First Impressions of HomePod

Last May, I wrote about my experience with the Echo Dot, saying in part:

Almost 6 months later, I have to admit the Dot hasn’t even been plugged in for a while. I like the thing conceptually, but so much of its appeal and utility is tied (rightfully so) to Amazon’s ecosystem—Prime Music, audiobooks, buying, etc. Aside from my Prime membership, which I’ve had since 2011 and love, I’m just not into Amazon’s content offerings. (Prime Video is an exception.) What’s more, my house doesn’t have any smart appliances, so asking Alexa to switch on/off the lights, for example, is out of the question. In short, because I’m not a heavy Amazon user, the Echo’s appeal is limited.

As of this writing, my Echo Dot remains unused.

The then-rumored “Siri Speaker” from Apple is now a reality. Apple late last week sent me a HomePod for review, and in my first few days with the device, it already has proven more useful and enjoyable than the Echo Dot ever did. Music and podcasts sound amazing on HomePod—it is by far the best-sounding speaker I have ever heard. More to the point, however, is the fact I am entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem. I am a happy Apple Music subscriber, and I like how I have access to my library (and then some) with the HomePod. The same goes for getting iMessages, reminders, and the like. In short, the early reviewers were right: If your digital life relies on Apple hardware and software, HomePod is the smart speaker for you.

Here are a few assorted thoughts on HomePod so far.

Size & Weight. HomePod is much smaller and heavier than I anticipated. Its design reminds me a little of the 2013 Mac Pro; Apple sent me a white model and I like the look very much. In terms of weight, HomePod is the heaviest Apple product I’ve had in a long time. Granted, weight doesn’t matter when the device is sitting somewhere, but I was nonetheless struck by how heavy it is as I was unboxing it. The thing is built like a tank.

The power cord. HomePod has the nicest power cable I have ever seen. It looks and feels incredible. It strikes me as quintessential Apple: The level of attention paid to something as seemingly mundane and inconsequential as the power cord feels like something only Apple would care about. I don’t know what led to the cable being designed the way it was, but it sure is nice. I hope the company carries over this thoughtfulness to its Lightning cables and whatnot; this design deserves to live.

Sound. Phil Schiller wasn’t exaggerating at WWDC last year when he said HomePod was built to “rock the house.” As I wrote at the outset, HomePod is the best-sounding speaker I have ever used. My two favorite musical artists, Eminem and Linkin Park, sound amazing piping through HomePod. I’m no audiophile, but I can say the work Apple’s audio engineering group did here is damn impressive. HomePod’s audio quality is absolutely superb.

The Home app. The arrival of HomePod meant I had an opportunity to play with the Home app for the first time. (We don’t have any smart home appliances in our house yet.) It’s an interesting experience—it looks kinda weird with only one device set up and it’s odd how Apple gives you only two choices for wallpaper. In practice, I think integrating HomePod’s settings within the Home app make sense; I don’t think it needs a standalone app like the Watch does. There’s not much to tweak.

Accessibility. Like everything else Apple makes, HomePod is an accessible product. Apple officially lists two: VoiceOver and Touch Accommodations. If use VoiceOver on your iOS device, it is automatically turned on when you set up HomePod.

Touch Accommodations on HomePod works similarly to how it does on iOS. When enabled, the user can determine how sensitive the touch panel is to contact. For example, if you are someone with a tremor, you can tell HomePod to only react to the last part of the touch. In other words, if you touch the screen for a half-second but your finger moves elsewhere, HomePod will respond to where you end as opposed to where you started the contact.

Speech. So far, I haven’t encountered any huge issues with HomePod understanding me. The only frustrating thing is, when asking to play music, is literally saying the word “play.” In a speech and language context, the pl- sound is a hard one for me as a stutterer. I can’t get to the artist or song before Siri inevitably says she “didn’t get that” or doesn’t respond altogether. For my part, I have made a conscious effort to slow down as I’m talking in order to mitigate my stuttering, but there is a workaround. In the same way you can press and hold the side (or Home) button on an iPhone or iPad to keep Siri from interrupting, you can hold a finger down anywhere on the HomePod’s touch panel to do the same thing. You may not touch the device very often since HomePod is a voice-first device, but it’s incredibly thoughtful and a de-facto accessibility feature.

The Siri animation. One of the Echo’s best traits, accessibility-wise, is the blue ring that flashes atop the device when you start speaking to it. Apple has built in a similar animation into HomePod—when you summon Siri, the touch panel starts glowing and spinning. If you’re blind, this obviously is of no use to you, but it is a tremendous benefit if you have low vision, as I do. Siri does alert you audibly she’s listening (“Mm-hmm?”) but the animation is an important secondary cue that you’ve got Siri’s attention. This sort of bimodal sensory input is key for accessibility insofar as you needn’t rely on a single sense to know it’s working. You can hear and see HomePod is waiting for you—it may not help so much if you’re across the room, but if you’re in relatively close proximity, it’s a big help. More often than not, I look for the animation before I start speaking because it’s a concrete visual clue that it’s ready for me. I have a congenital hearing loss due to my parents being deaf, so the fact HomePod is visual in this way is huge. The animation is pretty, too.