With the delivery date of the Apple HomePod fast approaching, Siri users are eager for Apple’s addition to the smart personal assistant game. The long-awaited HomePod has been available for pre-order for nearly two weeks now, and will be delivering on Thursday, February 8, 2018, but the reviews coming in from other sources are less than raving in many ways. So, should you rush out and get the Apple HomePod or wait and see whether it’s worth the $349 ticket price? Let’s find out.
Our Take on the Apple HomePod
HomePod is a key part of any Apple ecosystem user’s whole home strategy. Yes, it’s a personal assistant with Siri, and yes, it’s a much higher quality speaker system than we’ve seen from other personal assistants – notably Echo and Google Home – and it is more in line with high quality smart sound solution such as offered by Sonos. HomePod is all of that, and of course much more. And much of that “more” isn’t ready yet.
As you read this, please remember, these personal assistants are improving at a tremendous pace, so when choosing solutions like HomePod or Echo, try to remember that the lead – who’s got the smartest personal assistant – will keep changing. This year’s leader could be next year’s dog. Each of these companies is hell-bent on massively improving their personal assistants as fast as they can. It’s war out there, and not one that will be won easily.
The same is true for running your home. Just less than a year ago, Alexa could control lots of home devices, but Google Home was brand new, and had only a handful. Siri, from a phone, watch or laptop, could also control parts of your home – HomeKit supporting products – but still had no “speaker” yet.
Today, though, the number of products that Google Home supports has grown massively and is now pretty close to what Alexa can control. Apple’s HomeKit has also grown massively, as they demand more of devices in order to work with HomeKit, such as enhanced security. For that reason, there’s months of lag, with some products that come out first for Alexa, but later add HomeKit (Philips Hue, LIFX light bulbs, Schlage door locks, etc.). It should also be mentioned that it is likely that there will never be as many HomeKit compatible products as Alexa, however, it’s even more unlikely that you will find a type of product that Alexa supports but no product of that type that HomeKit does (i.e. door locks). A year from now, Alexa may be supported by 10 lock companies, while Siri might only have support from 7 or 8 of them. Apple’s always about the ecosystem – that is, it’s more important that products “fit” with Apple’s system than that they work with every product.
How will it look a year from now? Probably not too much difference in terms of what and how many devices are controllable by each. A year from now, Siri could be the smartest overall Personal Assistant, or 3rd, or 2nd best. No way to tell. All these companies are buying AI start ups as fast as they can find them. As I said, there’s a war out there, and it’s over AI/Personal Assistant performance.
Differences Between Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, and Google Home
The Apple HomePod is hailed as Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but it’s really not. Both the Echo and Home are geared toward the smart home, with each having many smart products they can control. Amazon Echo, having been around for a lot longer than the Google Home and, of course, the Apple HomePod, has a way longer list of compatible smart products than either. The HomePod’s major caveat when it comes to smart home control, as mentioned, is that it can only work with HomeKit compatible products. That’s really no surprise, as before the HomePod, Siri could only voice control HomeKit compatible products anyway.
But then, Apple is not positioning the speaker as competition to the Amazon Echo or Google Home – they’re positioning it as competition to Sonos, which is a smart speaker system with Alexa integrated in. For Apple, it’s all about the music, which is why they went all out with the seven-tweeter array and a high-excursion woofer. That means the Apple HomePod will have a much better handle on bass frequencies than either the Echo or the Home. That it is considered competition to Sonos explains why it has a much higher price point of $349 than the $99 Amazon Echo or the $129 Google Home. The Sonos is $349 for a two-speaker bundle, or $199 for the single speaker.
Who is the Apple HomePod for?
Those looking for an all-around awesome whole home controller to integrate with their existing smart home products may want to look elsewhere. If you’re not fully committed to Apple, the HomePod’s proprietary qualities will be nothing more than a nuisance to you. A pre-HomeKit LIFX bulb, for example, won’t be able to be controlled with your HomePod. It is safe to say that more often than not, smart products don’t meet the tight security protocol that is the threshold guardian of HomeKit compatibility, so the list of products that will work with the HomePod is considerably shorter than those that will not. If you’re new to the smart home game, then you can start with the HomePod and only buy HomeKit compatible smart products, but if you’re like me, then you’ll have at least a few lights and other gadgets that cannot be controlled with Siri. Bummer.
We haven’t had the Apple HomePod in for review yet (I’m sure the guys will be fighting over who gets to review it), but from what I’ve seen of others’ reactions to the smart speaker, and what I know of the product’s specs, I wouldn’t recommend it as a smart home solution. Instead, I’d say that it seems to be a good product for listening to music – if you’re a subscriber to Apple Music. I am, so that wouldn’t be a problem for me, but others really enjoy Spotify and Pandora, and the HomePod will work with neither. It’s Apple Music, or nothing at all – but is that really so surprising?
The Apple HomePod is for avid Apple lovers – those who buy everything Apple and listen to Apple Music. I personally wouldn’t mind getting only HomeKit compatible products (I really enjoy my Elgato Eve Energy smart wall switch, which works with HomeKit), but there are some truly awesome smart gadgets that I would be missing out on. So, if you’re looking for a speaker with good audio that can stream your Apple Music library, it may be for you, but read on before you draw your final conclusions about the HomePod.
What Reviewers Are Saying About the HomePod
The New York Times published an article by Brian Chen about the Apple HomePod, detailing to readers why they shouldn’t rush to buy it. Chen, knowing that the device is first and foremost a speaker, says that it does a great job at that – mostly. He calls Siri on the HomePod, “embarrassingly inadequate,” and says that she does not perform as well on the smart speaker as she does on an iPhone. As the first company to bring a smart personal assistant mainstream, this is disappointing, and I expected to hear better.
Chen goes on to say that Siri did not succeed in learning his music preferences, as Alexa does. I personally am impressed with Alexa’s music choices for me, as she is nearly always on point with that. Apparently Siri, when asked to play some music, played Dashboard Confessional – a total miss for our friend Chen. He gave her a pass, as it was only the first day of testing her capabilities. A week in, however, after requesting some of his favorites (Beck, Talking Heads, and David Bowie), she still had not learned his preferences, instead playing artists like Taylor Swift. Poor guy. Lucky, he said the music at least sounds good, and that audiophiles will really enjoy the bass. I figured as much.
The review from CNet dubs the HomePod as having “excellent bass and consistently superior sound quality across a wide variety of music genres” and commends it for Siri being able to clearly hear commands from across a room. CNet also states that the HomePod has better sound quality than the Sonos One, which I think makes the product one to consider if sound quality is top priority for you. The drawbacks are consistent with what I’ve been hearing from other reviewers and my own conclusions – the Apple HomePod just does not measure up when it comes to being a whole home controller, with Alexa taking the prize for that. That, and there’s apparently no mute button on the HomePod, so to mute, you’ll have to use your phone or voice control. Strange.
The Bottom Line
The Apple HomePod clearly isn’t going to win any prizes as a whole home controller any time soon, but as a speaker, it blows the competition out of the water. If you’re committed to Apple, using their Apple Music and HomeKit compatible smart products, the HomePod may be one product to seriously consider! With excellent sound quality rivaling one of the most popular smart speakers out there, it’s tough to say that you shouldn’t rush to get it. If you are a smart home junkie, however, and you’ve got tons of non-HomeKit products like our editor Art Feierman, then perhaps skip on this product – for now.
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