Travel Technology – Apple HomePod Mini
Time for some more Travel Technology – this week, looking at Apple’s minuture speaker – The HomePod Mini. Is it worth the asking price just to play music and ask it to find where your phone is, or is there a lot more to this speaker?
What is it?
Apple’s HomePod Mini is a miniaturized version of their HomePod. It was released in November 2020 and has been on my radar for some time to take a look at.
The device is a mini version of Apple’s Smart Speaker, allowing you to stream music from it, interact with it and generally enjoy music in your home.
It is 8.4cm tall and 9.8cm wide, available in white or black, coming in at 345g. The speaker features a single full-range driver inside, powered by a neodymium magnet and two force-cancelling passive radiators. For voice commands, a three-microphone array is designed to listen for Siri commands, and a fourth microphone that faces inward isolates sound coming from the speaker for better voice detection when music is playing.
Do not expect to plug other devices in, there are no ports on the device (be they USB-C, Line In, Line out or headphones).
How much is it?
The RRP for the HomePod Mini is £99/$99/€99. The price in your territory may vary, depending on how Apple values the US Dollar to your currency and how much they are in the mood to gouge.
What is in the box? (And the unboxing)
Not a lot, with Apple’s minimalism at play. You get:
- The HomePod Mini with an attached power cable
- A USB-C plug, rated at 20watts.
Turn it to the side they say. It looks better they say.
The power brick is a 20watt affair, which should be easy enough to replace when it goes wrong.
Sadly, whilst the device can be powered by a USB-C connector (good), Apple of course showed off their “green” credentials by making the cable non-removable.
Why does Apple do this to itself?
A Side Note on Apple and its “Green” Credentials (and why the fixed cable on the HomePod annoys me… a lot)
No, Apple is not perfect. And here is but one reason.
Apple touts the environmental things about their products and then stick in a non-user-replaceable cable in typical Apple fashion – the first thing that will probably go wrong.
Apple’s Eco Promises for the HomePod mini, yet no user-replaceable power/USB-C cable – https://www.apple.com/uk/homepod-mini/specs/
This is beyond stupid. It is designed obsolescence when you break the cable.
Another slap in the face for the right of repair, as once the cable is broken, you’ve either got time working out the cabling, the soldering that goes with it, or just e-waste it.
And that is a waste.
If you are in the USA, I would strongly recommend you spend time looking at Louis Rossman “Right to Repair”. Linus Tech Tips and MKDHD have covered this subject in depth (and Gamers Nexus makes it a constant part of their coverage).
If you’re in Europe, the European Commission has already passed its beady eyes over this. Those in the UK, we have these laws coming in soon.
Idiot design decisions like this are not your friend. Or anyone is for that matter.
As for Apple’s consumer-unfriendly policies for their laptops and phones… that is another rant subject for another day.
Setting up the HomePod Mini
Setting up the HomePod Mini is pretty easy – if you’ve paired any Apple product with an iPhone or iPad, it’s a matter of bringing your device close to the HomePod mini and following the on-screen instructions.
If you have set up EarPods before, this will be familiar…
Where did come from, where did go, where it is going Cotton-Eye Joe?
You can sign up for Apple Music at this point. Me? Nahhhhhhhh. There are also a lot better offers if you dig around too.
Once done, it is time to play.
Using the HomePod Mini
This device is best enjoyed when it has Apple Music attached to it. Of course, yours truly does not have an Apple Music Account – negating one of the direct tie-in benefits.
So how do I use mine?
There are some basic controls on the top of the HomePod Mini – good enough to summon Siri or change the volume
The top of the HomePod – controls illuminated.
Streaming from an iTunes Library source.
I have streamed primarily from my phone (iPhone 12 Pro) or laptop (MacBook Pro 16), rather than Apple Music or other streaming services. Thus, I am using AirPlay to play music rather than Apple Music.
It is pretty simple, go to music, select the output device, press play.
From my MacBook Pro, it is a matter of changing the audio output from the speakers to the HomePod (mine lives in the living room) and off we go again.
Why yes, I have minimal taste. Have you not seen my test playlist?
Streaming from the phone is even easier – bring the iPhone playing music, and it transfers the source live over to the HomePod Mini. All thanks to the U1 Ultra-wideband chip, as well as some software magic.
Integration from other audio streaming services
Of course, Apple Music is the primary streaming service that the HomePod likes to use. You can also integrate with iHeartRadio, Radio.com, via TuneIn – so I have been using it to steam my local radio station (Free Radio Birmingham), as well as others that are local to me.
If I want to stream any BBC programmes, I must play them BBC Sounds and fling them across to the HomePod using AirPlay.
And it is fiddly, mainly as it is more than a few taps to the audio controls.
Other fun functions
Yes, Siri is still a thing. It does have a “command” over the Apple devices in my flat, allowing me to say, “Hey Siri” and for it to take the voice command (with other devices fuming in the background). Whilst it can be the basis of a HomeKit hub, my house is decidedly dumb when it comes to smart devices – about the only smart devices I have are the Chromecast with Google TV and the HomePod.
The rest is hard IT stuff (no, I will not get smart bulbs, smart thermostats, Amazon Ring Cameras that leak data faster than you can say “Go to the AmaZen room and think about what you’ve done”).
