In addition to the big releases of iOS 12 and watchOS 5 this week, Apple’s HomePod smart speaker also saw its first major update, in the form of what Apple now appears to be calling iOS 12 for the HomePod — a change from the prior naming convention of simply listing the updates with identifiers like HomePod 11.3. It’s an interesting way to go, considering that while all of Apple’s mobile operating systems are variations on iOS, the HomePod operating system probably has about as much in common with the iPhone and iPad as the Apple TV or Apple Watch would.
Since the HomePod came out in the middle of the iOS 11 cycle, the iOS 12 for HomePod update is the first major update that actually brings a set of brand new features to the smart speaker; while HomePod 11.4 was also a fairly significant update, it mostly delivered on the promises Apple had already made, such as adding AirPlay 2 and stereo pairing support. iOS 12 for HomePod, on the other hand, begins to actually evolve the HomePod’s feaure set, albeit slowly.
Installing the Update
If you have automatic updates turned on for your HomePod, iOS 12 for HomePod should install automatically without any user interaction required. If this isn’t happening, however, or you’re just eager to get the latest update, you can manually update it by visitng the Home app on your iPhone, selecting the house icon in the top left corner, scrolling down to Speakers and selecting Software Update. The process is otherwise similar to installing an iOS update on your iPhone or iPad, although your iPhone is only used to initiate the process — the HomePod otherwise downloads and installs the software directly, so you don’t need to stay in the Home app or keep your iPhone in proximity of the HomePod.
Probably the most welcome addition in iOS 12 for HomePod is the ability to now set multiple timers. Previously, HomePod allowed you to run a timer with a simple voice command, but you could only run one at a time — attemping to start a second timer would cancel the first one. There were workarounds, such as using alarms or reminders, but these were imperfect solutions, at best.
Now, with iOS 12 for HomePod, asking for a second timer will simply start a second timer. Basic Siri commands can be used (Hey Siri, start a five minute timer) to just run simple timers, however, you can also now name your timers if you prefer, and it’s done using pretty natural and quick language — saying Hey Siri, start an egg timer for three minutes will create a three-minute timer named “egg.” If you don’t specify a name for your timer, it will simply be identified by its original duration. Note that to name a timer you must either specify the timer name before the duration, or use the word “named” afterward (e.g. Hey Siri, start a five minute timer named tea).
When the timer reaches the end, the standard alarm will sound first, followed by the name of the timer, or its original duration if you didn’t specify a name. You can say something like, Hey Siri, what are my timers? to have Siri give you a rundown of all of your timers with their name or original duration and the time left for each.
If you want to cancel a specific timer, you can refer to it by its name or original duration, with commands like, Hey Siri, cancel my egg timer, or Hey Siri, cancel my five minute timer. Note that you can refer to a timer by duration whether you’ve given it a name or not, so if you’ve set a five-minute “tea” timer, you can either ask Siri to cancel the “tea timer” or cancel the “five-minute timer.”
You can also pause any running timer simply by asking Siri to pause it (Hey Siri, pause my egg timer), or start it back up by asking Siri to resume it (Hey Siri, resume my egg timer). Timers can also be reset (Hey Siri, reset my egg timer), and you can also pause, resume, or reset ALL of your timers by saying “all of my timers” instead of specifying an individual timer. You can also say Hey Siri, cancel all of my timers to have Siri cancel all of your timers at once.
One thing that appears to work some of the time, but not always, is querying for active or paused timers. In some cases, asking Siri What are my paused timers will return a list of only the paused timers (and likewise for What are my active timers), but sometimes Siri just gets confused and either doesn’t provide a complete list, or thinks that you want to actually pause all of your timers, rather than just getting a list of only the ones that are already paused. Similarly, when cancelling timers, you have to use the very specific word “cancel” — other synonyms that would seem logical like “clear” or “erase” just end up listing all of the timers rather than cancelling them.
Note that unlike alarms, which can be viewed from the Home app on your iPhone or iPad, there’s no visible user interface for managing timers, so you’ll have to rely completely on Siri voice commands for setting and checking the status of your timers. Still, the ability to set multiple timers with your voice should make HomePod considerably more useful in places like the kitchen where multiple timers are often necessary.
Placing and Receiving Phone Calls
Although HomePod has always been able to work as a speakerphone, it previously required you to start a call on your iPhone and then transfer the call to the HomePod, much like you would with a Bluetooth speaker or headset. However, now with iOS 12 for HomePod you can place calls and answer calls directly on the HomePod using Siri commands.
Placing a call
Placing a call is simply a matter of asking the HomePod to call somebody, which can be done in either two stages, saying Hey Siri, make a call and then responding to Siri’s “Who do you want to call?” question with either a name from your contacts or a phone number. Or you can just say it all in a single phrase like Hey Siri, call Jesse Hollington. If you say a name that exactly matches one of your contacts, Siri will often simply place the call; however if Siri isn’t sure she heard you correctly, or if you say only a partial name or a phone number, Siri will ask for additional confirmation just to make sure she got it right.
