Apple’s HomePod smart speaker is widely admired – for its attractive design and exceptional audio quality, if not for the sophistication of its smart features – but many potential buyers are put off by its price tag. At £279/$299 the 2018 HomePod is a serious purchase.
This year Apple has come up with a solution: a smaller and cheaper mini edition of the HomePod, which costs a vastly more budget-friendly £99/$99. But is this a compromise too far? What corners have been cut to hit that price point?
We’ve been trying out a pair of minis for around a week, and our HomePod mini review reports on their design and portability, audio quality, ease of use and smart features. We’ll help you decide if this is the best option for your home.
Design: The world’s smartest grapefruit
The HomePod mini lives up to its suffix with a petite design. It weighs just 345g – the full-size HomePod is 2.5kg, about seven times as much – and is 84.3mm tall with a diameter of 97.9mm. (The big HomePod is 172mm high with a diameter of 142mm.)
That’s small, then – but it can be hard to grasp exactly how small unless you’ve got the thing in front of you.
In size terms the comparators are all fruit or balls. It’s about the size of a grapefruit, and in sporting terms it’s a little bigger than a cricket ball (roughly 70mm in diameter) and a little smaller than a lawn bowls ball (120-130mm). The closest equivalents are a softball or a croquet ball, but most of us don’t have much experience of those.
The mini is roughly a sphere in shape, with the top and bottom chopped off: the bottom, to give it a stable base, and the top to make space for the touchscreen interface (of which more later). Other than the glossy top and matt bottom areas, the device is covered in the same attractive mesh material used on its larger sibling. This can be white or black.
It’s a good-looking and highly portable device, all told. Portability might not seem important for a product that has to be plugged in, but don’t undersell it: you may want to tote the mini from study to living room to kitchen depending on what you’re up to (although bear in mind that after being unplugged and then plugged back in, it will need a moment to prepare itself for further duties), and being small makes it much easier to site on a bookshelf or end table.
Using the HomePod mini: Some headaches
Apple products are known – at least by Apple itself – for being easy to use. The HomePod mini tries to follow this tradition but I hit a number of headaches in testing.
Setup, at least, is straightforward. Plug in a HomePod and then bring an unlocked iPhone close; a dialogue box will pop up inviting you to pair and set up, a process that takes little time and user interaction. Similarly, bring two HomePod minis close together in one room and they will prompt you to unite them as a stereo pair.
These kinds of auto interactions are brilliant when they work, and generally they do. But their behind-the-scenes mysteriousness can work against them when something goes wrong, for whatever reason; it’s harder to set something up manually when you’re not used to it, and when the system is not designed to accommodate that level of user involvement.
So, when the stereo pair acted up, it wasn’t immediately obvious where to go to sort things out because it had all been set up through popup dialogues. Sometimes I’d start up a song on the iPhone, stream it to the pair via AirPlay, and only one would play. What was the issue? It wasn’t obvious where to begin with diagnostics, so I ended up waiting for the second one to join in eventually, or if it didn’t, closing Music and restarting.
Similarly the Wi-Fi settings are automatically imported from the paired iPhone when you set up, and when the HomePod claims it’s not on the right network and therefore can’t send across image search results (don’t worry, I’ll explain that shortly), it’s not obvious where you go to correct this.
AirPlay is not in general as user-friendly as it could be. Open the AirPlay options from the iPhone’s Music app and it looks easy – just make sure there’s a tick next to the speaker(s) you want to play, and not next to the others. But in practice I experienced pauses of variable length when transferring from one speaker to another, and occasionally it wouldn’t transfer at all. And sometimes it spontaneously changes the order of the speakers in the list, so you end up tapping, and turning off, the wrong one.
I like to stream to the HomePod mini via AirPlay because it doesn’t depend on either voice control (which I’ve never completely learned to trust) or walking over to the speaker, and allows for more accurate song search and selection because you can see the full track listing onscreen. But long experience of both the mini and its larger sibling makes it clear that Apple doesn’t want you to use it in this way.
HomePods, I would suggest, are principally designed to be used without reference to an iPhone – as hubs in their own right, connected to Wi-Fi (and Apple Music) and commanded by voice. So much so that I sometimes found the devices would take this into their own hands by separating their playback from what was playing on my phone. I would start a playlist in Music, then several songs in notice that there were no playback controls on the phone’s lock screen. The HomePod had started to play independently.
(It’s possible that this mysterious separation is related to the HandOff feature, which ‘jumps’ the music from phone to speaker when you move the former towards the latter. This often activates when I don’t want it to, and I’d advise turning it off in Settings > General > AirPlay & Handoff.)
My preference, for the reasons given, is control by iPhone, but the alternatives are not wholly unappealing. The control panel on the top of the device is limited – volume up and down, plus a central area you tap to play or pause or skip, or hold down to activate Siri – but has the advantages of simplicity. And I must point out that Siri is pretty reliable these days; it rarely mishears, even when loud music is playing, although sometimes I find it can’t respond because of web connection issues.
Finally, I’d better point out that as ever, the HomePod is a plant from a walled garden. It can’t be set up or used with an Android device – it has onboard Bluetooth, but cannot act as a straight Bluetooth speaker – and Apple Music remains, for now, by far the best option for streaming. Others services such as Spotify can be streamed via an iOS app and sent to the speaker via AirPlay, but it’s not quite as convenient.
