(Pocket-lint) - The smart speaker space has really taken off this past few years, and having only given us one size speaker for a good portion of that time, Apple finally launched the little round HomePod mini in 2020. But should you buy it over an Echo Dot?
In the video below we go over some of the key differences between them, or you can read on if you'd rather:
- HomePod mini: 84.3 x 97.9mm
- Echo Dot: 89 x 100mm
- HomePod: Space Grey and White
- Echo Dot: Charcoal, Glacier White and Twilight Blue
- Both: Fabric coated
Both devices are small, fabric coated mini globes, and are practically the same size. Do not a lot of difference in the appearance stakes. What makes a bigger difference are other elements of the design.
For instance, the Echo Dot has four physical buttons, each different shapes. So if you're fumbling around in the dark you can feel which button is which before you press it.
Having four distinct buttons also means you know what they do pretty much instinctively. Volume up and down is self explanatory, while the mute button is pretty easy to figure out too.
Apple has gone with a simple all touch-sensitive surface and for basic functions it works well enough. If you have music playing, you can just tap to pause and tap again to play again, or tap on the left '-' or right '+' icons to adjust the volume.
In truth, when it comes to controlling music, it's often easier just to use a voice command - which they can both do, whether you want to tell it to skip to the next track, or turn the volume up or down.
Both light up to let you know when they're listing for a command too. So if you say "Hey Siri", you get that nebulous glow on the top panel letting you know Siri is listening. Alexa gives you that simpler and - arguably - visually clearer blue LED ring around the base that reflects off the surface it's sat on.
The other design choice that makes a difference is Amazon opted to put a 3.5mm port in the back. That means if you want to add Alexa smarts to an existing - but better sounding - sound system, you can plug it into a speaker or amp port you already have. HomePod doesn't give you that functionality.
- HomePod: Apple Music voice control support
- Echo Dot: Supports Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer + Amazon Music
- HomePod: AirPlay support
- Echo Dot: Supports Spotify Connect and Bluetooth
If you're an Apple Music subscriber, it just makes sense to go with HomePod. In our experience, it's been more reliable when it comes to responding to requests to play the music in the way that we like.
The thing that stands out in our testing is when you ask it to shuffle one of your playlists. Alexa just doesn't do it with Apple Music, it just plays through the playlist in the order you added tracks to it, no matter if you ask it to shuffle and it says 'ok'.
Similarly, Echo often misunderstands the request. One particular instance was when asked for 'Space' Orchestral Version by Biffy Clyro, HomePod played the song. Echo heard 'Orchestral' and decided just to play some random orchestral music.
If you have an iPhone, it's also really easy to control music on the HomePod. You can either open up the Home app and select the speaker and control the music from there, or put your phone near the speaker and tap the popup widget that appears.
Plus, once it's playing, a control appears on your Lock Screen automatically allowing you to control it without even opening your phone.
With Amazon Echo, the strength is in its compatibility. It does let you use your Apple Music account, but also supports more providers.
For Spotify subscribers not only does it let you use voice actions to play your Spotify playlists and albums, but also works with the Spotify Connect service, so you can control it from within the Spotify app once that music is playing. You can also control it from the Alexa app.
If soud quality is the most important thing to you, the HomePod has it here.
In comparison we found the Echo Dot sounded noticeably more distorted, and bass wasn't as tightly controlled as the HomePod. But then, given the price difference, that's not surprising. They'll both fill a small room with sound quite comfortably, but in the Alexa app you can also adjust the EQ if you want to adjust the highs, mids and bass frequencies to your liking.
Still, HomePod was the clearer and crisper sounding of the two, and coped better with lower bass notes. They didn't seem to fall off a cliff as much as they might with the little Echo.
- HomePod: HomeKit integration
- Echo Dot: Alexa Skills support
- Both: Support timers, reminders, alarms and to-do lists
If you're buying a speaker primarily as a smart home control, there's no competition here. Apple's is still quite limited, because you can only really control HomeKit compatible devices easily with it at the moment, and there aren't as many of those as there are Alexa-compatible services.
In the home where both were tested side-by-side we had various smarthome products ranging from lighting to heating and robot vacuums. We had bulbs from LiFX, Wiz and Nanoleaf, a Roborock vacuum, Tado thermostat and Ring Video Doorbell 2.
In this setup, only the Nanoleaf and Tado systems were supported by HomeKit natively without any complex workarounds. Alexa could control all of it.
As for other features, both will let you set reminders, or broadcast to other Echo or HomePod devices in the house, or use them as intercom. Plus, you can set timers, alarms, or ask them the weather or make use of their various funny Easter eggs.
One thing to watch out for in future is Thread. It's a smarthome system that makes devices interoperable without needing HomeKit or Alexa skills support. The idea being that devices can talk to eachother without that account in the middle acting as the go-between.
HomePod Mini supports Thread, potentially making it more future proof. Echo devices don't currently support Thread.
When choosing between these two, it will likely come down to one of two things. If you're want to save money, you get the Echo. If you want smart home control, you get the Echo. If you want cross platform music support, you get the Echo.
But if the most important thing is better sounding music, or your an Apple Music subscriber with an iPhone, the HomePod mini will give you the better experience. But for most people, we think the Echo Dot is the more practical speaker.