Thoughts on HomePod and Siri — 23 Days Later

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A little over three weeks ago, I got a call from my wife, who was travelling at the time, asking if we want to get a HomePod at a discount. This was not long after the product debuted and since it was only available in Australia, UK and USA, I told her to go for it — we could sell probably sell it without a large loss if we didn’t like it.

Not Groundbreaking

I was sceptical at first — I admit. The HomePod didn’t seem to be the type of product that Apple is so well-known for. A product, often not first to market, which would go on to redefine its category, or improve it in some significant manner. The iPod is, of course, the classic example — it arrived to a market full of crappy MP3 players, which were little more than pendrives with screens displaying ID3 tags, and went on to dominate it. It was probably one of the best examples of a product standing at the crossroads of technology and liberal arts.

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

– Steve Jobs

I still remember when I first decided to get my first iPod in 2006 or 2007. That was the day I first installed iTunes, imported all my of music into it, and then spent the rest of the day editing the metadata of every single song in my newly formed collection. The next day was spent on creating my carefully curated playlists — I still have and listen to some of those today — and syncing them over. I (mostly) like databases, which meant that I loved having my music organised properly. This led me to appreciate iTunes and I am probably one of the few people who actually like using it on an almost-daily basis.

I never chose to purchase iTunes Match, when it debuted in November 2011, which meant that I had to regularly connect my iPhone to iTunes to sync over my playlists. I liked the concept of owning my music, knowing an album or song wouldn’t disappear overnight because someone decided to withdraw the rights to it — my scepticism of streaming services remains to this day. I did try Spotify for a while, but didn’t like it — it wasn’t like iTunes, it wasn’t for me, and it was missing a lot of music that I listened to. This led me to try Apple Music in 2015 and while it was far from perfect, it didn’t destroy my music collection by overwriting my files, like it did to some people. I have been using it ever since and today my collection is a mix of ripped CDs, albums and songs purchased from iTunes, and my iCloud Music Library, mainly because it’s simpler to use — I just search for what I want and add it to a relevant playlist.

My Listening Habits

Since I work from home, I have music on for most of the day. I have a pair of B&W MM-1s on my desk, connected to my Hackintosh. When working there, that is where I play my music. I also have a 5.1 audio system, which is mostly used by my Apple TV, but I do occasionally use it just for music, either streaming via AirPlay from my iPhone or via Apple Music for tvOS. Since the latter has 5 speakers placed around my living room, it’s a very immersive experience. My wife and I recently got a Bose SoundLink Revolve, which she uses in the kitchen to stream her favourite internet radio stations over Bluetooth. Since it has a battery, I also use it in the bathroom to listen to podcasts when showering and shaving, and we also use it outside, in the garden for example.

A Place for the HomePod

I had trouble figuring out where to place the HomePod in our home. I didn’t want it in the bedroom — we rarely listen to music there — and I didn’t have a good spot in the living room. I finally decided to place it exactly between the kitchen and living room (we don’t have a wall between them), so we can use it from both rooms. Iwona can still use it to stream radio over AirPlay in the mornings while drinking her coffee, while I can hear it clearly enough from my desk, the living room, and even our balcony, where I like to work during the warmer months of the year.

Compared…

The HomePod has nowhere near the quality or immersion of my 5.1 speaker system — this did not surprise me — but it’s much more impressive than my Bose SoundLink Revolve. The contrast between the three is striking when comparing them directly. I tried AirPlaying some of my favourite songs to each system a few days ago, and the AV receiver won hands down. I like to have my music playing in the background, so I can focus on my work, and the 5.1 speaker system does that perfect — it’s quiet, doesn’t distract, but I can still hear everything wherever I am. Whenever I listen to the Bose, despite its 360° sound, I can point to where it’s placed in the room with my eyes closed — it’s clearly a single speaker (although you can have two as a stereo pair, similarly to Apple promises with the HomePod in the near future). The HomePod slots in between the two. It’s much more immersive than the Bose, but not close to what my AV receiver can do. Unfortunately, I can’t very well pick it up and take it with me, should I want to, like I can with the Bose, e.g. to listen to podcasts in the bathroom.

Quality

The HomePod is trying to do, what Apple does best — introducing computers to something which hasn’t traditionally needed to rely on them.

The HomePod is far from perfect, especially in regard to Siri, but it does have a pleasing sound stage. The bass is quite neutral in music which doesn’t traditionally need it — I listen to a lot of many original soundtracks and classical music — and can be quite booming when listening to hip-hop or rap. The trebles are great, and the midrange isn’t far behind, a little muddy in some songs, although I believe this has improved a bit after the recent iOS 11.3 update, but the overall clarity truly surprised me.

The HomePod is trying to do, what Apple does best — introducing computers to something which hasn’t traditionally needed to rely on them. Computational audio has now become a thing and while I haven’t heard my HomePod adjusting its output to its environment, the sound generated by this surprisingly little speaker is impressive — I have no doubt that the Apple A8 chip and its software is responsible for this (as well as the whole audio team at Apple, of course). Another benefit of this should be constant, minor improvements, as the algorithms improve.

