Apple HomePod mini review: playing small ball

Apple HomePod mini review: playing small ball

Two and a half years in the past, Apple lastly entered the sensible speaker market with the HomePod. It was a novel system — as a substitute of prioritizing an accessible worth and sensible assistant options, it was laser-focused on audio high quality and significantly costlier than its closest rivals from Amazon and Google, whereas being much less succesful as a sensible speaker. As a end result, the HomePod didn’t actually take off. Apple was pressured to decrease its worth, and different retailers needed to low cost it aggressively with a view to get anybody to purchase it.

Fast-forward to now and Apple’s new sensible speaker, the $99 HomePod mini, takes a unique method. It’s smaller, less complicated, and manner inexpensive than its greater sibling, and due to Apple’s work on Siri over the previous few years, it might truly do greater than the unique when it launched. It’s clear that Apple designed this to enrich the bigger HomePod. If you’ve got an unique in your front room, you’ll be able to put the mini in numerous different locations in your house with out having to speculate as a lot cash or take up as a lot shelf area.

But the remainder of the sensible speaker world has clearly not stood nonetheless, and Amazon and Google have launched essentially the most compelling choices of their respective lineups this yr. While Siri has gotten higher, it’s nonetheless the HomePod mini’s Achilles’ heel — properly, that and the truth that you continue to must be totally embedded in Apple’s ecosystem to get essentially the most out of it.

The prime of the HomePod mini has a touch-sensitive panel that lights up when Siri is listening or responding to instructions.

HomePod mini Design

The HomePod mini has a unique look than the bigger HomePod, however you’ll be able to inform they had been reduce from the identical material. Instead of a squishy-looking cylinder, the mini is a squat ball with a flat prime. It jogs my memory of a scented candle or an upside-down Magic-8 Ball wrapped in mesh. Just like the unique, you may get it in gentle or darkish grey, and it has an identical delicate material.

On prime of the mini is the one interface on the system itself, a flat plastic touch-sensitive pad that you should utilize to invoke Siri, play or pause music, or alter quantity. It has the identical multicolored LEDs beneath it that gentle up and swirl round each time Siri is listening or responding. It will glow white when music is playing or inexperienced if you’re utilizing the mini as a speakerphone for calls.

The USB-C energy cable is completely connected to the HomePod mini.

In my testing, I’ve discovered this light-up panel to be tougher to see from throughout the room than the Echo’s glowing ring. Unless you’re proper subsequent to the HomePod mini, it’s laborious to inform when Siri has heard your voice command and is responding. It’s additionally way more fiddly to make use of to regulate quantity (particularly when nothing is playing), and there’s no visible affirmation for the way loud the speaker is ready if you do alter the quantity, like you’ll be able to see with an Echo or Nest Audio. In all, it’s simply much less accessible than the buttons on Amazon’s audio system and even the touch-sensitive areas on Google’s — a uncommon miss on this division from Apple.

There’s additionally no bodily change to disable Siri’s always-listening characteristic. You should both ask Siri to “stop listening” or dive into the HomePod settings within the Home app in iOS to toggle the characteristic, a sluggish and clumsy course of.

Like the bigger HomePod, the mini has a completely connected energy wire, although this time, it ends in a USB-C port. (A 20-watt charging brick comes within the field.) The wire is about six ft lengthy, although I want there was the choice to simply swap it for one more if you wish to put the speaker removed from an outlet.

The HomePod mini has 4 microphones for choosing up voice instructions, but it surely doesn’t have the room-tuning capabilities the unique HomePod has. Instead, Apple says the processor within the mini (an S5 chip, the identical as you may discover in an Apple Watch) analyzes the music being performed and adjusts the speaker’s output for the very best quality.

The microphones do an admirable job of listening to my voice instructions, even from throughout the room and whereas one thing is playing, and the processor is fast to take motion. In my expertise, Siri is often quicker to reply and do one thing than both Alexa or the Google Assistant, whether or not that’s to play music, reply a query, or management a sensible residence system.

The HomePod mini is about the identical dimension as the brand new Echo Dot however significantly smaller than the full-size Echo.

HomePod mini sound high quality

With the primary HomePod, Apple prioritized sound high quality above all else. That’s not fairly the identical with the HomePod mini, however you’ll be able to nonetheless hear the hassle that went into making the mini sound comparatively good.

I say “good” as a result of, for its dimension, the HomePod mini sounds fairly good. It’s significantly better-sounding than the similar-sized fourth-gen Echo Dot, and it places out extra bass than different small sensible audio system.

The key factor to note is that the HomePod mini outperforms different “small” sensible audio system just like the Echo Dot and Nest Mini, however it might’t compete with bigger audio system just like the common Echo, Nest Audio, or Sonos One. The HomePod mini is priced nearer to these bigger audio system, though it actually belongs within the small speaker class on the subject of the sound it might produce.

At 3.3 inches tall, the HomePod mini is about the identical dimension because the fourth-gen Echo Dot and significantly smaller than the full-size Echo or Google’s Nest Audio. As a end result, it has only one speaker: a downward-firing full-range driver that’s designed to evenly unfold sound in all instructions. Two passive radiators assist to intensify decrease bass tones, however they shouldn’t be confused with the a number of energetic audio system which can be within the Echo and Nest Audio.

