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Apple HomePod review: Great sound, but it's trapped in Apple's world

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Allow it to transfer your settings and any existing HomeKit devices and other details will be sent to the HomePod. 

Screenshots for Megan Wollerton/CNET

With Apple Music, you can ask the HomePod to play specific songs, bands or musicians. It can also chose for you, based on your listening history. Ask Siri to play a particular genre or category such as "bluegrass" or "calming music" if you want a HomePod-curated playlist. And if you can't remember the name of the artist, band or song -- you can ask Siri to "play a song that goes like...(insert lyrics here)." 

Searching for songs by their lyrics was relatively easy, with a few hiccups. If you just give a generic, short phrase like "baby, I'm yours," you could end up with any number of songs. And if you don't remember the exact lyrics, you might not get the right thing. It also didn't work if I wanted to play a song written in another language. So when I said, "Hey Siri, play the song that goes ..como si fuera ésta noche la última vez (from the classic Spanish-language song Bésame Mucho)," the voice assistant had no idea what I was talking about. 

Enabling the Personal Requests feature mentioned earlier means anyone can ask the HomePod to set reminders, alarms and timers, as well as send and read messages and calendar appointments from your iOS device as long as it's connected to the same Wi-Fi network. You can run multiple timers at the same time, too, if you need to keep track of a bunch of things simultaneously. 

In addition to iMessages, the HomePod works with third-party messaging services such as WhatsApp. The HomePod can find nearby Apple devices as well. I asked Siri on the HomePod to find my iPhone and it immediately responded "I found CNET's iPhone nearby. Should I try to make it play a sound?" If you say yes, if will ping the phone so you can more easily locate it.

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You can see the Dining Room HomePod in the HomeKit accessory list in the Home app.

Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Importantly, you can't train the HomePod to recognize different voices. Unlike "Hey, Siri" on your phone, the HomePod responds to everyone. That makes it easier for the whole family to use, but hurts its customizability across multiple users, since it can't recognize a specific voice to allow purchases. Still, Alexa and Google Assistant aren't foolproof -- just check out this video where we flummox both voice assistants by trying to sound like our colleagues.

The HomePod operates over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which allows for this simple configuration process. Apple automatically grabs your iCloud details, Wi-Fi login, details of any existing Apple smart home products you have, and any other pertinent information it needs to configure (and later operate) your HomePod.

While there's no app required to get the HomePod up and running, the speaker lives in the Home app for iOS. Immediately after you configure your speaker using these steps, it appears as an accessory in your list of HomeKit devices (see screenshot).

Giving your HomePod a dedicated location name such as "Dining Room" or "Kitchen" helps you differentiate between multiple Apple speakers in your home, both in the Home app and with AirPlay 2 multiroom audio.

Stereo pairing works a little differently, since you assign two HomePods to the same room. I nicknamed my two HomePods "Living Room" and my iPhone automatically asked if I was trying to create a stereo pair. After that, it asked me to identify my "Left" versus "Right" speaker to optimize sound. I didn't even have to move them -- I simply tapped the arrows (as shown the second screenshot below to switch them).

Both speakers automatically play audio once they're set up as a stereo pair. You don't have to specify "on both living room speakers" or on my "stereo pair." It just works. And if you want to unpair them, just select "Ungroup Accessories" in the Home app.

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Stereo pairing is ridiculously easy to configure. 

Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Siri speaks

We already know the HomePod can't differentiate between voices, but Apple's voice assistant still has a lot to say. Here's a look at Siri's capabilities on the HomePod.

News

Not only can Siri give you a news update on the HomePod, Apple's voice assistant lets you choose from among four different media outlets. If you simply ask Siri for the news, she defaults to NPR. But you can also request the latest headlines from Fox, CNN and The Washington Post. I like that the HomePod automatically gives you choices without you having to enable a specific software skill, as you do with Alexa.

Messages

You can send messages to contacts -- or any phone number you give Siri -- straight from the HomePod. It can also read your new messages out to you. This works roughly the same as Alexa and Google Assistant.

Alarms, timers, reminders and calendar events

You can create one-time or recurring alarms, set timers with your voice so you can cook without grabbing your phone and ask Siri to set birthday reminders for your friends and family. You can also ask Siri to give you details on existing alarms, timers, reminders and calendar events. It can run multiple timers simultaneously. 

When I set up a reminder to call a friend the next day on the HomePod, Siri didn't ask me what time I wanted to call them. Neither did Google Assistant. Siri defaulted to 9 a.m. and Google Assistant randomly chose 8 a.m. Alexa, on the other hand, actually asked what time I wanted the reminder, which is much more helpful. 

Note: Your phone has to be on the same Wi-Fi network for these features to work with the HomePod.

Comparing voice assistants


Apple HomePod Amazon Echo Google Home
Voice assistant Siri Alexa Google Assistant
Voice-supported music services Apple Music, iTunes, iTunes Match, Apple Podcasts Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn
Streaming audio support Any iOS audio via AirPlay 2 Any Bluetooth audio source (Android, iOS and others) Any Chromecast or Bluetooth audio source (Android, iOS and others)
Smart light bulb compatibility Philips Hue, Lifx, Nanoleaf, Sylvania Smart Plus and more Philips Hue, Lifx, TP-Link, Nanoleaf, Sylvania, GE Lighting, Eufy, Sengled and more Philips Hue, Lifx, TP-Link, Nanoleaf, Sylvania, GE Lighting, Eufy, Sengled and more
Smart thermostat compatibility Ecobee, Elgato, Honeywell, Netatmo, iDevices, Emerson, Tado and more Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell, Emerson, Netatmo, iDevices, Tado, Trane and more Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell, Netatmo, iDevices and more
Smart lock compatibility August, Yale, Schlage, Kwikset and more August, Yale, Schlage, Kwikset and more August, Schlage, Kwikset and more
Smart light switch compatibility Lutron, Elgato, iDevices, Leviton, iHome, Belkin WeMo and more Lutron, iDevices, Belkin WeMo, D-Link, iHome, TP-Link, Lowes Iris, Leviton, GE and more Lutron, iDevices, Belkin WeMo, D-Link, iHome, TP-Link, Lowes Iris, Leviton and more
Voice-supported media services Apple TV Dish Network, Logitech Harmony, Amazon Fire TV (Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, CBS All Access, Showtime, NBC and Bravo) Logitech Harmony, Google Chromecast (Netflix and YouTube)
Price $349, £319, AU$499 $100, £90, AU$149 $129, £129, AU$199

