Apple launched the HomePod (our full review is here) in February 2018. The company had been working on the device for a number of years and even made the unusual move of pre-announcing it at WWDC in June 2017, promising that the speaker would launch before Christmas. But the launch was delayed for two more months.
What’s two more months when the HomePod was already late to the party? While Apple was developing the HomePod, other smart speakers appeared on the landscape. The Amazon Echo, powered by Amazon’s Alexa, entered the market at the end of 2014 followed by Google Home, powered by Google Assistant, at the end of 2016.
Apple is the latest big player to join the smart speaker market - but it’s not the only one. The Sonos One, which is powered by Alexa (an upcoming update will add Google Assistant), arrived in October 2017. Sonos is established in the speaker space, and respected for audio quality.
Sonos greeted Apple’s arrival with a jokey playlist containing tracks that spelled out the message: “Hello. Apple. Something About Us. Together. Feels Right. Even Though. You’re Crazy. For This. Home. POD. Remember. Two Is Better Than One. Just Playing (Dreams). It’s a Party. Everybody’s Coming To My House. Even You. Come As You Are. Fruit Machine. No Matter What You’re Told. We’re Going To Be Friends. Over Everything.” The dig that “Two Is Better Than One” is Sonos’s reminder that it is selling two Sonos One smart speakers for £398/$398. The Sonos Two bundle allows users to have a stereo pair or have music in two rooms. A feature that wasn't available for HomePod users until AirPlay2 arrived in June 2018.
Incidentally, because Sonos is able to work with AirPlay 2 you are able to control your Sonos speaker via an iPhone - but this doesn't mean that we'll be seeing Siri integration in Sonos's range anytime soon, although CEO Patrick Spence has said he is open to the idea, it's just unlikely that Apple would allow it.
Then there’s the Microsoft Cortana powered Harman Kardon Invoke speaker that arrived in October 2017. Like Sonos, Harman Kardon is well established in the speaker world. Incidentally, Harman Kardon is a subsidiary of Samsung and Samsung has its own smart speaker plans - the Samsung Bixby powered smart speaker is due to arrive later in 2018.
It’s not the first time that Apple has launched a product in an already established market. The iPod became hugely successful despite the fact that there were already MP3 players around, nor was the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. But those devices did the job of being an MP3 player or a smartphone better than the rest.
But is the HomePod a good smart speaker and does it do the job of being a smart speaker better than the already established competition, and the many new players joining that market?
We haven’t been able to look at all the speakers we’ve mentioned above, but we have looked at the big three - Apple’s HomePod, the Amazon Echo, and Google Home. In this comparison we will look at how these three smart speakers compare in terms of design, features, music choices and audio quality, and perhaps most importantly, how good the voice control software that you use to interface with these gadgets is.
Picture shows: The top of the Google Home
Smart Speaker Features
We’ll start by looking at what people expect from smart speakers. It’s probably fair to say that we expect a lot more than sound.
This new category of gadgets might look like speakers, but they are also voice-activated, intelligent digital assistants that help us manage our lives. They alert us to appointments on our calendars, set alarm, update us on the weather and the news, connect us to the gadgets in our homes, and give us access to almost anything via the internet. They just happen to also be speakers that can access huge libraries of music (if you pay for a subscription).
The way you interact with the speaker is dependent on the digital assistant software used by the speaker. The digital assistant is essentially the operating system - it’s how you interface with the speaker. How good the digital assistant is depends a lot on the AI (artificial intelligence) built into the assistant: How well does it understand you and interpret your needs, and how well does it integrate with the other gadgets in your life?
So this round up of smart speakers is really a case of comparing Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant, and that’s where we will start.
Picture shows: The top of the HomePod
When choosing a new speaker it’s no longer a question of how good the music sounds. This new breed of smart speakers are powered by voice assistants that are able to turn up the volume or play the next track, nip on to the internet to find the answers to our questions, update us with the latest news headlines, tell us whether we will need an umbrella, and much more. They can also control smart home gadgets such as heating, lights, blinds, curtains and switches. Being able to play music is just a bonus.
The voice assistant, be it Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, is essentially the operating system. It is the way that you interact with the technology. So it needs to understand you and be able to grant your wishes.
