Siri started life on the iPhone back in early 2010; about eight years ago. I know. That’s a four of generations in technology years. Apple says Siri is active on hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and Macs.
So what? Siri is mostly useless to the masses of Apple customers; a parlor trick, a curious novelty, perhaps a glimpse into the future, but certainly nothing to write home about or bang the drums about. Yet, Apple has given Siri a new home; something of a digital mansion.
Talk To Me
Yes, Siri has improved listening skills, and a growing list of actions that match commands, but has yet to come close to the potential that Steve Jobs touted with Siri on an iPhone 4s back in the day. Yes, iPhone 4s counts as back in the day. Siri has languished and taken a back seat to newcomers Alexa, from Amazon, and Assistant, from Google. Both do more and sound better.
Apple just gave Siri a new home inside the HomePod, Apple’s expensive answer to Amazon’s Echo line of talking speakers, and Google Home, Google’s line of, well, talking speakers. Julian Chokkattu has a nice description of HomePod:
The speaker doesn’t look techy, allowing it to easily blend into your home. It’s packed with seven folded-horn tweeters around the base, each with custom amplifiers to help spread the sound throughout a room evenly. A woofer sits at the top, with 20mm of surface to deliver deep bass. In the middle sits a six-microphone array, which is not only used to pick up your voice from across a room, but also to detect frequencies deflecting off objects in the room. This, paired with the A8 processor (the same chip in the iPhone 6), helps it sense the space of a room, and gives the speaker the ability to adjust its sound to make it consistently high-quality in any space.
More simply put, HomePod knows what your room sounds like, and adjusts its sound output accordingly– to get the optimum sound for your space. While Amazon Echo and Alexa go for connected devices, Apple promises that HomePod will be the best sounding talking speaker you can buy for $349.
Tweeters and woofers and microphones, oh my!
Audio quality is beautifully warm, yet the bass is not overpowering, even though it was still quite rich. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to feel like you’re at a live performance. We could pick out the vocals and instruments clearly. The speaker allows each instrument to shine through; you can hear precise guitar plucks. No, it doesn’t have that crisp sound you’d hear from very expensive high-end speakers, but then again, the HomePod doesn’t cost thousands yet still pushes brilliant sound quality out of a single, small enclosure.
See? Typical Apple. Build an affordable luxury, in this case a speaker with Wi-Fi and Siri inside.
Amazon is not focused on quality sound. Google Home tries to play both sides of the quality fence.
Overall, the HomePod sounded vibrant, rich, and balanced. And this was reaffirmed when we heard the speaker play music against the Sonos One, Google Home Max, and the latest Amazon Echo. During our brief encounter, the HomePod sounded the best and was the most consistent. Every song sounded great, whereas on the other speakers, only some of the songs sounded solid.
OK, Apple has carved out a niche. What about Siri?
You may be disappointed to hear that you cannot use voice commands to play music on any other streaming service other than Apple Music. Siri is what powers the HomePod, and while the assistant’s new voice sounds much more human and has a handful of great features, it falls short of the current competition.
Fair enough, though. It’s not as if Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant get much use on iPhones or iPads. As it was with Watch, Apple pushed capable hardware out the door with the first HomePod, and future software versions will have– or, must have– more capability than the original.
It’s a little disappointing to see zero multi-user support, but we hope it’s a feature that’s in the works. Both the Google Assistant and Alexa can identify who is speaking and easily switch accounts.
Apple seems to have carved out a portion of the market that Amazon Echo and Google Home do not. Privacy. Both competitors are built to extract usage information from customers to sell more products or display more advertising. Apple’s game is hardware, not personal information.
What’s missing in HomePod is what is missing from Siri. Smarts. Brains. Capability. HAL 9000.
Apple will sell HomePod, and at $349 a pop, make some money if only 1/10th of 1-percent of Apple’s installed customer base of 1-billion buy one in the first three years. Or, put another way, more than Amazon Echo and Google Home combined (about 100,000 units).
In the meantime, let’s hope that Apple does something with Siri inside those posh, high quality audio furnishings; a Siri that can recognize individual voices in the same room, a Siri that can listen and act on more commands, or, put another way– give customers a Siri that is useful.