Apple HomePod review-in-progress – what we think so far

Apple HomePod – price, release date, and review-in-progress

The Apple HomePod is finally here – as are our in-depth impressions of the new smart speaker. Our HomePod review-in-progress features everything you need to know, including the Apple HomePod’s price, specs, and release date details.

Despite being non-existent only a few years ago, the smart speaker industry has quickly boomed and digital assistants are a must-have for 2018 tech. Much of this is thanks to the Amazon Echo and its Alexa AI, the blistering success of which prompted rivals to start taking the sector seriously. Google quickly joined the party with its Google Home smart speaker, while Microsoft has also debuted a third-party speaker – the Harmon Kardon Invoke – running Cortana.

Then there’s the Sonos One, which runs Alexa and will be updated with Google Assistant support as well. It’s currently the best-sounding smart speaker to our ear, but now there’s a new contender in the Apple HomePod. Here’s what we think so far.

Editor’s Note: We’ve just received a HomePod and are currently testing it, so the opinion below represents our Apple HomePod review-in-progress. We’ll keep this updated regularly with our latest thoughts, ahead of delivering a final HomePod verdict and score in the coming days.

Related: Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo

Apple HomePod review-in-progress

I’ve spent a couple of hours being shown what Apple’s new smart speaker, the HomePod, can do, and have been using it for a day now. It’s fair to say I’m impressed by the features packed into this diminutive cylinder.

There are Siri smarts in there, classy design elements, and a clear and wide soundstage that, sonically, puts it streets ahead of the new Amazon Echo. Then again, you can buy almost four Echos for the price of one HomePod, so the comparison isn’t a fair one. And with a slew of high- and low-end smart speakers already on the market, I’ll need to compare the HomePod with more weighty opponents and review it fully before deciding whether it’s a winner.

Still, there’s enough to go on to give you an early idea of the HomePod’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s worth making one more thing clear. If you’re not an iPhone user (or at the very least an iPad user) then the HomePod won’t work for you. It’s very much tied into the Apple ecosystem and you’ll need to be too before you get to hear a single note.

Related: Google Home vs Amazon Echo

 

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Apple HomePod review-in-progress – design, specs and features

The HomePod is a handsome speaker that doesn’t have a large footprint, measuring 172mm x 142mm. It can happily sit on a coffee table, kitchen counter or bookshelf without cramping it, an important selling point for a smart speaker. Like other AI-powered speakers the HomePod only connects wirelessly, that means the only cable is the power lead.

On device controls are kept to a minimum too. There’s a touch panel at the top which lets you control volume and a single button that lets you turn the speaker on and off, pauses, or activates Siri manually.

It’s clad in a seamless mesh fabric that Apple claims is designed to not impede or alter the sound coming out of the speakers. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is its weight. While the HomePod might be small, it weighs 2.5kg and picking it up is a bit of a shock.

It’s heavy because Apple has packed a lot in.

There’s a chunky woofer with 20mm peak to peak excursion powered by a custom amp, a 360-degree seven-tweeter array and a six-mic array for capturing your voice from a distance. The mics also tell the HomePod the layout of the room. This lets it decide how best to fill the space with sound.

The idea is that if you put it in the centre of a room and it will pump out tunes all the way around. Put it against a wall and it will adapt to take the solid surface into account – sending centre vocals to the fore while reflecting ambient reverb and backup vocals against the wall. There’s even an accelerometer in the HomePod to register when it’s been moved, and recalculate its positions all over again.

All this, combined with Siri smarts, requires a lot of processing power and that’s why Apple has packed an A8 processor into the HomePod. That’s the same processor the iPhone 6 has and is a lot more powerful than the ones packed in the likes Amazon Echo or Google Home.

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Apple HomePod review-in-progress — sound quality

So there’s a lot of tech packed into the HomePod, but that doesn’t guarantee quality sound.

