HomePod Real World Review: Is it Worth $350


| In-Depth Review

HomePod and Siri

Siri is Apple’s voice control assistant that first appeared several years ago on the iPhone. Now it’s available on iPad, Apple Watch, and the Mac, too. HomePod is the first stationary Siri device, and people have been flipping out over the past couple weeks over its voice limitations compared to Apple’s other products as well as pretty much every other product ever devised in all of human history. People are practically foaming at the mouth and crying tears of blood over how they feel about Siri.

Most every review I’ve read that bags on Siri on HomePod is criticizing the feature based on what they want it to be, not what Apple said it is. Apple says Siri on HomePod supports Apple Music and Music on iCloud, creating Reminders, responding to iMessage chats, controlling HomeKit devices, and some queries that require internet access. It does all of those things as advertised, and the failures I experienced were no different than those I deal with on Amazon’s Alexa platform or Google Assistant.

Occasionally Siri failed to do anything when I issued a command or query that is supported, and I’ve had a couple instances where my iPhone or Apple Watch high jacked a voice command I intended for HomePod. I also had once instance where I said “Hey Siri, play jazz,” and both my HomePod and iPhone started playing music.

Siri also blew it when I asked it to play “Also sprach Zarathustra,” telling me it couldn’t find the song. Asking for “that song from 2001 a Space Odyssey,” however, worked just fine. In comparison, Alexa on my Amazon Echo did find and play the song, although it was the live version from an Elvis Presley concert.

Based on my experience, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are all very rudimentary with unique strengths and weaknesses. I can find plenty to complain about in all three and I’m impatiently waiting for the day when I can say anything to the air and get an appropriate response from a voice assistant. I’m pretty sure that day is still a long way off.

There’s a lot Apple can do to improve Siri on HomePod, and I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a team already hard at work. Here’s what I’d like to see on that feature check list:

  • Voice-recognized multi-user support. Right now HomePod links to a single iCloud account, which seems odd considering it’s a device for your home. Unless you live alone, there’s a good chance more than one person is interacting with HomePod, and Siri should be able to respond appropriately based on voices.
  • Calendar support. Not being able to say, “Hey Siri, what’s my schedule” is surprisingly limiting. Maybe this is a feature tied to multi-user voice recognition.
  • Handoff support. Instead of telling me a voice command isn’t supported on HomePod, hand off the task to something that is—like my iPhone, which is also nearby.
  • Multiple timer support. My HomePod, just like my Amazon Echo, is in earshot of the kitchen. I can set up as many timers as I like, complete with unique names, on my Echo. HomePod should be able to do the same.

One thing Apple got right with Siri on HomePod is its ability to hear you speak. In fact, HomePod picks up your voice so well it’s almost creepy. I played music at full volume and Siri responded when I spoke at a normal conversation level—I couldn’t even hear my own voice. Siri responds when I’m down the hall in another room, and picked up my voice when I turned on every fan and white noise-capable device in my place.

I can say Siri performs on HomePod exactly as advertised, but I wouldn’t consider that high praise. Siri has so much potential and I’d like to see Apple turn that into so much more than the have today.

HomePod’s Mixed Bag

Apple did an amazing job of making HomePod easy to set up: just take it out of the box, plug it in, and hold your iPhone close. After a couple taps your HomePod is set up and ready to use. There’s a little fold-out sheet in the box explaining the process, and it’s almost as simple as setting up AirPods.

You manage HomePod settings in the Home app, which I guess makes sense considering it’s also a HomeKit remote access bridge, just like Apple TV. That said, you don’t control your Apple TV from the Home app.

While HomePod works fine today, it’s missing a couple promised features. First, it doesn’t work in pairs yet. Two units should be able to work together to create a more stereo-like sound in a room. Second, multi-room streaming isn’t available.

HomePod on top of a book stack

A stack of books may be just what you need to get the best sound from your HomePod

Both features are coming as software updates, and hopefully sooner than later. Multi-room streaming is part of AirPlay 2, which was pulled from iOS 11.3 beta 3. That’s the key element for the missing features. iOS 11.3 is scheduled for a Spring release, so there’s still a chance AirPlay 2 will show up in betas and not get pushed out to an even later iOS update.

HomePod doesn’t handle account changes gracefully, which I learned the hard way. The credit card number I use for my iTunes account was stolen so my bank issued me a new card. I forgot to update the card before my Apple Music subscription tried to process, so I couldn’t stream music.

When I updated my card number, Apple Music started working again everywhere except my HomePod. I had to go into the Home app on my iPhone to get the HomePod settings to update before it would start streaming music again. That’s a pretty clumsy system considering every other Apple device I own was able to see the account change without any extra action.

Should You Buy HomePod?

HomePod costs US$349, so is it worth buying? I can’t give you a definitive yes or no answer, but I can arm you with what you need to know to make an informed choice.

If you subscribe to Apple Music, or plan to, HomePod is great because it uses Apple Music and iCloud Music Library for streaming. Siri integrates well and typically serves up what you want to hear.

If you’re big into Spotify, however, HomePod may not be the best choice because right now you have to use AirPlay from another device to play your music. There’s a long list of Alexa-compatible speakers on the market that already support Spotify. Hopefully Apple will change that with a future software update.