For many, the choice of smart speaker will be based on whether it works with the same voice assistant as their phone or tablet. In that case, if you already use Siri to check your calendar, set reminders, warn you if it will rain, make phone calls, send email and texts, turn off your heating, turn on the lights, and answer questions, then it is likely that the HomePod will be a good choice. But if you don’t then there is no reason not to look at the other options - since it’s likely they will work happily with your Apple set up regardless.
If you already own an iPhone, iPad or a Mac you will likely be familiar with Apple’s Siri. Because all Apple products are closely integrated, you would probably expect Siri on the HomePod to work in a similar way to how it works on the iPhone. To a point this is true, but there is a lot that Siri on the HomePod can’t do, or doesn’t do as well as it does on an iPhone. Siri on the HomePod integrates well with Apple Music, but beyond that there are limitations.
You may consider Amazon’s Echo to be a good option if you already have an Amazon tablet and a Prime subscription as you will be able to take advantage of Amazon Prime Music. You may already be familiar with Alexa as its available as an app on smartphones - Android and iPhones - so you could already be using it there. You can download the Amazon Alexa app for iPhone here.
Similarly, if you use an Android phone you’ll be familiar with the Google Assistant, and if you already have a subscription to Google Music then a Google speaker may appeal. Not that you can’t use the Google Assistant on the iPhone - as with Alexa, you can download Google Assistant from the iOS App Store.
In this comparison we put the Google, Amazon and Apple assistants through their paces with a series of tests to gage just how good or bad they are at the job. We’ll look at the different capabilities of the various assistants below.
A lot of our criticism of the HomePod when we first started using it was based on the fact that it was unable to answer or understand many of the questions we asked it. What we have learned by pitching it against the competition is that it’s not really that bad in comparison. The AI in each smart speaker seems to excel in some areas and not in others, but the overall feeling is that it’s a technology that isn’t quite there yet.
The other key takeaway was that because we are already in the Apple eco system it’s a lot easier to link everything up with the HomePod. With the other speakers there was a lot more complicated set up involved. However, it’s possible to get a lot of functionality out of the non-Apple speakers, so don’t let that put you off.
Because we are signed up to Apple Music the HomePod had a bit of a head start here. But you can play any music you have bought from iTunes even without an Apple Music subscription (£9.99 a month/$9.99 a month, sign up to get a free trial here), so Apple Music subscription is not a requirement. Read about Apple's music services here.
The Amazon Echo was able to access Prime Music thanks to our Prime subscription ($99 a year). However, the standard Prime Music feels a little limited compared to Apple Music. There are two million songs compared to Apple’s 30 million. For an extra £7.99/$7.99 a month, on top of your Amazon Prime subscription, Amazon Music Unlimited will open you up to “tens of millions” of tracks (Amazon doesn’t give the actual number). If you aren’t a Prime subscriber, Music Unlimited costs £9.99/$9.99 a month. You can get a cut price version of Amazon Music Unlimited with your Echo here. It's £3.99/$3.99 a month - but it will only work on your speaker, not your other devices.
We were able to sync our iTunes library with Google Play, which made it possible to play those tracks via the Google Home. We were able to use the free version Google Play Music, but were limited to a few radio stations (with ads) and the music we had uploaded to the service. If you fancy paying for a Google Play Music, it’s £9.99/$9.99 a month here.
Spotify can be used with the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. You can also stream Spotify from your iPhone to your HomePod using AirPlay, so Apple fans aren’t left out. Spotify has a free version that we were able to use with the Google Home. The free version is limited, but not as much as the free version of Google Play. Spotify Premium costs £9.99/$9.99 a month here.
Picture shows: Spotify streaming to the HomePod
We asked a number of music-related questions of our smart speakers.
“Play some '80s workout music” was no problem for Apple Music on the HomePod, and Spotify on the Google Home also did a good job of pulling up a '80s workout playlist. When it came to the Amazon Echo, the response was: “I couldn’t find any '80s workout songs,” so we hedged our bets by asking Alexa to play some 80s music, and were rewarded with the station All '80s from Amazon Music.
When it came to adding a song to a playlist we had a lot more success with Apple, where it worked first time. Alexa seemed to give it a good try, taking us through options such as “what’s the new playlist name” and eventually succeeding to add something to a playlist, but if felt a little hit and miss. Google gave up at the first step: “I looked for make a new playlist with this and it either isn’t available or can’t be played at the moment.”