Thankfully, the HomePod sounds great for a speaker this small. There’s a surprising warmth and expansiveness to the sound – with the bass being a highlight. On top of that everything sounds distinct and separate, there’s very little of the muddying other smart-speakers suffer from.

The HomePod uses the powerful A8 chip to manage the audio in real time across the woofer and tweeters to achieve this.

It’s also used to beamform so the microphones can pick up your voice more accurately.

There’s still plenty more I’d like to test when it comes to the HomePod’s sound quality across genres, but so far I’m impressed. Apple has managed to pack a wide-soundstage into a tiny package.

Apple HomePod review-in-progress – setup and Siri

Setting up the HomePod is a doddle. Turn it on and then just place your iPhone closeby. As long as you have two-factor authentication turned on and keychain access enabled the HomePod will get all the Wi-Fi settings and other settings it needs to work.

Once set up you can activate the HomePod by saying “Hey, Siri”. And that’s when the problems begin.

Let’s start with Siri as a smart assistant. Siri was a great little feature when it first appeared on the iPhone 4S way back in 2011. By no means perfect, it did give us a hint at a future where machines and humans interact in a more natural way.

Unfortunately it hasn’t moved on much since then. Yes Siri can tell you the weather, and what football matches are on and even control some of your smarthome kit, but placed next to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant and the original AI assistant feels like a pale imitation.

For starters you’ll have to use Apple Music for all your audio needs via Siri. Sure you can cast Spotify or Tidal to the HomePod via your iPhone or iPad, but that means you can’t do much else with your phone. If you want to watch a YouTube video at the same time then that will interrupt the music and the audio will come pumping out.

You have to be a lot more specific with Siri than you do with other AI assistants, and that gets frustrating when you’ve still not got what you want on your third request.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Siri on the HomePod is that this is a speaker designed for Apple households. That means multiple iPhones and iPads. While (on most occasions) when I tried to wake up the HomePod with “Hey, Siri” the phone I had paired it with didn’t activate, my work iPhone did. It was the same with my wife’s iPhone SE when she tried to use the HomePod. This is the sort of usability complaint Apple is generally very good at avoiding.

And that’s the crux of my first day with the HomePod. Yes it sounds good, but small software annoyances make me wish the HomePod was packing Alexa or Google Assistant instead of Siri.

There’s a good reason why Siri on the HomePod might not every get to be as slick or convenient as those, and that’s privacy. Unlike Amazon and Google, Apple doesn’t care about your personal data – it doesn’t make money from them. That means it’s harder for Siri to build usage profiles and know as much about you as the others. What it comes down to when you’re making a choice of smart speaker is whether privacy concerns trump convenience. In my experience that’s rarely the case.

The thing that does give me cause for optimism is that Apple tends to continually evolve software after launching a new product. Airplay 2, which will enable multi-room sound and stereo pairing are already on the horizon.

Apple HomePod release date – how to buy a HomePod in the UK

The HomePod is out now. You can order it via Apple’s website, but UK retail partners also include Argos, Dixons Carphone (Currys PC World), John Lewis, Shop Direct (Very and Littlewoods), and EE.

Related: 4K Apple TV

Apple HomePod price – how much does the HomePod cost?

The Apple HomePod costs £320 in the UK and $349 in the USA.

For comparison, here’s how much rival speakers cost in the UK:

  • Amazon Echo: £149.99 / $179.99
  • Google Home: £129 / $129
  • Sonos One: £199

No doubt about it – the HomePod costs a lot more. That’s going to make it very difficult for customers to justify spending big on an Apple HomePod unless Apple can make a seriously good case for why it’s speaker is at least twice as good as its competitors.

Related: Amazon Echo Show vs Amazon Echo

 

Apple HomePod summary

The HomePod sounds great, but has already annoyed more often in a day than the Amazon Echo has in six months. Our full Apple HomePod review will be coming shortly.

Tell us what you think of the Apple HomePod by tweeting us @TrustedReviews.