Simplicity

The HomePod setup process is almost as simple as what Apple perfected with AirPods — hold your iPhone near, press a few buttons, and… that’s it. One of the other decisions does worry me a bit — the HomePod has no audio input, apart from AirPlay. You can’t use Bluetooth and it doesn’t have a line-in port (Babelpod to the rescue). How long will Apple support this first generation model? When will the A8 not be powerful enough or become too much of a hassle to maintain?

Speakers last for a long time, traditionally — will the HomePod?

HomeKit and Siri

When Siri works, it’s like magic. But her failure rate is much too high.

One of the few reasons I wanted a HomePod, was to have a cylinder which would listen to me, wherever I was. I recently added a few HomeKit accessories, including a Raspberry Pi running Homebridge, to our home and the friction of taking out my iPad or iPhone to control them, via Siri or HomeKit, was too frustrating. This was especially evident when controlling my Philips Hue light (yes, singular), for which I have already set up four scenes. Four! For one light. What will happen when I get more of them?

While Apple’s Home app needs a refresh and better UI, for a better UX, using the HomePod to control everything is a much better experience. When Siri works, that is.

“Hey Siri, play my film music playlist,” I asked a few days ago.

“I’m sorry. I can’t play play my film music playlist,” she answered without flinching.

I might mumble and while English was practically my first language, I’m not as good at it as I used to be. Or imagine myself to be. This is one of the reasons I would love to regularly take part in a podcast or make one myself — I don’t want to forget all the words — but at least I still often find myself thinking in English. I should do this more… But to get back to the topic…

When Siri works, it’s like magic. But her failure rate is much too high. Sometimes she’ll completely ignore me, not even bothering to respond. At other times she’ll completely misunderstand, adding a whole album to my playlist instead of just the song. What frustrates me most though, is that I have to say “Hey Siri” every single time. My typical morning looks like this:

  • “Hey Siri, play my film music playlist”
  • “Hey Siri, set the volume to 31%”1
  • “Hey Siri, turn repeat on”
  • “Hey Siri, turn shuffle on”
  • “Hey Siri, what’s the forecast for today?”

I learned that I can say “Hey Siri, play my film music playlist shuffled” by trial and error, one morning. I then spent that morning looking for a complete list of all accepted Siri commands and combinations of commands, to no avail — Apple should really create a site dedicated to Siri, listing every single thing we can ask her to do, including variations.

Secondly, Apple should drop the “Hey” from “Hey Siri” — just that would make life much easier. Lastly, we should be able to give multiple commands or, at the very least, the HomePod should listen for a few seconds after completing the first request because talking to Siri at length is quickly becoming a frustrating chore.

The one thing which truly impressed me, was the HomePod’s ability to hear me say “Hey Siri” from far away, even when speaking quietly or from another room. But sometimes she misses my voice completely, even when I’m shouting at her from a few centimetres away.

Apple should drop the “Hey” from “Hey Siri” — just that would make life much easier.

Wishlist

While this would compromise audio quality, I would love for the HomePod to be a mesh router at the same time, even if it were a bit larger. I would also like for Apple to quickly introduce more models — a HomePod Mini for the bathroom and bedroom.

What would be truly amazing, is a full 5.1 HomePod sound system, compatible with Apple TV. Two HomePods as the left and right front speakers, a HomePod central speaker and two HomePod Minis for the rear effect speakers. Power isn’t an issue, but it would be even better if the rear HomePod Minis had batteries for a truly wireless experience.

Oh, I almost forgot. I have had to reset the HomePod to factory settings twice so far and restart it thrice because it stopped responding. The first issue required a two-hour call to Apple Support — the reset and some other tinkering fixed my iCloud Music Library issues. They also grabbed the logs from my HomePod, to find the root cause of my problems — hopefully, this won’t happen again.

Last Words

I’m not returning the HomePod. In fact, I’m beginning to like it more and more every day. There’s something freeing in the fact, that when I sit down to work in the morning, I just ask Siri to play me some music, without having to AirPlay anything anywhere. Simply convenient. Despite my positive experience, the HomePod isn’t as good as it could be. The “smart” part of this smart speaker isn’t very… smart. And this is no iPhone or iPod. It isn’t obviously better than the competition and is only useful for people heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem. This is a shame — just adding Bluetooth audio streaming and integrating Spotify would increase its desirability ten-fold.

I’m set to get one more HomePod and two smaller models in the future, but I need to first see Apple’s commitment to the future of this new platform. And I really hope it won’t get a direct replacement with a newer A-series chip, similarly to what happened to the Apple TV 4 and 4K.

  1. She often misunderstands thirty and thirteen.

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6 Comments

  1. HomePod should listen for a few seconds after completing the first request

    This is what Google Assistant started to do lately, you can chain commands without invocation word. Convenient (although I don’t use it).

    • This is a half step towards the ability for these type of assistants to be able to converse with us, and to be able to take multiple commands at once.

      This is taking surprisingly long.

  2. What 5.1 system are you using?

  3. Nicely written. I love my HomePod too and have enjoyed watching my senior citizen parents and in-laws fall in love with the HomePods I talked them into getting. One thing that drives me nuts: I can no longer get my phone to dial a number, which is something I routinely do for conference calls—the HomePod hears me instead.

    • Thank you. I find that I hold down the Home or Power button to invoke Siri manually on my iPhone X or iPad. This also allows me to speak more slowly, because Siri often cuts me off mid sentence.