Apple’s speaker is certainly an impressive piece of hardware. Audiophiles will appreciate that it has a woofer with a custom amplifier and seven tweeters. The result is a speaker with a deep bass and rich treble that is loud enough to fill a large room with superb sound. HomePod makes the Amazon Echo and Google’s Home sound muffled and tinny in comparison.
But Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate, even though that is the primary way you interact with it. Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Siri doesn’t even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.
For Apple, that’s unfortunate. The company was the first to bring virtual assistants to the mainstream with Siri on the iPhone in 2011, but it has since fallen behind Amazon and Google with smart speakers. Apple announced HomePod last June — but then delayed its release until this year.
Even now, Apple is shipping the HomePod unfinished. On Day 1, the device will lack some cool features, like the ability to link several HomePods together to create a multiroom sound system that Apple says will fill an entire home with music. That feature will come in a software update later this year.
And there are other limitations: the HomePod requires an iOS device, like an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, to set it up. To use your voice commands to play music, you will also need to subscribe to Apple’s streaming music service, Apple Music.
So how exactly did I reach my conclusion on HomePod? I tested it side by side with Echo and Home smart speakers, grading them on their ability to accomplish 14 tasks across several categories, including music, productivity, commuting, home automation and cooking. Let me walk you through the process and results.
Choosing the Tests
I started picking the 14 tasks by reading up on research studies that looked at how people use virtual assistants in the home. Activate, a management consulting firm, found the majority of people turned to virtual assistants to play music, get the weather and set a timer.
Apple also provided statistics on smart speaker usage from the research firm Parks Associates. That report also found that playing music and getting the weather were the top uses of smart speakers, while roughly 20 percent of people enjoyed using them for tasks like accessing a calendar and searching for recipes.
Amazon says most of its Echo customers use at least one “skill,” or third-party app. So I added the ability to use Uber, the most popular ridesharing service, as a test.
Now onward to the tests themselves.
Questions and Answers
I set up a HomePod, an Echo and a Home in my house and began with a battery of question-and-answer sessions. First up: traffic.
All the speakers gave a similar traffic estimate for a drive to San Jose, Calif. — roughly a one-hour drive on the freeway. But when I asked HomePod to summon a car from Uber, the ride-hailing service, Siri responded, “I wish I could, but I can’t help with rides here.”
The other speakers were happy to help — so I followed up with: “Hey Siri, what gives?” HomePod’s colorful touch-screen lit up to show it had heard my question, but Siri remained silent.
Next, it was time for some cooking questions. All the speakers were able to flawlessly set a kitchen timer. But when I asked HomePod how to make pasta, Siri blanked and said, “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.”
Google Home was more responsive — it gave me the steps for making pasta from the recipe site Genius Kitchen. Amazon Echo was even more accommodating. Alexa listed the ingredients for a pasta dish, including noodles, milk and heavy cream, and offered to send the steps to my phone or play them aloud.
Then it was time to move onto some work-related tasks. I asked Siri to schedule a meeting for Tuesday. Siri responded, “I cannot access your calendar from here. Sorry about that.” It couldn’t look at my calendar for the day, either. Google Home and Amazon Echo, in contrast, managed to schedule new events and read my calendar for the day: a meeting in the morning, followed by a photo shoot and a business dinner in the evening.