Forget Apple's New HomePod – There's a Better Way To Do Everything
When Apple introduced Siri in 2011, almost seven years ago, the future of voice controlled technology seemed bright. Sadly, the advancements trickled slowly after that and Apple fell even father behind when Amazon came on the scene with Amazon Alexa, and Google followed with its Google home assistant. To say Apple dropped the ball is an understatement, but it seemed like they were finally going right that wrong with the release of the HomePod, a smart speaker that promises to rival its competition. Sadly, it does not.
It pains me to write that. I use a lot of Apple gear at home and having used and reviewed both Amazon and Google smart home devices, I was genuinely excited to see what Apple would bring to the table, given their expertise in creating user-friendly devices. HomePod is anything but. Yes, the audio quality is very good, and many reviewers have said that, but for $349, you can do way better. More on that in a minute. First, lets look at the HomePod itself.
You're stuck with Apple Music.
HomePod's biggest offense is that its smart speaker functions are way behind the times and, worse, care more about Apple's business interests than user-friendliness. As soon as I opened my HomePod, I was pretty pleased with how nice it looked and how simple it was to set up—it literally took seconds. But then things got awkward. For starters, one of the first questions that pops up on your iPhone is whether or not you want to subscribe to Apple Music, a $10 per month music service. About a year ago, I tried it. I liked it, but didn't want to spend the money each month on it. I'm happy enough using Spotify. And Google and Amazon are okay with that, too. Even though they have their own proprietary paid music services, you can also control third party services on their devices. HomePod won't automatically connect to any comprehensive service but Apple Music. That's a big fail.
Sure, you can stream to it from your iPhone (or from an Android phone using an app) over AirPlay or Bluetooth, but that defeats the point of a smart speaker. Being able to say "Alexa (or Hey, Google), play my Jazz station on Pandora" is what makes smart devices so great. Using an Echo dot, I'm able to access my local public radio station, which streams for free over TuneIn radio, which requires no account for setup. HomePod can't even do that.
The only thing it can link to for free is Podcasts, which you can also do with Google and Alexa, and Beats 1, which is pretty much just a single radio station. You can also access and play music you bought over iTunes, but only that music—anything you copied into iTunes (eg. my entire CD library I've had for years), is a no-go, at least via voice control. Interestingly enough Siri on my iPhone can access any of my music stored on my phone. So, my older iPhone is smarter than Apple's latest smart product? Did no one at Apple see this as a problem?
Siri can't answer that.
And then there's Siri, which still trails behind Google on the information front. It can answer most of the basic questions, but deep queries for info often get answered with, "I'm' sorry, I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that." It also isn't a slick with answers. Ask it for the temperature and you'll get an entire weather forecast. Google Assistant knows how to give just the number you asked for, or longer description if you ask for one. That seems picayune but after using smart home assistants like this, you tend to appreciate this nuance.
No home automation without iOS.
Home automation is fine. Using Apple HomeKit, you can control compatible smart home devices around the house and it works just as well Google and Alexa, but only if you use iOS on your mobile devices, where the setup occurs. Android users are out of luck—yet another limitation that gives HomePod zero advantage. Which is a shame because HomeKit has nice programmable features and good security.
If you are heavy Apple-user like me, HomePod is a real disappointment.
You can do better!
So, let's say you don't mind these drawbacks. Fine, but you'll do much better for the same amount of money by buying a WiFi or Bluetooth-enabled A/V receiver and a nice set of bookshelf speakers. If you already have an Apple TV, even better — you won't need a receiver with wireless built-in.
Here's why. If you use an iPhone, Siri already works as a smart home device that can control the same functions using voice commands, so long as the Siri "listen" preference is activated. Just pair it with your receiver and speakers and essentially you have the same exact thing as HomePod, but with some key advantages: 1) You can voice access all of your music, not just iTunes purchases, 2) you get truer stereo sound and overall better audio quality with a receiver/speaker setup, 3) you add better audio for your TV, if you didn't have these items before, and 4) it'll only cost you about the same price.
For example, if you got this Onkyo 5.1-Channel A/V Receiver for $249 and a pair of speakers, such as these Pioneer Andrew Jones Loudspeakers, for $99.99, you've spent the same amount of money for a much more versatile system that not only acts like a smart speaker using your iPhone but also can be upgraded for home theater surround sound. Sure, setting it up takes a bit more time, but we're talking 20 minutes or less. That's worth it.
Home automation is pretty much covered, too, so long as you are connected to WiFi. "Hey, Siri" on the iPhone works the same as it does on HomePod. Some might say that needing to have your phone around you all the time to voice control stuff is annoying, but how many of us are NOT near our phone all of the time?
Still, I get it, this setup does not present the sleekness of an all-in-one smart speaker. And it's not practical if you wanted a smart speaker in a room that's not your main entertainment room. But if that's what you want, still don't choose HomePod, stick with Google or Amazon, they work just as well with other Apple products but are more user friendly in the end.