter feed mere seconds to remind me just how important it is to make my voice heard this year. I think the same could be said about almost anyone's internet experience right now.


I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn that I lean left. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and I likely will again should he chose to make a third attempt at the presidency. However, I also happily compromised and voted for Joe Biden in the general.


I hope it will also surprise no one to learn that I don't really have a problem with conservatives, to a degree. I disagree with plenty of people on hot button issues like healthcare, but that's not the end of the world. I do not compromise, however, when it comes to the basics of American democracy. A difference in policy opinion does not an enemy make, but a difference in American values does.


So why should everyone, left, right, and center, vote this year?


Because those basic American values are under attack.


Voting is a basic building block for American democracy. Every policy decision made in Washington is a direct result of the American people making their voices heard and electing representatives. Without accurate voting, the system falls apart. The right to vote and protecting that right is inherently American.


The Republican Party has, under the Trump Administration, become the party of voter suppression. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, this should bother you.


I make that statement objectively. Reliable, nonpartisan sources and basic facts agree; voter suppression runs rampant among the Republican Party right now, and it has for a while.


The New York Times and NPR recently ran stories covering how the California Republican Party put falsely labeled ballot boxes into place all over the state, an act the California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, said was illegal.


This comes just two years after what NPR calls the "largest case of election fraud in U.S. history," when in 2018 a GOP operative illegally collected and possibly tampered with ballots in North Carolina's House race.


There's also the case of President Trump's claims about the problems with mail-in voting-- claims that Reuters and NPR have verified are not true.


No matter how you look at it, the evidence points to blatant voter suppression at the hands of the Trump administration and the GOP. So how do we fix this? Perhaps ironically, we vote and we remove the administration.


I sympathize with conservatives who might feel like they don't have a dog in the race right now. I've made compromises in who gets my support this year. Biden doesn't support policies like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, and those are things I staunchly advocate for, but I voted for him anyway because the alternative choice is an anti-American one.


So if you're a liberal who feels unheard this election, or maybe a conservative who thinks their only choice is the incumbent, I implore you to consider whether or not it might be worth compromising on some policies in order to help re-strengthen the foundation of American democracy.


Get out and vote.

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  • Camruinn Morgan-Rumsey

Well, yesterday was Apple's big October 13th event. Apple's fall event is one of the biggest Apple events of the year, often more exciting than WWDC early in the summer, owing to the announcement of new iPhones.

This year was a little different, of course, and we got a virtual Apple Event rather than the normal in-person one, but that didn't stop Apple from announcing their new phones just in time for the holidays.


Apple started the event by dropping a new HomePod on us: the HomePod Mini. Basically, it's a smaller HomePod that costs $99.99. I've never personally been a huge fan of the HomePod, mostly because of Siri and pricing.

See, in my experience Siri works really well when it's working locally, but not great when working on things like questions, news, or weather. For example, I never manually set an alarm on my phone. I always just ask Siri to "wake me up at [time]." I do the same for reminders and alarms too. Siri does not do well, however, when you ask it almost any kind of question. I almost never get a "smart" answer from Siri. If it isn't something incredibly simple, Siri tends to just tell me "here's what I found" and present me with a list of Google results.


That's why the HomePod never really excited me; I like my smart speaker to be, well, smart. I use Alexa speakers in my apartment to answer questions, tell me the news, give me a forecast, and a lot more. Alexa is really good at answering questions in a way that Siri just isn't. Granted, Apple does claim that Siri is now knows "20 times" as many facts, but that alone doesn't sell me on the HomePod yet.


There's also the subject of price. The latest Fourth Generation Echo Dot (Amazon's own small smart speaker) retails for $59.99, almost half the price of the HomePod Mini. I have a Third Generation Dot (now $40-$50) and it works great for all my needs, so I can't believe the Fourth Generation is any different.


Now, Apple's claim to fame regarding the HomePod has always been its sound quality. I really like the sound on the original HomePod; it is, to my ears, objectively better than the sound of any Echo (or Google Home) product. That being said, the better sound of the HomePod wasn't enough to justify a higher price tag and worse assistant then, and it isn't enough now with the Mini.


