I’m getting out of bed as two dogs eagerly await a trip outside which they know will be followed by breakfast. I ask Siri to play the Postal Service. She responds: “Here you go” followed by music by the Postal Service. The music is at about 50% volume. Nice. But in three full days of use I’m feeling hesitant about HomePod and the Siri within. And the next moment illustrates why. I slip on my shoes and jacket and ask Siri to Pause. The music continues. I say it louder and the iPhone across the room pipes up: “You’ll need to unlock your iPhone first.” I ignore the iPhone and look directly at HomePod (5 feet away) and say louder as I get irritated “Hey Siri, pause!” Nothing. She does not hear me (maybe she’s enjoying the music?). By now, the magic is long gone and is replaced by frustration. I raise my voice to the next level which is basically shouting and finally HomePod responds and pauses the music. Grrr.
I go outside with my canine friends and upon return ask Siri to turn off the porch light. The iPhone across the room responds and the light goes off. I ask her to play and the HomePod responds and the Postal Service resumes. I get my coffee and iPad and sit down to finish off this review. I lay the iPhone face down so it will no longer respond to Hey Siri. Then I say, Hey Siri, set the volume to 40%. Nothing. I say it louder and my kitchen light goes off followed by Siri happily saying “Good Night Enabled”. Grrrrrrrrrrrr. I say Hey Siri loudly and wait for the music to lower then say “set the Kitchen light to 40%” and she does. The music resumes and I say Hey Siri and again I wait then I say “Play the Owls” and she does. I’d forgotten that I also wanted to lower the volume. But see how this all starts to feel like work? There’s nothing magical or enjoyable about this experience.
Here’s what I wrote Sunday morning as I worked on this review:
“When I ordered the HomePod I had no doubt I would enjoy it. Unlike so many that have bemoaned the missing features I was happy to accept it for what Apple said it was. A great sounding speaker with Apple Music and Siri. Simple.
It really is that simple. See how I did that? Apple offered the HomePod and I looked at the features and I said yes please.
I then proceeded to write a generally positive review which is below and which was based on my initial impressions based on 1.5 days of use. By Monday I’d edited to add in more details, specifically the few failures I’d had with Siri and the frustration of iPhone answering when I didn’t want it to.
I went into the HomePod expecting a very positive experience. And it’s mostly played out that way. But it’s interesting that by Tuesday morning my expectation of failure and frustration have risen. Not because HomePod is becoming worse. I’d say it’s more about the gradual accumulation of failures. They are the exception to the rule but happen often enough to create a persistent sense of doubt.
As has been reported. It’s just like the AirPods. I was done in two minutes. I did nothing other than plug it in and put my phone next to it. I tapped three or four buttons and entered a password. Set-up could not possibly be any easier.
In a few days of use I’m happy to report that HomePod has performed very well. In almost every request I have made Siri has provided exactly what I asked. My hope and expectation would be that Siri on HomePod would hear my requests at normal room voice. While iPad and iPhone both work very well, probably at about 85% accuracy I have to be certain to speak loudly if I’m at a distance. Not a yell, but just at or above normal conversational levels. With HomePod on a shelf in my tiny house, Siri has responded quickly and with nearly 100% accuracy and that’s with music playing at a fairly good volume. Not only do I not have to raise my voice, I’ve been careful to keep it at normal conversational tones or slightly lower. I’ll say that my level is probably slightly lower than what most people in the same room would easily understand with the music playing.
For the best experience with any iOS device I’ve learned not to wait for Siri. I just say Hey Siri and naturally continue with the rest of my request. This took a little practice because earlier on I think Siri required a slight pause or so it seemed. Not any more. But there’s no doubt, Siri is still makes mistakes even when requesting music which is supposedly her strongest skill set.
The first was not surprising. I requested music by Don Pullen, a jazz musician that a friend recommended. I’d never listened to him before and no matter how I said his name Siri just couldn’t get it. She couldn’t do it from iPhone or iPad either. Something about my pronunciation? I tried, probably 15 times with no success. I did however discover several artists with names that sound similar to Don Pullen. I finally turned on type to Siri and typed it in and sure enough, it worked. I expect there are other names, be they musicians or things outside of Music that Siri just has a hard time understanding. I’ve encountered it before but not too often. The upside, the next morning I requested Don Pullen and Siri correctly played Don Pullen. Ah, sweet relief. A sign that she is “learning”?
