(Pocket-lint) - It's fair to say that the HomePod, despite sounding amazing, hasn't caught on when it comes to smart speaker success stories. Whether it's Siri's seemingly lacklustre performance against the never-ending bulldozer that is Alexa and Amazon's Echo series, or the price point, the masses just haven't cared for it.
Can Apple win the hearts and minds of music fans and those who are keen to control their smart home with a much more affordable, smaller, and - dare we say it - cuter looking model? Say hello to the HomePod mini.
Having met the team and visited the labs where the HomePod was created back in 2017, it was clear at the time that Apple's approach was deliver the best that it could and then let the tech trickle down at a later date. The problem is that that Amazon's approach with the Echo has been the polar opposite: start cheap and simple to grow the audience and then worry about quality after you've won the market.
So while the HomePod mini is a move in the right direction - which sounds great and will certainly appeal to many Apple users - it's also the speaker that should have launched back in 2017. As it turns out, the market wants cheap and cheerful, a replacement for the kitchen radio if you like, rather than an audio experience that wins against everything else.
For an affordable speaker the HomePod mini sounds fantastic, looks great and the microphone experience is great. For the Apple user who rarely goes out of the Apple ecosystem you'll love it. But for most, the cheaper Amazon Echo and Echo Dot devices deliver as good as experience for a fraction of the price.
Apple HomePod mini
- Cute design
- Sound quality for the money
- Easy to setup and get started
- Siri still sounds clunky
- No Spotify support
- No support for BBC radio in the UK
- Dimensions: 84.3mm high, 97.9mm diameter / Weight: 345g
- Light-up top panel with touch controls
- Acoustically transparent mesh fabric
- Finishes: White, Space Grey
- USB-C power cable
Gone is the tall and imposing design of the original HomePod, replaced by a tennis-ball-like aesthetic that's designed to fade into the background. It's actually about double the size of a tennis ball, with the top and bottom sliced off to offer controls and a pedal stool on which to sit. It's very 2020, as it, um, echoes the spherical-like shape of the Amazon Echo Dot and 4th Gen Echo.
And for those who remember "ring-gate" from the original HomePod - it's good news, we've tested and can confirm the material of the HomePod mini has been changed so it won't mark wooden surfaces.
The top panel, which is actually a touchscreen interface, features volume up and down buttons, as well as the ability to tap the display to launch a number of tap commands. That includes music playback, for example, or to light up in the same colours as Siri does on your other Apple devices when it's listening. Again, very cute.
A single and undetectable woven-clad cable disappears into the fabric mesh design with a USB-C connection on the other end. A USB-C wall charger is included in the box, so you don't need to worry about finding a spare.
- Music sources: Apple Music, iTunes, Apple Podcasts, radio stations (various - but not BBC)
- 1x full-range driver, dual passive radiators
- 360-degree sound field
When it comes to speakers, the HomePod mini isn't as anywhere near as advanced as the Apple HomePod. It loses that virtual sound stage and the ability to recalibrate itself if moved. You can still stereo pair to improve the experience though (mini to mini only, not with an original HomePod - the latter wouldn't make much sense for balance anyway).
To be fair, that's completely understandable given the price difference - the HomePod is almost three times the price of the HomePod mini - but that hasn't stopped Apple ensuring the smaller HomePod still sounds good.
The speakers, hidden out of sight, are designed to deliver 360 degree sound to reduce the need for you to sit in that audio sweet spot, and yet still try to deliver a bass-rich sound that most will be happy with.
We've played a number of tracks - from The Weekend to Pink Floyd to Massive Attack to Adele to Metallica and, well, pretty much anything else we can think of - and the speaker copes well with it all, at pretty much any volume.
It can sound a little flat at times compared to other more expensive systems, showing us that even though Apple has tried, there are still limitations to what a $99/£99 speaker can achieve.
And you don't have to play it loud to get the best results either, which is great for low-volume listens. At no point in our tests did the speaker sound distorted or vibrate to excess, no matter what the volume.
This little speaker will happily replace most mid-range speakers on the market that are twice the size when it comes to musical performance. But there are bigger and bolder sounding products out there.
- Four microphones for far-field Siri voice control
- Stereo pairing with another HomePod
- Multi-room audio with AirPlay 2
One of the more impressive features of the original HomePod is how good microphone pick-up is - and the same can be said for the HomePod mini.
Whisper your music choices, or any other instruction for that matter, even from across a large room, and HomePod mini will hear it and kick into action.
Anyone who has used the Sonos One with Alexa in a crowded room will tell you the microphone isn't really that great, but with the HomePod mini we've been really impressed by the audio pick up regardless of the noise in the room (yes, children, we're looking at you).
However, once you get through to Siri, it's a bag of luck as to whether you get what you are looking for. What to listen to next, controlling what's playing, the odd question, home automation, and many other controls are available all as they roll off your tongue.
Siri either gets what you're after or will tell you it's sent the results to your phone so you can carry on reading. Pause midway through what you're after and you'll have to dictate it again.
It seems as though Siri doesn't like you wasting it's time. You have to be ready and primed, else you'll get broken off texts, reminders, and other instructions. That's partly to do with the excellent speaker response, but partially, we think, to do with the fact that Siri is there ready for you, whether you're ready or not.
Siri has come on leaps and bounds since its launch, but it's still not there yet.
It's not that it can't answer most questions, it's just that when it does, it still sounds incredibly clunky. It mispronounces words and people's names from time to time, almost embarrassingly so. Coming at you in lovely crystal-clear audio only serves to resonate its shortcomings. Alexa still sounds much more natural.
And while the smart home has changed drastically in the last couple of years, your devices will need to be HomeKit enabled to work. To be fair that's most devices, but it's still not all devices, and compared to Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant, HomeKit limps home a distant third.
Smart until it's not
And then there's a lack of third-party apps to talk about when it comes to music playback. Of course there's Apple Music as standard (subscription required, of course), Pandora in the US, TuneIn around the world (that delivers most radio stations), but there's still no Spotify, and in the UK there's still no BBC radio.
"We'll be looking for a tighter integration with HomePod at some point, but for the time being you can stream Sounds to HomePod over AirPlay," the BBC told Pocket-lint when we asked why you couldn't get BBC Radio 4 or Radio 2 or Radio 1 and others on the HomePod or HomePod mini via voice command.
Asking Apple the same question, the response it: "the BBC are welcome to join and participate, as the programme is open to anyone".
While you can, of course, stream via AirPlay 2, it's not ideal, and so for many UK users who might already be used to barking BBC radio instructions to their smart speaker, you can't as yet do that on the HomePod mini.
Thanks to iOS 14.2 now being available, HomePod and HomePod mini users get Intercom - allowing you to broadcast messages to the speakers around your house without having to raise your voice to shout the message. It's a feature type that's already available to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa owners - well, under different marketing names, of course.
However, Intercom is clever as it allows you to broadcast your messages to everyone in your family via their iOS device - wherever they are. That could be via the HomePod mini, your iPhone, your iPad, or even your Apple TV. That could either be noise, or a game-changer for many.
A move in the right direction, the smaller HomePod sounds great for a speaker of this scale. It will appeal to many Apple users, but against Amazon's Echo series it feels like it still fails to understand that people are more than happy with cheap and cheerful when it comes to kitchen-based listening.