After a big introduction last fall — followed by a long wait during the holiday season that Apple decided to sit out — the much speculated-upon HomePod has finally hit the retail market.
Wasting no time, tech testers of the world have been taking the HomePod for all kinds of rides to see if the smart speaker by Apple was really worth the wait and if it will be worth shelling out $350 to own.
We hesitate to say it’s a flop, because there are elements that have been praised. The applause is loudest for the HomePod’s sound quality, which reviewers have nearly universally agreed is top-notch.
But if one is looking for more than a high-quality speaker system, the reviews have not been so great. Siri doesn’t work nearly as well as she does on a phone, doesn’t seem to be learning from interactions with users and comes with far fewer skills than her counterparts, such as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant.
User reviews note that the Apple HomePod is “too much an Apple device” and too dedicated to keeping users locked into Apple’s walled garden. The HomePod will play a user any song they want to hear — just so long as they subscribe to Apple Music, because the HomePod is not compatible with Spotify.
The HomePod was described mostly as a system trying to do too much by itself — and thus not getting much of anything done, particularly when stacked up against the rest of the marketplace.
So, here are the standouts — good and bad.
When the device was first introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, staff made much of the next-generation sound experience the HomePod would offer its listeners.
“We want to reinvent home music,” CEO Tim Cook noted in his keynote opener. According to reviews thus far, from a sound point of view, it seems Apple has delivered.
“The HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we’ve tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it’s immediately, obviously noticeable: Set in a corner of my kitchen, the HomePod sounded so much better than everything else,” The Verge noted in its review. “Compared to the HomePod, the Sonos One sounds a little empty and the Google Home Max is a bass-heavy mess — even though Google also does real-time room tuning.
The real-time room tuning is a reference to one of the HomePod’s selling features: the ability to create an audio map of the room and customize the sound output from the speakers.
Positive notes on the HomePod include its excellent speakers, which were very adept at “hearing” and responding to the phrase, “Hey, Siri.”
The problems arise in what Siri can do and can’t do when “she” responds.
All the Other Things
The HomePod can play a user a song — as long as they are an Apple music subscriber — quite well.
But, according to a review in The New York Times, it’s best to tell Siri exactly what to play, because despite billing to the contrary, Siri is not all that great at learning a user’s musical preferences.
“After a week — during which I asked HomePod to play my favorite tunes from artists like Beck, Talking Heads and David Bowie — the smart speaker still did not learn. Instead, like a stubborn DJ, Siri kept playing music by artists outside my music palette: Taylor Swift and Leroy Francis, to name just two.”
It was, according to the NYT, only the beginning of the things Siri couldn’t do. When tested head-to-head against Alexa on the Echo and Google Assistant on the Google Home, Siri couldn’t give users an estimated drive time for a trip like the others.
When asked to summon an Uber, Siri was helpless, though both Alexa and Google Assistant were eager to do so.
When it came time to cook dinner, Siri could not even pull up a recipe. Both Amazon and Google’s virtual assistants could. Alexa even had ingredient substitution suggestions. All three could set a timer, but Siri was not able to set two different timers at once.
Siri also lacked the ability to schedule a meeting for its user, saying it could not access her calendar from the HomePod.
The Wall Street Journal complained that Siri — despite requiring a connection to an iPhone to work — couldn’t actually make a phone call.
“The HomePod has an iPhone processor and pairs with your iPhone — yet it can’t make a phone call? To use it as a speakerphone, you need to start the call on your iPhone then select the HomePod as an audio source,” the WSJ said.
The WSJ was one of many sources that noted it was odd that Siri on an iPhone has voice recognition technology, but on a smart speaker cannot tell one speaker from another.
Those issues, most reviewers noted, were compounded by the fact that, as designed today, the HomePod is not able to play well with others outside the Apple ecosystem, a move widely ruled a mistake.
The reviews made it clear that if one is an Apple devotee — and a sound snob — the HomePod might make sense.
If one is looking for a smart speaker … well, the HomePod is not quite there yet. The device will need a lot of upgrades before it’s even really playing in the same league as Google or Amazon.
The speaker, has promise. CNET noted the HomePod could have promise if more functions were added in. But as it is today, the smart speaker is only really of interest to hardcore Apple fans with a burning need for quality audio.
“Everyone else should wait to see what Apple will add to this promising speaker in the months ahead,” CNET said.
Most reviewers agreed that Apple needs to get better about playing well with others, because a walled-off HomePod can’t compete with Google’s universe of data or Amazon’s arsenal of skills.
“Apple can try to move mountains by itself, or it can recognize that the HomePod is a little iOS computer for the home and let developers build on it as they have for so long and with such great success with the iPhone, iPad and Mac,” The Verge concluded in its review.