HomePod mini is far more important than the size would suggest. Apple’s new smart speaker is the trojan horse that has been so needed by the ecosystem: it’s the low-cost, high quality speaker that may finally bring Siri up to par for Apple users everywhere.
The original HomePod was focused on one thing, primarily: putting higher quality audio into a field that was rapidly becoming occupied by cheap, underwhelming products. Despite Amazon and Google’s best efforts to turn out a good quality home audio product, the Google Home and Amazon Echo products have been ultimately underwhelming. The only real competition came from the industry standard in whole-home distributed audio, Sonos.
The quality of HomePod, when compared to the Google Home Max and the Echo Studio, has never been in question–but like a lot of Apple products, performance came before price, and $400 CAD it was a tough pill to swallow. With two Sonos Ones running nearly $100 less than a single HomePod, it’s had a hard time cracking the market.
The real win for Amazon and Google has been putting Alexa and Google into people’s living rooms. I’ve got two new Google Nest Mini’s in a box because Spotify keeps throwing them at me. Apple needed to answer this or Siri was going to lose the living room, and put a big dent in Apple’s plans for the future.
HomePod Mini is the natural extension for Apple and it’s going to be a massive part of the future of their ecosystem.
It builds on the pedigree of the HomePod, a big bass driver is matched with two “passive radiators” inside a tiny body that’s just 8.5 cm tall. It occupies a bigger footprint than entry-level Google and Amazon devices, but the engineering packed into it is worth the extra space. Driving sound downwards and outwards, it’s built to fill a room with sound.
Apple is floating something called “computational audio” – which is to say it’s using the microphones and the integrated S5 chip to correct how it outputs audio in realtime not just during playback, but before it, too. Again, Sonos has been doing something similar with their TruePlay system for almost two years, but it seems that Apple’s system doesn’t require the same type of calibration that Sonos does, making it a bit easier for everyone to have better audio right now.
Computational audio also appears to be responsible for a cool feature that automatically Paris two HomePod minis if they’re placed in the same room as each other, giving you stereo sound. This is something that Amazon, Google, and Sonos all do as well, but the automated nature of it here shows just how much Apple wants to take the guesswork out of whole-home audio.
Handoff is now powered by the U1 chip found in the iPhone 11 and newer lines of iPhones, making it more effective; I’ve had trouble getting handoff to work well in the past, so I’m excited to see if this can nail it this time around.
Aside from putting more music, podcasts, and other audio into more rooms, Apple’s real intention is to put Siri into more places and lower the barrier to use it. Apple is stressing how much smarter Siri is now, with more facts, better voice recognition, and handling the Home Automation stuff that is going to be the key to acquired and retaining users going forwards.
Siri’s big claim here–and one that it performs better than anyone else currently–is being able to distinguish between users; you don’t have to introduce yourself, it just knows who you are and will give you your updates, texts, and appointments, keeping things relatively private for you.
The feature that I’m looking forward to most is Intercom; the ability to communicate throughout your home and beyond using HomePod. I grew up with my mother hollering across the house as a child and I’ve never really grown out of flinching when someone yells for me to this day–what can I say, my mom’s a tough lady.
Intercom connects all of your HomePods together to form a broadcast network inside you home that can make it easy to communicate.
I’ve got 1000 sq ft right now, in an open concept condo, so while that might be helpful to talk up to the bathroom in the loft, the real win is that it pushes out to iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watch. I feel like this could be the seamless way to link families, whether you’re home or not.
As someone deeply invested in the Sonos system I’ve been asked by friends what this means for Sonos. While the HomePod mini is less expensive than the Sonos ONE, the lack of Spotify is going to prove challenging for some. For me, one or two HomePod Minis will actually integrate into my Sonos system perfectly: you can tie in AirPlay devices if you have an AirPlay capable Sonos unit (like my new Arc), giving you all the good features of Sonos with all of these new features from Apple.
The market has been split into three: powerful, distributed home audio belongs to Sonos. Elegant, high-quality smart speakers belong to Apple. Everything else? Google and Amazon can fight over it.