Hey Siri, why'd you have to cancel Christmas? It might have felt that way for the millions eagerly awaiting Apple’s HomePod smart speaker to hit stores in December.
The Ambient's verdict: Apple HomePod review
Instead, Cupertino curtailed plans for any suspiciously HomePod-shaped presents to appear under your Christmas tree, delaying its US, UK and Australian release until early 2018.
In a statement the tech giant said it required “a little more time before it’s ready for our customers”. By channeling its inner Chairmen of the Board, Apple missed the lucrative holiday season - in which Amazon sold "millions" of Echo smart speakers and lost further ground on its AI assistant rivals.
Read this: Apple HomeKit essential guide
Given the selection of adept smart speakers already supporting Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana or Google Assistant the pull to purchase now is strong – especially if you’re considering smart home devices compatible with those assistants.
However, Apple is rarely first for anything (even digital music players and smartphones) and that hasn’t stopped it delivering success in virtually every category, so why not the smart home? Read on to decide whether to wait for the HomePod or run off with a rival now.
WAIT FOR HOMEPOD: Give me just a little more time?
The HomePod is Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home. The speaker (when it arrives) will control music, smart home devices and everyday tasks through its voice assistant, Siri, already found on 375 million active Apple devices.
Siri has actually been around a lot longer than Alexa or Google Assistant. It’s the world’s most popular AI assistant, handling over 2 billion requests a week, and the most international, covering 21 languages in 36 countries.
Siri is so crucial for the HomePod’s fate Apple has completely replaced its three core components in the last three years – speech recognition, natural language and its voice – using machine learning.
“You can hear levels of expression, changes in pitch and Siri is genderless,” an Apple spokesperson told The Ambient. “With a high quality speaker like HomePod we think that’s even more important so we’ve put a lot of work into making it feel that much more natural, like you’re talking to a real person.”
Sound and specs
It should also sound better than most of the competition with no fewer than seven tweeters, a four-inch upwards-facing woofer and the ability to pair two HomePods for stereo sound. The 7-inch speaker is also spatially aware, optimising sound to suit the room.
Missing manual: Your comprehensive HomePod guide
Add in Apple’s wireless streaming system, AirPlay 2, and the HomePod forms part of a multi-room audio network comprising an eclectic mix of any supported third party speakers, not just one brand, like with Sonos.
It should listen well, if not better, too, thanks to six background-cancelling microphones to hear commands, plus Apple’s A8 chip – the most powerful ever in a speaker – carrying them out.
Smart home and security
If you want the HomePod to control your smart home, pick devices compatible with Apple’s automation platform HomeKit and it does the rest. Scan a code and it’s set up – no app, no registration and no Wi-Fi password. HomeKit is also flexible with commands and customisation.
When it comes to security, Apple has gone to great pains to explain it uses end-to-end encryption between Apple devices and HomeKit compatible accessories – including Siri voice requests that are also anonymised – and none of the control comes from the cloud.
This is to combat hacking and retain privacy with Apple claiming even it doesn’t get a peek at your data. Sensitive tasks, such as unlocking doors or disarming alarms, requires passcode, Touch ID or Face ID authentication. Of course, we’ve no choice but to take Apple at its word but at the very least Cupertino seems to be offering to do much more to protect personal data captured by the HomePod than Amazon.
Apple has taken its time developing the HomePod, reportedly in the works since 2012, so a few more months won’t hurt. You can’t rush perfection and if it isn’t ready Apple should be applauded for holding back until it is.
BUY A RIVAL: Too little, too late?
Problem child Siri might be everywhere but it actually languishes behind other AI assistants that have matured quicker. This could be why Apple needs more time to perfect the HomePod. The voice assistant has plenty going for it (see box out below) but its shortcomings are still too apparent.
“Accents can be a challenge, but it’s definitely something we’ve been improving over the years,” an Apple spokesperson admitted. We agree Apple has made huge strides with the iOS 11 update, but Siri still gets in a tizz with some requests and answers.
For example, we love a new addition of settling sports arguments by comparing current players with past legends. However, when asking Siri whether Cristiano Ronaldo or Alan Shearer has more goals, Siri informed us “Alan Shearer had more goals last season”.
Sound and specs
The speaker's audio chops sound impressive, but worth $349? If Apple employs the same dollars to pounds policy as the iPhone X that’s £349 in the UK. Should it come in cheaper it’s still got a way to go before troubling the Amazon Echo or Google Home (both around the $100) mark the or audio-orientated Sonos One and Sony LF-S50G at $199. Meanwhile, its A8 chip is from the iPhone 6 released in 2014. The latest iPhone uses a superior A11.
Smart home and security
Switch to the smart home and the list of HomeKit-enabled accessories lags way behind Amazon’s compatible products. Canary, Nest, Hive, Belkin and Parrot are just some of the brands not yet supported.
Referring to the list an Apple spokesperson said: “It changes so rapidly these days it’s almost on a weekly basis, so if you don’t see support for something know that we do work with just about every brand out there so it probably will become available at some point.” With a company like Nest which has its own Works With Nest program, this seems unlikely.
John Lewis’s HomeKit product page, meanwhile, only displays devices by Philips, while Alexa and Google Assistant have more choice, perhaps illustrating Apple’s message isn’t quite there yet.
Another HomePod hindrance may be the lack of third-party app support. Yes, Siri works with WhatsApp, Skype, Uber, PayPal and more, but Siri song requests take you to Apple Music only. Google and Amazon support multiple streaming services include Spotify and Pandora.
So should you wait or not?
Locked into Apple gadgets, excited by premium smart audio and possess the patience for an ecosystem to evolve? Then the Apple HomePod is where the heart is. Hold on till it's ready.
If you simply can’t wait any longer to start your smart home revolution, though, a ready-made selection of refined smart speakers is already out there and they don’t discriminate on devices or budgets.