Director of Product Design
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HomePod, Sweet HomePod

When I started (very) occasionally blogging again I didn't mean for my blog to become a review series for new Apple products, but here we are. There have been a plethora of reviews of the HomePod over the past week, and I was struck more than ordinarily by how misaligned they were with my own expectations for what reviews should be doing.

Most all of them boil down to three points:

  • The sound is extraordinary for such a small (yet heavy) speaker
  • Siri isn't as good an A.I. as Alexa or Google Assistant (Cortana is dead)
  • Siri doesn't support Spotify

And most correctly cover the first point, but over-index on the latter two and often don't get into the details beyond the sound quality, on what separates this product from its closest comparisons.

So...

 

Sound

You'll love it.

 

A.I.

Artificial intelligence, much raved about, is still pretty tame and in my relatively uninformed estimation will remain so for quite some time. The intelligence with which they parse queries isn't really that different from what we've seen for decades; they're just better integrated with APIs and structured data, and with a better designed (but not particularly smarter) interaction layer in front of it. And most importantly, you interact with your voice, as opposed to through text, which makes a huge difference in how they're perceived, even if the actual functionality hasn't changed to earn that perception.

In short, they are very ‘knowledgable’ and will likely remain like this for years to come, but they don't understand people.

Calling this intelligence is stretching the term beyond to the point of breakage.

That's why the reviews comparing other speakers's abilities to answer trivia questions and use 'skills' confuses me. They're all equally bad at understanding queries and conversations, and most studies of this space find that everyone uses their Echos and G Speakers for the same set of tasks: Music, timers/reminders/alarms, weather, news, home automation and then a long tail of other stuff, including things like trivia and jokes.

Yet reviews cite these studies, list out those core tasks and then spend the rest of the time complaining about how Siri can't tell them who the chief architect of the Hoover Dam is or It boggles the mind. Presumably they believe, and maybe rightly so, that their readers care about these features (Well I'm a reader, and I couldn't care less). We have no less than four Echos (and a fifth Dot not in use) throughout our apartment, and I don't need any hands to count the number of times we've used any of them to answer trivia questions, because the answer is none.

It's fair to remark that Siri, Alexa and (so help me) Google Assistant all occupy the same general space, but these comparisons smell like the same checklist comparisons that get pulled out for every new iPhone review. I'm not dismissive of the fact that there is some overlap, but I also intuit that for most people this doesn't really matter.  

And what about skills/expandability? For our Echos we have two: Hue and iRobot. Siri doesn't need Hue., which is supported by HomeKit. I don't know if iRobot could build HomeKit support, but it would be neat if they could, but if I need to use the app or even go so far as to bend down to start the Deep Thought (our vacuum robot), so be it.

That's not to say that I'm a hard no on expandability, or that Siri would be worse off if it could answer trivia questions, but without any hard data to back it up, I nevertheless think that reviewers vastly over index on these features, whereas most people will see "Great speaker, has Siri" and be fine with it. Amazon says users use one skill on average, but if that clusters around HomeKit functionality for instance, Siri's got it covered.

Now call me a zealot, but I also think the narrative around Siri being less than Alexa and Google Assistant (put your company name in everything, why don't you) doesn't actually reflect reality. They're all equally alright, with lots of issues. If Apple is to be faulted for anything, it should be that their language interpreter isn't further along than everyone else at this point given their head start.

Spotify

I don't mean to slag off Spotify, they're obviously loved by many, but I'm 20 years deep in iTunes/Apple Music, and whenever I try Spotify I find the experience so-so at best in large part due to the dark, uninviting interface and in part thanks to the fact that... well I'm 20 years into iTunes. And for all of iTunes's foibles, and the rocky road it has been to use iTunes Match, I nevertheless continue to have the same library as I've had since I got my first MP3 back in 1997 (at The Party in Års for what that's worth).

That's just me and my personal preferences, it obviously works great for many, but given that Apple Music has built up 36 million users in two years versus Spotify's 70 million in ten years, I think it's a good bet that Apple doesn't feel like they need to put too much effort into supporting Spotify to make this product a success. Moreover it's arguable that the HomePod is a supplement to Apple Music, more than it is a generalized speaker.

And sure, it's appropriate for reviews to explain that the HomePod doesn't hook into Spotify, but the way in which it seems to be such a sticking point for many says more about their allegiance to Spotify than I think it does about Apple's approach with the HomePod's allegiance to Apple's own ecosystem. Our Echos are in our home in spite of their lack of Apple Music support. When it comes to it, the HomePod is the only real choice for us, due to just that.