The HomePod mini doesn’t present a visible affirmation of quantity ranges, which is irritating.

So it sounds good, however I can’t say the HomePod mini sounds nice. And subsequent to the bigger Echo and Nest Audio, each of which price the identical, it merely can’t sustain. It doesn’t have the presence, quantity, or sound stage of both, and it definitely can’t match the Echo’s bass output. As they are saying, there’s no substitute for displacement.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you are able to do to enhance that, both. Two HomePod minis might be paired in a stereo configuration, however that doesn’t dramatically enhance the quantity of quantity you get, and it does nothing for enhancing bass or punch. Unlike the Echo or Nest audio system, you’ll be able to’t pair the HomePod mini to a subwoofer or bigger speaker system. You are caught with what it does out of the field.

Despite not being fairly as much as the Echo’s sound efficiency, the HomePod mini does sound nice for many any style of music and for podcasts and different vocal performances. It has good stability within the mid-tones and a really vocal ahead sound profile. You’ll hear the lyrics to your favourite track simply, with out them getting overwhelmed by bass. The bass that’s there might be heard however not felt.

The HomePod mini’s 360-sound works as marketed, too. I can stroll across the speaker, and the sound of the music simply doesn’t change. This is nice when you plan to place the mini in the course of a room, however realistically, it is going to be on a shelf or nearer to a wall, the place it has much less of an affect. That’s why each Amazon and Google switched to extra directional speaker designs this yr, after years of utilizing 360-degree audio system.

In all, the HomePod mini excels at informal listening and background music. It’s nice for playing music throughout dinner if you don’t wish to drown out dialog or simply to have some audio playing within the background as you earn a living from home. The mini is good to hearken to at low volumes or larger settings and doesn’t distort in any respect. It received’t soundtrack a celebration, and it definitely doesn’t change a correct sound system — however for its dimension, it’s good.

The HomePod mini sounds good for its dimension.

The Ecosystem of the HomePod mini

It received’t come as a shock to many, however until you’re totally purchased into Apple’s iOS ecosystem, you shouldn’t even think about shopping for the HomePod mini. In reality, I’d go even additional: everybody in your house actually must be utilizing iPhones and Apple companies to make the HomePod mini price shopping for.

Setting up the mini requires an iPhone or iPad. For any sensible residence management, you could be utilizing Apple’s Home app and HomePackage-compatible units. Asking the HomePod mini to position a telephone name, learn messages, or provide you with calendar updates requires you to make use of an iPhone.

The HomePod mini doesn’t help cross-platform audio streaming like Google Cast or Spotify Connect, so the one option to ship audio to it from a tool is by way of Apple’s AirPlay. You want an iPhone or a Mac to do this.

You can faucet an iPhone to the highest of the HomePod mini to switch no matter you’re playing in your telephone to the speaker after which faucet it once more to switch the audio again to your telephone. Apple will likely be increasing this with a brand new interface and extra options for iPhones with the U1 chip (any mannequin launched in 2019 or later, apart from the SE) sooner or later, however I wasn’t capable of check that for this evaluate.

Apple has made some small strides towards permitting the HomePod to straight play music, podcasts, and audiobooks from sources aside from Apple Music, and there’s now an API that apps can faucet into to change into the default choice on the HomePod. That lets you use voice controls to play music and have it play from a unique service than Apple Music. But proper now, the one app that’s taken benefit of it’s Pandora, and there’s no phrase when others, corresponding to Spotify or YouTube Music, will hop on board. (Given Spotify’s frequent lawsuits and criticism of Apple’s locked-down platforms, I wouldn’t maintain my breath for it anytime quickly.)

Another factor I’d prefer to see is the flexibility to set separate default companies for music, podcasts, and audiobooks, for instance, utilizing Spotify for music, Pocket Casts for podcasts, and Audible for audiobooks. Right now the default service setting limits all three classes to 1 app.

None of it is a downside when you’re totally purchased into Apple’s world, however the actuality is that few people (and, by extension, households) are. Both of Apple’s main sensible speaker rivals have companies and ecosystems of their very own, however additionally they permit for way more freedom of selection for most popular companies and work with each iOS and Android units.

Siri has gotten higher because the unique HomePod mini, but it surely’s nonetheless behind Amazon and Google’s digital assistants.

Siri on the HomePod mini

Back in 2018, my colleague Nilay Patel rightly identified that the state of Siri on the unique HomePod might be summed up by the truth that it can’t deal with a number of timers. I’m completely happy to say that the HomePod mini can help a number of timers, and you may even label them now.

Siri has gotten different enhancements over time as properly. It can now differentiate between voices, so I get a unique reply for “what’s on my calendar” than my partner does after they ask the identical query. It additionally prevents a random particular person from sending messages or inserting telephone calls from my iPhone utilizing the HomePod mini, an issue we bumped into when reviewing the unique HomePod.

