As smart speakers go, Apple’s HomePod is late to the party.
Not only did the company miss its original launch date by a couple of months, but Google and Amazon have a healthy head start in the fastest-growing consumer technology segment.
Showing up late with a product is nothing new for Apple. The company has made a habit out of not letting the competition pressure it into rushing to market with an unfinished product. The iPod, iPhone, and Apple Watch are just a few examples of Apple’s tried-and-true approach of not being first.
With the $350 HomePod, Apple positions it as a high-quality speaker first, with the added bonus of Siri. And, from that perspective, HomePod is a clear winner. However, it’s a rather narrow view — there’s so much more to smart speakers than impressive sound with a side of voice control.
Design prowess shines bright
Apple’s design prowess shines bright with HomePod, which is available in white or space gray. It’s a rather small device, standing 6.8-inches tall and 5.6 inches in circumference. It’s covered in a mesh fabric that’s designed to be transparent to music streaming out of the high-excursion woofer and seven-tweeter array, powered by Apple’s A8 processor.
Six microphones wrap around the HomePod, ensuring it can hear voice commands regardless of where you are in the room. On top of the HomePod is a touchscreen that lights up when Siri has been triggered, along with volume up and down buttons when the speaker is in use.
The touchscreen isn’t an all-out display, similar to what you would find on an iPhone, but rather a series of LED lights that mimic the same colorful array you see with Siri on other Apple devices.
Shortly after its release, users and reviewers noticed a white ring on wood furniture left by the silicone base of HomePod. Apple has admitted the base can leave marks on wooden surfaces due to the “vibration-damping silicone base” and that the rings should disappear a few days after moving the speaker.
I have placed HomePod on three different wood surfaces, turned up the volume in an attempt to increase the level of vibrations, and have yet to see any sort of rings. However, the rings are real and look bad. I can’t speak to how quickly the marks disappear, or how easy they are to wipe off of a surface, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you are going to place HomePod on a wood surface, place something underneath it.
Aesthetically, HomePod is the best-looking smart speaker currently available. Amazon’s second-generation Echo has the same appeal, but it lacks the overall polish Apple is known for with its devices.
Stunning, complex sound
From the moment HomePod was announced, to comments made on the most recent earnings call by Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple views HomePod as a premium speaker with high-fidelity sound.
Using spatial awareness, HomePod is able to sense where it’s placed in a room and adjust its sound quality if there’s a wall behind it or if it’s sitting on a shelf. This scanning tech is similar to what Google’s Home Max uses, and it occurs without the user doing anything. Each time the speaker is moved, it scans the environment and adjusts.
As I’ve said before, I’m not an audio expert. My ears simply can’t pick up on minute sound differences. But, to my untrained ear, in side-by-side comparisons with the Sonos One and a Google Home Max, the HomePod’s sound is more pleasing.
The sound of the HomePod comes across as more complex, with more depth.
That said, sound preference is subjective. For example, my wife has the exact opposite opinion of me. She prefers the sound of the Sonos One over HomePod.
Unfortunately, the ability to use two HomePods in the same room as a stereo pair isn’t currently available. Apple has only said the feature will be added later this year through a software update. The same can be said about AirPlay 2, a feature that will allow multi-room syncing.
Setup and Personalized Requests
Initial setup is incredibly simple: Plug in HomePod, then wait for it to start up, and place an iOS device alongside it. A second or two later, an alert will show up on the iPhone or iPad, asking you to set up the speaker. After agreeing to the standard terms and conditions and linking your iCloud account to HomePod, all your Wi-Fi settings are synced to the speaker. In total, it takes under five minutes to go from opening the box to streaming your favorite music on the speaker.
Even though the setup process is a breeze, there is one setting you’re prompted to approve you should give some thought: Personalized Requests. It is a HomePod feature that uses your personal iCloud account to read or send iMessages, as well as manage reminders and notes synced on your iPhone.
When the feature is turned on and your iPhone is on the same Wi-Fi network as HomePod, anyone can ask HomePod to read new messages, send messages, create a reminder, or add to a note. For someone sharing HomePod with roommates, this can be a privacy concern, or more simply lead to some embarrassing situations.
You don’t have to enable Personal Requests, but without it, you are missing out on some of HomePod’s “smart” functionality.
Interacting with HomePod is done either through another Apple product, such as a Mac or iOS device, or by voice or touch. Apple uses the same wake phrase as the Apple Watch or iPhone — “Hey Siri” — for hands-free interaction.
Saying “Hey Siri, play some music” will prompt the speaker to begin playing a personalized radio station from Apple Music.
Voice commands are also used to control HomeKit-compatible products like lights, thermostats, locks, and outlets. HomeKit is Apple’s smart home protocol and has long been controlled via an iOS device either through the Home app or by interacting with Siri.
At one point during the past week, I was listening to music with the volume set to max. I then whispered — quite literally — “Hey Siri,” just to see if HomePod would pick up on it, and it worked.
