Timing isn’t everything. At least, not for Apple. It’s trying to prove that again with its first smart speaker, the HomePod. The question is, will it work this time around?
Apple wasn’t the first company to launch a high-end smartphone, but it effectively changed the market with the introduction of the iPhone. Apple has successfully changed the narrative more than a few times, all to varying degrees of success. For all intents and purposes, the Apple Watch is another positive story for Apple, effectively doing so well that other companies making competing products have just stopped trying.
The HomePod is late to the smart speaker game, but that doesn’t mean the fervor for the product has died down just yet. Products like the Google Home and Amazon Echo dominate the section, and they did so because the companies behind those smart speakers put the emphasis on their digital personal assistants, and also made sure that the price tags weren’t too ridiculous.
Apple, unsurprisingly, went the other direction in just about every way it could. The HomePod is a smart speaker, technically speaking, but it’s clearly designed to be a speaker above showing any smarts. And this is where Apple is once again trying to change the conversation.
I have spent a week with the HomePod, six days of actual usage, and I can say that I’m impressed with the device — broadly speaking.
Setup was quick and easy. Just a few quick taps, on cards that slide up reminiscent of the old Control Center. Agree to a few things, like Personal Requests and sharing information from your Apple ID with the HomePod. You’ll get a prompt to sign up for Apple Music, too. Just a few slides later and the HomePod is ready to go.
Apple is absolutely correct when it says it’s a device that sounds great, and that it sounds great in every room you put it in. The technology that Apple put into the smart speaker is top-of-the-line, and the results really do shine.
And that’s really the most important part for Apple, because the HomePod has to sound great. Not because it’s the only reason to buy one, but because if you’re going to fork over $350 for the smart speaker, then it has to be able to accomplish what the company is advertising the most.
And, as I’ve already outlined, the HomePod does sound great. To my ears, anyway. It’s hard to gauge how this will track with a wider audience, because honestly this is such a subjective part of any audio equipment. I can tell you that the HomePod sounds amazing, far better than the Google Home or the Amazon Echo, but after you listen to Apple’s smart speaker you might not agree.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the HomePod’s audio quality is worth the price tag — if you are in the market for a smart speaker and want to spend around the device’s price.
I didn’t write up a separate section on the HomePod’s Siri capabilities, mostly because it would’ve been pretty short: Siri is there, and it works when you call it, but the complaints that it’s not anywhere near the capabilities of the leading competing products are spot on. The fact that I can ask Siri what my schedule looks like for my day on my iPhone, and I get a prompt, distinct rundown, but Siri tells me that’s something it can’t do on the smart speaker is really, really dumb.
That being said, I don’t use Siri all that often, and aside from the aforementioned schedule fiasco, I didn’t run into any issues asking Siri a question that it couldn’t answer, or giving the digital personal assistant a query that it couldn’t pull through. What’s more, the internal microphones that are always listening for the “Hey, Siri” command are ridiculously good. I’ve had the audio level cranked up, and I’ve spoken normally –where I could barely hear myself– and Siri was ready to go every time.
Apple wants to change the conversation surrounding the smart speaker market. It wants customers to know that a speaker like the HomePod does have Siri built in, but the first and second reason why you should buy one is the audio performance. Companies like Sonos will argue that they are ahead of that curve, and some folks would agree. But that’s fine — Apple is going to continue to lean into this, even as it improves the HomePod in other areas.
Which is the interesting part. Because Apple is obviously going to improve Siri and the HomePod in other key areas. Siri is going to get better, as far as queries and actions are concerned. (Which is going to be even bigger news for iOS, one would imagine.) But Apple can always rely on the HomePod’s audio quality to serve as that baseline.
And let’s not forget features like FullRoom and AirPlay 2, which will bring some key elements to the HomePod at a later date. Being able to sync up multiple smart speakers will be a positive addition — even if it means you’re dropping $700+ for premium speakers for multiple rooms.
And one final thought: Apple’s walled garden. The HomePod is 100% a device that’s aimed directly at keeping Apple customers in the walled garden of the company’s ecosystem. Yes, it is dumb that you can’t use your voice to control your music if you use Spotify. Yes, it’s dumb that you can’t ask Siri to call you a Lyft from the HomePod.
(Me: “Hey, Siri, order me a Lyft.”
Siri: “I wish I could, but I can’t help with rides here.”)
You wish you could, Siri? That’s an odd thing to say, considering it’s a decision from Apple not to include support.
Apple wants to change the conversation, and maybe it will work. It has worked so many times in the past it’s hard to wonder why Apple thinks it can do it again. Even in the smart speaker market. Of course, to make that actually happen Apple needs a solid product — just like the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch.
The HomePod is a solid product. The HomePod is a great speaker to start, and there is plenty of room for it to get better with Siri capabilities. Apple is going to have to make some giant changes to get there, and it will be interesting to see if it can do that to make its products better.