With Apple’s HomePod out on the market, we decided to see how it did in a couple of different homes, so it spent some time with technology writer Jake Swearingen — someone pretty far out of the Apple ecosystem — and Select All senior editor Max Read — someone deeply embedded in Apple’s ecosystem. After we each got a few days with Apple’s smart speaker, we compared notes.
Jake Swearingen: So, the HomePod. Sounds pretty good, right? But was there anything else it did that you really liked? I know you have a few more Apple things in your home than I do.
Max Read: Yeah, maybe I should start by admitting that I’m a total Apple homer, since it’s extremely relevant to the question of which smart speaker you should buy. I’m typing this on a MacBook; I use an iPhone; I watch Netflix over my Apple TV; and, yes, I even have AirPods. And I can confirm that the HomePod inserts itself totally seamlessly into a household drowning in Apple. Beyond the bare fact that you can’t even set the thing up without an iPhone, it’s also that everything else you might want to do with a smart speaker becomes easier when you’re cocooned (or trapped, depending on your perspective) in Apple’s chamfered embrace. Want to control your smart home? If you’ve already set everything up in Apple’s HomeKit, you don’t need to tinker at all. Want to use your HomePod as a home-theater speaker? If you’ve got an Apple TV, you can do that with a couple swipes and a couple clicks. It’s seamless and easy compared to the longer setup and customization processes that the Amazon Echo and Google Home both required of me when I tried those out.
But I can see it being much more of a pain — and maybe less useful — if you’re not a heavy Apple user. What was it like using the HomePod as an Android guy?
Jake: Not great! I’ve got an iPhone on loan from Apple, so I was able to get it set up and running, but I definitely felt hemmed in at a lot of different places. The fact that the HomePod has Bluetooth 5.0 onboard should mean that I could theoretically hook in just about anything, but that it will only actually work with Apple’s proprietary AirPlay protocol pretty much sums up my gripes about it. It’s too bad because when it comes to sound and design, this is pretty close to the Platonic ideal of a smart speaker. It’s small enough that it tucks into the corner of my kitchen, unlike the Google Home Max, which is like cramming two Cuisinarts onto your counter. And after using the HomePod, the Amazon Echo sounds a little muddy.
On the other hand, on the Amazon Echo, I can keep using all my Spotify playlists. How’d you find Apple Music?
Max: Listening to music on the HomePod was both the biggest attraction and the biggest pain point. I’ve been listening to music on my Amazon Echo, mostly just out of laziness — it’s there, it plays music when I ask it to, and it sounds fine — and the HomePod promised a much better, deeper, richer sound than the bare-bones Echo speaker. It certainly delivered on that promise: It sounds great, especially compared to the Echo.
But I underestimated how much of a pain it would be to switch from Spotify to Apple Music. I’d actually started my Spotify membership a couple of years ago specifically to take advantage of the Amazon Echo, which means I have two years worth of playlists and saved albums that I need to reconstruct on Apple Music.
(There are services that claim to transfer playlists for you, but I couldn’t get any of them to work when I tried.) This is mostly just annoying, and not a deal-breaker — but I will say that Spotify’s automatically generated playlists and recommendations are much better than Apple Music’s, and that makes a big difference. If you’re buying this speaker in order to listen to music on it, as Apple seems to suggest, you want to use the absolute best music services. As it is now, I can only listen to Spotify on my phone, via AirPlay, which is not the ideal system.
So I don’t think I’m being picky when I say that if you’re a longtime or devoted Spotify user, I’d think hard about whether you have the patience or energy to switch from one platform to another. Sure, if you just like to listen to a handful of favorite albums, it won’t make much of a difference. But Apple is selling this as a music lover’s speaker, and music lovers should be prepared to use Apple Music almost exclusively.
I expected the sound to be good, but one thing I was pleasantly surprised by was Siri. I almost never use Siri on my phone, so maybe my impression is stuck in the dark ages of its near uselessness — but on the HomePod, it understood everything and responded to queries very well. On the other hand, that may be because 90 percent of my conversations with smart speakers are around four tasks: playing music, turning on and off lights, setting timers, and getting the weather. You have a little more experience with the Google Home — how do you think Siri stacked up against it and Alexa?
Jake: I would guess that there was some behind-the-scenes beefing up of Siri’s knowledge base and overall usability before the HomePod got released because I expected it to be much, much worse than it was. I did some round-robin tests with an Amazon Echo, a Google Home, and a HomePod, and Siri did pretty okay on knowledge-based stuff — who’s the leading scorer in the NBA right now, what’s the population of Malta, who wrote Lucky Jim — stuff you can use to cheat at crossword puzzles, basically. But there were also weird knowledge gaps: Siri flatly refused to answer a lot of questions about movie and TV shows for some reason.
Siri also seemed to stumble a bit more than Alexa or Google’s Assistant when I strayed outside of pretty direct commands or queries, which meant that I had to phrase everything in that weird command-line syntax: “Siri, play the radio station WNYC” worked, but if I just said, “Siri, play WNYC,” I got a playlist of the artist WNC. And the ability to send text messages from a phone hooked directly into your HomePod seems like it’ll inevitably lead to trouble for someone with kids.