Maybe the main function I use Siri for is asking about the weather and asking where the hell my iPhone is. Do not look at me like that – you would do the same thing if your phone is buried halfway down the sofa.
Siri’s results can be… well. It is not the greatest and still needs some major development compared to other voice recognition platforms out there.
There is also the intercom feature in the HomePod Mini as well – useful if you have more than one of them and need to message each other. Me? Little point when there’s only me in the house.
Let us move onto the audio tests. For this, again I am streaming from my phone, my laptop, and some Siri commands.
If you have been around when I have done some cheap headphone reviews, you know I have assembled a YouTube playlist of some of the tracks I test with – namely, then you can compare them with your headphones or audio device (and as we go on, this list will become my standard testing list).
It is an eclectic mix – mostly actually lives on my iPhone for straight transfer to the audio device
The list is published on YouTube, but for those who don’t want to click a link, here is my list:
- Crab Rave – Nordstrom
- Keiino – Spirit in the Sky
- Justified and Ancient – The KLF featuring Tammy Winnett
- Rhapsody in Blue – Gary Graffman · New York Philharmonic Orchestra · George Gershwin (Manhattan film version)
- Sands of Time – T. Stebbins/Sugano
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – John Barry/The Propellerheads/David Arnold
- Glorious – Andreas Johnson
- Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack
- Pompeii – Bastille
- A Little Time – The Beautiful South
- The Ball – Craig Armstrong
- Creep – Scala and the Kolacny Brothers (cover of the Radiohead version)
Note – I’m expanding the list after this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. You’ll have to guess which song I put on though 😉
In this test, my HomePod Mini is on the windowsill with some other bits and bobs. There is not a lot of science in terms of why it has been placed there – other than it is within reasonable earshot of the sofa, and near enough in a line of hearing near me without me turning it up to deafening noise levels that would annoy next door.
The clicks and thumps of Crab Rave are a good start, with the base thumpy, whilst the clicks of the crabs are clear through the main music, with a sense of left-to-right being pretty good. The thuds of the base and separate trebles seem to continue well through the playlist.
Moving onto Classical music, Rhapsody in Blue was clear throughout, with the instruments easy to identify as music played, with a little distortion when the volume was cranked up. I tend to run the speaker between 50% and 70% volume – mainly not to generate noise complaints, but also beyond that – it can be a little more than loud.
On a single HomePod, it can try to a reasonable “left to right” on certain tracks – however, on the Elenor Rigby test (which is mostly Paul McCartney singing on the right-hand side of your ear), it was more mono than not. On a more processed track such as “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, the separation is almost there.
When pumped up, some of the tracks had distortion on them – which is to be expected with the design – but I did have to push some of these tracks to the volume limit and annoy the neighbours
Travelling with the HomePod Mini
A nice idea I had would be to take the HomePod Mini with me and use it as a big speaker for meetings. Now that is a lot harder than it needs to be sad, with you either needing to change the settings in the Home App or reset and re-setup the thing each time.
Even when the homepod was near, because it couldn’t talk over Wi-Fi, I was getting a bucket of errors.
Well, that’s a load of nothing burger isn’t it?
It is not ideal – but it is possible. In the end, I kept it at home as my running between networks was becoming a less important thing using it on the road .
I also tried resetting it up in the Home app, but to not much success.
What if I am outside the Apple Ecosystem?
Let us be honest – you need to be deep into the Apple Ecosystem to make the best benefit of it (and if you check the requirements list, an iPhone is required).
No ‘droids (or anything else) allowed.
And even I cannot take advantage of some of the features as I refuse to license my music monthly from Apple, thus having to use AirPlay a lot more than I would like.
IF you are in the Google/Android/Amazon ecosystems, this probably will not be the best speaker for you, as you will have issues communicating with it. There is a decent Reddit thread https://www.reddit.com/r/HomeKit/comments/ktjh0x/play_music_from_android_phone_to_homepod_mini/ on how to communicate with it.
But it is making things complex for the sake of being complex because you haven’t chosen to have an iPhone as your primary phone device.
A banging speaker – with some silly mistakes
This is a banging little speaker. Make no mistake. The Apple engineers did a bang-up job of the speaker array, along with the software engineers who did their jobs to handle what you can at it.
Some things bug me about it – namely that power cord. There was no need for Apple to not make it a detachable USB-C Cable – which I can only conclude is for when you tug on it once too many times, you will have to pay Apple £99/$99 for another one – as opposed to £5 for a decent quality USB-C cable.
In addition, you need to be in the Apple ecosystem to take advantage of the features it offers – and that may be having an iPhone or iPad… and that is just to set up the unit
The lack of ease to move the device between networks is also a pain if you want to travel with it and use the speaker as a posh conference phone.
However, when it comes to playing music and podcasts and finding your phone, it excels in its primary purpose – being a speaker. The smart features are a welcome addition and if you can utilise them – it makes a reasonable assistant (depending on Siri’s mood).
As for me? It has got a spot on the windowsill. Good for when I want to pump tunes, listen to a podcast clearly, or just want the radio on.
This Apple HomePod was brought from my own pocket and as such, is not a review sample from Apple Inc. As such, review samples of the device don’t tend to come my way and have to buy these like everyone else – hence why I might be a little later.
I also have to pay for my own replacements if I drop them.
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