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Apple HomePod Mini review: This $99 Siri smart speaker will sell like hotcakes


The HomePod Mini is Apple’s newest smart speaker.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Apple’s long-awaited HomePod Mini is finally here. The smaller Siri-enabled smart home hub bridges a strange gap between smart speakers, with a $99 (£99, AU$149) price tag like Google’s Nest Audio and the Amazon Echo but in a small package like the Nest Mini and Echo Dot. (Here’s how Apple’s HomePod Mini compares to the Amazon Echo and Nest Audio.) Apple unveiled its original HomePod two years after Amazon dropped its first small smart speaker. Bulky and expensive, it didn’t sweep the market. Now, Apple is back at it with the HomePod Mini, a smaller, more affordable smart speaker offering. 

In short, if you like Apple — and if Siri is your smart assistant of choice and HomeKit is your preferred smart home hub — you’re going to love Apple’s newest smart speaker. If you’re already living with an iPhone, Apple TV or original HomePod the Mini makes sense as your next small smart speaker. If not, well, we have a few more ideas on how to spend that $99. 

Read more: HomePod vs. HomePod Mini: Which Apple speaker is best?

Like

  • It sounds great
  • It’s small
  • It’s under $100

Don’t Like

  • Siri still isn’t the best assistant
  • HomeKit needs more compatible accessories
  • Other small smart speakers are $50 or less

Design

The HomePod Mini is small and spherical like its competitors. It’s wrapped in an acoustics-friendly mesh fabric, and comes in white or space gray. The touch control pad with LED indicators is nearly identical to the original HomePod.

In short, Apple didn’t wow me with a rethinking of the small smart speaker. However, the HomePod Mini is good-looking. It’s adorably apple-shaped and predictably sleek. It fits the Apple aesthetic and at 3.3 inches, the HomePod Mini is so small it hides itself easily on your bookshelf, desk or kitchen counter.

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The HomePod Mini next to the original HomePod.


Chris Monroe/CNET

One note: the fabric on the speaker and the spherical shape are designed to enhance audio quality. I can’t prove that it does, but the HomePod Mini certainly doesn’t sound like it’s being muffled or hindered by any design features.  


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Apple HomePod Mini is the small smart speaker for Siri



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Features

We’ve reached a point in the smart speaker timeline where there’s a general expectation of what smart speakers can do. If I said, “Well, it does all the basic smart speaker stuff,” you’d pretty much know what I meant. Weather, commute times, general knowledge questions, making calls and playing music are all standard fare for smart speakers from every brand.

That’s the story here. The HomePod Mini does the Siri things we’ve come to expect. Features are software-based and updated as Apple sees fit on both the HomePod and HomePod Mini. I’ll outline some of the features I tested on the HomePod Mini. Some of these are also coming (or already present) on the larger HomePod. 

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The HomePod Mini is small and sleek.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Intercom

Apple’s new Intercom feature catches up to Google’s Broadcast and Amazon’s Drop In capabilities. On the HomePod or HomePod Mini, you can send a voice message to other Apple devices in your home. Other users can send a voice reply back by saying, “Hey, Siri, reply…”

Intercom worked quickly in my testing. You can choose to turn off Intercom in the Home app settings for each device. You can also select when to receive notifications. Your options are “Never,” “When I’m home” or “Anywhere.” Great news for parents and terrible news for teens — Intercom can send voice messages to all the iPhones‌, ‌iPads‌, Apple Watches ‌and AirPods in the family. (This is still not nearly as bad as when your father could walkie-talkie squawk you on your Nextel in 2005.) 

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Handoff transfers sound from your phone to your HomePod Mini and back again.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Handoff

Sending audio from your iPhone to your smart speaker and back again is easy with Apple’s handoff feature. It works with HomePod or HomePod Mini when your device has Bluetooth turned on and is on the same Wi-Fi network as your smart home speakers.

Hover the phone close to the speaker and you’ll feel haptic feedback and see a notification appear to let you know the audio is transferring to the HomePod. When you’re ready to put the audio back on your phone, the process works in reverse. 

This might be my favorite HomePod Mini feature. It’s simple, and it works without tapping or asking Siri to do anything. Thanks to the HomePod Mini’s U1 ultra wideband chip, handoff will get better in future updates with improved visuals, haptic feedback and audio effects.

Stereo pairing

You can pair two HomePod Minis together for stereo sound. I tested this with a third-generation Apple TV, and a nature documentary filled with scurrying animals and majestic theme music. Left and right channel separation is easy to set up while creating the speaker pair and it works well. 

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Two HomePod Minis can be paired for stereo sound.


Chris Monroe/CNET

This isn’t an Apple-only feature. Google and Amazon smart speakers can do this, too. I really enjoyed the sound and channel separation of two Nest Audio speakers when we tested them earlier this year. While two HomePod Minis might not compete with a high-end surround-sound system, they are certainly an upgrade from your TV’s stock speaker, especially if you can place them strategically in your entertainment space to take advantage of that channel separation.  

