In July last year, Apple announced they were releasing a smart speaker: the HomePod. It took more than 6 months for them to release it, but now it’s here.
Having made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to buy one, I subsequently broke that promise and did. I’ve had it for about 6 weeks now; these are some reflections on what it’s like to live with.
For those who have escaped the multi-billion dollar hype machine that is Apple’s marketing, a quick crash course in the HomePod.
You can get the specs on Apple’s website or a decent tech website, so here’s the skinny:
- It’s a speaker. It’s got 7 tweeters and 1 sub-woofer in a tiny 7 inch rounded-off cylinder.
- It’s got Siri. That’s what makes it a smart speaker. You mostly control it with your voice.
- It’s expensive. It’s £329; more than almost every other smart speaker on the market.
That’s the basics. So how does it perform, as an expensive, Siri-equipped, smart speaker?
It’s a really good speaker
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way: it sounds great. I’m not an audiophile, but I know what my ears like. They like this speaker.
My previous home speaker was a Bose SoundLink Mini. HomePod blows that out of the water.
Without any fiddling with the settings, every piece of music you throw at it sounds great. That’s a good thing, because there are no settings that you can fiddle with. Instead of letting you, mere mortal, mess with levels, bass, mids and treble, the HomePod just sorts that out so you always get the best sound.
How does it know it’s the best sound? Through some super complicated sound-bouncing trickery.
When you first set up HomePod and it starts playing music for the first time, it listens to how the sound bounces off the walls of your room, and adjusts the levels for each of the tweeters and subwoofer to give you the best sound. Theoretically, it should sound perfect in every room, anywhere in the room. I don’t know if that’s true, but honestly it’s pretty great sounding anyway.
Accompanying the 7 tweeters and subwoofer is a 6 microphone array around the middle of the device. You can’t see it, but it’s there. It’s what makes the room-mapping sound-smarts that I just mentioned work, but it also has another use: Siri.
Siri is the main way you interact with HomePod. Just say “Hey Siri” and it starts listening for your commands; just like with an iPhone. You can do a variety of things with Siri. Things like:
- play, pause, skip and rewind music
- ask it to change the state of smart devices set up in the Home app on your iPhone
- answer basic questions like “what’s the weather like?” or “when does British Summer Time start?”
It’s fairly straightforward, and it’s capable of doing things I want it to do.
Here’s the thing though: Siri sucks.
I’ve read a lot of reviews about HomePod, and they all say Siri sucks. They’re right; but whilst they argue about Siri’s AI prowess relative to Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant, my quibble is with the basics. I’ve had multiple infuriating experiences trying to get Siri to perform basic commands that Apple claims it does.
Simple things like turning off the lights1 just don’t work consistently. I’ve had HomePod ignore my commands entirely, trigger commands that are totally different from what I ask for, and sometimes just straight up stop listening until you tap the capacitive touch area on the top of the HomePod itself.
To be clear, these things aren’t happening all the time, but they happen often enough that it’s annoying; and when you spend a few hundred quid on a speaker with smarts, you expect it to work, let alone be smart.
HomePod is being marketed as a music device first though: not a general smart home device. Apple advertises Siri as being your own personal “musicologist”, drawing on the entire iTunes library via Apple Music2.
Most of the time it barely functions at the level of “genuinely random shuffle”.
Maybe I’ve confused Siri so much with the aural horrors that are my music tastes, but it seemingly can’t figure out what I like. Siri only wants to play me music I already own, and even then only about 5% of my library. Worse, when it adds in songs not in my library, they are — more often than not — terrible.
Siri is meant to learn about your listening habits. You can say things like “Hey Siri, I don’t like this song” and Siri should change the music it plays in future. It doesn’t.
I’ve ended up listening to the same songs repeatedly because Siri, seemingly, suffers from musical amnesia. It also can’t realise that if there is a single and an album version of the same song, that I might feel the same about them both and don’t need to hear them back-to-back.
All of this forces me into telling Siri to just play songs from specific artists, or specific playlists. In fact, being slightly more specific helps a lot; if, instead of saying “play some music”, you say “play songs like ABBA”, you get surprisingly close to genre-specific nirvana.
The reason you want a “musicologist” for a smart speaker is precisely so you don’t have to curate though: HomePod should be playing banger after banger without any human intervention. What I want from Siri and Apple Music is the equivalent of Spotify’s Music Monday’s playlist.
These are all, in reality, fairly small complaints. They don’t ruin the experience, and at its worst it’s still better and more reliable than using a Bluetooth speaker. But if you’re thinking about splashing multiple hundred pounds on this thing, it’s worth knowing it’s not polished. Not yet, anyway.
Benefits of the ecosystem
One of the major bonuses of going “all in” with the Apple ecosystem is how all your devices work together. With the HomePod, the best example is how it works with Apple TV.
If you own an Apple TV, you can route your audio through the HomePod. That means you can take advantage of all that great speaker technology instead of relying on the crappy TV speakers you’re probably listening through normally.
It’s not a big feature, but it is a great benefit from using the entire ecosystem of devices Apple has created.
Where HomePod excels is in the intangible space of privacy.
I won’t labour the point, as I know it’s dull, but unlike competitor devices, Apple has been incredibly transparent about what data it collects via HomePod and has designed it to respect your privacy.
If you don’t like the idea of a speaker in the house always listening to you, but want a smart speaker, HomePod is best in class for getting that balance right. It only listens and processes what people say after you’ve said “Hey Siri”, and Apple isn’t monetising the information collected through the device so it has no incentive to collect more than it needs to make the HomePod work.
If you’re super privacy conscious though, just say “Hey Siri, stop listening” and you can control all HomePod’s features via your iOS device. It effectively becomes a regular speaker, but with an internet connection.
I’m a glutton for punishment. I can’t help being an early adopter for the latest technology. I bought in to the iPhone and iPad from day one. Similarly with Apple Watch.
Like all “first gen” products, the HomePod has its flaws. Siri is pretty awful, and the software experience is generally confused. But what Apple has done is create a brilliant speaker.
Is it worth several hundred pounds? Not yet.
Will it be worth it in the future? For most people probably not.
If you’re in the market for a great sounding speaker though, you’re “all in” on Apple devices and you can afford it; there’s probably no other speaker worth considering.