The HomePod is good-looking in a curvy, white kind of way, but scratch the surface, and you'll wish for more. With its clean look and dead-giveaway name, it promises to be an iPod for the home, piping your music collection wirelessly to any room. While it can do that and more, it has some serious limitations.
Despite being made by a company named MacSense, the HomePod ($249 list, with a street price of about $150 to $170) works with both Windows and Macintosh computers. As long as you have an 802.11b/g wireless network, you can use it, and setup takes only minutes. You'll need to install the HomePod software on any computer you'll be using. The device can work with multiple home computers, but they all must be turned on, with the server software running.
The HomePod's design--reminiscent of a bigger, clunkier iPod--looks relatively attractive, and it can stand alone or be mounted on a wall. In our testing, the HomePod found our music collection instantly with no fuss. You use the dial to scroll through your collection and the Enter button, in the center of the wheel, to select.
Once the music started playing, the HomePod's problems began. First off, the built-in speakers are simply terrible. If you love your music collection, you'll hate hearing it played through these intercom-quality speakers, which eliminate highs and lows and leave a thin, flattened-out middle.
Happily, the HomePod's extensive connectivity means you won't have to listen through its speakers. There are optical and coaxial digital outputs, a set of analog stereo outputs, and a headphone jack. A USB port on the back lets you play music from an external USB drive, such as a keychain flash drive.
The biggest problem is that unlike many network media players available today, the HomePod can stream only MP3 files. Awkward wording on the company's Web site suggests that you can upgrade for AAC and WMA ability, but that refers to a future upgrade, not one that's available now. A company rep told us that once the HomePod can finally play WMA files, it will be a small jump to add WMA digital rights management-protected (DRM) content. Unfortunately, since Apple will probably never give permission for non-Apple devices to play AAC DRM files, the HomePod won't be able to play songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store. So much for that promising name.
When you get tired of digital music, the HomePod has a built-in FM tuner. We liked the option but hated the flimsy wire antenna, which actually broke off in our testing. Getting it back in place meant unscrewing the antenna base with a teensy eyeglasses screwdriver.
If you upgrade to the beta software now available on the HomePod site, you'll gain some cool new features, such as the ability to stream Internet radio stations. HomePod tunes in Live365, ShoutCast, and RadioIO stations, displaying artist and song info for most of them. The beta software also turns the HomePod into an alarm clock.
With better speakers and the ability to play more file types, the HomePod could be a good product for any digital music lover. But for now it's better suited to people who use only MP3s and can't get enough of that iPod look. Die-hard iPod/iTunes fans should consider getting another dock for their existing iPod (connect it to your living-room stereo, and you have a cheap and easy multiroom digital audio solution) or Apple's own AirPort Express for wireless streaming. If you don't need compability with iTunes Music Store downloads, consider the Roku SoundBridge M1000, the Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music or the Slim Devices SqueezeBox.