Apple also revealed some new phones yesterday, and there's a lot to unpack. They announced four phones with whole new designs, colors, features, and a new iteration of MagSafe.


There are now four flagship iPhones: the iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max. Prices range from $699.99 all the way up to $1099.99, and with that features change. Obviously all the new phones come with the new A14 chip, and there are camera upgrades all around, but like always the more expansive models come with more features.

The redesign is definitely a good thing. The iPhone 12 line shares the straight, rectangular look of the iPad Pro (and now iPad Air, if it's ever released) line, which I really like. Looks aren't everything, though. I also find that angular phones like the iPhone 4 and 5 are easier to hold. They feel less slippery to me than the current curved phones, especially those with glass backs. Hopefully this redesign means less dropped phones.


The 12 Mini is interesting; I'm a small phone person, and the $699.99 price tag isn't terribly insulting. I look forward to playing with one at some point in the next few months. The only fall back I see with the Mini is battery. Small phone means small battery, and that means worse battery life. Granted, no one has gotten hands on it to actually test that yet, so we might be surprised. I doubt it though.


The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro saw some camera upgrades as well. They now both feature new 12 Megapixel camera arrays, both getting a standard and wide angle lens. The camera set up now also has a wider aperture (f1.6 instead of f1.8), which should help with low light photography. The Pro and Pro Max also sport zoom lenses, but the Pro Max zooms 2.5 times the standard lens while the Pro only zooms 2 times.


Interestingly, Apple also claims the new cameras will be getting "Apple Pro Raw" and Dolby Vision HDR (essentially even better low light processing software), but hasn't said when those will be available.


The big new feature of the iPhone 12 line, however, is the return of MagSafe. If you're a nerd like me then you know the woes of AirPower, and if not, I'll explain really quick. A few years back, Apple announced that they were working on a new type of wireless charging mat. Rumor was AirPower wouldn't require the perfect-placement that you see on other wireless chargers for sale today; it'd just be one big mat you could plop your phone on anywhere. After a few years of delays, Apple killed the project.


MagSafe seems to be Apple's fix for AirPower. Basically, MagSafe is a new wireless charger from Apple that the iPhone 12 automatically lines up on using magnets. This fixes the "perfect placement" problem of normal wireless chargers that AirPower was supposed to fix, but in a different way. It looks pretty cool, but not groundbreaking. The new accessory line up might be a different story, though.


Along with a new wireless charger, Apple is also releasing accessories that magnetically adhere to the back of the iPhone 12. One, for example, is a card holder not unlike the ones we see today that stick to the back of phones like a sticker. I'm not overly excited about what accessories Apple showed on stage yesterday, but I bet we're going to see some really cool stuff come from third party accessory companies.


So what do I think? Honestly, the iPhone 12 feels a lot more like the iPhone 11S. Under the hood, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro aren't all that different from the 11 and 11 Pro. Sure, it'll come with the new chip, but the A13 is still plenty fast. Even my iPhone XR's A12 chip is having no issues with strenuous games and apps on iOS 14. The redesign is also great, and MagSafe looks like it has potential, but nothing I saw yesterday made me think "I need to get my wallet out right now," like sometimes happens with these events.


Apple always makes a good phone, but I think I'm going to sit this year out.


Oh, and don't buy a HomePod.

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  • Camruinn Morgan-Rumsey

Amazon's Echo line has a solution to almost every smart-speaker need. Just need something small? Go with the Echo Dot. Need to watch video or look at recipes hands-free? Echo Show works great for that. What if you need Alexa with you everywhere you go though? Well, Amazon has you covered there too.


The Echo Loop is an Alexa-enabled smart ring. You wear it on your finger and Alexa is at your beck and call with just the tap of a button. The Echo Loop can do pretty much everything any other Alexa product can, from answering simple questions to running complicated home automation tasks.


