I picked up a pair of HomePods Minis a few weeks ago and have thoughts. The TL;DR is that the HomePod Mini is really close to being a great product (especially at the $99 price point) if you value privacy in a home assistant more than speed1 and accuracy.
If you’re okay with that trade off, I could see it being a fantastic put-a-bunch-of-these-around-your-house-in-shouting-distance device if Apple made two key software tweaks (more color on these below):
- Offer an option to always play music requests through an alternate speaker.
- Provide a way to use an app other than Apple’s Reminders as the default for lists (or at least a few named ones).
The sound quality matches the device’s size
Let’s start with the easy part: the sound on the HomePod Mini is not good. I don’t have an Amazon Echo on hand to directly compare it to what is probably the closest competitor for most people, but I did place it next to a Sonos One SL in our kitchen and it’s not even close to a fair fight; the Sonos is a clear winner. I also tried a stereo pair of HomePod Minis directly next to a stereo pair of Sonos One SLs before arriving at the same result, which is that the HomePods sound, well, small. And they are! They look tiny and you can absolutely hear that difference. I’m not talking just about volume here — they sound less full and seem to have a much smaller soundstage.
I’d love to play the music on anything else
And that brings to my first major issue with these devices, which is that Apple insists they are your first choice for playing back any audio, despite the hardware’s shortcomings. I totally get this with the full-size HomePod, but Apple needs to admit the Mini isn’t always going to be the best speaker in the room.
In comparison, one feature that Amazon nails with Alexa devices is that you can choose a different audio device as the default speaker for any music requests. So if you have an Echo or Echo Show in a room that also has some Sonos gear, saying “Alexa, play some music” can automatically play your request through the Sonos speakers instead of the Amazon device.2
You can sort of do this with a HomePod by grouping the Sonos speaker via AirPlay 2 with the HomePod, but it’s fiddly and definitely not a persistent setting. For example, if you use the Hand-Off feature to beam audio playing on your iPhone or iPad over to the HomePod (which, I should point out, is actually super cool!) you’ll find your track only playing on the HomePod Mini’s crummy speaker instead of the AirPlay group with the other speakers. I would find the HomePod Mini way more useful in the kitchen if there was a way to route all audio requests through an alternate speaker in the house, like the stereo pair of Sonos One SLs sitting inches away.
One last nitpick is how Apple insists that HomePods are more preferred AirPlay targets than other speakers (even an Apple TV) by placing them at the top of any AirPlay output list. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s annoying that you can’t define your own priority.
Siri makes everything hard to do
This last pain point is not specific to the HomePod Mini because the full-size HomePod has the same problem, but working with third-party apps and services via Siri is somehow more awkward on HomePods. The quirks with phrasing feel forgivable on your personal phone where you can customize shortcut phrases, but it’s a miss on the HomePod because there’s nothing natural about telling a device shared by everyone in the house to “Using AnyList, add eggs to the grocery list” while walking around the kitchen3.
Amazon also solved this one. Alexa lets you pick a third-party skill provider for your lists so you can simply say “Alexa, add eggs to the grocery list” as any human in your house would, but that request is then synced to the third-party provider. Apple should copy this approach and let you specify an alternate app for all lists, or at least provide an override for a few list names you specify (e.g., grocery, Target, Costco).
So you keeping these things or what?
I’m still not sure if the HomePod Minis will remain in our house long-term, but I suspect their limited value may still outweigh the hassle of dealing with a return. That’s definitely not a glowing endorsement, but they don’t really deserve one. The HomePod Mini is an option if you don’t like the idea of Alexa devices all over the house, but — because of Siri’s limitations (not necessarily the HomePod) — it’s not nearly as nice of an experience today. Hopefully that changes soon.
- There’s enough delay when asking Siri to do something that you always second-guess yourself and wonder if the HomePod Mini heard you or not. But, that’s not unique to the HomePod Mini — it’s something any Apple user already suffers through on iPhones, iPads, and Macs.
- Triggering Alexa in the room also automatically lowers the volume of anything already playing on the speakers, which is a nice touch.
- Yes, I know AnyList has newer Siri Shortcuts, but they all involve adding items using two steps or creating a unique shortcut for every single list. The legacy approach I used here, while awkward, is still the fastest and most reliable.