I recently sat down with Apple to experience their upcoming smart speaker, the HomePod, first-hand. While much remains to be seen and explored once I actually have a HomePod of my own to really put through the paces, my initial experience is one that was both impressive and left me wanting more.
Borrowing the minimalist design you normally find in Apple’s hardware like iPhones and Macbook Pros, the HomePod opts for a pudgier form factor that comes off more like a friendly Pixar robot than the menacing black tube we’ve come to associate with Amazon’s Echo or the wooly pillow of Google Home Max.
Available in White and Space Gray (read: black) the design gets rounded out by an LED touch-sensitive top plate that’ll transform depending on the task, from the familiar plus/minus for volume controls to a reactive waveform that lets you know Siri is listening.
The guts of the HomePod are a testament to the fact that, first and foremost, the HomePod is a music-focused device that can also do the digital-assistant thing very well, not the other way around like Alexa. There’s a 360 degree array of seven tweeters at the bottom, six microphone array in the middle and a fairly large woofer (given the size of the HomePod) at the top.
At the center of it all is a brain that powers Siri as well as the impressive signal processing that gives the HomePod the ability to read the room and automatically and dynamically tune the speakers to maximize its sound no matter what setting it’s in. The results were impressive both in a room with absurdly high (22-foot) ceilings and when put up against competitors in the same category and price range.
The same microphones responsible for HomePod’s ability to shape sound also made it incredibly easy to speak to Siri even when music was playing, another nice departure from our experiences with Alexa which quickly turn into screaming matches when we’re bumping tunes.
Functionally, the HomePod appears to be able to do anything Siri can do. Asking her questions on HomePod will likely illicit the same answers you would get if you asked her on your iPhone. Likewise, HomeKit home automation devices are equally easy to invoke on HomePod as they are on iPhone, including the multi-function preset scenes that you may already have integrated in your home. The list goes on as Apple demoed sending iMessages using HomePod (your phone needs to be nearby) and using the HomePod as a robust extension for making phone calls.
HomePod’s reliance on Siri and iOS (it can only be set up via an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch) may also be its biggest drawback as Apple seems intent on controlling the HomePod experience tightly, like they do with most of their other devices. Keep in mind, this is NOT a bluetooth speaker and will not pair with other devices as a result. If you do want to beam something to the HomePod, you’re going to need to use Apple’s AirPlay standard instead.
That does open up the HomePod for use with services like Spotify, YouTube and Pandora from a host of other Apple devices including Macbooks and iMacs but you’re going to want to have an Apple Music subscription if you really want HomePod to function the way it’s intended.
As for further functionality, say controlling your AppleTV the way Google Home can control a Chromecast or doing some online ordering the way Alexa is enabled to work with Amazon Prime, that all remains to be seen. We do know that Apple already has plans for updates to the HomePod lined up for the future and we imagine they won’t be left in the dust when it comes to competing with Google, Amazon and the likes.