Test Driv­ing Home Pod:

Is Ap­ple's New Smart Speaker Ready for Prime­time (and Your Liv­ing Room)?

iPhone Life Magazine - - Front Page - BY DAVID AVER­BACH

Ap­ple rarely in­vents prod­ucts. In­stead it typ­i­cally waits for other com­pa­nies to en­ter an in­dus­try, learns from their mis­takes, and then re­leases a fin­ished prod­uct that is su­pe­rior to any­thing else on the mar­ket. When Ap­ple re­leased the Ap­ple I com­puter in 1976, for ex­am­ple, the com­pany was far from be­ing the first per­sonal com­puter firm es­tab­lished, and yet the Ap­ple I was the most pol­ished prod­uct of its kind at the time. When Steve Jobs cre­ated the orig­i­nal Mac­in­tosh com­puter, he took the idea for the mouse and graph­i­cal user in­ter­face from Xerox. The iPod and iPhone are also great ex­am­ples: AT&T re­leased the first por­ta­ble me­dia player five years be­fore the iPod came out, and the iPhone was re­leased more than a decade af­ter the first smart­phone came out in the mid ‘90s. So, when Ap­ple re­leased the HomePod al­most three years af­ter Ama­zon re­leased the Echo and al­most one year af­ter Google re­leased the Google Home, it felt like a familiar for­mula.

The prob­lem this time around, how­ever, is that while the smart speaker mar­ket is still rel­a­tively new, Ama­zon has al­ready proven to be a for­mi­da­ble com­peti­tor. Ama­zon's Alexa plat­form now has over 25,000 third-party voice apps (called Skills). Jeff Be­zos, Ama­zon's founder and CEO, claims that Ama­zon has al­ready sold over 20 mil­lion Alexa de­vices. The Google Home can also per­form a ton of tricks that the HomePod cur­rently can­not, such as con­trol­ling your TV (through Chrome­cast in­te­gra­tion) and rec­og­niz­ing mul­ti­ple voices. The ques­tion is whether Ap­ple has done enough to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the HomePod from the com­pe­ti­tion. Af­ter spend­ing a month with the HomePod, here are my main take­aways.

AU­DIO QUAL­ITY

Ap­ple has de­cided to po­si­tion the HomePod as a speaker first and a smart de­vice sec­ond. As a re­sult, the HomePod is in a dif­fer­ent tier than the Echo and Google Home when it comes to sound qual­ity (as well as price). Per­son­ally, I like that Ap­ple has cho­sen to fo­cus on sound qual­ity. One of the main rea­sons I hadn't pur­chased an Echo up un­til now, de­spite hear­ing good things, was that I didn't want to lis­ten to my mu­sic on a ter­ri­ble speaker. I did at one point pur­chase an Echo Dot, but it proved to be a hassle to con­nect to my ex­ist­ing speak­ers.

The HomePod has an im­pres­sive bass and a rich sound that com­fort­ably fills a room with­out caus­ing dis­tor­tion. Dur­ing setup, it au­to­mat­i­cally an­a­lyzes the space it's in and cus­tom­izes its au­dio to take ad­van­tage of the acous­tics in the room. Be­fore the HomePod came out, many web­sites claimed that the au­dio was com­pa­ra­ble to a high-end au­dio sys­tem worth thou­sands of dol­lars. I have found the sound qual­ity of the HomePod to be good but not great. It cer­tainly is not com­pa­ra­ble to a high-end au­dio sys­tem. While the speaker's bass is very im­pres­sive for such a small speaker, the mid-range is a lit­tle mud­dled and the high notes are un­der­em­pha­sized, which leaves gui­tar and vo­cals sound­ing a lit­tle muddy. Over­all, it had com­pa­ra­ble sound qual­ity to other mid-level speak­ers such as the Li­bra­tone Zipp and Sonos One, both of which re­tail for around $200 and have Ama­zon Alexa built in.