You can adjust the volume with simple commands, such as “set the volume to 50%” on the Apple and the Google speakers, while the Echo can only set the volume between 1-10. We actually prefer Alexa’s method here, it makes more sense to us.
Of course you can just ask Siri or Alexa to “make it louder/quieter”, which is probably the simplest way to control the volume. This command didn’t work with Google Assistant, though.
One of the great things about smart speakers is the way they can ‘remember’ that you liked, or didn’t like a song. When we told the three speakers that we “liked” or “hated” a particular song, Siri and Google Assistant told us that they would remember that. Alexa was able to “save our rating” for one song, but when we said we liked a different song it told us: “You can only set thumbs up or down on songs playing on your custom stations,” which is one of the limitations of Amazon Prime Music.
All three speakers were able to identify songs that were playing and give us details about the performer. Although, all three seemed to come up with different answers, perhaps because they use different sources. For example, Alexa told us that “Ed Sheran grew up in Framingham”, while Siri told us that Ed is from Halifax in Yorkshire. Google Assistant was very specific that Morrissey came from “Davyhulme, United Kingdom” compared to Alexa and Siri who agreed on Manchester.
“Play more by this artist” worked well with Siri on the HomePod, but was a bit hit and miss with Alexa and the Google Assistant. With Alexa it switched from playing a Stereophonic's song to Foo Fighters, and with Google Assistant it switched even more randomly to Sonny and Cher.
When we asked the various speakers to play the UK Tech Weekly Podcast, Siri and Google Assistant came up with the goods, while Alexa failed. As we will explain later, Alexa has various functions you can add by downloading apps, but since there was no Soundcloud app, or similar, we weren’t able to get play the podcast we were after.
Picture shows: Top of the Amazon Echo
Your choice of smart assistant also matters is when it comes to Home Automation. If you have already equipped your home with home automation and IOT gadgets, from security systems and thermostats, to light bulbs and kitchen appliance, then it’s important to find out whether those gadgets will work with the smart speaker’s operating system.
Equally, if you haven’t yet invested in these gadgets yet you may want to future-proof yourself so that when you do they work with your smart speaker.
If your lightbulbs and thermostat work with Apple’s HomeKit you will be fine with HomePod. But if your House of the Future isn’t full of HomeKit products, for example, if you have a Google-owned Nest thermostat, which the HomePod won’t be able to control, a different option may appeal. For now at least, the Nest will not work with HomePod. We have the low down on the devices that work with HomeKit here, plus a round up of HomeKit lightbulbs here.
Picture shows: a selection of HomeKit products on Apple's website here
Alexa isn’t left out when it comes to smart gadget support. There’s a page dedicated to support here, which includes the thermostats from Nest and Hive, Phillips lighting, and Roomba robot vacuum cleaners.
Google’s customers also get access to the above, but the range isn’t quite as large as Alexa’s. There’s a list here.
A quick glance at the Home Automation products available and it’s apparent that it’s a growing industry and that Apple has some catching up to do in terms of getting many of them to work with HomeKit. This doesn’t mean that you can’t control those products with your iPhone - just that you won’t be able to benefit from the features in the Home app - and therefore you can’t access them via the HomePod.
Siri has support for multistep automations with a single command - which means you can say "good night" or "good morning” and have various things happen, such as the lights turn on and the blinds close. Apple calls these Scenes. When iOS 12 arrives in the autumn, users will be able to do even more in terms of linking a series of actions together. So, in addition to turning off the lights and the central heating when you say "goodbye" because you are leaving the house, Siri will also be able to serve up other information that you have linked into that particular command - perhaps travel time and a weather forecast. The ability to create Shortcuts will arrive in iOS 12 and we will discuss it in more detail below.
You can use Shortcuts on the Google Assistant in a similar way. Google's Shortcuts are customised voice commands that you can set up and use to perform an action, so you could say “Ok Google, goodbye” and have it turn off the lights as you leave the house.
Alexa’s Routines work in a similar way. Users can trigger a number of actions together, so the phrase “Alexa, good night” could turn off the lights, pull the blinds, and turn off the television.
