Apple’s HomePod has faced two consistent criticisms right from the start.
First, people said, it’s the dumbest of the smart speakers — that both Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers can do more.
Second, it was said to be way too expensive. If you want a smart speaker, the thinking went, you could get an Amazon Echo Dot for $50, and sometimes as little as half that during promotions. Why pay Apple $349 then (and $299 now)?
Hearing both criticisms repeated recently, I couldn’t let it pass…
There is truth to the first claim, especially when you compare Siri to Alexa. However, as I discovered when trying the Echo Dot, there is a very large rider to that statement. Alexa is not inherently smarter; instead, it allows third-party developers to add “skills” to the platform.
I noted then the two big drawbacks of this approach.
First, because anyone can add a skill, there are lots of competing skills, many of which are worthless. And the required syntax means you can’t realistically have more than a limited number of skills installed.
You can’t ask natural questions like ‘Is the Circle Line running ok?’ Instead, you have to ask Alexa to ask the skill. The format for these queries is:Alexa, ask London Travel whether the Circle Line is running
That’s not only horrendously clunky, but also ridiculously unscalable. Even with just a handful of skills enabled, I couldn’t remember the next day whether the Tube one was called London Transport or London Tubes or London Travel — in part, because I’d had to try several of them before finding one that worked well.
That’s not to say third-party skills are useless. The sole reason we still have a couple of Dots in use today is that they allow us to easily add things to our online supermarket shopping trolley. I wouldn’t dream of playing music through them, however: the HomePods are speakers, the Dots are convenient intelligent assistant hardware.
Which brings us to price. Yes, if you think of the HomePod as an IA device, it is too expensive and too large. But if you think of it as a highly sophisticated speaker system, using beam-forming technology that debuted in speakers costing five figures and only relatively recently made it into four-figure ones, then they are both impressively compact and surprisingly affordable.
I’ve said before that HomePods don’t replace a full-on hifi-quality speaker system, like the Naim Mu-so, but they get remarkably close. $600 buys you a high-quality stereo paired system that, in audio terms, is absolutely superb value for money.
Indeed, if you imagine a world in which voice assistants didn’t exist, and HomePods were speakers, pure and simple, they would be welcomed as incredible value.
It’s time to stop comparing them to tinny speakers costing $50, and start thinking of them as really good audio kit at a never-before-seen price point.
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