Pros: An acoustically great personal speaker that uses advanced DSP and other technologies to adjust to a room’s settings. Good Siri performance and tight integration with Apple Music, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Podcasts. Solid AirPlay performance. Ability to interact with primary user’s Messages, Reminders, and Notes and some third-party apps via Siri.
Cons: Clearly intended solely for those in the Apple ecosystem. Requires an iOS device for set up. Direct internet streaming limited to Apple’s media services. No wired audio inputs. No Bluetooth audio support. Siri assistant only works for a single primary user and requires iPhone in proximity. Limited Siri app support. Stereo pairing and multi-room audio support not included at initial release.
Apple’s HomePod smart speaker has garnered a lot of attention since its announcement last year. While some of this is simply a result of it being a new Apple product, it’s also fair to say that the company has set a fairly high bar for what we can expect from this speaker, which has piqued the curiosity of a lot of people. With HomePod, Apple has promised a breakthrough speaker that automatically adjusts to room conditions, combined with an “intelligent assistant” that provides tight Apple Music and Siri integration. Since HomePod touches on two very distinct categories, we’ve taken the unusual step of publishing a two-part review in order to properly assess it according to the individual expertise of our editorial team members. Last week in the first part of the review, our audio enthusiast, Guido, discussed HomePod’s performance as a personal speaker. In our second part this week, we’ll take a more in-depth look at HomePod’s “smart” features, ranging from Apple Music and iTunes integration to how well Siri performs as a smart assistant.
Set up and Configuration
Setting up HomePod out of the box is as easy as Apple describes it, and the process will look familiar to anybody who has set up AirPods or transferred their data to another iPhone using iOS 11. Once the HomePod is plugged in and powered on, it should automatically appear to a nearby iPhone, and tapping “Set Up” will take you through a series of screens that allow you to assign the HomePod to one of your room locations (from your HomeKit configuration), choose to enable “Personal Requests” to allow Siri to tie into Messages, Reminders, and Notes, and then simply transfer your iCloud and Wi-Fi settings from your iPhone over to the HomePod.
Once finished, the process will show a brief tutorial, and within a few minutes of adding a HomePod to your system, the iOS Tips app should pop up with a notification that a new section is available for HomePod tips.
Your HomePod will also appear as a device in Apple’s Home app, displayed in whatever room you’ve assigned it to. This is where the settings for your HomePod are also configured, although Apple has oddly split these into two different areas. Most of the HomePod’s settings are found by under the individual HomePod device, where you can change the iCloud account used with your HomePod, and enable or disable explicit content filtering, sound check, and listening history, as well as setting Siri options and enabling or disabling location services.
However, there’s also a new “Speakers” section under your main “Home” configuration screen that you’ll need to visit to check for software updates and determine who can stream to your speakers via AirPlay. Interestingly, HomePod’s integration with HomeKit allows for a more restrictive AirPlay setting than we’ve traditionally seen — Only People Sharing This Home limits HomePod access to those users you’ve explicitly given HomeKit access to, not just anybody who happens to be on the same Wi-Fi network. Unfortunately, this is a global setting that will apply to all of the HomePods in your home, so you won’t be able to only restrict access to certain speakers, such as if you wanted to prevent your kids from streaming audio into your bedroom at 6 a.m.
You can also tap on the HomePod in the Home app to pause or start playback, and opening up the expanded view via a touch-and-hold gesture will reveal an “Alarms” button in addition to the usual “Details” button, allowing you to manage the alarms set on the HomePod. You can add new alarms from here, and view any alarms that you’ve set using Siri. The choice to include the HomePod in the Home app is actually an interesting one, however, as the HomePod doesn’t really function like a HomeKit device — for instance you can’t include it in any scenes or automations to perform functions like starting or stopping playback. As things currently stand, Apple could have just as easily released a standalone “HomePod” app, but we’re hoping that its presence as a HomeKit device is indicative of things to come — it would certainly be cool to be able to start a specific playlist as part of a scene, for instance.
One other thing worth noting that may not be obvious is that HomePod can actually be used as a speakerphone. As long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network as your HomePod, it will appear on the “audio” menu on your call screen, and you can direct audio through it. HomePod’s top will glow green when in speakerphone mode, and you can also tap on it to end a call or switch to another call, however incoming calls won’t ring on the HomePod unless you’re already using it for a call. Despite HomePod’s otherwise great audio performance, there’s no magic going on in this area — callers could still tell we were on a speakerphone, although they could hear us clearly enough. We’d call HomePod’s speakerphone capabilities average.
Once you’ve got your HomePod configured, there are actually three different ways to play music on it. The most obvious and advertised method is to simply ask Siri to play something from Apple Music or your iCloud Music Library. This works in the same way as doing it on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV — simply say “Hey Siri, play…” followed by a music-related request, such the name of a song, artist, album, or playlist, or even a station or genre. For example, saying “Hey Siri, play some smooth jazz” will put on an appropriate Apple Music station. You can also make requests such as “play the number one song from 1972” to play music based on historical top charts — assuming that data is available in your country.
