HomePod initial impressions

Image credit: Apple Press Release

The Look

The HomePod comes in two colors. Space Grey and White. I went with the Space Grey because the HomePod and its power cable are covered in a porous-mesh fabric. I’m rather clumsy and have kids, so white didn’t seem like a good choice to me. Plus, I’m team #AllBlackEverything when it comes to Apple Products so I tend toward the darkest option available. The Space Grey isn’t shiny. It’s a somewhat muted (dusty) black.

The Size

For the sound that it puts out, the HomePod is small, but not tiny. It’s shorter in stature than the Amazon Echo, but a lot larger in diameter.

The Feel

The HomePod is amazingly dense. It’s small but heavy. The Apple Store actually has new bags designed specially for the size and weight of the HomePod. The exterior is a bit squishy which makes me nervous about carrying it, but it’s a well-designed product.

Initial set-up

I think there are plenty of unboxing photos and videos around, so I’m not posting any. But the summary of the unboxing is: “It’s an Apple product, it’s packaged beautifully.” Before the setup prompt there is an “I’m awake” sound that reminds me of the classic THX opening. It’s not as long nor quite as dramatic, but it does show off a bit of what you’re in store for even before you connect.

The set-up basically involves plugging in the power cable and unlocking your phone while nearby. After that, you just follow the prompts on your iPhone, much like AirPods.

The one part about the set-up worth noting is the ‘Personal Requests’ screen. The UX suggests the recommended option is to allow anyone on the same Wi-Fi network as the HomePod to be able to send and read messages from your phone. I flat out don’t get why anyone would ever want this. Each to their own, but this one is definitely not for me.

Apple Music + HomePod

Apple Music + HomePod are like combining peanut butter and chocolate. You don’t need Apple Music to enjoy the HomePod. AirPlaying to the HomePod is fine. Having an Apple Music subscription definitely takes the experience up a notch though. According to Apple “HomePod is built to bring out the best in Apple Music.” It certainly does. However, even without Apple Music, HomePod is a really great speaker.

Magic vs Might

The AirPods are magical (or at least they were before iOS 11). The HomePod doesn’t feel magical to me yet. Though, I suspect it might once AirPlay 2 arrives and multiple HomePods can be used together. Right now, what the HomePod feels, is mighty. The crystal clear highs and thunderous bass are startlingly powerful no matter how many times you’ve been told “It sounds great”. Words don’t do it justice. It’s something you have to experience. According to the tech specs, it has 7 different amps. This little speaker packs a punch.

Moving it around

I tried moving the HomePod while it was playing music. As I was holding it the voices seemed to get sucked down a hole and sounded like they were coming from inside a well. It felt very Black Mirror and I decided that I’ll leave it put while playing music.

Hey Siri, without the comma

The HomePod has the best implementation of Siri so far. One of the things that has surprised me most is how responsive it is. So much so, that I no longer have to pause after saying the words “Hey Siri”. For example, instead of saying “Hey Siri, (wait for acknowledgement… receive acknowledgement) play some music”, I can just say “Hey Siri play some music”. Another thing is the volume at which I have to speak for Siri to respond is surprisingly low. Much lower than I would speak to a person in a room with me. I can speak at a volume that’s not quite a whisper, but what could be described as talking under my breath. Siri is responsive at this volume even when music is blasting. Sometimes, if I do pause after saying “Hey Siri”, Siri responds with a very human-like “umm hum“, which honestly startled me at at first.

Occasionally, I like to switch things up and change Siri’s voice from the American Female default in my region, to British Male or Australian Female. The neat thing about this with HomePod is the the voices are pre-loaded so there’s no need to download new voices before they can be used like on iOS. I knew how to change the voice but for giggles I asked Siri how to change her voice and she responded with far better instructions than I anticipated.

HomePod vs Echo

There really is no comparison between Apple’s HomePod and Amazon’s Echo. The HomePod is in a totally different league. It’s like comparing a Model S and a Corolla. Just not fair. But… I did it anyhow.

Sound quality: I’m not an audiophile (can’t afford it), I don’t own a Soundbar. I’m just an average listener. On a scale from 1 -10, I’d give the HomePod a 9.5 and the original Echo a 1.5. I did several tests where I would play a song on the Echo, and then on the HomePod. I’ve been satisfied with the Echo for years, but after hearing the HomePod, the Echo sounds so bad to my ears, that I can no longer use it for music.

Smart Assistant: Siri is more responsive than Alexa at lower volumes. Actually Siri is just more responsive than Alexa. The experience with Alexa feels a lot like talking to a computer, whereas talking to Siri feels almost like talking to a person. Siri is just a more pleasant experience. I hear that Alexa is far more capable than Siri, but for the stuff I use a smart assistant for, Siri has met all of my needs.

Smart Home: Alexa has always been so-so with home automation for me. HomeKit is better. The HomePod works well and quickly with home automation.

What’s missing?

Volume Indicator: For me it’s been weird not having a visual volume indicator. When changing the volume, there’s no indication of what the current volume is and it’s driving me bananas. The sound can be adjusted higher or lower but those seem to be the only metrics. I would love to this change in a software update.

Multi-User Access: No way I’m turning on the thing where my 4 year old can send text message on my behalf, so until there is a way to restrict who can use the notes, messages, and reminders features, I’m not using those.

AirPlay 2: I really can’t wait to experience these bad boys in stereo. Sadly, that won’t be available until AirPlay 2 arrives later this year.

So is it worth it?

I mentioned earlier that the HomePod isn’t magical. By that, I mean it isn’t magical in the context of competing products, it’s just an outstanding competitor. This may change with AirPlay 2, but we’ll have to wait for that. I initially thought that $350 was a steep price tag, but when I actually experienced it and asked myself “Is this worth two pair of AirPods or one pair of Beats Studio Wireless headphones?”, the answer is a solid yes. I have no doubts that this will be one of the hottest products of the year and that in the future many homes will have more than one. According to Apple “HomePod is built to bring out the best in Apple Music.”

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