I’m often asked why I never write about Apple on my smart home site. My usual answer is because Apple has largely shunned the smart home sector and their answer to smart home products was to force manufacturers to re-engineer their products to conform to Apple standards. Now I have to write about Apple because they announced HomePod this week.
HomePod is Apple’s (me too!) answer to Amazon Echo, Google Home and Microsoft/Harmon Kardon Invoke. But since it’s Apple, it costs between two and seven times more than competing offerings, and the best thing that tech sites can say about that is “This is how Apple differentiates the HomePod from its competitors.”
OK, in Apple’s defense, apparently the HomePod sounds amazing. Clearly listening to complaints about Google Home and Amazon Echo, Apple decided to build HomePod with a serious woofer and an array of seven tweeters. Reports have put the sound more on par with a Sonos Play:1 (also $150 cheaper). In fact, with the apparent amazing sound quality, people are saying HomePod can’t be compared to Google Home or Amazon Echo because they don’t hold a candle to it sound-wise. Instead we should be comparing HomePod to offerings from Sonos, Bose and the like. I don’t like to be told what to do, so I’m going to run through each of the HomePod features and compare them to whatever the hell I want to compare them to.
Lets get to the elephant in the room immediately, owning an Apple product tells people that you’re better than them, drive a German car or no car at all, and have money to burn. Apple HomePod costs $349. In comparison, the full price you would pay for the top selling competing offerings are:
Amazon Echo: $179
Echo Dot: $49
Google Home: $129
Sonos Play:1: $199
Sonos Play:3: $299
Bose SoundTouch 20: $349
Clearly Apple wanted to be at a different price point than their competitors. At this price they’re claiming that they have all of the rich sound of a Bose or Sonos offering, AND all of the functionality and connectivity of the Google and Amazon offerings (I leave off Microsoft’s offering because at this time it has no price). Moreover, most of the other offerings actually go on sale from time to time. The best discount you’re ever going to see on an Apple product is that of the five finger variety.
This is where HomePod is supposed to shine. I haven’t heard one in person, so I can’t say, but lets assume it’s amazing. That immediately eliminates all of Amazon and Google’s offerings from the equation, right? Yes and no. As standalone devices, Google Home, Amazon Echo and especially Echo Dot will pale in comparison to the sound quality that HomePod offers. But both of Amazon’s devices can pair to external speakers via Bluetooth, and Echo Dot can be wired to anything with a mic in jack or RCA ports.
Sticking to an Apple to apples comparison (see what I did there?!), without even hearing it in person I can say that the sound quality is better than Google Home and Amazon Echo. Its closest direct comparison has been to a Sonos Play:1, which is interesting because at the price you could have a Sonos Play:3 with money to spare. I can get on board with HomePod sounding at least as good as a Sonos Play:1, but putting it up against a Sonos Play:3 just wouldn’t work. You could argue that with HomePod you’re getting Sonos Play:1 sound plus Siri and all of the features of HomeKit, but again the price muddies the waters here. Moving on.
At launch, with HomePod you’ll have access to Apple Music. That’s it. One would expect that by launch, or shortly thereafter, Apple would at lest include Spotify. Because you know Apple fans will just shit if they can’t use the super premium, double mocha latte Spotify account that they pay God knows what for monthly.
In comparison, Google, Amazon and Sonos offer virtually all of the major streaming services. Sonos is off the charts with the amount of streaming options available out of the box. Apple is going to have to seriously step up their game if they want to compete here.
Good old Siri. Apple has been steadily increasing Siri’s abilities and features over the years and it’s definitely a serviceable assistant. I’m not a Siri hater even after having an iPhone for a few years and having to constantly argue with her. If I had to rank voice assistants, and I will right now, I would put Google first, Alexa second and Siri/Cortana in a tie for third. Even testers at Apple’s developer conference weren’t able to test Siri’s abilities on HomePod because it wasn’t ready to be shown! They’re not releasing until December, but I’d call it a yellow (not quite red) flag when the major feature of your always listening voice assistant speaker doesn’t work the day you announce it.
They don’t call Apple “The walled garden” for nothing. HomePod will only work with HomeKit enabled devices. If you’re just starting out with home automation or if you’ve been buying HomeKit products all along, that’s not going to affect you. But if you have pre-HomeKit devices or devices that haven’t adapted to Apple’s hardware specs for HomeKit, you’re shit out of luck. The good news here is that most of the major players have adapted to HomeKit. The bad news is that they had to adapt their hardware to be compatible with HomeKit and have passed the cost on to you. Most companies offering HomeKit options in parallel to non-HomeKit options charge $10-50 more for the HomeKit compatible device. If you’re an Apple fan, you’re already used to this, though. Apple has a full list of HomeKit enabled devices here, and you’ll be able to control all of them from your HomePod .
There are two major audio features, aside from sound quality, that Apple is touting. First is synced audio across multiple devices. This is not limited to HomePods. It will also sync music to any AirPlay 2 enabled speakers. This is a feature that Amazon Echo is now sorely lacking. Both Google Home and HomePod have this feature, and it is a big one. Once again, though, HomePod falls short of Sonos, the master of synced audio. Not only can Sonos sync audio across multiple devices, they’re made to function as high end home theater speakers. You can set up any combination of Sonos speakers in stereo, 2.1, or 5.1 configurations.
The second major audio feature is self tuning. Apple has added the ability for the HomePod to analyze its surroundings and tune the device for the best possible sound quality. Putting two HomePods in a room will cause them to self balance and adjust to one another. This is a really cool feature, and something that I would love to see in action. Once again, this is an offering that Sonos has had for a long time with Trueplay.
The HomePod sports an A8 chip. What does that mean to the layperson? Nothing. Apparently it’s the same chip that is in the iPhone 6, so the HomePod presumably has the same processing power as an iPhone 6. How does that compare to the competition? I have no idea. Apple is the only maker of one of these appliances touting their processor. Google Home apparently carries the same processor as Chromecast and Amazon Echo also has some form of A8 chip. The processor discussion has never come up because no one cares. The devices all respond quickly and the majority of their voice recognition processing is done server side, not on the local device.
If Apple could get over themselves and lower the price to even $250, this would be tough to beat. It offers the sound quality of a Sonos Play:1 with the features of an Echo all with Apple’s attention to detail. Unfortunately they’ve priced this way higher than it needs to be. This probably won’t affect your average Apple fanboy who has been waiting for this device to hit the market for two years, but smart homes are expensive enough to build without inflated prices. People that are married to Siri on their phones will quickly find that once you have a voice assistant in your home, you no longer feel the need to pick up your phone to issue commands. We’ll see how this plays out in December, after Apple has had time to react to feedback and produce a final product, but I don’t see HomePod edging out Amazon Echo anytime soon.