Apple HomePod review: The iPhone of smart speakers packs a punch but shirks on the smarts

Apple HomePod
  • Apple HomePod
  • Apple HomePod
  • Expert Rating

    3.75 / 5

Pros

  • Sounds great
  • Super easy to set up

Cons

  • Siri offers pretty limited functionality compared to the competition
  • Restricts you to Apple Music

Bottom Line

The HomePod is a phenomenal sounding speaker let down by the limitations of the Apple ecosystem.

Would you buy this?

Performance

If you have paid any attention at all to the buzz surrounding the Apple HomePod, it will not surprise you to learn that this speaker sounds phenomenal compared to most of the other smart speakers out there.

When connected to an Apple Music account, music sounds incredible coming out of this thing. Songs like Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and Cage the Elephants’ “Back Against The Wall” came across with a really remarkable depth and quality. The bass coming out of the HomePod, in particular, really adds a liveliness that just isn’t found in most of the competition.

Doing a direct side-by-side comparison between this and the Google Home and Amazon Echo Plus, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that it was no competition. It really sounds that good. And if my use of italics isn’t quite convincing enough, you should absolutely find your nearest Apple store and have a listen for yourself.

All three of these speakers deliver a perfectly audible listening experience but the difference between the HomePod and almost every other smart speaker feels as stark as night and day. The other options are things that you can listen to music on. This feels like something  you'll want to listen to music on.

If anything, the only smart speaker that’s in the same ballpark is the Sonos One - and even then, it's still not a particularly viable or compelling option for Australian audiences due to the current lack of any smart assistant support.

If you're after the smart speaker that sounds the best, the HomePod makes a really strong case for itself.

Unfortunately, the smarts in the HomePod just don’t stack up nearly so well. The HomePod runs on Apple's own A8 processing chip - which might sound like overkill, because it kinda is. The A8 processor was used to power the iPhone 6, and represents a big step up in processing power in comparison to both the Google Home and Amazon Echo - which reuse more-or-less the same processors that you can find in streaming accessories like the Google ChromeCast and Amazon Fire Stick.

We expect that the extra grunt here will prove crucial in Apple’s ongoing efforts to close the gaps between what Siri is currently capable of and what her competition can do. However, for the now, that potential doesn’t feel like it’s been tapped as well as it could be.

Like the Google Home and Amazon Echo, the Apple HomePod allows you to set timers, schedule reminders, check the weather, listen to podcasts and quickly access the latest news from ABC, SBS, Seven and Fox Sports. These functions are nice - but much like the current iPhone version of Siri, it feels very basic compared to the encyclopedic list of things you can do with the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

This might change if or once Apple opens up the HomePod to third-party developers, but for now - the HomePod is a sore reminder that there’s a pretty good reason that Siri sits in the third-place spot of the smart assistant landscape. It’s no Cortana - but it’s no Alexa either.

Of course, in addition to all the usual things you do using Siri, the Apple HomePod also comes ready to easily integrate with Apple Music - allowing you to select and play music using voice commands. You even play loose with your suggestions, telling Siri you want to listen to music from a specific time period, genre or even tone.

Unfortunately, playing music using third-party music streaming services like Spotify (via AirPlay) doesn’t offer the same degree of functionality. If you prefer to listen to your music this way, it won’t be possible to fully control your music with voice commands and you won’t gain many of the benefits of the audio engineering inside the HomePod.

For now, at least, the bells and whistles listed above only really kick in for Apple Music subscribers.

The Bottom Line

The above detail really encapsulates everything that’s so cool, yet frustrating about the HomePod. As good as this thing sounds - and it does sound really good -  it’s far more likely to be the next Apple TV than the next iPhone.

Simply put, the premium price-tag isn’t the only cost that you have to account for here. In order for that tall $499 price-tag to fully justify itself you have to already be an iOS devotee, you have to already be (or be willing to become) an Apple Music subscriber and you have to be willing to stick it out with the not-so-smart capabilities of Siri. You have to settle for something that’s a little bit more focused on being a good speaker than a smart one.

Like most Apple products, the HomePod is a product that asks you to take the good with the bad - and that proposition might not sound so great when you hear what the competition has to offer. There are some pretty impressive highs here, but there also plenty of lows. There's little doubt that the HomePod is a great sounding speaker but it's one that's ultimately let down by the limitations of the Apple ecosystem.

 

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