Technology Five things to know before you buy an Apple HomePod
We've reached peak smartphone. What are Apple and Samsung going to do now?
You don’t really need a new device. Here’s what that means for what you already own.Sure, some of them squeeze more screen into a smaller form. The cameras keep getting better, if you look very close. And you had to live under a rock to miss the hoopla for Apple’s 10th-anniversary iPhone X or the Samsung Galaxy S8. Many in the smartphone business were sure this latest crop would bring a “super cycle” of upgrades.
Hey, Siri, play “All About That Bass.” Because HomePod’s all about that bass. Not that brain. Oh, Apple.
Apologies to Meghan Trainor for my geeky remix of her ode to bottom notes. It sums up how I feel about the first talking speaker from the company that gave us the first talking artificial intelligence, Siri.
No matter how much boom-boom Apple packed into the $350 HomePod, it can’t make up for poor old Siri, which somehow became even more dopey. Inside this speaker, Siri can’t even do all the things it stumbles through on an iPhone, Apple Watch and Mac. The HomePod was years in the making and delayed months before it finally arrived Friday — yet it still feels like an unfinished product.
iPhone X owners report trouble answering phone calls
The iPhone X's early teething troubles have largely gone away, but there's a lingering problem for some owners and it's a fairly serious one. The cause isn't clear, although reboots and other typical troubleshooting steps don't appear to address it. There's also no indication of the scale of the problem, although it doesn't appear to be common.
The speaker, which I’ve been testing for a few days, probably sounds better than what most people use today on a kitchen counter or bookshelf. But it’s only of use to people who buy all their technology from Apple. You need an iPhone and a $10-per-month subscription to Apple Music, the only music service it lets you control with your voice. You can’t use it as a traditional Bluetooth speaker. You're paying a lot to get even more entrenched in Apple's world.
Even if you’re deep in the Apple camp, there’s more to keep in mind. Buy a HomePod for the music, not the help from Siri. And if you’re a sound hound, you’ve got options. Here are five lessons from my test lab.
1. Yes, the HomePod sounds good. But not as good as two Sonos One speakers for the same price.
Apple Music is set to surpass Spotify in paid US subscribers this summer
Earlier this year, Spotify announced that it had 70 million paying subscribers, reaffirming its place as the number one streaming service in the world, with Apple Music a distant second with 30 million as of September last year. In a new report in The Wall Street Journal, it appears that Apple is gaining subscribers at a higher rate in the United States, and will surpass Spotify for the number one spot this summer. Globally, Spotify remains ahead, but Apple is growing at a higher rate in the US — five percent a month verses Spotify’s two percent per month.
Apple engineers and marketing people will talk your ears off about the HomePod’s innovations in high-excursion woofers and flimflam flibbertigibbets.
But if you cared about audio that much, you probably already own good speakers. Can most people tell the difference?
Here’s how I found out: Beyond trying the HomePod myself in multiple rooms, I asked volunteers to compare it with the $100 second-generation Amazon Echo featuring Alexa, the $400 Google Home Max featuring Google Assistant and the $200 Sonos One which will work with both talking AIs.
We tested them using a blindfold. Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye — or ear.
Everyone could tell the difference between the least-expensive, the Amazon Echo, and the HomePod — which you’d expect, given the price difference. The Echo is probably fine if you want a soundtrack for your dishwashing or showering, but it sounded tinny next to the HomePod.
Apple's pricey HomePod sounds great but exacts some tradeoffs
The $349 HomePod smart speaker is easy on your ears and eyes but hard on your wallet.If you fit that description and are willing to fork over $349 plus embrace the subscription-only Apple Music streaming service, HomePod is well worth the wait, an outcome I reached after testing the speaker for just shy of a week. Apple makes no bones that HomePod is a music-first speaker, and it sounds terrific, all the more notable given how small it is. Vocals were pure, bass deep.
For the rest, results were mixed. The HomePod had more bass than the Sonos — sometimes too much. The Sonos was more pleasing in the midrange tones that make vocals sound bright. The Home Max did a better job at filling the room with sound than the HomePod, but had so much bass it was often muddled.
For my money, the best choice is a deal Sonos is offering (for an undisclosed amount of time) to get two of its One speakers for $350. They can form a pair that offers real stereo separation that sounded better than any of the solo speakers. Or you can put Sonos speakers in different rooms, giving you tunes all over the house.
2. HomePod Siri isn’t even the best Siri.
Siri does best at music: It can summon songs, make playlists (“play ’80s party music”), and offer factoids about songs. I’d grade it a B-minus for delight when I asked it to just “play some music.” Alas, it had no idea what to make of the request, “Play my favorite song.” (It offered Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things,” which is fun but not, in fact, my favorite.)
