Sunday, April 14, 2024

Apple’s HomePod Mini review: it’s not a smart speaker

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I was ridiculously excited to see the HomePod mini, Apple’s latest little smart speaker. I harassed my colleagues for weeks, in a completely nonchalant and not at all boring way. Just as it’s hard to honestly assess a kid’s product without having a kid or two to test it out, it’s also hard to test an Apple product if you’re not already an Apple fan. Fortunately, I am.

As editor-in-chief Michael Calore noted in his review of the first HomePodApple products are just not for everyone. They are intended for we, the dedicated members of the Apple clan who write reviews on our MacBooks Pro and check Slack on our iPhones, the registration step counts on our Apple Watches while listening to Apple Music on AirPods, before turning on Paw Patrol on Apple TV.

I am an Apple fan and have also fought a long and daunting battle with the Sonos app controlling my old Sonos speakers. The HomePod mini seemed like the easiest way to switch to an all-Apple streaming setup and also a more natural addition to my smart home. It is sort of. At $ 99, it’s definitely more accessible than other premium Apple products, and it’s useful not only for listening to music, but also for talking to Siri and for interacting with my other devices. But – aahh! – that doesn’t sound very good. Lord help me, I wish it was.

Satellite in my eyes

There are touch controls built into the animated display at the top.

Photograph: Apple

The HomePod mini stands 3.3 inches tall, with a flat-top touchscreen display that sparkles and glows when you touch it or say Siri’s wake-up words. The speaker isn’t portable – there’s no battery inside, and it comes with a six-foot-long USB-C cord. I found this length adequate, but it’s a bit annoying that the cord can’t be unplugged or replaced so you can’t change it for longer or shorter cables depending on where you want put it. This is because it is not meant to be the centerpiece of your home. This is what the oldest and most expensive HomePod is for.

Like the new Amazon Echo Dot, the HomePod mini is a handy little softball that can be set up almost anywhere. The audio design basically mimics that of the HomePod, but on a slightly smaller scale – hidden inside are a woofer, a pair of passive radiators, and four microphones. Much of the audio engineering has been incorporated into the HomePod mini, but even with Apple’s signature space gray mesh casing, it’s not obvious from the outside. In fact, with its largely spherical shape and small size, it looks almost exactly like the fourth-gen Echo Dot for Kids in my kids’ room, just without that orb’s tiger face. And while the HomePod has the A8 processor that Apple used in iPhones, the HomePod Mini uses the same S5 chip found in the Apple Watch Series 5 and SE.

Of these four microphones inside, one faces inward in order to isolate sounds from inside the speaker and help HomePod listen to your commands while playing. The microphones also measure the sound waves bouncing around it so the HomePod mini can keep its output clear and precise no matter where you place it. This is a useful attribute considering that such a small speaker is likely to end up on a nightstand or kitchen counter, where it will inevitably be stacked around books or sunglasses.

Two become one

Apple sent me two HomePod mini testers. I put one on my bedside table and one on my kitchen counter, of course. You can play different songs on different speakers, but two HomePods can also be placed in one room and function as a stereo pair. You can also connect two of them to your Apple TV to provide stereo soundtrack for whatever you watch.


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