Do You Need Apple’s Speaker In Your Home?

Photo: Madeline Buxton.
If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of smart speakers available right now — all touting superb sound, smart assistants, and news on demand — I don't blame you. Amazon Echo might have started the race in 2014, but the Google Home devices, as well as Sonos's Alexa-enabled offering have all caught up fast, complicating an already difficult shopping decision.
When I saw HomePod ($349), Apple's late entry into the crowded category, for a first look a few weeks ago, I wondered if it could outperform the competition. Could the Siri-enabled HomePod find the same success as other Apple products and take the lead? After more time and at-home testing, though, the answer is clear: HomePod may sound incredible, but it is not a smart speaker for everyone. Here, a breakdown of where HomePod wins, and where it falls disappointingly short.
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The Setup
The fun part of getting any new device is using it, which means you want the setup to be as seamless and efficient as possible. Fortunately, this is an area where Apple almost always excels, and that's true with HomePod, too. It took me just five minutes from taking my review device out of the box to set it up and start listening to music. After I plugged HomePod in, my iPhone immediately recognized that it was nearby and pulled up a "Set Up" option onscreen.
If you don't already have the Home App on your iPhone, you'll need to download it. From there, you'll select the room where you keep your HomePod — I have primarily used it in the living room, which is the largest space in my apartment. Finally, you'll be asked if you want to "enable personal requests." This is where HomePod's limitations start to show.
Enabling personal requests means that anyone in your home can use HomePod to "send and read messages, add reminders, and create notes" when the iPhone used to set it up is connected to the same WiFi network. Only one iCloud account can be linked to the device, so unless you live alone, turning on personal requests for HomePod doesn't make much sense. I live with two roommates, and turning on personal requests means that when I'm home and my iPhone is connected to the same network as HomePod, my roommates can ask it to send a text to one of my contacts or add notes to my Notes app — access I would prefer they not have. When I'm not home, and/or my iPhone isn't connected to the network, they can't access this functionality, so I don't have worry about pranks when I'm work.
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HomePod would be much more useful with voice recognition, a feature that both Amazon Echo and Google Home offer, which would allow multiple users to connect their accounts and get personalized information when using the speaker.
Another big shortcoming: HomePod favors existing Apple users. You'll need an iOS device to set it up, and other Apple subscriptions for key services, including music.
The Sound
HomePod's most impressive element is maybe the most important: its sound. The strength of bass notes and clarity of vocals made me feel as if I'd scored front-row access to see my favorite band.
Even when I moved HomePod to different areas in my living room — against a wall, on the coffee table in the middle of the room, on a ledge in the corner — the sound stayed consistent. (If you're putting it on a wooden surface, though, you may want to put a coaster underneath — some users have noticed staining.)
Unfortunately, HomePod primarily supports Apple's own service, Apple Music ($9.99/month). If you're a Spotify subscriber you can still access your playlists with HomePod, but you'll need to stream them via AirPlay. This, again, limits the device to users with an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Mac. If a friend comes over and has a killer Spotify playlist on their Android phone, they'll need to share it with you before you can use Airplay to listen with HomePod.
Oh, Siri
Thanks to updates that rolled out with iOS 11, Siri sounds much more realistic than it has previously. Its performance, however, could use some work.
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Siri could answer basic questions about the artists playing through Apple Music, but only when the questions were worded a certain way. While playing Pink's "Raise Your Glass," I asked Siri "what are some other songs by this artist?" and "what else does this artist sing?" Both times, she responded with, "This is Pink with the track 'Raise Your Glass.'" Only when I asked, "What else does Pink sing?" did Siri give the more extensive answer I wanted.
I was also unable to successfully get correct answers to consecutive questions. During Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" I asked Siri, "How old is Taylor Swift?" Siri correctly answered 28. However, when I then asked, "What was her most recent album?" Siri didn't take into account my previous question about Taylor Swift and pulled up some other so-called "recent" music, which, strangely, came from the Beach Boys.
Siri is also unable to provide recipes like Alexa and the Google Assistant, and can't call you a Lyft or give you details about your upcoming calendar appointments.
One visual component of Siri I do like: When talking to the smart assistant, a rainbow-like hue lights up on top of HomePod to let you know it's listening.
The Final Take
If you are an Apple user who is already subscribed to Apple Music, HomePod is worth considering given its impressive sound. However, if you listen to all your music through Spotify or prefer the many skills offered through Alexa or the Google Assistant, your money is better spent on those devices. For now, HomePod isn't all sunshine and rainbows — unless you're looking at Siri's responsive light.
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