By default, calls will be placed over the normal cellular network, but you can also ask HomePod to make a FaceTime audio call by specifying that in your command (Hey Siri, place a FaceTime call…).
In either case, the call is still placed using your paired iPhone, so you’ll see the in-progress call on your iPhone, and you can transfer it to your handset or another audio device simply by picking up your iPhone, going into the Phone app and tapping the Audio button.
While a call is in progress on the HomePod, Siri will still be listening for the “Hey Siri” keyword, and you can hangup simply by saying Hey Siri, hang up. Unfortunately, this is the only option available; we would have liked to see the ability to mute a call or place it on hold using Siri commands, but alas all that Siri tells us in this case is that she can’t help with that while you’re on a call, which is pretty much the same for any other HomePod command — you won’t even be able to do things like check the time or turn on the lights while you’re on a call.
Answering a call
You can also answer incoming calls on the HomePod using Siri, but unfortunately the HomePod itself doesn’t provide any call alerts, so this will only be useful if you can actually hear your iPhone ringing, which means you can still miss calls if your iPhone is in another room with the ringer off.
However, when a call does come in, you can either ask Siri who is calling (Hey Siri, who’s calling?) or simply ask Siri to answer the call (Hey Siri, answer). When asking who is calling, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t seem to do any kind of contact lookup, but instead simply reads out the phone number. This seems like a bug, and it may not even affect everybody, but in our testing every incoming call showed the caller’s name correctly on our iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac — only the HomePod didn’t seem to be able to match the number to a name. This was even the case for FaceTime Audio calls coming in from a phone number, although Siri seemed to do fine with looking up calls initiated from an e-mail address. It’s a bit disappointing, as in an era of phone address books, chances are most people don’t remember too many actual phone numbers, but we’re hoping that Apple fixes it soon in a future update.
Find My iPhone
With iOS 12, HomePod joins the Find My iPhone club, allowing you to locate your other Apple devices around the house with a simple voice command such as Hey Siri, find my iPhone.
The feature works pretty much like you’d expect — the named device will start playing a sound to help you track it down — and it can be used with iPhones, iPads, Macs, or even an Apple Watch. The only caveat is that sometimes the Find My iPhone service can’t determine if a device is nearby, for whatever reason, in which case Siri will simply tell you to open the “Find My iPhone” app or visit iCloud.com.
This isn’t a HomePod problem, to be clear — you can run into the same thing when asking Siri to find a device from your iPhone, but the difference is that when doing this from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, Siri will ask you if you want to play a sound on it even if it can’t determine if the device is nearby; HomePod doesn’t offer this option.
Other Odds and Ends
iOS 12 for HomePod offers a few other small enhancements that are also worth a brief mention.
Search by Lyrics
HomePod gains the ability to search out songs by lyrics by issuing commands like, Play the song with the lyrics… or Play that song that goes…; you can also simply use Siri to find the song without playing it by issuing a command like What song has the lyrics…, although we did find the feature to be a bit more hit-and-miss on the HomePod compared to conducting the same searches from our iPhone or Apple Watch.
Calendar and Language Support
Apple added support for Calendars to HomePod Personal Requests in the 11.4 update last spring, although it was initially only limited to users in the U.S., despite the launch of HomePod in Canada, France, and Germany around the same time. In fact, even English-speaking Canadians didn’t get Calendar support in 11.4, for whatever reason. With iOS 12 for HomePod, Apple has now expanded the Calendar feature to all available languages, while also adding French Canadian and Spanish for Mexico, Spain, and the U.S.
Wi-Fi Network in Settings
This one is really quite minor, but since Apple chose to include it in the release notes, we figured we’d mention it here as well. Going into the iPhone/iPad Home app, and going into the settings for an individual HomePod, you can now tap on the Wi-Fi MAC address to have it toggle over to show the Wi-Fi Network name, which we suppose can be helpful if you’re not sure what Wi-Fi network your HomePod is associated with. While for most people, this should be the same network as your iPhone is on, there are certain edge cases where this can be useful, since the HomePod also acts as a Home Hub for HomeKit, and can therefore be reached from any Wi-Fi or cellular network via the Home app.
While iOS 12 for HomePod is a welcome update, from our testing we think it could still use a bit more polish. While it doesn’t break anything from prior HomePod software versions, some of the new features aren’t as fully baked as they could be. Phone call support works well enough, subject to certain limitations, while Find My iPhone and lyrics search can still be a bit flaky. On the other hand, multiple timers support works very well, and that feature alone will be worth the update for most users. Updating to iOS 12 for HomePod seems like a safe enough move, but we find ourselves hoping that iOS 12.1 for HomePod works out a few of these kinks for a more reliable experience overall.