Smart features: Pretty smart, but occasionally flaky
Common knowledge holds that Apple is behind Google and Amazon when it comes to the ‘smart’ part of smart speakers. Common knowledge is probably right, but Apple is catching up.
The HomePod mini has a decent range of smart features up its sleeve. Aside from the obvious music stuff – telling it to play a particular song, or an artist, or songs that are like an artist, or a genre, or even moods such as “play some cheerful music” – you can ask it for a weather report, sports scores, jokes and the answer to general-knowledge questions. In general these functions worked well, but occasionally it gets confused, or relays the information in a way that’s not easy to understand – saying football scores in an awkward American format, for example, or listing every global league currently playing rather than applying some location-based common sense.
The HomePod can set reminders and timers, read out your messages and send new ones… although this was the point in testing where it decided this wasn’t possible, and told me it might not be on the same Wi-Fi network as the iPhone. (I’m fairly sure it is, but as mentioned above, it’s not easy to check this.)
In the demo Apple showed me how to do an image search on the mini, which seems odd given its lack of a screen. But when you say, to give Apple’s example, “Find me pictures of narwhals”, it will try to send the results to your phone.
This is a nice approach, but it sadly didn’t work for me. I tried it three times; the first and third times it claimed to be sending the results, but then couldn’t find my phone (which was nearby, and on the same Wi-Fi network – but maybe my Wi-Fi simply isn’t very good); and the middle time it said it had found pictures, but I’d have to search again from my iPhone.
Finally, there’s a new feature which you need iOS 14.2 or later to access. It’s called Intercom, and enables you to speak a message into one HomePod and have it broadcast from one or more others around the home. It will also appear on family members’ iPhones as a voice recording. This should be handy in family homes containing teenagers who have to be called down for dinner.
Sound quality: Surprisingly brilliant
The full-size HomePod offers exceptional audio quality, and the HomePod mini, unsurprisingly, cannot quite match that. But for its size and price it is surprising how close it comes.
I started by testing out bass-heavy recordings, which is where the difference is most pronounced. On Perfect (Exceeder) by Princess Superstar the mini managed respectable bass punch, but you hear it more than you feel it: on a full-size HomePod that bassline gets you right in the stomach. On Supernature by Cerrone bass performance was closer between the two HomePods, but at higher volumes I could again hear the difference in power at the lower registers.
While we’re talking volume, the mini is far more powerful than a device of this size has any right to be. At 85% volume it’s getting to the limits of what you’d want in any reasonable size of room, yet no distortion is apparent. And you can hear it well in every part of that room – there’s no sweet spot to worry about.
I next tried Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky, and enjoyed the mini’s rendition for richness and detail. If I didn’t have the big HomePod there for comparison I’d be thoroughly impressed – but the larger device gives a sense that you’re in the studio with the band that its smaller sibling cannot match. There’s more of a sense of distance with the mini.
I tried a little jazz, and the pattern was the same: I played it on the mini and thought it was great, with strong mid-tones and a rich smoky feel, then switched to the full HomePod and discovered depth to the bass that hadn’t been apparent on the smaller unit. That doesn’t mean the mini has bad audio quality; it means the big HomePod is exceptional.
Finally I tried some Glenn Gould piano recordings and there was little difference between the two HomePods. Both combined clarity with power at the upper registers.
To sum up, the HomePod mini – which is a third of the price and a seventh of the weight – largely matches the full-size HomePod for treble and mid-tones, and while its bass output is noticeably thinner it is still very creditable for the speaker’s size.
But what if you’ve got two HomePod minis? A stereo pair of minis still can’t give a bass punch like the larger model, but it’s great for filling the room with immersive sound. Space them apart properly and suddenly you’re in the studio or concert hall.
Price & availability
The HomePod mini costs £99/$99, which is a bit of a steal. It’s far cheaper than the £279/$299 HomePod, and while you can find alternatives that are cheaper still – the latest Amazon Echo, for example – the mini works hard to justify its price tag.
Ease of use is not an area where we expect Apple to fall down, but that’s probably the HomePod mini’s weakest suit. This is despite an admirable facility for setting things up automatically; the problem is that when one member of a stereo pair declines to play, or the mini can’t see its paired iPhone to send a message, it’s not easy to work out what’s gone wrong.
But once you get past those occasional headaches, this is a terrific smart speaker. Its audio quality is far better than we have any right to expect at this size and price – bass isn’t quite as punchy as the full-size HomePod, but it’s still very respectable – and Apple has implemented an impressive array of smart functions that mostly work well.
If you want to deafen your neighbours with aggressive dance music at 2am, you probably need the full HomePod. But for most of the rest of us a pair of HomePod minis is a cheaper and more versatile option, giving you a stereo pair for special occasions and a multi-room setup the rest of the time.
Apple HomePod mini: Specs
- 84.3mm (H) x 97.9mm (W), 345g, full-range driver and dual passive radiators, Four-microphone design for far-field Siri, Multiroom audio with AirPlay 2, Stereo pair capable, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Direct guest access4, Bluetooth 5.0, Ultra Wideband chip for device proximity, Siri control, Touch Control panel