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Apple HomePod review: Late to the smart speaker party, best one on the block though

Apple HomePod isn't just a smart speaker, it's a great-sounding smart speaker, but it still has a long way to go before standing up to the market-leading Amazon Echo devices

twitter-logoNidhi Singal | May 26, 2020 | Updated 01:23 IST
Apple HomePod review: Late to the smart speaker party, best one on the block though
Apple HomePod

The wait is finally over with Apple launching its HomePod in India. All you have to do to play your favourite music is give a shout-out to Siri - "Hey Siri, play 'Something Just Like This'". And if your favourite title is available on Apple Music, the HomePod will automatically play the song.

The problem, however, is when every other Apple device in the vicinity can hear the command and simultaneously starts playing the same song. Sorting this out, however, should be child's play with a simple change of the wake-up phrase, isn't it? Not really. Apple will not allow you to customise the shout-out to a phrase of your choosing, but then neither do Amazon or Google on their smart speaker ecosystem (although Amazon allows you to choose from the pre-determined wake-up word).

But enough nitpicking. Let's look at the real performance and capabilities of the Apple HomePod.

On the design front, the 6.2 inches tall cylindrical speaker has a mesh running around its surface, except on the top where a glossy panel with a little screen sits like the shaven head on a monk, lending it a neat and elegant look. This screen is your one point access to the speaker functions where a single tap to the center of the surface will play/pause the song being played, a double-tap will play the next track from your playlist, a triple tap will take you back to the track playing previously, and touching down the surface for a period of 3 seconds will activate Siri. You may also control the volume output with the plus (+) and minus (-) volume controls appearing on the screen.

Setting it up is a breeze

Setting up a smart speaker usually means downloading its compatible app. However, with the HomePod, Apple yet again demonstrates the art of automatically integrating a new device into your existing Apple Ecosystem. Placing the iPhone point blank automatically identifies the HomePod and initiates device set-up. The HomePod will automatically access the Wi-Fi network that your iPhone is paired with, and will instantly download Siri preferences, including the voice and accent, have access to your Apple Music library, and more. During the set-up, the speaker will also prompt a request to read aloud your messages, which you may turn off.

The sound is 'great'

There's always this dilemma surrounding a smart speaker whether it's a smart device first or a speaker first - a bit like the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Speakers today usually compromise on one of the either aspect and it's mostly sound that takes the backseat. But Apple's HomePod puts the sound back in the smart speaker. To my surprise, the acoustics sounded better on the HomePod than on the recently launched Echo Studio, and the Studio is no potato.

Thanks to a lot of tech under the mesh and the plastic covering the high-excursion woofer with a custom amplifier, a powerful motor that drives the diaphragm a full 20mm peak to peak, an array of seven beamforming tweeters - each having its own amplifier, and an A8 chip. Apple has added a six-microphone array to the HomePod that successfully manages to pick-up my voice even from the corner of a room, with the music still on. It can also listen to the reflections of the music off of the neighbouring surface. The HomePod analyses the space and then adjusts the levels for the music to delivers a sound at its very best from every angle of the room. The overall sound output is clear with deep thumping bass, levelled mids, and clear vocals. Listening to my favourite music on the HomePod transported me into a relaxing, calm space. But if you stream your music from Spotify, sadly for you, the voice commands won't work. One would have to manually select the tracks from the Spotify app and airplay on the HomePod.

Smart assistant

HomePod is Apple's answer to Amazon's Echo devices in the market, which quite frankly have raised the bar on what one may expect from a smart speaker. While the HomePod can pretty much do everything that an Echo device can, it loses to Amazon on the list of devices that are compatible and can be controlled via voice command. The HomePod will easily respond to your queries about the weather, give out latest news updates, answer general knowledge questions, share latest cooking recipes and nutritional facts, and more. You could also set reminders and alarms, and even send text messages.

But all this was astonishing maybe a few years ago. The smart speakers today have come of age when it comes to connectivity and this is where the HomePod is still stuck in its initial glory days. The software framework, or the 'HomeKit' that lets users configure, communicate with, and control smart home appliances using Apple devices, only has a handful compatible devices available in India. The HomeKit supports Philips Hue Light bulbs, Nanoleaf smart LED lights kit, and Elagato Eve light switch. HomeKit can also support D-Link Omna security camera, and Eve smart motion sensor.

A little late to the smart speaker party, the HomePod is still one of the better devices when it comes to sound. One can only hope that the journey for this speaker has just begun in India and the long road ahead may witness it adding a number of compatible devices.

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