In the smart speaker race, Apple is merely a participant. Worldwide, Amazon with its Echo devices has a sizable lead and even Google with its Nest devices remains ahead of the Cupertino-based tech giant. In China, it faces threats from the likes of Baidu, Xiaomi and others whereas in India, it’s Alexa (read Echo) that seems to reign supreme. Apple was notably late to the smart speaker game but HomePod arrived in 2017 — in India it arrived earlier this year only. So you can see why Apple isn’t mentioned in the smart speaker game.
HomePod despite being an excellent speaker has its limitations — price, bound by Apple ecosystem among others. To make the HomePod more affordable and appealing, Apple launched the HomePod mini earlier this year. Priced at Rs 9,900, it can be spoken in the same breath as many Echo and Nest devices in terms of the cost. HomePod mini is a much-needed product for Apple if it has to crack the code in the smart speaker segment. How does the newest and smallest speaker from Apple fare? Find out in our review:
HomePod mini review: Design
You know how there are some products that truly live up to their names? The HomePod mini is one of those as the first thing you will notice about it is that how small it really is. It weighs just about 345 grams, is 3.3 inches tall and 3.9 inches wide, and is portable in the truest sense. The fabric mesh surrounding it comes in white and black colour options. Apple’s aversion to buttons is evident here as there’s an opaque glass panel on top that can be used to increase or decrease volume levels. You can tap in the centre of the panel to pause the music whereas a double-tap will forward tracks and triple-tap will skip back tracks. What else do you need a button for? It’s a voice-based speaker and Apple wants you to use Siri as much as you could to operate the speaker. Unlike Echo devices, you can’t really mute the HomePod mini. The glass panel shows swirling colours when Siri is activated and when music is played, there’s a white colour cloud that’s visible on the HomePod mini.
The power cable wrapped in mesh comes fixed to the HomePod mini. There’s just the power cable and the HomePod mini comes with a 20W USB charger. For the uninitiated, the HomePod actually comes with a plug attached to the cable.
The HomePod mini is certainly a ‘cheaper’ HomePod when it comes to price but in terms of design, it is quintessential Apple: great design aesthetics. It looks quite small and gives you a tennis ball like look.
HomePod mini review: Setup, Siri and other features
Like the AirPods and the HomePod, one of the coolest things about the HomePod mini is how easy it is to set up. All you need is an iPhone or an iPad and bring it closer to the HomePod mini and it sets up in a jiffy. Compare this to setting up an Echo or Nest and you will feel the sea of a difference. We didn’t have any trouble connecting the HomePod mini. Once connected, it will ask you where do you intend to keep the smart speaker — bedroom, living room, kitchen area among others.
The one feature that we were really looking forward to with the HomePod mini is Intercom. Intercom can be used to send voice messages to all iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, AirPods that you may have in your household. It worked perfectly in our tests and one can choose to turn off the feature in the Home app of your Apple device. Apple has also given the option to select when you want to receive notifications through Intercom. There are three options: Never, When I’m home or Anywhere.
The other interesting feature is Handoff, which can be used to send music from an iPhone to the HomePod mini. You need to have Bluetooth turned on and the devices need to be on the same Wi-Fi network. All you need to do is take the iPhone close to the HomePod mini and a notification pops up on the screen to tell you that the song is being transferred to the HomePod. You feel haptic feedback once it’s happening. It’s really simple and easy to use but there were times when it didn’t work as seamlessly as we would have liked it to.
You have to say “Hey Siri” as the wakeup command to get the HomePod mini to do anything. There are four microphones in the speaker that do a fine job at picking up voice commands. Even when the music is playing at loud volume, the HomePod mini is really good at listening to voice commands. Siri is a shade faster to respond when compared to Alexa or Google Assistant but lacks the skill set of both its rivals. For example, Alexa is trained in 100s of skills and once again reiterates Amazon’s far deeper commitment to smart speakers than Apple.
When it comes to controlling smart devices, here again Apple is behind Amazon and Google as Siri-enabled devices are far and few in between. The devices that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, like Philips smart bulbs and Hue work fantastically and we had no complaints except that the choices are limited. It will be great to see Apple add more devices to the HomeKit as at the moment there aren’t too many to use the HomePod mini as a smart home hub.
In terms of what’s inside the HomePod mini, it comes with a single full-range driver and two passive radiators. It supports Bluetooth 5 but cannot be used to play music and is meant just for setup and accessing other smart devices. Apple’s put in a U1 chip inside the HomePod mini, which in fact, enables the Ultra Wideband connectivity. This can be used to detect other U1-enabled devices that might be in the vicinity of the smart speaker.
HomePod mini review: Audio quality
Apple may be behind Amazon in terms of Alexa skills and smart devices but it continues to be ahead in audio quality. It’s frankly quite astonishing to see a speaker of this size deliver this good a performance in terms of audio quality. It’s not really loud but good enough to fill most large rooms with its sound. At low volumes, it sounds really pleasant and even at maximum volume you will see no distortion. The bass, treble and mids sound distinct on the HomePod mini and vocals are pleasant. We listened to a variety of genres of music on the HomePod mini and were really impressed by how it handled it all. The mid-tones sound really balanced and the lyrics sound as clear as they do on any speaker of this size.
The HomePod mini has 360-sound which means that the sound of music doesn’t change if you keep the speaker right in the middle of any room. Having said that, most people won’t really do that as it will probably sit on a shelf or a nightstand. Interestingly, neither Google nor Amazon give 360-sound anymore on their speakers and offer directional speaker designs.
Apple HomePod mini review: Verdict
At Rs 9,900, the HomePod mini is Apple’s attempt to get more users in its smart speaker ecosystem. When we reviewed the HomePod we said it’s the best smart speaker for Apple fans out there. If you are a ‘fan’ and are looking for an affordable smart speaker, the HomePod mini is the ideal option. The HomePod mini has a nice design, it sounds great and has all that one looks for in a smart speaker. It’s not meant for any Android users as it just won’t work for them.
Apple is taking the right steps — a little late some might say — in the smart speaker space and the HomePod mini is one of those. It just needs to add more smart devices to HomeKit to truly challenge the supremacy of Amazon. As a music player, it works wonderfully well and does the basic smart jobs as well — as long as you are a part of the Apple ecosystem, the HomePod mini will impress you on every count.