Voice recognition technology is all the rage, but is Apple’s latest offering a game changer?
Alexa, aka Amazon Echo (£89.99), has been the surprise hardware success of recent years. We were supposed to be splurging our cash on VR games and 3D TVs by now, but, as it turns out, we’d rather buy a speaker that can set a timer for our chicken soup and tell us when the next train departs to Paddington. Who knew?
Not Apple, it seems, who arrive late to the party with their smart speaker, Homepod (£320). They’ve justified their tardiness with a knockout design—a minimalist 360°casing that can somehow either blend into a traditional bookshelf or take pride of place in a home entertainment centre. Music sounds superb; noticeably clearer than comparable efforts from Sonos and Harmon Kardon, as Homepod analyses output in real time and automatically adjusts its settings for optimum equalisation.
The six inbuilt mics do a great job at listening for commands. Even when I’ve been standing on the other side of the room, with the telly on in the background, it’s never failed to hear me saying “Hey Siri” to get its attention. Then you can request any of the 40 million songs available on Apple Music (subscription, £9.99 per month).
But there’s the rub. It only really works within Apple’s proprietary universe. Setup is gobsmackingly easy, but only if you’ve got an iPhone or iPad. If you’re a customer of Spotify—a superior service, in my view—you’ll have to transfer your playlists using an app like Songshift (free, pro version £3.99) to avoid shelling out twice.
Such constraints are most evident in the radio offering. You can request Apple’s own Beats1 pop station, of course, and their genre-based “radio stations” (which are really just fancy playlists)—but if you want to hear Chris Evans or The Today Programme over your cornflakes, forget it. Bizarrely, the only UK station Homepod offers is LBC—for all others, you need to open an app such as Radioplayer (free) on your iPhone, then beam it to Homepod via Airplay. Note, there’s no technological reason for this inconvenience: Apple would simply prefer that you listen to Beats1. For a premium product, that’s poor.
Navigating podcasts is equally frustrating, as the most recent episode always plays first. So, “Hey Siri, play me Desert Island Discs” will only bring up a previous interview with director Christopher Nolan—but “play me the Sue Perkins episode of Desert Island Discs” will get you… um… that same previous interview with director Christopher Nolan.
Hopefully these limitations will be ironed out in future models. For now, if you’re an Apple devotee, and mainly listen to music, this is a visually and acoustically delightful device.
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