10 Days With The Apple HomePod

I feel like I need to preface this review with a brief history of my Apple fandom. My first Apple product was a third generation iPod in 2003, followed less than a year later by an iMac G5. Since then I've bought 2 more iMacs, 2 more iPods, a MacBook, 3 MacBook Pros, 7 iPhones, 3 iPads, all 4 generations of Apple TVs, an Apple Watch, BeatsX, AirPods, monthly iCloud storage, iTunes Match, an Apple Music subscription since the day it launched, moved all my photos, contacts and calendars to iCloud and hung onto my old @mac.com email address through iTools, .Mac, MobileMe and now iCloud. To say I'm deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem would be a major understatement.

In addition, last year I started adding smart home features to my house. Hue lights, WeMo switches, iHome Smart Plugs, etc.

I'm also a voracious music consumer. At one point I owned over 1500 CDs, first ripped into iTunes and now sitting comfortable in my iCloud Music Library along with several thousand more songs purchased directly from Apple.

I'm exactly the Apple fanboy that HomePod is made for.

And I took mine back this afternoon after only 10 days.

Apple has been pushing the HomePod as more of an old fashioned speaker than a "smart speaker", which is definitely a good move (more on that later), but as good as it sounds is it twice as good as a comparable Sonos? Not even close, if it's any better at all. The bass is at times too overwhelming and the special voodoo magic they use to calibrate the speaker's surroundings are a lot more impressive on paper than in actual results. For $350 it needs to sound exponentially better than the Sonos One which costs half as much, and it just doesn't. Controlling music by voice works well (one of the few things that does), but it's not really my preferred way of playing music. I much prefer scrolling through my library and picking what I want to hear, and AirPlay is still a mess. I've got a fiber connection and faster than most wifi, and dropouts and disconnections were a constant issue. Issues that never happened when streaming directly from Apple Music and not from a paired device. Not to mention the annoying 3 second lag that's part of AirPlay's specs. AirPlay is a mature 15 year old technology that's now less reliable than Bluetooth. Yes, I know AirPlay 2 is coming, but who knows exactly when and do we really know how much better it will be? You're also completely limited to Apple Music. Sure, you can use AirPlay to play Spotify or Pandora, but I've already documented how terrible that feature is.

That leads me to the other selling point of the HomePod, it's abilities as a Smart Home product. It does well enough in controlling basic smart devices. I had a 100% success rate turning on and off lights and plugs. Beyond that though? Siri is a complete shitshow. Anyone who's spent time with both Siri on iOS and any of the Amazon Alexa products (I have a full size Echo and 2 Dots) already knows Siri's limitations, especially compared to the competition. Myself and many others assumed with Apple making a product that put Siri front and center they'd find a way to vastly improve the service before HomePod's launch. It turned out to be the exact opposite. Siri on the HomePod is even more crippled than it is on iOS. Want to add something to your calendar? HomePod can't do it. Want to call an Uber? Not on HomePod. Want to add something to a third party task manager? Nope. Want to make a phone call? Good luck. Want directions? Hahahaha. There's no reason HomePod shouldn't at the very least be able to do everything Siri on iOS can do. The limitations are mindboggling. Hell, if nothing else handoff the request to an iPhone, don't just say "sorry, I can't do that". That should be the official motto for Siri on the HomePod. It's been repeated ad nauseam in almost every review, but HomePod can't even set multiple timers. The most basic of voice assistant tasks.

On the most recent episode of Accidental Tech Podcast Marco Arment made the statement that you shouldn't buy tech products on the promise of what they may eventually become. That's the perfect description of the HomePod. Airplay 2 is "coming soon". Using 2 HomePods as a stereo pair is "an upcoming feature". Multiroom audio will be available "later this year". All basic audio capabilities that Sonos has had for almost a decade. We keep hearing rumblings of an improved Siri SDK, but what exactly is "improved"? Even with a complete overhaul it will still be miles behind Amazon and Google.

Over the last 15 years literally every Apple product or service I've bought has brought me a measure of joy and/or convenience that wasn't in my life previously. HomePod has been nothing short of disappointing and frustrating. It feels like a half baked product that was rushed out simply to compete and have something/anything in the marketplace. Apple may claim to have been working on HomePod for 6 years, but it lacks so many basic features I find that impossible to believe. You couldn't add multiroom audio or stereo pairing after 6 years of development but will suddenly have it available a few months after launch?

I really do hope future updates make the HomePod the device it's meant to be. I don't want to rely on Amazon. I want to have everything I do be in the Apple ecosystem. I want the benefits of a unified product line. I want Apple to surprise me again. Right now though, the HomePod is little more than a wasted opportunity.