After a delayed launch — a more frequent occurrence in Tim Cook’s Apple — the HomePod is finally out and hitting all the right notes, at least aurally. Reviewers are applauding its sound output, pegging it above speakers from brands like Sonos, that are reckoned for high sound quality. That’s partly possible due to intelligent use of hardware and software, that optimizes output based on surroundings.
But all is not rosy in HomePod-Land. There are several reasons where the HomePod falls short. Now, many of these limitations could be fixed with future software updates. But since you’re expected to shell out $349 on it, some of the following issues may be deal breakers for potential buyers. So, here are five reasons that might dissuade you from buying a HomePod, at least today.
1. Not Compatible with Non-iOS Devices
Hidden towards the end of the Apple HomePod spec page, you’ll realize the first limitation of owning a HomePod. An iPhone, iPad or iPod touch running iOS 11.2.5 or later is required; so if you’re an Android, Windows, or even a Mac user with no iOS devices in your possession, you’re out of luck.
The reason why this is could be due to the way the HomePod is initialised — it’s similar to how AirPods pair with an iPhone. By bringing an iOS device near your HomePod, a setup menu automatically pops up from below. The HomePod will then be configured to the Apple ID used on that iOS device, and you can later tweak its settings using the iOS Home app.
This is a big bummer for people who don’t use Apple’s mobile OS as their platform of choice. In comparison, nearly every other smart speaker like the Google Home or Amazon Echo has both iOS and Android apps for setup.
2. Lack of Support for Music Services Other Than Apple Music
Not only do you need an iPhone or iPad to setup the HomePod, you’ll also need to use Apple Music as your music streaming service or stream songs purchased directly from the iTunes Store and your iCloud Music Library provided you have an iTunes Match subscription. This is again another typical Apple lock-in that prevents users from listening to music using Spotify, Google Play Music, Tidal, Saavn, Gaana, etc. Neither Google nor Amazon puts such restrictions on their respective smart speakers — users are free to listen to any supported service and even choose it as default.
Historically, Apple has never been a fan of letting third-party services be the default options anyway. On iOS, the company doesn’t let users choose a third-party app as the default browser, email client, phone dialer or SMS app. Siri was also limited to Apple’s walled garden until iOS 10, when SiriKit was released for interaction with third-party services such as ridesharing or payment apps. Even so, you still can’t ask Siri on iOS to play music on anything other than Apple Music, and that limitation has made its way to the HomePod too.
Not to say it’s impossible to stream music from other services on Apple’s smart speaker. Using AirPlay — Apple’s proprietary wireless media transmission protocol — an iOS device or Mac could wirelessly transmit any audio to the HomePod. But AirPlay works only with Apple devices. And it’s not as seamless as asking Siri to play your favourite tunes, using the provider of your choice.
Bottom line — if you use Apple Music exclusively, this may not bother you. But considering services like Spotify today have more than double the number of subscribers than Apple Music today, it surely is going to irk many people.
3. Siri Is Not as Smart as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa
There are a few reasons why Siri cannot compete with these two digital assistants. Amazon Alexa has vast integration with third-party services (known as Amazon Skills), that Siri and Google Assistant heavily fall short of. On the other hand, Google Assistant is smarter at answering questions thanks to Google’s indexing of nearly the entire internet and then using AI to provide relevant information with rich snippets.
To make matters worse, Siri on the HomePod is further neutered than it is on iOS. For example, you can’t access your calendar and set up appointments. Furthermore, to use the HomePod as a giant speakerphone for calls, you’ll need to dial on your iPhone first, before using Handoff to move it over. The internet is also riled up about Siri’s inability to set two timers at once — something that people are seemingly accustomed to doing on other smart speakers. Lastly, Siri on the HomePod can’t be used to book an Uber or make Skype audio calls directly, which can be done on an iPhone today.
Google Home and Amazon Echo products can make calls to any landline or mobile phone in the US and Canada for free out of the box. Google’s smart speakers can also turn on the TV and start playing content to a Chromecast-connected TV all via voice. Generally, the pace of innovation with these companies has been faster than Apple’s, with no signs suggesting that the tides will turn anytime soon.
Sure, the HomePod gives you great sound quality, but if a Google Home Max or Sonos One can deliver nearly 80 percent as good an output, along with all the smart features mentioned above, it makes the HomePod purchase decision harder.
4. Lack of User Detection and Multi-User Support
As demonstrated in The Verge’s review, the HomePod has a glaring privacy loophole if you turn on the “Personal Requests” feature during its initial setup. Anybody in your house could potentially walk up to the HomePod, and ask it to read out your iMessages and even send iMessages, all without your knowledge.
This is an odd omission because on an iPhone, a deep neural network tries to match the owner’s voice when the “Hey Siri” activation hot word is spoken. Nevertheless, this could potentially be bypassed by touching and holding the top of the HomePod to activate Siri. Also, voice detection is probably not as accurate as other forms of biometric authentication like Touch ID or Face ID. But having no measure of user detection for a product that likely will be used by multiple people isn’t a satisfactory experience.
Next, since the HomePod today can be configured to only a single iCloud account, it can also ruin Apple Music’s recommendation engine for that account if multiple people are using the speaker to listen to their choice of music. You can turn off this profile building, but then it means Apple Music will miss out on listening data from your HomePod for better recommendations.
In comparison, Google Home and Amazon Alexa supports detecting multiple voices as well as catering to multiple accounts.
5. Lack of Traditional Audio Input (Like Line-In, Bluetooth)
The HomePod is not a traditional speaker in many ways. One of them is its inability to interface with audio sources using traditional methods. We’re referring to the missing 3.5mm line-in jack, that allows plugging in any TV, music system, smartphone, etc to the HomePod using a physical wire. It means that the HomePod can’t be simply plugged into your TV and be used as an external speaker (or a soundbar alternative). The competing Google Home Max has a 3.5mm input port for this purpose.
But one could say that the days of the 3.5mm port are over anyway. Unfortunately, the HomePod cannot be paired to audio sources using Bluetooth — which is the biggest universal wireless standard for audio — either! The fun part is that Apple actually lists Bluetooth 5.0 on the HomePod specs page, but you can’t use it like a traditional Bluetooth speaker. We assume it exists to enable pairing with an iOS device during setup and other similar use-cases.
Amazon Echo devices have supported Bluetooth audio input for long. Google Home, on the other hand, didn’t initially support Bluetooth pairing, but it was later enabled via a software update.
And that pretty much is the answer to nearly every problem with the HomePod listed above. A lot of things potentially could change as the company listens to user feedback and pushes over-the-air updates that fix these shortcomings.
Before we wrap it up, we should also mention that two features that won’t be available at launch, but will arrive later in 2018. One is buying two HomePods and putting them in the same room for a proper stereo effect. Next is AirPlay 2, which is an update to the existing standard, which promises lower latency and lag. AirPlay 2 also offers multi-room support, using which you can either play the same song on multiple HomePods or different songs on either. For the record, the Google Home Max supports stereo pairing and multi-room out of the box today.
So, are you still psyched to buy the Apple HomePod today? Or will you prefer waiting till Apple can fix these issues using software updates? Or will you buy the HomePod today and and hope to receive improvements later? Or will you buy a competing product? Let us know in the comments below.