The HomePod uses Ap­ple's Air­Play sys­tem to stream au­dio to your phone over Wi-Fi. Air­Play has higher qual­ity au­dio com­pres­sion than Blue­tooth and you don't have to pair the speaker with your phone like you do with Blue­tooth. When test­ing Air­Play with other speak­ers in the past, I've ex­pe­ri­enced fre­quent con­nec­tiv­ity is­sues that caused the au­dio to cut out pe­ri­od­i­cally. The HomePod, how­ever, has been very con­sis­tent. A big down­side is that, un­like with Blue­tooth, Air­Play will not work un­less you're con­nected to Wi-Fi.

US­ING HEY SIRI

I of­ten strug­gle when us­ing Siri on my iPhone. Half the time my phone doesn't wake up when I say, “Hey, Siri.” And when it does, it fre­quently mis­hears my re­quest. Be­cause of this, I was a lit­tle con­cerned about how the HomePod would per­form. I've been pleas­antly sur­prised though by how well the speaker han­dles com­mands. The mi­cro­phones are de­signed to pick up your com­mands even while the speaker is in use. I've found that Siri works pretty re­li­ably, and there are far fewer mis­un­der­stand­ings than when I use it on my iPhone. The only prob­lem I oc­ca­sion­ally en­counter is that I have so many Ap­ple de­vices in my room that when I sum­mon Siri, the wrong de­vice is some­times ac­ti­vated. Ap­ple has said that mul­ti­ple de­vices in a room com­mu­ni­cate with each other when you make a com­mand in or­der to fig­ure out which one should be ac­ti­vated. For the most part Ap­ple de­faults to the HomePod, but ev­ery once in a while, my iPhone will an­swer in­stead.

An­other down­side of the HomePod is that it doesn't sup­port third-party apps yet and has a limited num­ber of com­mands it re­sponds to. Most of its com­mands are for Ap­ple Mu­sic, which is, of course, only help­ful if you are an Ap­ple Mu­sic subscriber. I am a Spo­tify subscriber, so all of the Ap­ple Mu­sic func­tion­al­ity is of very lit­tle use to me.

AP­PLE’S ECOSYS­TEM

The big­gest ad­van­tage the HomePod has over the com­pe­ti­tion is Ap­ple's abil­ity to tightly in­te­grate the smart speaker with the rest of its ecosys­tem. This ad­van­tage is made ap­par­ent right out of the box. To set up the HomePod, you sim­ply plug it in and hold your iPhone nearby. A prompt will pop up on your iPhone walk­ing you through a sim­ple setup process. Ap­ple also has the abil­ity to sup­port phone calls and text mes­sages, some­thing that Alexa does not sup­port for iPhones. The in­te­gra­tion is par­tic­u­larly help­ful for Ap­ple Mu­sic sub­scribers, who have a myr­iad of voice com­mands avail­able to them.

Sur­pris­ingly, Ap­ple did not take ad­van­tage of the in­te­gra­tion as much as it could have. Many of Ap­ple's built-in apps are not yet sup­ported by the HomePod. The most glar­ing omis­sion to me is the Cal­en­dar app. I sched­ule ap­point­ments via Siri on my phone all the time and would've loved to be able to use the HomePod for that. I also would have en­joyed hav­ing the HomePod read me my sched­ule for the day. While it does sup­port the Pod­casts app, I didn't find it to work very well.

“THE BIG­GEST AD­VAN­TAGE THE HOMEPOD HAS OVER THE COM­PE­TI­TION IS AP­PLE’S ABIL­ITY TO TIGHTLY IN­TE­GRATE THE SMART SPEAKER WITH THE REST OF ITS ECOSYS­TEM.”