Smart home

When you set up a HomePod, all of your HomeKit devices automatically transfer to your Apple speaker. Say, "Hey, Siri, open the shades" and your HomeKit-enabled Lutron shades respond. You can also access your HomeKit devices from the Home app, just as you could before. One exception is security devices. If you ask Siri on the HomePod to unlock a door, she'll respond: "I wish I could, but I can't control security devices here." She can tell you whether your locks are locked or unlocked, though.

Nothing has really changed here with the HomePod. Apple is still behind Amazon and Google in terms of third-party integrations. But since HomeKit lives natively in iOS via the Home app, it's more seamless to operate than competing speakers. There's no need to enable skills or actions with HomeKit on the HomePod since everything automatically migrates over from your existing HomeKit setup and new smart devices are simply scanned in with a unique code.

The HomePod also works with Apple's Shortcuts app. Shortcuts lets you create customized "scenes" that can link your HomeKit devices to other apps on your phone. So instead of a HomeKit-specific "Good morning" scene that adjusts your smart thermostat and your smart lights at the same time, you can design a "Good morning" shortcut that adjusts your thermostat and your lights, but also plays music and opens up the weather app to let you know the forecast in your area.

I found the Shortcuts app confusing to navigate at first, unsure of where to start. Fortunately, Apple provides a "gallery" section where you can peruse some possible Shortcuts to get you started. After that, I was able to create my "Good morning" shortcut and run it successfully. 

Note: Apple's HomePod acts as a remote bridge in the same way the Apple TV does, so you can control your HomeKit devices outside of Wi-Fi range with Siri. 

General questions and info

Similar to your iOS devices, you can also use the HomePod to ask Siri for local weather stats, directions, restaurant info and more. Siri is more conversational than ever before thanks to advancements in machine learning. When I asked Siri who Bob Dylan was, I successfully followed up with, "How old is he?" without having to say "Bob Dylan" again. Siri already knew who I was talking about.

The HomePod also knows "musicology" trivia so you can ask Siri about the lead singer, drummer or guitarist of the song you're currently playing. She doesn't always know the answer, but it's a neat feature.

Overall, Siri was almost as good at answering random queries as Google Assistant and slightly better than Alexa, which often struggled to answer or even understand my follow-up questions.

Multiple users

This is a HomeKit device, so anyone with shared access to the Home app will also be able to configure your HomePod. Of course, since the speaker doesn't differentiate between voices, your entire family can use voice commands to play music and more. But enabling and disabling in-app features is limited to folks with Home access.

Since the HomePod doesn't support voice training, anyone can talk to Apple's speaker with the "Hey, Siri" wake phrase. That makes the HomePod a great all-purpose smart home speaker that's ridiculously easy to set up and use. At the same time, you lose some of the nuanced features you'd get from a speaker that knows who it's talking to.

If your phone is trained to respond to "Hey, Siri" like mine, it will likely wake up when you're talking to the HomePod, but it shouldn't actually respond to any questions. I found this to be true most of the time, but not always. Turning your phone face down lets iOS know you're talking to the HomePod, but I don't think you should have to do that to make sure "Hey, Siri" works correctly.

Privacy

Apple's approach to voice on the HomePod is unique compared to Amazon and Google's approaches. From a privacy standpoint, Apple says your information is only transferred to Apple servers after you say "Hey, Siri." Apple claims this information is encrypted and labeled as an "anonymous Siri identifier." In contrast, Amazon doesn't anonymize data and Google Assistant can keep information on the voice commands you use, as well as your search history and location.

As mentioned earlier, Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers have dedicated voice-control mute buttons. That means you can turn Alexa and Google Assistant off easily on the device. Not so with a HomePod -- you instead have to go into the Home app, select the HomePod speaker under your list of HomeKit accessories and turn off "Hey, Siri." Or you can ask Siri to turn the feature on or off using voice commands.

The verdict

As a small wireless speaker, Apple's $349 HomePod is strong. Its quick setup, impressive bass and far-field "Hey, Siri" listening range make it a worthy centerpiece for a smart home. Its consistent sound quality solidifies it as a great speaker for everyday use, as well for entertaining on special occasions -- especially when you use two HomePods as a stereo pair or for multiroom audio.

But Siri is still behind Alexa and Google Assistant. Apple's voice AI can't tell jokes, play games or turn on an Apple TV -- or your favorite Netflix show. And forget about using it with Android devices.

If you and everyone else you live with has an Apple device and you're sold on having an Apple smart home, the HomePod is worth a close look. It's also a reasonable option if you simply want a smart speaker with superior sound quality. Everyone else should hold off to see if Apple opens up support beyond the iPhone -- and Apple Music -- so other folks can also take full advantage of the HomePod.

Editor's note: CNET's Ty Pendlebury contributed to this review.

Updated, Sept. 17, 2018: Added information relating to iOS12.

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