Review: Apple's HomePod mini delivers performance that belies its size

Buying a smart speaker isn't necessarily a smart decision - can this one make a real impression?
Buying a smart speaker isn't necessarily a smart decision - can this one make a real impression? Photo credit: Newshub

Apple's HomePod mini is available to order in Aotearoa from today after being initially released in select countries in October last year.

At just 8.5cm tall and with a first impression that doesn't quite hit Apple's normally high-end look, the HomePod mini has some ground to make up.

The smart speaker is launching into a market that already has global giants like Amazon and Google operating with their own product.

So can Siri take a bite out of Alexa and Google Assistant? And does size really matter?

I've been using a pair of HomePod minis for a few days now and here are my thoughts.

The good

As with just about every Apple product I've bought and used over the years, setup is very easy and the two HomePod minis were streaming music in no time at all.

It quickly became apparent my initial doubts over its appearance and feel were no barrier to a performance that seriously impressed my tech-averse but music-loving partner.

We've been using an Amazon smart speaker in our kitchen for 18 months now and Alexa is always playing music and streaming radio stations if one of us is closeby. But the sound from the HomePod mini blows her out of the water.

Within the first few bars of R.E.M's Automatic For the People album starting I heard an audible "wow" as confirmation of just how much better it sounded. And that was with the mini stuck in the corner of the kitchen rather than in the middle like Alexa.

Review: Apple's HomePod mini delivers performance that belies its size
Photo credit: Newshub

The impressive performance is delivered by the Apple S5 chip inside, which enables computational audio. It means everything is balanced whether you're listening at low volumes or blasting out heavy metal at high volume as it's adjusted on the fly by the chip. I heard no (unplanned) audio distortion at either end of the spectrum.

Although I didn't like the look of it to begin with, the mesh on the speaker's exterior really helps, as does the 360 degree audio. It means its position in the room and the alignment of the speaker is no barrier to great sounding, room-filling music.

We've now got the HomePod minis set up in two separate rooms for maximum home coverage, but that was a hard choice because the stereo pairing is pretty damned great. After just a couple of taps in the Home app they provide different outputs for a great depth of sound and experience.

They're so small and easy to move, however, that when we have people over we will just bring them together and set it up again.

Another added bonus is that it integrates with my Apple Music account and therefore already understands my musical tastes and playlists.

Setting up Alexa required an additional Spotify account because if I was on a walk and my partner wanted to play music, one of us was going without as you can't have multiple streams from the same account at the same time.

That doesn't happen with the Homepod minis. It's a small thing but makes a difference to us.

Siri works much like she does on the phone and whatever witchery is used to decide that she'll answer from the HomePod mini rather than my phone or watch when we're all in close proximity is impressive. And her Irish accent (my choice, over the default Aussie accent) has never sounded so clear.

HomePod mini
Photo credit: Newshub

The final piece of functionality that I really enjoy is Intercom. It works across rooms, zones set up in the Home app or in multiple rooms at the same time - but that's not where the fun is.

Intercom is available via the iPhone, iPad, Watch, different AirPod versions and CarPlay - meaning messages can be sent from every device to the HomePod mini.

That came in useful last week when I was stuck in heavier traffic than usual. In just a few seconds I was able to send an audio message to my partner at home letting her know I was going to be delayed by an extra 10 minutes, knowing she was in the kitchen preparing dinner and would hear it. Simple, but brilliant, even if it did give her a bit of a surprise.

The bad

There really isn't an awful lot to dislike about the HomePod minis, even if I'm still not totally sold on the look - but I'm sure there's very good reasons for the non-metallic finishes that I love on my other Apple products.

My personal preference means I'd never willingly choose white coloured ones over the space grey versions also available, but they're so small that they're virtually unnoticeable so it really doesn't matter too much.

Also with the colour schemes of the recent iMac and AirPods Max ranges, you'd think Apple might want to offer the same options for fans who want a totally colour co-ordinated home.

Review: Apple's HomePod mini delivers performance that belies its size
Photo credit: Newshub

Siri also isn't the best digital assistant, although she's better than she used to be.

Now Alexa's been demoted to the garage we need to find the right combination of words for Siri to give us things like the Helensville weather for tomorrow, something we haven't achieved yet. Perhaps it's just my broad Scottish accent?

The biggest issue I have with the HomePod mini is that I want more. While I was happy with a single Amazon smart speaker, that just isn't the case here.

I'm already planning on picking up another couple so I can stereo pair them in my home office.

Being able to control other HomeKit devices - like the fantastic Nanoleaf Essentials lightbulb - via voice and the Home app means I can see a lot of credit card expenditure in the next few months.

The verdict

With a sound that defies its stature, the HomePod mini has quickly wormed its way into the hearts of our household.

Its small footprint means it doesn't need the standalone shelf our current Amazon Alexa device requires and, because it integrates so neatly with our other Apple products, it doesn't require workarounds other branded devices do.

If you're yet to venture into the world of smart speakers and smart home devices then I think $159 is a great deal for such a powerful wee thing - even if you only ever use it as a standalone speaker.

When you add the ability to switch on and off your lights by barking an order at Siri, control the tone and colour of the light or access home security camera footage with the Home app then it becomes even more value for money.

If you're already invested in the Apple ecosystem then it's a no-brainer.

Me? I'm off to get some more. And I can't wait to get the new Apple TV 4K so when the software updates later this year I can use them as the television sound output when I binge-watch the new season of Ted Lasso.

Newshub was supplied with two HomePod minis for this review.