The Interface

Something that wasn't covered in the reviews I've read is how the HomePod is to interact with. Too much time spent on what isn't there, and not enough on what is. I will compare with Echo where appropriate; I haven't use the G Speaker.

When Echo detects 'Alexa' it halts or lowers audio, plays a note and lights up a blue ring, stronger in the direction of the voice. This is useful as it is very clear whether or not the Echo is listening. Being able to see it around corners or out of the corner of an eye in a darkened room can also be quite handy.

When HomePod detects 'Hey, Siri' it keeps playing the music until after the query (and then subdues it as if you're standing outside a music venue while it replies), which is a little disconcerting, although nice when you're just changing volume (Alexa has to interrupt with an 'okay'). But since it keeps playing, doesn't play a note and you can't actually see the Siri motion graphic from anywhere but fairly close to and above the HomePod, you just have to assume that Siri is listening... Which sometimes isn't the case, especially when there are five people in the same room, with a bunch of crosstalk etc. It would be nice to be able to feel a little more confident in whether or not I'm being made to look like a fool.

The top is a touch screen, and it's beautifully minimalistic. But the + and - buttons only appear when it's playing music, so you can't change it before starting the music, and there is no indication of how loud the volume is set. Echo on the other hand lights up the ring to show you when you change it. When Siri is talking, the volume controls disappear, so you can't change the volume while she's talking. This morning when I came into the kitchen, I didn't know what volume the HomePod was at from last night, so to not wake my family I would have to first tell Siri to set the volume, and then ask her to play something, instead of being able to see what the volume was and set it using the touch interface. As it happened I just asked Siri to play the news, and she then started yammering fairly loudly (and she's consistently too loud), and because the volume controls don't show up while Siri's talking... You see the problem.

It's beautifully minimalistic, but not particularly practical.

The whole surface also responds to taps to play, pause etc. which is nice, but I've triggered it by accident no less than three times in the three days I've had it... This might be a case where adding some signifiers to the affordances would be helpful, even if it clashes with the strict minimalism of the GUI.

It truly pains me to say this, but while none of these things are fatal flaws, the Amazon Echo is point for point better at telling the user what's happening and how to use it. Of course, I've never been able to figure out what the button with the dot on the Echo does, so don't throw a party just yet, Amazon.

Using the phone's controls for the HomePod works well, except the volume control has to cover so much territory that even a small nudge can mean a big difference.

Privacy

It's frightening how American corporations at large, supported by the government here, are free to completely and utterly disregard the individual's right to privacy. Apple has rightfully wielded their ability to care about their customers's privacy as a weapon against their competitors as well as the US government (to some extent), and I'm personally a high proponent of their stance on this.

Putting an always-on microphone in your house was scary when Microsoft did it with the Kinect, it was even scarier when Amazon did it with the Echo and it was downright terrifying when Google did it with whatever their doodad is called.

Now I kinda, sorta trust Amazon enough that I'm willing to allow Echos into our house. I don't think that they would use it to listen for ways to sell more products, but on the other hand I wouldn't be flabbergasted if it turns out they did; they fight for fantastic customer experience, not for the customer. Also, that drop-in feature? Gives me the creeps, and I often check the (horrible) app to make sure our Echos aren't set up to enable it.

I don't trust Google. I remember when I found that the Google app had been recording my every move without asking me. That same day I switched away from Gmail and never looked back.

But I trust Apple. They've lead the way on both security and privacy, and continue to have nothing to gain by surreptitiously profiling me (hi, Facebook). Whatever costs that has in the way of improved 'machine learning' and other fancy new technologies, that is a cost I'll happily pay.

Other Details

Siri's voice is too loud in the mix. I understand that different albums are mixed at different levels, but Siri is consistently too loud, to the point where I sometimes want to flinch. This is especially frustrating when I've specifically set HomePod to a relatively low setting, playing quiet music, only for her to speak loudly and confidently into the room as if there wasn't a wife and child sleeping in the room next to me.

Conclusion

You want a best in class speaker, you subscribe to Apple Music, you're okay that it doesn't replace your TV setup, and it's in your price range?

Let's be honest, there are no other real options. Sonos perhaps? But if HomePod is in your price range, doesn't Sonos feel like settling?

There you have it, congratulations on your new speaker.

Michael Heilemann