It’s actually hard to describe in words the convenience of using HomePod for music playback in this way — it’s an always-on, always-ready speaker that will play whatever you want with no more effort than speaking into the air. The best word we could use to describe the experience is “frictionless.” There are no stereo systems or amps to worry about turning on and no other buttons to press, and in fact it reminded us of the experience of using an iPod classic with Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi — in an era when most other speakers had to be plugged in and turned on, the iPod Hi-Fi provided a unique “drop-in-and-hit-play” level of convenience. It’s a small thing, but like most things Apple, it has a sense of making you feel that this is the way technology should work by invisibly fading into the background.
That’s when it works properly, of course. Using Siri to call up music on the HomePod isn’t any better than using Siri to call up music anywhere else, and it doesn’t always get it right on the first try. To be fair, we’d say we had a 95 percent success rate with most of the song titles and albums we called up, but that five percent failure rate was just enough to be offputting. We should also note that the success rate is also based on whether you consider Siri’s version selections for a song title to be satisfactory — when multiple versions of a song exist, it’s still a crapshoot whether Siri will choose one that’s actually in your library as opposed to another version from the broader Apple Music catalog.
One thing that is worth keeping in mind, however, is that HomePod is not limited to only playing songs from Apple Music; anything in your iCloud Music Library is fair game — even songs that have been uploaded rather than matched. So users with a $25/year iTunes Match subscription can still take almost full advantage of HomePod; about all you’ll be missing in this case is access to radio stations (other than Beats 1). Further, you can also play any Apple Podcasts in your library via Siri, provided you’ve subscribed to them in your Apple Podcasts app.
While Siri is a handy way to bring up existing playlists and albums, if you’re someone who likes to build and curate your own playlists like us that probably won’t always work for you. Fortunately, you can also directly control HomePod from the Music app on iOS 11.2.5 or later or iTunes 12.7.3 or later. We’re not sure Apple has done a good job of making it obvious how this works initially, but it works pretty well once you’ve figured it out. Once a HomePod is on your network, you can switch control over to it entirely from the standard AirPlay menu, where it will appear as a separate panel (iOS) or section (iTunes). Tap on that panel and your Music app essentially becomes a remote control for the HomePod. You can then proceed to use the Music app or iTunes as you normally would, but all play, pause, track, and volume controls will be controlling the HomePod instead of local playback, and Up Next will reflect what’s queued to play on the HomePod. This also works in the “Now Playing” applet on the Apple Watch, although only if you’ve already selected the HomePod on your iPhone.
To be clear, this is not AirPlay — you’re not playing music on your iPhone or Mac and streaming it out to the HomePod, but rather controlling the music stream to the HomePod directly. You can even switch back to your iPhone or Mac library from the AirPlay menu, where you’ll see whatever you were playing last (if anything), and can choose to playback an entirely different playlist on your local device. This same capability has also been added to the Apple TV as of tvOS 11.2.5, so you’ll see your Apple TV devices listed alongside your HomePod in the AirPlay menu.
Lastly, it’s worth an anecdotal mention that HomePod of course supports standard AirPlay. In fact, this is the only external audio input method available to the HomePod. As we noted in part 1, there are no external ports at all, and despite having Bluetooth 5 built-in, that appears to be used only for setting up the HomePod — there’s no support for Bluetooth streaming at all. That said, however, HomePod is a rock solid AirPlay speaker, and was 100 percent reliable in all of our testing — something that we can’t say for any other AirPlay speaker we’ve tried. We also found it more responsive than most AirPlay speakers — there’s still a slightly noticeable lag (which AirPlay 2 promises to fix), but it’s not as bad as we’ve experienced elsewhere.
Talking to HomePod
Of course, one of the key points that distinguishes HomePod from being just another AirPlay speaker is its built-in Siri support. While Apple is obviously coming late to the game, users who are ensconced within the Apple ecosystem will definitely appreciate HomePod’s Siri integration over Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, and we’re fairly sure that this is one of the key things Apple is banking on.
We were pleasantly surprised with how easy it is to speak to HomePod. There’s a natural tendency to want to raise your voice when calling out “Hey Siri” but in reality speaking in a normal conversational voice works just fine. In fact, we were surprised to discover that HomePod could even hear us from an adjacent room or down the hall; while you’ll need to speak a bit louder if you’re further away, we never had to shout at HomePod for Siri to hear us. In fact, HomePod’s Siri can also hear you even when music is playing, even speaking in a normal voice, which we’ve got to say is an almost magical experience.
Of course, we did experience a few “false positives” — where Siri woke up and thought we were talking to it — but we were surprised how infrequently this actually happened. While there’s also a natural tendency to say “Hey Siri” and then wait for Siri to respond, HomePod actually works best when you simply string it together as a single sentence without pausing, and we think it also makes for a more natural user experience.