Cur­rently, you can only sync the HomePod with one Ap­ple ID at a time. Be­cause a speaker is typ­i­cally a de­vice used by an en­tire house­hold, this cre­ates a host of prob­lems. First of all, you can only ac­cess one per­son's Ap­ple Mu­sic profile, which con­tains the playlists and mu­si­cal pref­er­ences the HomePod uses. Also, be­cause the HomePod does not dis­tin­guish be­tween voices, any­one walk­ing by the speaker can ef­fec­tively read your text mes­sages or send a mes­sage to any­one in your con­tact book on your be­half. You can turn off ac­cess to Mes­sages, but then you are turn­ing off one of the few fea­tures that Ap­ple has that the other smart speak­ers do not.

SHOULD YOU BUY THE HOMEPOD?

An­swer­ing this ques­tion is par­tic­u­larly com­pli­cated be­cause the HomePod is still so new. It feels a lit­tle like eval­u­at­ing a paint­ing be­fore the paint has even dried. Over time Ap­ple will build out its func­tion­al­ity, add multi-voice recog­ni­tion, and sup­port third-party apps. The ques­tion then be­comes: should we eval­u­ate the HomePod based on how it cur­rently ships or on the po­ten­tial it holds? If you're in­vested in Ap­ple's prod­uct line, I be­lieve that the HomePod‘s in­te­gra­tion with the rest of the ecosys­tem presents a huge ad­van­tage over the com­pe­ti­tion. How­ever, its cur­rent fea­ture set is not mak­ing the most of these ad­van­tages. De­spite the au­dio bal­ance be­ing a lit­tle off, the HomePod's hard­ware is pretty solid. Thus, most of the im­prove­ments Ap­ple will make will likely be on the soft­ware side and will be avail­able to ex­ist­ing own­ers.

If you own an iPhone (or other Ap­ple de­vice) and are in­ter­ested in get­ting a smart speaker, I'd rec­om­mend the HomePod over the Ama­zon Echo, de­spite the Echo hav­ing so many skills. In my opin­ion, the ad­van­tage to hav­ing a smart speaker that is in­te­grated into Ap­ple's ecosys­tem trumps the abil­ity to ac­cess Alexa's 25,000 skills. Ap­ple will likely add an App Store for the HomePod, but Ama­zon can never in­te­grate with the ecosys­tem in the same ways. This is es­pe­cially true if you are an Ap­ple Mu­sic subscriber. If you own Ap­ple prod­ucts but aren't in­ter­ested in be­ing an early adopter and aren't in a hurry to buy a new speaker, then I would rec­om­mend wait­ing to see what im­prove­ments Ap­ple makes in the next year. If you aren't com­mit­ted to Ap­ple's prod­ucts, then you prob­a­bly want to buy a more de­vice-ag­nos­tic smart speaker, such as the Ama­zon Echo so that you can take ad­van­tage of the more ro­bust fea­ture set.

Per­son­ally, de­spite not be­ing an Ap­ple Mu­sic subscriber, and de­spite the speaker's some­what limited func­tion­al­ity, I am enjoying own­ing the HomePod. I re­main con­vinced that in the fu­ture, voice will be one of the most com­mon ways that we in­ter­act with our de­vices. These are still early days, and smart speak­ers are prob­a­bly still best suited for early adopters, but even in its cur­rent it­er­a­tion, the HomePod is a very use­ful ad­di­tion to Ap­ple's lineup.

“IF YOU’RE IN­VESTED IN AP­PLE’S PROD­UCT LINE, I BE­LIEVE THAT THE HOMEPOD’S IN­TE­GRA­TION WITH THE REST OF THE ECOSYS­TEM PRESENTS A HUGE AD­VAN­TAGE OVER THE COM­PE­TI­TION.”

David Aver­bach is the CEO and Pub­lisher of iPhone Life magazine. David has an ob­ses­sion with all things Ap­ple. He grew up on Macs and now has a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad, Ap­ple TV, and an Ap­ple Watch. David en­joys trav­el­ing and Ultimate Fris­bee. He has been to over 20 coun­tries. To con­tact David, email him at David@iphonelife.com.

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