Picture shows: Amazon Alexa
Smart speakers bring their intelligent assistants into our homes to help us organise our lives. In theory they can tell us what appointments we have, remind us to do things, set timers and alarms, read and reply to text messages, tell us what the traffic is like, warn us if we need an umbrella, and all sorts of things.
We put the intelligent assistants in our three smart speakers to work with a collection of questions.
When we originally tested the speakers in April 2018 we had high hopes for Apple, assuming that Siri would be able to access our calendar, but Siri told us: “I can’t access your calendar here, sorry about that.” The absense of Calendar support was rectified by the iOS 11.4 update in May 2018, so now at least HomePod users can ask: "What appointments have I got today".
Google allowed us to add an event to our Google calendar. Even Alexa was able to add an event to a calendar once we had set it up in the Alexa app.
Incidentally, you can set up Google Assistant to recognise up to six voices - so it can tell you what’s on your calendar, rather than tell you what your spouse has scheduled. Amazon’s Alexa can also recognise different voices. Siri can’t recognise voices, so anyone can read your messages or check what’s in your schedule unless you turn off that setting.
When it came to setting reminders, such as “Remind me to go to the doctors at 2.10pm”, Siri added the reminder to our Reminders app on our iPhone, but didn’t remind us on the actual HomePod. Both Google Home and the Alexa reminded us by playing a sound and telling us what we were being reminded of on the speaker.
Setting a timer was a similar process with a similar result on all three speakers. We could set a timer, ask how much time was left, and pause the timer. What we couldn’t do on the HomePod was set a second timer - but we could do that on the other devices. This functionality would be useful in the kitchen if you were cooking.
With regard to reading messages, Apple’s HomePod did a reasonably good job. It could read a new message - although not an existing message. It was easy to reply to the message. This functionality isn’t limited to Messages, it also works with Whatsapp.
The Echo can send and read received messages - but only if they are sent using Amazon’s own Alexa Messaging app, which only people with an Amazon Echo will have. Google Home wasn’t able to read or send messages at all.
All three speakers were able to tell us what the traffic was like and how long it would take to drive from our location to a destination. Google and Alexa were happy to give vague directions as to which roads to head for, while Siri said: “I can’t help with directions here”.
Siri was stumped by bus and train timetables. Alexa tried, but the suggestion that “The flight time between Ipswich and London is approximately one hour,” wasn’t really useful as we don’t have a private jet. Google Assistant impressed though: “The best way to get from Ipswich to London by train is to get the Greater Anglia debating at 1.42PM. It will take about 1hr 12 minutes to get there.” The Google Home even came up with the goods when we asked about busses.
As for weather, all three gave similar advice, although we got a more specific forecast from Alexa when we asked whether it would rain at the weekend.
The three assistants can also help with shopping. We asked for Tesco’s opening hours and each gave us the details of our local store. Each assistant was also able to add items to our shopping list.
Picture shows: Google Home from above
Only Alexa was able to actually order something for us though. We asked Alexa to “Order some milk” and based on our Amazon order history we were asked if we wanted to reorder the same milk as we had previously purchased.
There are many more things you can ask the assistants on the smart speakers to do for you, from reading the news and finding out useful bits of information, like who the Prime Minister is, what 12x32 is, how to spell antidisestablishmentarianism, or the Apple share price. The three assistants scored the same on each of these questions.
The assistants can also offer up some translations, although they are limited. Siri can speak French, German, Italian Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Alexa can translate 36 languages - but you need to enable a translation app to do so. Google has announced Pixel Buds - headphones that translate up to 40 languages - so we assume that the Google Home has a similar amount of languages.
Finally, we asked about film times as our local cinema. The speakers could tell us about the movies playing near by - although Siri thinks that Coventry is near Ipswich.
Another thing to consider is how the speakers work with third party apps. If you have various apps you use on your iPhone, for example, you may be hoping that you will be able to get information from them via the HomePod.
Right now Apple doesn’t support many third party apps via HomePod - although it appears this will change with the arrival of iOS 12 in autumn 2018.