Audio quality

Apple packed a lot of audio power into a small speaker. It’s loud enough to fill a room with sound. Bass, mids and treble are all distinct and easy to detect. Compared to the latest Echo Dot and Nest Mini, the HomePod Mini is clearer and less distorted. 

Comparing the sound between the HomePod Mini and other $100 smart speakers is a bit of an unfair fight. Obviously a bigger speaker like the Echo or Nest Audio will deliver bigger sound. While the HomePod Mini is definitely loud for its size, the comparison in audio is still much closer to the Nest Mini or Echo Dot. However, those speakers usually cost less than $50. 

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From left: Amazon Echo Dot (2020), Nest Mini, HomePod Mini.


Chris Monroe/CNET

When it comes to pure volume, the Echo Dot was the loudest in our tests, but at full volume it also generated enough distortion to distract from the listening experience. The Nest Mini isn’t as loud, and it doesn’t have the same distortion issues, but it lacks powerful bass.

Meanwhile the HomePod Mini hits the sweet spot. It does a good job of balancing audio. You still get plenty of bass without sacrificing clarity. I even found myself noticing parts in songs I hadn’t noticed before thanks to its clear sound separation. 

If you’re really into music, chances are you’re not betting your listening experience on any of these pint-size speakers. You’d be right to move along. For your same $100, you’ll get better sound from the Nest Audio and Echo. If you must have an Apple speaker, and must have top-notch sound, it might be prudent to look for a deal on the $300 original HomePod.

Home sweet HomeKit

The HomePod Mini, like the larger model, Apple TV and iPad, is a Home hub. That means you’ll be able to set up an entire Siri-controlled smart home with the help of this little speaker. The question is — do you want to?

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Arlo Pro and Pro 2 cameras work with Apple HomeKit. 


Chris Monroe/CNET

HomeKit still offers the fewest compatible smart home products compared with Google and Amazon. Your options for cameras, thermostats and smart locks are limited. There aren’t any smart display options unless your iPad can serve the purpose.

If you’re into DIY smart home experimentation, you can create workaround with plugins from Homebridge, a server you can run on your home network that bridges non-HomeKit devices to the iOS HomeKit API. That solution isn’t going to be comfortable for everyone, but it does exist. 

Siri also isn’t the most intuitive, smartest or most personal voice assistant. In our HomePod Mini testing there were still general knowledge questions that Siri didn’t understand or couldn’t answer.

Here’s a recent, but admittedly trivial example. I asked all three assistants, “Who plays Batman?” Siri’s response was, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that, but if you tell me the name of the movie or tv show, I can look up the cast for you.”

Meanwhile, Alexa only offered up Ben Affleck, and Google informed me, “Batman has been played by 51 actors. Here are the first three; Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.” Sure, I don’t need to know the chronological list of Batmen in my daily life, but if you’re trying to settle a family argument, those sort of smarts matter.  

For anyone who’s spent time with Siri on their iPhone or Apple TV over the years, those shortcomings might not turn you off. Perhaps you’ve vowed to live with, love and cherish Siri as your voice assistant, personality flaws and all. If so, carry on. Add a HomePod Mini or two to your life and enjoy great sound with the Siri you already know. 

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HomePod Mini is Apple’s affordable smart speaker for almost everyone.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Conclusion

If you’re an Apple fan, you’re going to love this $99 smart speaker. It’s as cheap as Apple products will likely ever be. It sounds great, looks good and delivers the smart speaker functionality we’ve all come to expect thanks to its competitors. If you have an iPhone and an Apple TV, it’s a no brainer to go the HomePod Mini route for setting up your smart home. 

It isn’t for everyone, though. If you’re an Android phone user, the HomePod Mini won’t invite you into HomeKit. That’s OK, because you have a plethora of more affordable options to choose from. Spend the same $100 and get two (or even three if a sale is happening) Echo Dots or Nest Minis. Pair them in stereo sound, connect thousands of compatible devices to them and enjoy. You could also splurge on the Nest Audio or Amazon Echo for bigger, better sound in one speaker. 

If you’re an iPhone user, but you don’t have any other Apple devices, your soul-searching will be a bit more complicated. You’ll need to consider what smart home devices you really want in your home and whether or not Siri can support them. Google and Alexa smart home apps work well on iPhones, so you’ve got three capable suitors looking for the keys to your smart home. 

The good news here is that there is finally an affordable Apple option for HomeKit and Siri enthusiasts. The HomePod Mini is as on-par as Apple wants to make it with Google and Amazon’s offerings, and I’d recommend it to anyone invested in the Apple universe. 



Source: CNET News, Author: Molly Price

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