With HomeKit, users can create scenes, such as “Hey Siri, Goodnight” to lock a door and turn off all lights without having to give a command for each device.
Because my primary location for the HomePod is in my home office, giving commands to control lights or trigger my goodnight scene isn’t something I can do regularly, but in testing, it has worked without issue. Actually, turning off a floor lamp was often done before Siri had a chance to tell it was done — a task on the iPhone that is usually a lot slower.
Using a series of taps on top of HomePod, you can control music playback: A single-tap plays or pauses music, and double-tap skips ahead, while a triple-tap goes back a track. At any time, you can trigger Siri with a long-press on the screen. Volume control is done via a + or – button. This is a feature you’re either going to use a lot or not at all based on where you end up placing HomePod.
Furthermore, AirPlay is another method of controlling HomePod. Through iTunes on a computer or the Music app on an iOS device, users can select and control playback on the HomePod.
Read also: Apple plants seeds with ARKit and HomePod
Locked into Apple’s ecosystem
Arguably, the biggest hurdle consumers will have to overcome with HomePod is justifying its $350 price, while knowing the speaker is locked into Apple’s ecosystem, and the odds of that ever changing are slim.
For Apple Music, this isn’t all that big of a deal. You are already paying Apple each month for access to its music catalog. Owning a speaker that sounds amazing and can play your favorite songs and playlists without much effort on your part is something you can’t get on any other smart speaker.
For someone who doesn’t subscribe to Apple Music, it’s a little harder to justify buying HomePod. Those who use Spotify or another competing service can use HomePod to listen to music, however, the process isn’t as simple as telling Siri to play music. Instead, streaming music from an Apple device over AirPlay to the HomePod is the only option.
Notice, Bluetooth connectivity isn’t an option. An Android user can’t connect to HomePod via Bluetooth and beam music to the speaker. HomePod also lacks an audio-in port. It’s AirPlay or no way.
In contrast, third-party music service support is a staple feature of the Google Home and Amazon Echo lineup, despite both companies having a music streaming service of their own.
I don’t mean to focus so much on music, as HomePod can also stream podcasts and news updates, but again, the sources for either of those are within Apple’s walls.
With personalized requests enabled on my HomePod, I’ve successfully sent messages, had new messages read aloud, and added or cleared reminders. Other than an initial period of Siri on the HomePod not knowing my contact list (a problem that resolved itself), and a slight delay between when new messages arrive and when Siri can read them, I’ve found all of it to work really well. Adding reminders without having to stare at my phone or watch is especially helpful.
Another differentiator between Apple’s approach and that of Google or Amazon is third-party integration with apps. With Alexa, for instance, developers can create skills that users add to a device. I can get updates on how much gas is in my car through Automatic, play Jeopardy, or listen as my daughter tries to get all the questions in Harry Potter trivia right.
This currently isn’t possible on HomePod. Apple limits what types of apps can use Siri to messaging, lists, and notes. So, apps like WhatsApp or Evernote will work with HomePod, but that’s it — and it’s incredibly frustrating. I can’t even ask Siri to give me the day’s agenda, because it currently lacks calendar integration.
The novelty of asking Siri to tell a joke wears off after a few interactions, and then I want HomePod to provide sometimes valuable information on demand.
Granted, software updates to break down some of the walls Apple has built around HomePod are entirely possible, but we are months away from iOS 12 — the next meaningful software update — being revealed, let alone publicly available. And that’s assuming Apple is willing to allow for more robust third-party integration.
The long bet
The end of a review is where I’m supposed to connect all of the dots, lay out what I liked and disliked, and ultimately, decide if the asking price of a product is justifiable. The problem I struggle with is that it’s not always as cut and dry as that.
There are some products more nuanced than what a formula consisting of my opinion and a products’ competitors can answer. HomePod is one such product.
There is a lot I really like about HomePod. Being able to add reminders, listen to my Apple Music account, and control my HomeKit accessories is something I’ve wanted from a smart speaker for years. But the idea of being locked even deeper into Apple’s ecosystem by a pricey product causes me to hesitate on whether to keep the device, which I bought, and make a resounding recommendation.
The truth is, there are far better smart speakers available for a lot less money than HomePod. Amazon’s Echo line is compatible with a long list of smart home products and has numerous useful skills, but it lacks robust sound quality and doesn’t work within Apple’s ecosystem the way the HomePod does.
As with all of Apple’s first attempts at a new product category, the company typically releases something that doesn’t offer feature parity with the competition. Apple then continues to improve and build upon the initial product until all the boxes are checked.
The purchase decision really comes down to whether you’re willing to deal with the HomePod’s shortcomings now and use your hard-earned money as a vote of confidence that Apple gets HomePod right over time.
Previous and related coverage
Apple’s HomePod can be used as a hub to control HomeKit devices via Siri voice commands. Here’s a selection of accessories worth investigating.
Has Apple given Amazon, Google, and others too much of a head-start in the smart speaker market?