When iOS 12 arrives, a new app called Shortcuts will allow iPhone users to trigger actions and apps via a voice command. So for example, a user could set up a Shortcut based on a "Beach" command, and saying "Beach" to Siri would trigger the assistant to provide details such as a weather forecast, travel time, text your friends your ETA, and possibly reserve you a table at your favourite beachside bar. We assume the latter based on the fact that this should be possible via Siri on the iPhone in iOS 12, so we assume the same functionality for Siri on the HomePod, although that remains to be seen.
For now though, the only types of app that are supported via Siri on the HomePod are messaging, lists and notes apps. To get apps ready for HomePod developers have to make sure they work with SiriKit and can be voice controlled. WhatsApp already works via HomePod.
Some iPhone and iPad apps can work with the HomePod if you use them on the iPhone or iPad and stream to the HomePod via AirPlay. This is how you can play music from Spotify or Amazon Prime on the HomePod.
Amazon’s Echo has a bigger scope when it comes to apps, or Skills, as Amazon calls them. Developers can make Skills and users can enable them and extend the functionality of their Echo speaker. For example, on Alexa there is a TrackR, a find your phone skill. Once set up, if you ask Alexa to “Find my phone” your iPhone will ring (yes it works with iPhones as well as other handsets). So far HomePod has not been able to deal with our request to “find my iPhone”.
There are Skills for controlling your heating, lights, booking a cab with Uber, and even a Just Eat Skill that is supposed to repeat your last order.
Picture shows: A selection of Amazon Skills
As for Google, there are lots of third-party apps (or Services). Along with Spotify and TuneIn, you’ll find Food Network recipes, Uber, WebMD and many more apps.
One other way to add functionality to these speakers is to use IFTTT (If This, Then That). IFTTT can link you to over 500 services. So even if an app isn’t available for your smart speaker you could create an applet using IFTTT that would make it accessible. The good news is that IFTTT is available for iOS - the bad news is it won’t work via HomePod at the moment. In fact, the new Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12 should work in the same way as IFTTT, opening up third-party functionality via Siri on the HomePod.
Picture shows: the tech inside the HomePod
Our premise in this comparison is that sound quality probably isn’t the most important thing when it comes to choosing a new smart speaker, however, if sound quality is what matters to you, here is the lowdown on what you can expect from each companies smart speaker offering.
There are three Amazon Echo speakers, the Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Plus. The Dot has a small built-in speaker, so don’t expect to get amazing sound quality from that. The Echo’s speaker uses Dolby processing to offer 360° omnidirectional audio. Amazon claims it “delivers crisp vocals, deep bass, and clear highs at louder volumes.” The Echo Plus speaker also offers “Dolby processing deliver crisp vocals and extended bass to fill the room with immersive, 360° audio,” according to Amazon. Wondering what the difference is? The Echo has a dedicated 0.6in tweeter and a 2.5in downward-firing woofer, while the Plus has a slightly bigger 0.8in tweeter and the same 2.5in woofer.
The Google offering includes the Google Home, the Home Mini and the Home Max (which is not yet available in the UK). The Max is the one to get if you want high-quality sound, it’s got two 4.5in high-excursion dual voice-coil woofers and two 0.7in custom tweeters. The Max has a feature calls Smart Sound which uses machine learning to adjust the sound depending on its placement in a room.
Apple only sells the one HomePod. The sound quality is exceptionally good - everyone seems to agree. Since we are comparing woofers and tweeters here (not that such comparisons really tell you anything) the HomePod has a 4in upwards-facing woofer and a seven tweeter array, each of those tweeters has it’s own driver.
Thing is, if you really want good quality sound you could just get an Echo Dot and hook it up to a high-end HiFi. You don’t have to spend upwards of £300.
Incidentally, because the HomePod isn’t a Bluetooth speaker, it won’t work with a non-Apple phone or tablet - you can’t play music from an Android handset on it, for example.
The Google Home Mini is a hockey puck-like disc that comes in Chalk, Charcoal, or Coral, it measures 96mm by 42mm.
Picture shows: The tiny Google Home Mini
The Google Home is white and grey. It looks a bit like a plump sort of vase, or a modern air-freshener, with the speaker in the lower section and a cut off top half that displays a moving Google Assistant logo and a touch sensitive volume and pause control. It measures 96.4mm by 142.8mm.
Picture shows: The Google Home
The Google Home Max measures 336.6mm x 190mm x154.4mm - it’s rectangular, unlike the other speakers we are looking at here.