You also can run Siri Shortcuts from the HomePod, offered you’ve gone by the legwork to program them in your iPhone. Siri also can do a bunch of issues with Apple’s apps, corresponding to notes, calendar, reminders, and Maps, and a few restricted actions with third-party apps which have added help for SiriPackage instructions.

A brand new characteristic as of software program model 14.2 is the flexibility to provide you an itinerary in the beginning of your day, together with a climate report, upcoming appointments, commute site visitors, and a information blurb from NPR. You can ask for a unique information supply, corresponding to Fox or CNN, however that’s about so far as you’ll be able to customise this characteristic. Either manner, it’s good to see Siri catch as much as one thing that Alexa and the Google Assistant have provided for years.

I bumped into quite a few bizarre bugs with Siri throughout my two weeks or so testing the HomePod mini. When asking Siri to play an album from Apple Music, it might play songs out of order as a substitute of how they seem on the album. When I take advantage of the HomePod mini to position a name, neither myself nor the opposite get together might hear something till I transferred the decision to my iPhone after which again to the HomePod. While Siri is ready to distinguish between my voice and my partner’s and supply customized solutions, it didn’t know my partner by identify and referred to them as “secondary user 1,” regardless of Siri having all of their data on the iPhone.

Some of those bugs, such because the Apple Music one, had been resolved throughout my testing interval or didn’t occur each time. But collectively, they’re demonstrative of why many individuals nonetheless have a detrimental notion of Siri.

Bugs apart, Siri remains to be behind the place Amazon and Google are with their digital assistants. It does the fundamentals largely high-quality, corresponding to playing music, giving climate reviews, and setting timers and reminders. But Google nonetheless reigns supreme on the subject of answering random details and Alexa is consistently being improved with proactive options that make it really feel extra like an precise assistant than a voice-controlled distant.

HomePod mini Smart residence

The sensible residence capabilities of the HomePod mini are largely unchanged from the HomePod. It can management sensible residence units which can be arrange within the Home app on the iPhone and might be built-in into Home automations. It also can act as a Home hub, which lets you management your sensible residence units along with your iPhone from wherever you’ve got a knowledge connection.

The mini does help a brand new sensible residence protocol known as Thread, which permits units to hook up with it over longer distances and utilizing much less energy than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. (Smart residence nerds will bear in mind Thread as the usual that Google initially pushed and adopted by Eero routers earlier than successfully stalling and going nowhere for years.) A handful of sensible lights have been introduced with help for Thread in HomePackage (Apple’s sensible residence platform), however for now, the Thread ecosystem is sort of small. HomePackage itself does have a variety of appropriate sensible residence units, together with lights, contact sensors, cameras, thermostats, door locks, sensible plugs, and extra, all of which might be managed by voice by the HomePod mini. It’s not as broad an ecosystem as Alexa and Google supply, but it surely’s nonetheless complete.

Also new for both HomePod is an intercom characteristic that permits you to broadcast messages from a HomePod to a different HomePod or Apple system. You can have it despatched to a particular HomePod or blast it to all the HomePods within the residence as an announcement. You may even intercom utilizing Siri out of your telephone or Apple Watch to broadcast messages to anybody that’s at residence.

But regardless of its identify, Intercom isn’t actually a two-way intercom. It’s successfully sending recorded audio messages to the units as a substitute of opening a dwell audio. It’s high-quality for letting the household know you’re on the best way residence from the grocery retailer or telling the children it’s time for supper from one other ground of the home, however I didn’t discover it significantly vital in my residence. Both Google and Amazon supply comparable options on their sensible audio system, however they’ve extra two-way dwell communication choices than the HomePod.

The HomePod mini is small sufficient to slot in most locations in your house.

When the HomePod initially launched, it felt like Apple was working in a totally completely different world from the remainder of the sensible audio system, one which didn’t make sense for lots of people. The HomePod mini at the least feels prefer it’s in the identical ballpark as the remaining.

At $100, in comparison with the unique HomePod’s $350 launch worth, the mini is priced low sufficient that you would be able to envision shopping for multiple and spreading them all through your own home. It does a lot of the stuff you anticipate a sensible speaker to do and sounds good when doing them. If you’re already totally purchased into Apple’s ecosystem, together with companies, it’s laborious to fault the HomePod mini’s worth or capabilities. It additionally offers an escape from a number of the privateness considerations and baggage that include the Echo or Nest sensible audio system, together with the more and more widespread adverts that present up in Alexa’s responses.

But it seems like Apple remains to be two years or extra behind Amazon and Google on the subject of sensible audio system. And in comparison with the equally priced Echo and Nest Audio, the HomePod mini struggles to maintain up in each sound high quality and options.

Apple has proven that it’s prepared to enhance issues and hearken to suggestions on the subject of sensible audio system, so I’ll have an interest to see the way it continues to develop. Hopefully, now that the HomePod mini is right here, it begins to maneuver just a little quicker.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Correction: An earlier model of this evaluate mentioned it wasn’t attainable to make use of third-party apps as default sources for podcasts or audiobooks. That is wrong, you’ll be able to set a third-party app because the default to deal with requests for music, podcasts, and audiobooks, however you’ll be able to’t set separate apps for these classes. We remorse the error.

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