One year ago, after some delays at the end of 2017, the Apple HomePod began to ship. It was Apple’s answer to an increasingly interesting category, smart speakers. But Apple being Apple, they were one of the last on the market with the HomePod – but it was worth the wait. The HomePod brought stunning audio quality, a unique design, intelligence, and Siri to the home. It also became the bridge by which all of your Smart Home devices could be controlled.
Like any one year old, the Apple HomePod had room to grow and in the past year, it has done just that. Through software updates to its iOS-based audioOS, the HomePod have become more capable while improvements to Apple’s assistant, Siri, have also given a significant boost to the functionality of the smart speaker. Add this to the slow but continued growth of HomeKit compatible smart devices, which Siri can control, the HomePod today is a step above what it was when it was released a year ago.
Make No Mistake: The HomePod is a Speaker First
From the beginning, there has been little question of the audio prowess of the HomePod. With seven Tweeters and a 4-inch woofer, the audio performance has rivaled the likes of Sonos and Harman Kardon. When you compare it to the audio quality of the top-end Amazon Echo, there is simply no comparison. The Google Home Max, which sits at the same price point as the HomePod, is close but not quite there. This audio experience is exactly what Apple had in mind when it designed their smart speaker. Leveraging the A8 processor in it, the HomePod can automatically tune its audio performance based on its surroundings. It “listens” for things like objects and walls to provide the best audio quality possible. And it is smart. If you move your HomePod from one place to another, it retests the audio performance to assure the best sound quality.
I’ve had the opportunity to try a lot of smart speakers out and with the possible exception of the Hardon Karmon Invoke, which was powered by Microsoft’s Cortana, I’ve never heard anything as beautiful as the HomePod. The richness of the audio is outstanding and you can easily fill a room with music using just one. Link a couple of them together and you have an audio experience that is really second-to-none.
Improvements in iOS Have Made The HomePod Even Better
At its core, the HomePod runs iOS… well a version of it. Technically it is called audioOS but it is iOS through-and-through. In fact, if you look up the information on yours in the Home app, you will see it is running the exact same iOS version as your iPhone. So the good news is that you have all of the performance and stability of iOS on your smart speaker. Being powered by the A8 SoC, you also know it has the power to do all the audio quality crunching that you would expect. It is a classic example of Apple being Apple when it comes to the design of the internals.
But when the HomePod launched last year, you could really see that iOS was meant for mobiles and not for smart speakers. Basically, beyond Siri, iOS was stripped down to the bare metal for the HomePod. It could do a lot of things that, when compared to Amazon’s Echo (Alexa) and Google Home (Assistant), it lacked. Severely lacked in some cases. Part of this was because when it shipped, it shipped with iOS 11.3. But even with 11.4, which released in May 2018, vast improvements came to the smart speaker. Here is a list of what arrived with that pivotal release:
- Place two HomePod in the same room and create a stereo pair
- Each HomePod in a pair automatically senses its location in the room
- Advanced beamforming provides wider soundstage than traditional stereo pair
- Use AirPlay 2 to play the same song everywhere or different songs in different rooms to multiple HomePod and other AirPlay 2-enabled speakers
- Schedule, cancel, and stay up to date with your Calendar appointments (available in US, UK, Australia)
That was good but when iOS 12.0 was released a month later in June, even bigger – and arguably more useful changes came:
- Conveniently search for a song using the lyrics if you can’t remember the title (English only)
- Create multiple named timers
- Make and receive phone calls directly on HomePod, or simply ask Siri who is calling
- Similar to Apple Watch, Find My iPhone on HomePod allows you to quickly locate any of your iOS or macOS devices with an audible ping
- Calendar support to include all languages
In many ways, these two iOS releases brought the HomePod to the level of its competitors from a basics perspective. The key here is “in many ways” as there are still things that Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa can simply do better. Some of these have to do with my next point but some of it comes down to Siri itself.
HomeKit is Slowly Gaining Adoption – And That Helps HomePod
If there is one area where the Amazon Echo and Google Home crush – and I do mean crush – the Apple HomePod, it is in the area of smart home integrations. HomeKit, the framework from Apple that allows for smart home integrations, is itself a challenge for hardware developers which is part of the challenge. Both Amazon and Google make it extremely easy to get a device to work with Amazon Echo and Google Home. They, effectively, are open platforms. That is good for developers in that it isn’t so hard to get your device to work with these platforms. The bad news for consumers is it is much easier for malware or rogue devices to do things on your network when you attach them.
That is where HomeKit is different. The rules for getting a hardware device certified to work with it are much harder. This, in large part, is due to Apple’s approach to privacy. Privacy for Apple is a pillar of the company. It has a no compromise approach and that means that things like HomeKit get impacted. One simply can’t just throw in a SDK to make it work. It has to be certified, by Apple, that there is no erroneous code that could compromise a users privacy. All this means that the barrier to entry for HomeKit and therefor the HomePod is higher.
The net effect of this has been that HomeKit integrations have been slow in coming to market. Some hardware vendors have simply not wanted to go through the process of certification because of the time, effort, and cost. But this is changing. Apple is working with the likes of Sony and Samsung to get televisions HomeKit supported. More vendors who make smart home products are getting more of their products certified or certified for the first time. This, in turn, makes the HomePod a true hub for all your smart home devices.
Siri Continues to Get Smarter
There was a time, just a couple of years ago, where Siri was the laughingstock of the digital assistant world. Jokes abound about how poorly Apple’s assistant performed while Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant seemed to be making major steps forward every few months. It seemed that Apple had missed their opportunity to capitalize on the digital assistant market.
But Siri has grown up. A lot. While Google Assistant is still the market leader when it comes to question answer accuracy, Siri is now a solid second when it comes to identifying questions accurately and answering them accurately according to the latest Loup Ventures report back in December 2018. That means Siri is now better than Amazon Alexa and only Google Assistant is better – but not by much. With this growth in Siri’s accuracy, it has made the HomePod that much more useful in day-to-day use.
When it comes to the smart speaker itself, there are some areas of improvement for Siri that would be big wins for Apple. Probably the biggest one of those in my opinion is the ability to string multiple commands together in one ask. You can do this with Google Assistant and Google Home. The ability to say, “Hey Siri, turn on the office lamp and tell me what the weather is going to be like today” would be a nice step forward. Also, the ability to create my own custom routines would be nice. For example, if I could create a personalized scene where I say “Hey Siri, good morning.” and have it not only turn on my office lights (which it does now) but start playing me news headlines from Apple News and then turn on my morning music, it would make the HomePod an even more useful tool.
Apple is not Giving up on the HomePod. Nor Should You.
The point of this one year review of the Apple HomePod is not to convince you to go out and buy one. If you are embedded in the Apple ecosystem and are looking for a superior audio experience for Apple Music, there is no reason for you not to consider it. But if you are looking for deep home automation, it probably isn’t the right device for you – yet at least.
My point here is that through software updates, deeper HomeKit integrations from smart home device makers, and improvements to Siri, the HomePod is far from a failure and far from being a dead product. Like so many things Apple has made in their history, the first model isn’t necessarily the best. They refine and refine and then do a bit of refining to make the second or third generation stellar. That’s where we are with the HomePod, the difference being that those refinements are coming more in the way of software updates than hardware updates. Sure we will see an update to the hardware at some point in the future, but that isn’t quite as imperative as it is for say an iPhone or an iPad.
Happy Birthday HomePod. You’ve grown up a lot in the last year and the future is bright for you.