So what can you actually say to Siri on the HomePod? Well, it’s obviously more limited than what you can do on your iPhone, but actually a little more versatile than the Apple Watch. We’ve already discussed Apple Music requests, and when listening to audio you can also adjust the volume simply by saying things like “turn up the volume” or “set the volume to 60 percent” and it’s worth mentioning that Siri can be unobtrusive with these sorts of requests — again, as long as you don’t pause after saying the initial “Hey Siri”, HomePod can do things like adjusting volume without interrupting audio playback at all.
Siri on HomePod also supports all of the usual HomeKit requests for turning lights on and off, adjusting thermostats, locking (but not unlocking) doors — this last one is particularly interesting, since somewhere between iOS 11 and iOS 11.2.5, Apple added the ability to lock doors using Siri without requiring authentication, however for obvious security reasons, HomePod still can’t unlock your doors, so you’ll need to do that from an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch.
Of course, HomePod can also be used to set HomeKit scenes, and as with Siri on the iPhone or Apple Watch, you often don’t need to explicitly “set the scene” — you can simply say something like “Hey Siri I’m leaving” or “Hey Siri good night” (again, without pausing), and Siri will set the appropriate HomeKit scene.
HomePod can also respond to basic Siri requests without the need to go back to your iPhone screen. It works great for simple unit conversions, including currency conversions, weather reports and even distances, travel time, and traffic conditions to public destinations (sadly, HomePod can’t yet look up addresses from your iCloud or iOS contacts). You can also make general knowledge queries — Siri will read back the first little bit of anything that’s searchable on Wikipedia, so you can for instance say “Tell me about Paris” or “What’s the normal temperature of the human body” and get a verbal answer. Translation requests also work between all of the normal supported languages, so you can make queries like, “How do you say ‘Hello’ in Mandarin Chinese.”
As a personal assistant, however, HomePod is a bit more limited. Firstly, you only get support for Messages, Reminders, and Notes — Calendar and Mail are conspicuously missing here. Secondly, HomePod only supports a single user for these features, which by default will be the user of the iPhone that first sets up the HomePod. Within these limitations, though, HomePod does work well as a personal assistant, with an experience similar to using an iPhone with CarPlay. You can create reminders, send messages, and create or add to notes using the same Siri commands that you’d use on your iPhone, but you can also query your reminders (“what’s on my list for today”) and check your messages (“read my recent messages from dad”), and HomePod will read them back to you. Not surprisingy, the primary user’s iPhone needs to be active on the same Wi-Fi network for the personal assistant features to work, so your family members won’t be able to set reminders for you when you’re away from home.
Despite the somewhat limited native app integration, HomePod does support third-party apps that use the SiriKit framework. For example, if you’re using the appropriate apps on your iPhone, you can issue commands like, “Using Things, add wash the dishes to my Household list for today” or “In Anylist, add milk to my grocery list”, although attempts to query information (“Using Things, show me my today list”) don’t yet work. It’s unclear whether this is a SiriKit limitation on the HomePod, or if it’s just a matter of developers updating their apps to improve HomePod support. SiriKit also supports stringing lists together, so you can say something like, “In Anylist, add items to my grocery list” and when Siri asks which items you want to add, you can say “Bread and milk and eggs” and get three separate items added. It’s a nice touch that ironically isn’t supported in Apple’s own Reminders app.
That said, we were surprised to discover that in some cases HomePod’s SiriKit actually works better than on the Apple Watch. For example, when using Cultured Code’s Things, you can’t add an item to a specific list from the Apple Watch (we’re guessing this is because lists aren’t available in the native watchOS app), yet you can do this from the HomePod, since it passes the request back to the user’s iPhone.
SiriKit opens up a number of possibilities for HomePod, but keep in mind that Apple has only opened SiriKit to a few specific app categories, and while it seems likely Apple will add more categories in the future, the most useful category for potential HomePod users — music apps like Spotify — is still excluded for now.
Apple’s HomePod is a difficult product to rate, since its usefulness depends entirely on how deeply entrenched you are in the Apple ecosystem. Make no mistake at all — HomePod is an iPhone accessory more than it is a standalone speaker. If you’re somebody who is “all-in” on the iPhone, HomeKit, and Apple Music, HomePod is the smart speaker you’ve been waiting for, but it’s a much tougher call for everyone else. For example, if your music platform of choice is something like Spotify, HomePod will be little more than a great-sounding AirPlay speaker, and if you don’t use a lot of HomeKit accessories, the Siri personal assistant features also become considerably less relevant. Of course, we’re an Apple-focused site, so we’re not even considering the utility of HomePod for non-Apple users (frankly, it has none), but even for hardcore iPhone fans, HomePod requires a higher level of commitment to Apple’s products and services than any other product we’ve yet encountered, and while HomePod has done some great things with personal speaker audio performance, we’re not convinced that it’s enough to push people deeper into the Apple ecosystem.
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