Picture shows: Google Home Max
Amazon’s Echo Dot is a tiny disc shaped device that performs the same basic function as the larger Echo, but with very basic speakers. The dimensions are 84mm by 32mm.
Amazon’s Echo (second generation) is a black or white cylinder wrapped in a charcoal or grey fabric, or a oak finish. The top has two simple buttons for toggling the mics on and off and an action button to wake, turn off alarms and other interactions. The top rim glows Alexa blue. It measures 148mm by 88mm.
Picture shows: Amazon Echo (2)
The HomePod comes in Space Grey or White. It’s 172mm by 142mm. It’s covered in a mesh and there’s a plastic disc on the top which lights up when Siri talks and hides touch sensitive volume controls.
Picture shows: The HomePod
There are three Amazon Echo speakers, the Echo Dot, Echo and Echo Plus:
- The Dot costs £49.99/$49.99, buy it here.
- The Echo costs £89.99/$99.99, buy it here.
- The Echo Plus costs £139.99/$149.99, buy it here.
The Google offering includes:
- The Home Mini costs £49/$49 Home Mini, buy it here.
- The Google Home costs £129/$109, buy it here.
- The Home Max costs $399 Home Max, buy it here. (It’s not yet available in the UK).
Apple only sells the one HomePod:
- The HomePod costs £319/$349, buy it here.
Just for comparative purposes, the Sonos One - which has Alexa built in - costs £199/$199, buy that here.
A big part of the decision will be determined by what AI the speaker is powered by and whether it works with the apps and gadgets you want to control via your speaker.
You may also want to consider the music library that you will access via the device. If you are signed up to Apple Music you may be thinking that only the HomePod will let you utilise that subscription. Actually, you could play the music on your iPhone and connect to a non-Apple speaker using Bluetooth.
Picture Shows: Google Home
If you have a Spotify subscription that works with all the devices we’ve looked at here. However, while the Home and Echo support Spotify on the device, you have to stream Spotify tracks from your iPhone to your HomePod using AirPlay.
If you have an Amazon Prime subscription already you can access your Amazon Prime Music on your HomePod the same way - via AirPlay. To play Prime Music on the Google Home you could connect your iPhone via Bluetooth. Obviously Amazon Prime Music works best on the Echo.
When it comes to Home Automation, Google and Amazon both have a lot more scope in terms of IOT gadgets. That said, if the gadgets in your home work with Apple’s HomeKit, then the HomePod is for you. Hopefully over the next 12 months more IOT gadgets will start working with Apple’s HomeKit.
As for how helpful the intelligent assistants were, the Google and Amazon offerings are out in the lead based solely on the fact that because they can recognise voices they can help you with information about you. Rather than the HomePod, which is only set up for one account, and (unless you tweak the settings) can tell everyone your business.
Picture shows: HomePod
There were a few things that the HomePod did better than the others though. We had a good experience with messaging - not just using iMessage, but also WhatsApp.
We found it frustrating that setting a reminder on the HomePod diverted the reminder to our iPhone, while the others sounded an alert on the speakers. HomePod is also limited because it can only set one alarm at a time.
HomePod is a let down in terms of apps. Amazon Echo and Google have lots of third party apps available. It’s curious that Apple has shut itself out like this, we hope the company opens the HomePod up to third party apps eventually.
Audio quality is one area where the HomePod shines, but we’re not that sure it matters that much.
Design is a matter of personal preference, there’s something for everyone here. Probably.
As for price. The Home Max costs more, so the HomePod’s not actually the most expensive speaker here. But the Home Max isn’t on sale in the UK yet, and we bet it’s price will come down soon.
Despite everything we’ve said above, we expect that we will continue to choose the Apple HomePod over the others, purely because when it comes to playing music, Apple Music has everything we need, and the sound quality is great. Sure, Apple still has a long way to go in terms of third party apps and home automation integration, but a cheap Google Home Mini could look after that stuff for us.
That’s the great thing about Google and Amazon having entry-level products on offer - buy one of them to sit alongside your HomePod and get the best of both worlds.
Hopefully, the HomePod will improve overtime with updates to Siri and additional functionality. You can read about what the second generation HomePod might offer here.