I used the Echo Loop for just over a week. After using it at home, in the car, and even taking it to work, I've decided that it's one of the most interesting and fun wearables I've used by far.



THE GOOD


Amazon had their work cut out for them when they decided to make a ring fit every finger in the world, but the solution they landed on works well. Before I ordered my Echo Loop, I was shipped (for free) a set of four plastic mocks in four different sizes. I was able to try out these fake Echo Loops and pick the one that fit best, and then order that size. I liked this idea, because while I had to wait a few extra days while everything shipped, I'm sure I would've had to wait even longer had I just had to pick (and return) a wrongly sized Echo Loop. What I got in the end was a well-built, perfectly sized ring.


The build quality of the Echo Loop impressed me. Amazon's Echo Loop listing says the ring is made of titanium. It is titanium on the outside, but the inside of the ring is a shiny plastic. This didn't bother me, in fact I liked how light the product was because of it. The Echo Loop also didn't poke out from my hand too much; the ring is pretty thin for what it's packing, and I didn't have any issues with knocking it into things throughout the day like I thought I might.


A small ring also means a small battery, but I didn't have any issues with battery life at all. I consistently ended my days with 30-40 percent battery left, and I was using it for quite a bit.


Having a voice assistant on hand (literally) was definitely convenient. I used the Echo Loop to answer questions, get directions, and even turn on my smart-lights on my way up to my apartment, so I never came home in the dark. The Echo Loop isn't just an Alexa device though, it can also make calls and trigger your phone's native assistant.


Calling on the Echo Loop worked surprisingly well. I found the microphone quality to be about even with my phone's speakerphone or my car's Bluetooth: not amazing, but very usable. I was also able to understand others on the ring just as well.


The Echo Loop's ability to trigger Siri by holding down the Alexa button was a game changer, though. I use Siri for alarms, reminders, and shopping lists, and having access to the Apple ecosystem through the Echo Loop was great. The game changer, though, was Shortcuts. I have a plethora of Siri Shortcuts that I use to do things like find nearby restaurants, play podcasts on Overcast, and even see NASA's image of the day. The Echo Loop's ability to trigger Siri is, ironically, one of the most powerful tools it has.


It wasn't all good, though.


THE BAD


While the quality of the ring itself was great, the same cannot be said for the charger that comes along with it. The Echo Loop's charger is like a small finger you put the ring around, and it connects to charge via three pins in the back. I often found that the ring had trouble staying situated correctly on the charger; a small bump could stop a charge easily. More than once I went to put the ring on, only to find that it hadn't ever been charging. The cable that came with the charger was also micro USB rather than USB-C, which is borderline embarrassing in 2020, especially at the $179.99 price point.


The Echo Loop is also quiet. Like, really quiet. So quiet that Amazon sent out an automatic email to me when my ring arrived with instructions on how to maximize the volume. I had trouble even at max volume understanding Alexa in any sort of public space like the grocery store. However, the most frustrating thing about the Echo Loop was its reliability.


Anytime the Echo Loop goes long without being activated it seems to disconnect from my phone. I can only assume this is an effort to conserve battery. Unfortunately, this meant that whenever I went to ask Alexa something after an hour or so of inactivity, the ring would simply reply "Connecting. Please try again." Sometimes it would reconnect in seconds, and sometimes in minutes. Either way, it soiled the experience. When this happened I usually ended up just googling whatever I needed to know.


The good news about most of these problems is that they're software issues, easily fixed in an update. I certainly hope it comes too, because reliability is one of the most important aspects of a voice assistant.


THE VERDICT


At the end of the day, the Echo Loop was fine. It made me feel like James Bond mixed with Green Lantern, and I managed to do some pretty cool stuff with it. I'm not sure I'd recommend you run out and pick one up though. The Echo Loop was great to play with, but not what I'd consider an essential tool, and at $179.99, it's an expensive toy. An extra $100 could get you the new Apple Watch SE, which is a way more powerful wearable.


All in all, the Echo Loop is lots of fun, but it's reliability issues stop it from being quite useful enough to justify its almost 200 dollar price tag.

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