The HomePod is a hell of a speaker but a mildly disappointing assistant
Apple rarely gets to the party first. IBM built a smartphone 15 years before the iPhone. Tablet computers have been around since the 1980s. Just about every manufacturer had a stab at a smart watch before the Apple got around to it in 2014.
But the iPhone will be remembered as the smartphone, the iPad the tablet and the Apple Watch the smart watch. The company from Cupertino is particularly late to the home assistant party, however. So how does it hold up?
Well, if you think of it as a smart speaker (which is the emphasis Apple is currently using), it’s exceptional. With a small army of woofers and tweeters, it delivers room-filling noise, sensing the dimensions of its surroundings and optimising its waves of silky bass and clear top-notes accordingly. It even competes with the best dumb speakers in its price range (it costs £319).
But as a smart speaker it lags behind Amazon and Google. It also demands complete adherence to the Apple ecosystem, most notably tying you to Apple Music.
In terms of looks, it’s handsome but innocuous, like Timothée Chalamet doing his weekly shop. A grey mesh – virtually invisible to soundwaves, according to Apple – houses a unit smaller than a human head but bigger than a pineapple.
You don’t have to design your entire room around it, unlike the Zeppelin Air; my review unit is nestled discreetly on the edge of a book shelf, which I’m sure would make the sound engineers shed tears of bitter frustration, but in a flat with sound-proofing as effective as a few sheets of loo roll, I can’t use it to its full potential anyway (40 per cent volume is about as high as I can go before the bloke from upstairs comes knocking).
Set-up, using Apple’s proprietary NFC, is as simple as wafting your iPhone in its general direction (Android users need not apply). It works seamlessly with my rickety wi-fi network, which consists of a string of signal boosters and a VPN, which my phone constantly flits between. This confuses speakers that require you to be on the same network – like the Bose SoundTouch – but once set up the HomePod would work even if you threw your iPhone into the sea (as would Google Home and the Amazon Echo). Third party apps like Spotify, however, still require you to be on the same network.
To all intents and purposes, you need a £99 a year Apple Music subscription, which is the only way to access voice commands more complex than “pause” or “skip”. Siri, as ever, is a mercurial companion. Sometimes it gives the impression of intelligence, only to remind you the next minute that the robot revolution is still some way off.
“Hey Siri, play something from 1980,” I said, and Siri chose The Tide is High, which is my least favourite Blondie song.
“Hey Siri, something else,” I said and it chose These Days by Joy Division. Okay, great. Really impressive.
But try something more complex like “Play some hip hop from 1975” and Siri will tell you it can’t select by both genre and year, and will absolutely mangle the word “genre”. When asked to play some Scottish indie songs, it claimed there weren’t any. Worse, Siri doesn’t have access to internet radio stations, which is a cruel omission in a nation addicted to Radio 4.
It’s better when you get down to the kind of detail usually reserved for pub quizzes, with Siri able to reel off esoteric details like a proper nerd: “Who plays bass on Pulp’s Help The Aged,” you ask, and it will smugly inform you that it was Steve Mackey.
Other “smart” features include the ability to read the news headlines (although the constant reminder that you can switch between content providers gets tiresome quickly), tell the weather forecas, convert units and take calls with surprisingly good sound quality. It can also control smart devices through HomeKit, allowing you to switch on smart light bulbs and control your heating. But – and this is a big but – only if you're using compatible devices, which doesn't include Nest or Hive, the two most popular home thermostats. So if you want the HomePod to seamlessly integrate into your existing connected home, I'd advise caution.
Another thing it can’t do is differentiate between voices. Both Alexa and Google will recognise who is speaking and automatically use their account to, for instance, add calendar entries. Siri can't do that even if you verbally prompt it ("add a reminder to Steve's calendar," for example). This means if I’ve allowed Siri access to my calendar, messages and reminders, my girlfriend can ask it to read them, or even send messages as me, so long as my phone is present on the wi-fi network.
Some of these omissions and shortcomings are surprising, given the length of the HomePod's gestation, but they're not quite deal-breakers. Apple has plenty work to do on Siri, but with AI assistants crucial to the future of consumer tech, I’d be amazed if more features and additional compatibility weren't added in the coming months. For now, the audio quality alone is just about enough to justify the price tag.