A Review of the HomePod Mini
by Stan Lemon
Nov 28, 2020
The HomePod Mini is the culmination of a long hard road for Siri. For those of us loyal Mac-addicts and Apple fanboys it's the fruition of a long slog to the ubiquitous smart assistant that many of us have been hoping for. Finally we have a smart speaker that lives up to the dream and at a price that any Mac aficionado can deploy into their home.
When I look back at iPhones it was the 4 that really amplified the potential power and beauty of a personal computer in your pocket. It was the 4 that introduced the retina screen, which was the first time we stopped seeing pixelation on our screens. It also included Apple’s first processor, the A4, and it brought multi-tasking to the iPhone. I waited for hours in line on launch morning at a mall in Pittsburgh with my wife and my eight month older daughter to get iPhone 4’s for the Mrs. and myself. It was a great phone.
When the iPhone 4S was released it seemed a bit anti-climactic because the 4 had been such a transformative release for the iPhone. The 4S headline feature was this weird "virtual assistant" called Siri. At this point in time, 9 years ago, computers didn’t talk to you, let alone parse and process requests. It would be 3 more years before Amazon released the Alexa.
While I’ve worked from home most of my career, I was actually driving into an office when the 4S was released. In my mind’s eye the 4S would give me a boost of productivity on my drive to and from the office each morning. Paired with a Jawbone bluetooth headset (anyone remember them?) I attempted to text with my wife as well as go over personal email, which included my side hustles and volunteer work at the time on my drive home. It was mostly a disaster. Fortunately I never got in a car accident, but suffice it to say Siri was horribly unreliable at that point. I gave up after a few weeks and stopped using Siri for years.
Siri became a punchline for Apple bloggers and podcasters for awhile, and then Amazon came out of nowhere with their own virtual assistant speaker. Alexa doubled down on microphones that seemed to hear everything better than the mic on the iPhone, and Alexa also featured tons of integrations (with varying degrees of questionable security) that made the device instantly more powerful than Siri was. Alexa even had a slick integration layer that allowed developers to very easily rollout new skills seemingly overnight.
I purchased one of the first Alexa devices Amazon sold and jumped right in. I had started buying Belkin WeMo switches prior to the Alexa and was pleased when I could tell Alexa to turn on the lights that were plugged into the WeMos in the living room or bedroom. I even wrote my own short lived skill just to try it out. I was never quite comfortable opening Alexa up to my calendar, so that anyone in the house could access it, and I never dared to enable purchases over Alexa either. Still it was a cool device that literally carved out a new market of technology that was innovative and exciting.
Meanwhile Apple took their sweet time jumping into the home speaker realm. They were quietly improving Siri’s ability to parse speech and constantly refining its functionality in iOS. Finally with iOS 10, a whole two years after Alexa’s launch, Siri was able to be customized by developers. Adoption was slow going though, both by developers and users. At this point Siri was a solid virtual assistant with a lousy mic, but it had lost the trust of its user base so it was grossly under utilized.
The first HomePod was released in June of 2017, three years after Alexa and a whole year after Google Home. It was stupid expensive at $349, to the point that I think many thought this was an Apple troll. It had a dumbed down version of Siri, but it touted an amazing speaker with fantastic sound quality. But it was soooo expensive!
I couldn’t justify a HomePod as much as I wanted to. I had already bought into the Sonos ecosystem and most of my smart home equipment was not HomeKit enabled. Deep down I wanted a HomePod, but it just seemed like a foolish purchase for my situation. Around the same time I became increasingly disenfranchised with Alexa. Alexa kept turning on at weird times, catching odd parts of conversations when she wasn’t being invoked. There were also growing questions on the internet about the security of Alexa and her many skills. I’m a firm believer that technology needs to have a bias toward privacy and be really transparent about it, and I just didn’t feel like Alexa had that. I packed up all of my Alexas and eventually recycled them. I slowly started retiring non-HomeKit enabled smart devices, realizing that the security of HomeKit was worth the investment. (It’s worth noting that when Apple shifted to allowing manufacturers to enable HomeKit through software rather than a dedicated chip that entire ecosystem bloomed into something that was worth investing in.)
I think the Apple Watch might have saved Siri. HomePod definitely didn’t do it. In September 2017 the Apple Watch Series 3 introduced Siri support. By this point I felt like everywhere I went people were wearing Apple Watches. It was an incredibly convenient little device, and being able to talk to it ended up being a game changer. I honestly believe it was the watch that instilled a new sense of trust and confidence in Siri.
That brings us to the present with the release of the HomePod Mini. Apple has been quietly improving the original HomePod over the last three years, and apparently at the same time developing the "affordable" version of their smart speaker. At $99 I felt I could take a chance and try it out. However, during the announcement Apple demoed a new feature called the intercom, and this single handedly convinced me to order two HomePod Minis on launch day.
The fact of the matter is the HomePod Mini is an impressive little speaker. It has great sound and more volume than I expected from such a little device. There are a variety of videos on YouTube showcasing the quality of the sound, so I won’t belabor that here, but suffice it to say that unless you’ve spent a ton on speakers this is probably a sound quality upgrade for you. The setup was an absolute breeze, much better than any smart speaker or wireless speaker I’ve setup. Apple just made it work. The only really annoying thing about the setup flow was as soon as it was ready to go it needed to update to iOS 14.2. Seeing as the iPhone and iPad needed iOS 14.2 to intercom with the HomePod Mini this seemed like poor timing in the manufacturing process.
The HomePod Mini features multi-user support and I honestly didn’t believe there was any chance this would work. However, it works great. My wife and I have both been able to text, read messages and control music play with the device seamlessly discerning who we are. I was further blown away when my kids got setup on the HomePod Mini and were also able to use Messages. Multi user support is an impressive feat in its own right, but it also makes the device much more useful because I can ask it questions about my calendar and reminders without other people gaining access to that information. At the same time, my kids can still play music and ask it for jokes when they want. The only thing it left me wondering is… if Apple can do this on the HomePod Mini why can’t they do it on the iPad?
As for the intercom, it’s honestly just as awesome as I expected. I’ve always envied the built in intercoms that were so trendy in the 90’s, but they’re hard to find and not exactly cheap. I put one HomePod Mini in our kitchen and the other right outside my kids’ bedrooms on a bookshelf. The result is I’m not hollering up the stairs to ask if they’re done brushing their teeth yet. Instead I just intercom from my phone to the kids’ room HomePod Mini. They can respond just as seamlessly and the whole thing really works great. Less yelling, better communication, what’s not to love?
I set low expectations for this device, but I’ve been pleasantly impressed so far. I plan to keep using it and might have further thoughts, but right now I have no reservations about recommending a HomePod Mini. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem already then this device makes a lot of sense. If you haven’t started using a smart speaker yet, this is the best place to start. If you’re a disgruntled smart speaker user or maybe just question the security of your existing one, this is a great way to jump ship and embrace a secure smart speaker. In other words, go buy a HomePod Mini.
Update: Shortly after setting up our HomePod Minis I woke up one morning surprised at how brisk it felt in our bedroom. I reached for my phone and opened my ecobee app to see what the temperature was and I was shocked because the furnace was turned off! I quickly turned it back on and began interrogating the members of the household. It turned out that one of my kids while experimenting with the HomePod Mini had turned off the furnace. After a swift explanation and some new ground rules I think (and hope) we’ll be able to avoid this in the future, but this makes me think Apple might be overdue for some finer grain controls on the Home app for family setups.