“Now Hear This” Apple HomePod – Not Quite a Home Run

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Editor’s Note –  When personal computing first began, there was only one way to interface with the machines: the keyboard.  Then in 1979 Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) came up with the computer mouse, then the graphical user interface (GUI) and things have improved since then.  Dr. James Baker first sketched out his ideas for speech recognition in 1975 and then teamed up with his wife Dr. Janet Baker to create Dragon Systems.  It’s been merged, and dramatically improved over the years, today owned by Nuance.  Interacting with technology using your voice is far more intuitive than a keyboard but it took a lot of improved technology to make it a practical solution.  It’s clear that with voice-enabled systems from Amazon Alexa, Google, and others, it’s finally coming of age.  Beginning with this piece, we begin an extensive series looking at voice connected technologies, their limitations, and their advantages for an older audience.  To make this pieces easy to find, we’re calling the series, “Now Hear This”.  We hope you find this of use. 

Apple HomePod: Prince or Frog?

We all know that as we age, our ability to hear higher frequencies gradually dissipates, our desire to simplify our lives increases, and our need to mind discretionary spending intensifies. 

HomePod

If you’re considering buying Apple’s new HomePod Siri-enabled smart speaker, these three considerations should give you pause. But even putting aside these considerations, it is difficult to recall an Apple product more lamentable and inexplicable than HomePod. The speaker may (and the conditional is purposeful) live up to Apple’s promotional hype as a sweet-sounding speaker, but this entirely misses its market raison d’être — operating as a useful digital assistant and smart home controller.

Bottom line: HomePod is too expensive and does too little in comparison to the growing number of alternatives imbued with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. 

Let’s start with the sound. Like its Beats’ stablemates, HomePod is heavy on the bottom end, underserving the midrange and high-end, which can be muddy compared to other similar high-quality smart or dumb Bluetooth speakers, an imbalance amplified by high-end hearing loss. As a result, dinosaur rock, pop vocalists such as Sinatra, jazz and classical don’t sound as bright and clear as they ought.

You may not even be able to play music you ask for; HomePod – compatible only with iPhones and iPads running the latest iOS 11.x – will voice-access only music you buy from Apple, primarily Apple Music ($9.99/month). You can stream whatever music is on your iPhone via Apple’s AirPlay, however.  HomePod is NOT a universal Bluetooth speaker.

On the smart-side, HomePod is, by far, the easiest smart speaker to set up. Just plug it in, hold your iPhone near it and quickly step-through just a half dozen screens; the whole process will take barely a minute or so.

Once paired with your iPhone, it’s easy to add smart home products to Apple’s HomeKit smart home platform – just scan the barcode on the rear of compatible products. But the selection of smart home products paired for HomeKit pales in comparison to the more copious collection compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

Plus, HomePod doesn’t even perform some Apple ecosystems functions that even iPhone can; it can’t access your Apple Calendar, and you can’t voice-initiate a phone call, for instance.

Worse, it turns out that HomePod is more of a know-it-less than a know-it-all. A recent test found that Siri correctly answered only 52.3 percent of questions put to HomePod, far fewer than Google Assistant (81 percent), Alexa (64 percent) and Microsoft’s Cortana (57 percent). And, of course, Apple/Siri offers none of the voice shopping options that Amazon Alexa does, raising HomePod’s convenience deficit.

Finally, at $349, HomePod ain’t exactly cheap. For the same price, you can buy a pair of Sonos One Alexa-enabled speakers to create far smarter and superior-sounding stereo sound.

So what are we left with? HomePod’s aesthetics are certainly runway stylish, and it effectively fills a room with boomy sound thanks to its 360-degree speaker array. But you can find smart speakers that treat baby boomers’ musical tastes more tactfully, all its smart functions are performed as well or better by your iPhone or Apple Watch, and Apple’s smart and smart home capabilities are easily surpassed by Google and Amazon. For $349, you can buy smart speakers that better fit your listening and smart home needs.

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