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We’ve been waiting a long time. Apple’s HomePod is finally here.
Apple excels at their ‘wait and watch’ game, holding back their entry into a niche until they are sure they have the superior product.
That’s what they did with the HomePod, the long awaited smart speaker that promised to best Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Despite Amazon gaining a huge market share with their slew of smart Echo speakers, Apple did not seem to be in a hurry to release the HomePod. It was actually supposed to launch during last year’s holiday season but Apple delayed it.
Well, now you can buy it for $349.
Considering how much anticipation there was for HomePod and how much expectation was laid on Apple’s product genius, the reactions were as many and passionate as I expected. But I did not anticipate how divisive the HomePod would be even among ardent Apple fans.
The were two main aspects of the sleek cylindrical speaker that attracted the most reactions: the sound quality and the digital assistant.
HomePod Sound Quality
In our Amazon Echo review, we criticized Echo speakers for their not-so-good sound quality. It was an opinion most users and even reviewers echoed (no pun intended).
In the case of HomePod, opinions are mixed between normal music listeners who are blown away by the speaker’s sound quality and audiophiles who are disappointed that the speaker’s sound is not perfect.
But what many people agree on is that no Amazon Echo comes even close to the HomePod in terms of sound quality. Apple’s smart speaker is decked to the nines with audio tech that take it to the level of a Sonos.
There is a woofer at the top of the cylinder speaker, an array of six microphones and 7 multidirectional tweeters.
In other words, the sound is really, really good, for normal listeners at least. It’s simply the best sounding smart speaker on the market right now. Only Google Home Max comes close.
According to sound experts and first customers, the speaker does extremely well on both lows and highs. There is no distortion at all even at full volume. The only minor weakness is apparent in midrange sounds.
But that’s not the most notable thing about HomePod’s music abilities. The real smarts are in the algorithms it uses to make sure your music is studio quality.
Apple says that the speaker can automatically detect the layout of a room and adjust sound output for the best audio experience. In other words, the music is just as good in your small basement den as it is in a spacious living room and it’ll sound exactly the same wherever you are standing.
The speaker can even detect when you have positioned it close to a wall.
A seventh microphone in the speaker enables all this magic. It listens for sound feedback which it feeds into the algorithms which then tweak the audio output.
Unfortunately, that’s the end of the good news.
Siri, You Still Have Some Catching Up To Do
It seems apple has been spending months designing a great sounding speaker but not quite a smart speaker.
While it bests Amazon Echo and other smart speakers when it comes to sound quality, it’s far behind as a smart home speaker.
Amazon has Alexa, Google uses Google Assistant and Apple has obviously gone with Siri. Siri has traditionally lagged behind Google Assistant when it comes to answering natural questions and generally being useful.
In a smart speaker matchup, Siri performs even worse. Google Home and Amazon Echo are much more helpful.
Siri’s smarts on the HomePod feel…basic. It can do most basic functions of a smart speaker – weather, news, to-do, smart systems integrations – but doesn’t get near what Echo and Google Home can do.
For one, third party integration is minimal although this will most likely improve with time. You can’t call an Uber or order Pizza, things people have come to automatically expect from their smart speakers.
Other basic functions like making calls or checking your calendar are also missing. It doesn’t have voice recognition so anyone can listen to your text messages as long as your phone is nearby. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home can recognize different voices and access each person’s account separately for things like calendar.
Apple’s walled garden policy also doesn’t work well for HomePod. It can’t tap into as many resources as Google Assistant or Alexa to tell you what you want to know or carry out certain functions.
Work in Progress
Apple HomePod is an excellent music speaker. But that’s just about it. As a smart speaker, it’s still a work in progress.
Even before HomePod’s launch, there was a lot more emphasis (from Apple and other tech insiders) on the speaker being like Sonos rather than on its Assistant smarts. So it’s no surprise that the speaker excels at one and is still playing catch-up with the other.
Over time, as Apple irons out the kinks and beefs up Siri on HomePod, we will be able to better judge how well it competes against Echo and Google Home.