Apple ordered GitHub to remove iOS source code leak
A portion of iOS’s source code was leaked online yesterday and quickly removed after Apple filed a takedown notice with GitHub, where the code was posted. The leak could allow hackers to discover iOS vulnerabilities more easily and make creating iPhone jailbreaks simpler, even in the face of Apple’s tightened security measures. Although the code has now been taken down, there are still backups of it circulating on the web, as mentioned by a post on r/jailbreak. Jonathan Levin, who writes books about iOS and macOS system programming, told Motherboardthat considering how careful Apple is to safeguard against leaks, he believes “this is the biggest leak in [its] history.
But Siri really struggles on assistant tasks. It comically mishears dictation. It can’t answer as many basic information requests as Google Assistant. It can’t even set more than one simultaneous timer.
Wait, there’s less: On the HomePod, Siri can’t place phone calls, read your calendar or hail an Uber. What’s mysterious is that Siri can do all those things on an iPhone. Only third-party apps related to messaging, taking notes or making lists have been enabled on the HomePod. Apple may have focused on the most-useful functions, but it fumbled a chance to reintroduce Siri to a world that’s grown skeptical of it. (The bot, for one, apologizes: “I wish I could, but I can’t access your calendar here.”)
If you’re building a smart home, the HomePod can control lights, thermostats and locks. But Apple’s HomeKit is only compatible with certain devices; for example, you can’t use it to control Google’s popular Nest thermostats. Amazon’s Alexa works with far more.
3. There’s no physical button to turn off the HomePod microphone. But it is better about privacy in other ways.
The creepy factor on all smart speakers is that they’re constantly listening. But sometimes you just want to turn them off.
Amazon’s Echo speakers come with a button that mutes its microphone — the HomePod has no such button. But you can turn off Siri by asking: “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” (Annoyingly, she asks you each time if that’s what you really want.) To make Siri resume listening, you either tap on top of the speaker or use an app on your phone.
HomePod repairs cost nearly as much as a new speaker
If you're getting a HomePod, be sure to place it somewhere safe depending on what you break, it might be expensive to get a fix. Apple has updated its support pages to reveal that an out-of-warranty HomePod repair will cost $279 (£269). Throw in the shipping fee ($20 US, or £13) for a mail-in repair and you're not far off from the price of a brand new smart speaker. This is one of those times where the AppleCare extended warranty ($78 if you include the incident fee, or £68) may be the better value, at least if you're in a household where an accident is a real possibility.
The HomePod is more careful about what it does with your requests. Amazon and Google keep a log of everything you ask. All your requests to Siri are sent to Apple anonymously and encrypted, so you leave less of a digital trail.
One privacy decision you’ll have to make: How much of your personal life do you want to make accessible? Each HomePod is associated with one iPhone, even though an entire family might share it. During setup, Apple asks whether you want to allow anyone using the HomePod to send and read messages, add reminders, create notes and more. There’s no way to make the HomePod access only those functions when it recognizes your voice — Siri treats everyone the same.
4. You can’t make two HomePods into a stereo pair or fill multiple rooms with music — yet.
Apple hasn’t finished delivering on some HomePod capabilities that rivals such as Sonos mastered years ago. The ability to turn two HomePods into a stereo pair is coming “later this year.”
Same goes for the ability to have your music follow you from one room to the next. Only after an update to Apple’s AirPlay software will you be able to ask Siri to play a song in a particular room, or play the same music everywhere — a “party mode” so to speak.
One related concern: I was disappointed the HomePod doesn’t have a closer relationship with the Apple TV. Why not allow Siri to order up shows and movies as you do with the Apple TV remote? If you suffer from terrible speakers built into your TV set, you can dig into the Apple TV's audio settings to let the HomePod be the default speaker for whatever show or movie you’re streaming.
5. When you call out to Siri on the HomePod, sometimes your Apple Watch or iPhone answers instead.
About 20 percent of the time I call out to the HomePod, the Siri on my Apple Watch or iPhone answers instead. One time, when I asked Siri to play Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” both the HomePod and iPhone started playing … with just enough time in between that it sounded as if they were trying to create a musical round. Apple says software updates should have fixed this, and it is looking into my continuing problem.
That goof was pretty funny. But more often the bug is annoying — and surprising from Apple, which charges a premium for polish.
This post was updated to include details about making a HomePod the default speaker for an Apple TV.
Spotify might be building a smart speaker of its own .
Spotify appears to be working a smart speaker that it says will be "category defining," according to new job listings. The ads show that the new "operations manager," "senior product manager: hardware production" and "project manager: hardware production and engineering," would be handling manufacturing and supply for the new product. That suggests Spotify is ready to start manufacturing soon, as the Guardian points out.
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