There’s also some basic functionality that I’ve come to expect — especially setting multiple timers while cooking — that really should be there on Siri and just isn’t. I also found it really annoying how badly the HomePod and the iPhone interacted with each other. If I ask how long it’ll take to get to an address on Google Home or Alexa, those directions get sent directly to my phone, ready for me when I step out the door. Or if I want to turn off a timer or alarm, I can use Google and Amazon’s respective apps to directly access that stuff. You can’t with the HomePod — everything is hidden beneath the Apple Home app, which is unintuitive.
But I’m inclined to give some of this a pass because these are all things that can be fixed with updates. Alexa was much more confused about a lot more stuff a few years ago, but software updates have improved the Echo by quite a bit. Smart speakers aren’t static pieces of hardware. They’re just like us, Max. They have the capacity to change.
Knowing Apple, what isn’t going to change is that price. Would you pay $350 for what the HomePod is right now? Or what would need to change (besides you suddenly getting a bunch more money) for you to be willing pay $350?
Max: Weirdly, the question of how much I’d pay for the HomePod depends a bit on what I’m thinking of it as. As a competitor to the Echo or the Google Home, I don’t think you get quite enough extra for your money, and, of course, if good sound matters that much to you, my bet is that you already have a good speaker at home that you can upgrade to “smart” with an Amazon Dot.
But when I think about the HomePod as a competitor to a Sonos speaker — the full-home speaker system now equipped with Alexa — it becomes a little less clear to me. In terms of sound quality, the HomePod sounds to me like it ends up somewhere close to the big, impressive, flagship Sonos Five — which currently retails for around $500. Now, Sonos still has plenty of advantages over the HomePod, including models at price points under the HomePod. But if people are already paying those prices for good smart speakers that you can chain together throughout your home, I don’t know why I’d think the HomePod is overpriced.
Now, would I build a home sound system out of HomePods? Probably not — though the irrational gadget-project guy in me sort of wants to for inexplicable reasons — and I sort of doubt that Apple is interested in expanding its product line to Sonos levels. But if I were a Sonos exec right now, I’d be wondering what I was doing that really differentiated me from the HomePod.
I’ll say this: One thing that might make this worth it to me is the ability to control my Apple TV. Nothing has seemed to represent the lazy-utopia promise of the smart speaker to me more than the idea that I could talk directly to my TV: “Siri, play the episode of The Sopranos where Tony and Meadow visit colleges together.” You can do this right now with the Google Home and Chromecast (though it’s a bit janky), and if you hook up your Apple TV to your HomePod over AirPlay, you can tell it to play and pause whatever you’re watching. But a HomePod that acts like an Apple TV (or vice versa) might very well be worth $350.
What do you think: Would HomePod–Apple TV interoperability convince you to switch to the Apple ecosystem? Is there anything the HomePod could do that would make you place it over the Echo or the Google Home?
Jake: You sell me a combo HomePod–Apple TV with the sound-bar design of a Sonos Playbar, you open it up so I can use Spotify, and I’m suddenly a lot more interested. At some point, Lord help me, I’m going to set up a smart home. Of the various ways to control a smart home that I’ve looked at, I like Apple’s HomeKit quite a bit — the ideas of setting up “scenes” based around a cluster of activities — say, a “weekday morning” scene to turn on coffee, raise the thermostat, turn on NPR, and raise blinds in our kitchen — makes more sense than the more granular and kinda annoying control you often see with some competitors. But you’d also need to see Apple be willing to perhaps sell something like a HomePod Mini for full-home control. I need decent mics spread around, but I don’t need sound that can fill an auditorium everywhere.
But the earliest you’d see something like that is probably 2019. One thing you’ll hear Apple defenders — and Apple itself — say over and over is that it’s not afraid to be late to a market. It didn’t have the first MP3 player, or the first smartphone, or the first tablet — just the best. But in each of those instances, Apple used its unique position in the supply chain to meld software and hardware together into something greater than the sum of its parts. The iPod was a great leap forward in the usability of MP3 players that moved them from the “gadget dork” aisle to “holiday present for mom” aisle. And I can’t see anything the HomePod is doing — even with its fancy spatial acoustic rendering and, again, truly fantastic sound — that has that same great leap forward in usability.
So, at the end of the day, I think my favorite smart speaker is still the Google Home (and, if I’m feeling flush, the Google Home Max). I find it to understand me the most, it neatly folds in with my Google calendars and other Google accounts, and remains pretty elastic in what you can do with it. Who’ve you got?
Max: If I were an Apple geek with cash to burn, the HomePod would be perfect. Unfortunately, I’m just an Apple geek. I agree that all-around, the Google Home is probably your best bet — with the caveat that if you already have a good speaker somewhere, the Echo Dot is probably the best bargain out of any of them.
Jake: Will you be sad to give the HomePod back to Apple’s press people?
Max: I’ll be torn up, but I think Siri is too young to really understand.