09 March 2018

More on the Apple HomePod

You could say I’m spending too much of my time reading about a product I’m never going to buy, but in the last weeks the HomePod has been constantly present in my Twitter feed. Since I’m planning on switching to Android next time I upgrade my smartphone, I might want to consider unfollowing some Apple people and diversifying my feed. Still, some of the remarks confirm my own conclusions about Apple, the state of their software and AI efforts.

On the question of hardware, a reddit post got a lot of attention in Apple fan circles for claiming amazing sound quality based on questionable measurements; it was even mentioned on Twitter by Phil Schiller, senior VP of marketing at Apple. Needless to say, it was quickly proven wrong, but you won’t know that if you only follow Apple fans, as none of them bothered to correct these false claims. This is how fake news appear and spread: people share things that sound true or reinforce their beliefs, regardless whether they are verified or not.

Meanwhile, a quick blind test revealed no preference for HomePod’s sound quality over the Sonos One, Google Home Max or the Amazon Echo Plus.

There was also some justified anger over the stain marks left by the speaker on wooden furniture. You would think this is something Apple’s engineering teams would have tested before releasing the product to the general public…

Jared Sinclair, an iOS developer, shares his experience with Siri on the HomePod, namely how hard it is to get Siri to play the correct track. It took about a dozen tries to find the correct phrase for Siri to react to. Others have complained about similar problems, for example to identify background music you need to specifically name Shazam in the command to Siri. Maybe the HomePod should come with a set of cards listing available vocal commands; sort of like the punched cards used to program the first computers. The Siri fragmentation problem goes back to Apple’s reluctance to share data between devices, even when they belong to the same person, in the (questionable) goal of preserving privacy.

  • However, Apple’s still got some work to do when it comes to arbitrating which device gets to act on a “Hey Siri” command. At several points I discovered my Apple Watch was intercepting HomePod commands because I had made the mistake of lifting my arms just before speaking. Friends who have lots of devices with “Hey Siri” turned on report that it’s a real crapshoot about which device activates when they provide a command. Apple’s devices are trying to do the right thing, but they’re failing more often than they should. There’s more work that needs to be done here.

    Compounding the issue is that Siri is not so much a product as a loose confederation of different products on different platforms. So if you try to give a command to your iPhone and the HomePod intercepts it, that command may fail—because Siri on HomePod can’t do all the same things that it can on iPhone. Likewise Apple Watch and Mac.

    Jason Snell
  • I’ve overheard several interactions with the HomePod that entail a family member asking for a song or album that ends in getting upset with the device when it starts playing something else. The Echo — coupled with Amazon Music — had a much higher hit rate when it came to accurately playing what was desired.

    In short, the increase in sound quality doesn’t make up for the frustration of using Siri. The HomePod is going to live in my studio; the Echo is back in its rightful place in the kitchen.

    Stephen Hackett
  • The HomePod is the Siri Speaker I dreamed about in 2016. Unfortunately, it shipped in 2018, and it’s got a lot more competition now. With the launch of Apple Music, Apple had a great opportunity to come out with a superior voice-controlled music device and claim the high ground in this market; HomePod is good, but it feels like a product that’s two years late to market (and yet still has features missing, such as stereo pairing and multi-room support).

    Jason Snell

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