If you’re a HomeKit smartphone device user HomePod is great. Mine responds to my commands more reliably than my iPhone or Apple Watch, plus it hears me from practically everywhere in my apartment. If you use a wider range of smart home devices, an Alexa-compatible device like Amazon Echo, or a Google Assistant device like Google Home may be a better choice.

HomePod also serves as a HomeKit bridge, just like Apple TV, so you can remotely control your smart home devices when you’re out and about. That’s handy if you don’t own an Apple TV, or if you do, now you have a backup in case it drops off your network for some reason.

If you already have a full-home streaming audio system like Sonos, there isn’t any need to reinvent what you already have with HomePod.

I ultimately went with a mixed solution: HomePod and Amazon Echo. I prefer the HomePod’s audio quality for music streaming, but my conglomeration of smart home devices means I need the Echo for some voice control, and I can set multiple timers—something I didn’t realize I do a lot until I got my HomePod.

And finally, if HomePod makes you happy as a music player, smart home voice assistant, or for any other reason, get it. Speakers are subjective, and if HomePod is the one that makes you happy, that’s great because we can always use more happiness in the world.

The Bottom Line

I love HomePod as a streaming music smart speaker, despite the instances where the low tones are too heavy. It sounds great and fills my living room nicely, regardless of where I stand.

I love that I never need to talk above a friendly conversational level for Siri to hear me even when I’m playing music far louder than I should. I also love that HomePod looks really nice and blends in with my decor instead of looking like a clunky speaker that stands out.

Setup is so simple that you don’t really need the small flier that’s in the box. Once your HomePod is up and running, it just works. No need to think about turning it on or off, or whether or not it’s in a sleep mode. In fact, there isn’t even a power button anywhere on HomePod.

I’d like to see Siri become more versatile on HomePod, but I’m glad it at least performs as advertised today. I also want to see HomePod settings management to be less clunky.

Before my HomePod arrived I wondered if I would keep it considering I already had a streaming music and smart home voice control system in place. Turns out the answer is yes, I am keeping it, and I really love listening to music on it.

Product: HomePod

Company: Apple

List Price: $349

Rating:

We Like It. You Should Get It.

Pros:

Good sound, easy setup, looks nice, microphones pick up your voice from practically anywhere, it’s also a HomeKit hub

Cons:

No handoff for Siri commands it doesn’t understand, some promised features missing at launch, no native Spotify support, updating settings is a clunky process

3 Comments Add a comment

  1. tedlandau

    Re: “If you like it, that’s good enough. Anyone that tells you otherwise, or shames you for what you like, needs to shut up and mind their own damn business.”

    While there’s merit to this view, I would take some exception to it. What you “like” best may be the result of ignorance. That is, if you were exposed to something better, you might come to realize that what you thought you liked best was in fact inferior to something you had never considered. For example, my wife thought the Amazon Echo sounded “just great” until she heard it next to our soundbar streaming the same music via AirPlay.

    Not every improvement may be worth it to you. Is it worth getting a car that can go from 0-60 in half the time your current car manages the task? That depends — on how much more the faster car costs and how much your daily driving would be improved by faster acceleration. But it’s at least worth knowing what options exist. It’s the same with sound systems. Yes, it may turn out that you like your current system as well or better than one that costs twice as much and that audiophiles say is better. So be it; that’s your call to make. But to just say, a priori, “if you like it, that’s good enough” — without seriously investigating the alternatives — is shortchanging yourself.

  2. skipaq

    We just purchased a HomePod and set it up in our living room. Our Sonos is now in our exercise room. We do like the sound of both while giving a small edge to the HomePod. We have no other smart home devices leaving most of the “Siri” issues out of our decision. What it came down to was compatibility with Apple Music. It is a joy to just ask for music catered to genres, years and categories that are of interest to us. We don’t think of HomePod as expensive due to the sound quality and integration with Apple’s technosystem.

  3. wab95

    Siri also blew it when I asked it to play “Also sprach Zarathustra,” telling me it couldn’t find the song. Asking for “that song from 2001 a Space Odyssey,” however, worked just fine. In comparison, Alexa on my Amazon Echo did find and play the song, although it was the live version from an Elvis Presley concert.

    Somewhere in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, methinks Richard Strauss in turning over in his grave.

    Many thanks for that review, Jeff. This has been perhaps the most thorough that I’ve seen anywhere, and is a balanced and frank assessment. And, hello Ted.

    Based on both your and Dave Hamilton’s reviews, I suspect that not only the software, but indeed the hardware may need to be updated in order to address some of the issues related HomePod’s functionality and capability, taking a page from the AW. I’m thinking particularly about multi-room streaming, but I could be wrong.

    I’ve been holding off, since Dave’s review, purchasing the HomePod until I can actually hear one in the Apple Store; however my time constraints mean that it’s been sitting in my bag in the online store now since it came out, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to the store (I haven’t even gone with my son to see ‘Black Panther’ yet – that’s how badly my time is impinged). Given that I’ve yet to invest heavily in smart home devices, my main use case will be for music streaming, so some of these limitations have no practical effect on my purchase decision. Besides, if I find that I don’t like the sound (unlikely), the Apple Store has been great about returns, when needed.

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