Another fail that seems like a learning process for Siri, the first time I requested REM Unplugged 1991/21: The Complete Sessions she failed because I didn’t have the full name. I just said REM Unplugged and she started playing a radio station for REM. When I said the album’s full name it worked. I went back a few hours later and just said REM Unplugged and it worked. Again, my hope is that she learns what it is I’m listening to so that in the future a long album name or a tricky artist name will not confuse her. Will see see how it plays out (literally!).
Yet another failure, and this one really surprised me. I’ve listened to the album “Living Room Songs” by Olafur Arnalds quite a bit. I requested Living Room Songs and she began playing the album Living Room by AJR. Never heard of it, never listened to it. So, that’s a BIG fail. There’s nothing difficult about understanding “Living Room Songs” which is an album in my “Heavy Rotation” list. That’s the worst kind of fail.
One last trouble spot worth mentioning. I have Hey Siri turned on on both my iPhone and Apple Watch. Most of the time the HomePod picks up but not always. On several occasions both the phone and watch have responded. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping the phone face down but I shouldn’t have to remember to do that. I definitely see room for improvement on this.
I’ve requested the other usual things during the day with great success: the latest news, played the most recent episode of one of my regular podcasts, gotten the weather forecast, current temperature, sent a few texts, used various Homekit devices, checked the open hours of a local store and created a few reminders. It all worked the first time.
There were a couple of nice little surprises. In changing the volume, it’s possible to just request that it be “turned up a little bit” or “down a little bit”. I’m guessing that there is a good bit of that natural language knowledge built in and we only ever discover it by accident. Also, I discovered that when watching video on the AppleTV, if the audio is set to HomePod, Siri works for playback control so there’s no need for the Apple remote! This works very well. Not only can Siri pause playback but fast forward and rewind as well.
Of course Apple has marketed HomePod first and foremost as a high quality speaker, a smart Siri speaker second. I agree with the general consensus that the audio quality is indeed superb. For music and as a sound system for my tv, I am very satisfied. My ears are not as well tuned as some so I don’t hear the details of the 3D “soundstage” that some have described. I subscribe to Apple Music so that’s all that matters to me and it works very well. Other services or third party podcast apps, can be played from a Mac or iOS device via AirPlay to HomePod. I also use Apple’s Podcast app (specifically for the Siri integration) so it’s not an issue for me.
Voice First: Tasks and Music
The idea of voice first computing has caught on among some in the tech community who are certain that it is the future. I certainly have doubts. Even assuming perfect hardware that always hears perfectly and parses natural language requests perfectly (we’re not there yet) I certainly have problems with the cognitive load of voice computing. I’ll allow that it might just be a question of retraining our minds for awhile. It’s probably also a process of figuring out which things are better suited for voice. Certain tasks are super easy and tend to work with Siri via whatever device. This is the list of usual things people are doing because they require very little thinking: setting timers, alarms, reminders, controlling devices, getting the weather.
But let’s talk about HomePod and Siri as a “musicologist” for a moment. An interesting thing about playing music, at least for me, is I often don’t know what it is I want to play. When I was a kid I had a crate of records and a box of cassette tapes. I could easily rattle off 10 to 20 of my current favorites. Overtime it changed and the list grew. But it was always a list I could easily remember. Enter iTunes and eventually Apple Music. My music library has grown by leaps and bounds. My old favorites are still there but they are now surrounded by a seemingly endless stream of possibility. In a very strange way, choosing music is now kind of difficult because it’s overwhelming. On the one hand I absolutely love discovering new music. I’m listening to music I never would have known of were it not for Apple Music. I’ve discovered I actually like certain kinds of jazz. I’m listening to an amazing variety of ambient and electronic music. Through playlists I’ve discovered all sorts of things. But if I don’t have a screen in front of me the chances of remembering much of it is nil. If I’m lucky I might remember the name of a playlist but even that is difficult as there are so many being offered up.
So while music on the HomePod sounds fantastic when it’s playing I often have these moments of “what next?” And in those moments my mind is often blank and I need a screen to see what’s possible. I’m really curious to know how other people who are using voice only music devices decide what they want to play next.
There isn’t one. This is the kind of device that I want to have. I’m glad I have it. I enjoy it immensely. It is a superb experience until it isn’t which is when I want to throw it out a window. Hey Apple, thanks?