HomePod Mini. Mighty?

The original HomePod delivered amazing sound quality. Unfortunately, the price point and perceived inferiority of Siri compared to Alexa and Google Assistant hurt sales. Apple has clearly taken note and sought to address that with the new £99 HomePod Mini. This is my long term review.

Design

The HomePod Mini sports an attractive golf ball-like design. It is wrapped in an acoustically transparent fabric mesh that prevents muffling and distortion. On the top is an LED lid with touch controls. Tap to play and pause. Tap twice to skip tracks or three times to go back. And tap and hold to access Siri.

There are also embedded volume controls permanenly illuminated on the speaker. Image – Pixel and Polygons

What is most shocking about the design is how tiny it is! At just 4 inches wide and 3 inches tall the HomePod mini feels about the size of a large Orange. It feels dense to hold but still weighs just 345 grams. Some reviews were sceptical of the built-in USB C power cord but I think this was actually a rather clever decision. The USB C power cord can be plugged in the included 20-watt power adapter but you can also plug it into a USB C power bank! With the small size of the HomePod Mini, it makes it ultra-portable and easy to transport. You’ll just need to tether it to a personal hotspot or other wifi connection if you choose to try this.

Image – Pixel and Polygons

Specifications

  • Full-range driver and dual passive radiators for deep bass and crisp high frequencies
  • Custom acoustic waveguide for a 360º sound field
  • Acoustically transparent fabric
  • Computational audio for real-time tuning
  • Four-microphone design for far-field Siri
  • Multi-room audio with AirPlay 2
  • Stereo pair capable
  • 802.11n Wi‑Fi
  • Direct guest access4
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Thread
  • Ultra-Wideband chip for device proximity

Sound Quality

The HomePod Mini has no right to sound as good as it does. Despite its diminutive size (a little over three inches tall), it delivers a surprisingly pleasing bass. To create the bass it relies on its force cancelling radiators and a powerful neodymium magnet enclosed in a full range driver. These parts also enable the HomePod Mini to produce detailed high-frequency sound. The HomePod Mini also delivers 360-degree audio via an acoustic waveguide that directs sound out of the bottom of the speaker.

Left and right. The force cancelling radiators inside HomePod Mini. Image – Apple

Interestingly Apple incorporated its S5 processor first found in Apple Watch Series 5 into the HomePod Mini. The S5 chip enables computational audio features. For instance distortionless playback even at the highest volume. And the speaker is pleasingly loud. For a medium-sized room, the volume gets plenty loud enough. Does it compare in volume to the full-size HomePod? No. But at this price point and size class, it would be totally unrealistic to expect it to.

I’ve found the sound to be pleasing, crisp and clear. Music sounds great and when using AirPlay to transmit from and Apple TV there wasn’t any noticeable lag. The overall audio experience is very impressive when taking into account the dimensions of the HomePod Mini.

Siri and Home

In the last few years, Siri has garnered something of a reputation for being less accurate and consistent when compared to other voice assistants. I think that criticism was fair but it doesn’t hold as true in 2021. Siri has improved significantly in just the last few months. For instance, its knowledge database has increased many times over and the machine learning algorithm behind Siri has advanced in complexity.

The HomePod Mini fits seamlessly into your home without distraction. Image – Pixel and Polygons

The typical requests you might expect to ask of a smart speaker all work very well. For instance asking for a particular song, to send a message, asking about the weather or your next calendar appointment. And the HomePod Mini integrates well into your smart home setup. Siri can be used to control HomeKit compatible accessories that you have added to the Home app. The HomePod Mini can also serve as the home hub in your setup. It can even handle pretty sophisticated requests. If you want to adjust the lighting to a particular percentage or brightness or change the colour for example.

To make Siri possible on the HomePod Mini, Apple built-in four noise-cancelling microphones. They work very well and were able to pick up my voice over music even at the highest volume. You’ll know that the speaker has heard you because the led dome on the top illuminates with a Siri animation in addition to providing auditory feedback.

Special Features

Thanks to the S1 chip, the HomePod Mini is capable of distinguishing between the different voices in your home. That means it is capable of taking personal requests for things like reading aloud and sending iMessages. You can turn this off if you want to but the intelligent voice recognition ensures you and only you can access your personal data. I asked my family to try and get Siri to read my messages several times and it failed as expected (and hoped!).

The HomePod Mini introduces a new feature that Apple calls Intercom. Intercom enables you to send a voice message to other HomePods and iOS/iPadOS devices in your household that play instantly and out loud. You can even send these messages to devices outside of the home in your Family Sharing group. I found this feature to be really handy! Especially if I wanted to get somebodies attention without having to leave the room and stop what I was doing. You’re even able to send and receive Intercom messages via CarPlay which is a really nice touch. Intercom is also compatible with the regular HomePod via a software update.

Speaking of software, Apple just released iOS 14.4 alongside an update for the HomePod Mini that enables a new trick that its bigger brother doesn’t have. This relates to the built-in U1 chip. The U1 chip enables seamless and instant hand off of your music from other devices that contain a U1 chip. The U1 chip refers to ‘Ultra Wide Band’. What this does is enables a device to determine the precise location of other devices that contain a U1 chip. Thanks to this the HomePod Mini can detect the presence of an iPhone 11 or 12 model (the only other devices Apple makes with a U1 chip right now) and hand off the music that you were playing from the phone to the speaker. It also works in reverse. If you’re playing music on your HomePod Mini, just bring your iPhone near by and the music resumes playing immediately on your iPhone. You can’t invoke this by accident as your phone needs to be very close by. You’ll also feel precise haptic feedback that increases in intensity the closer your phone gets to the HomePod Mini. It ends with a ‘thud’ to tell you the hand over is complete.

Privacy

The HomePod Mini only listens for the command ‘Hey Siri’. Until you say those magic words, no other part of your conversation is recorded or transmitted. When you do ask a question of Siri, that request is attached to a random device identifier that isn’t linked to your Apple ID or other identifiable information.

Personal requests such as sending an iMessage are handled on the device. The data is never transmitted to Apple and the processing takes place on the HomePod Mini and your iPhone. In the case of certain types of home-related requests such as accessing a smart security camera feed, the processing is also completed on the device. If you want to access camera feeds remotely, the video recording is still processed on the device by the HomePod Mini but is then transmitted end to end encrypted via iCloud to your iPhone or iPad. That means Apple can’t access the recording.

Apple has a strong track record of building products with built in privacy protections by design. That remains true with the HomePod Mini and is perhaps even more important for a device that in theory has the potential to always be listening to our conversations. Apple has gone to great lengths to protect user privacy according to their literature on HomePod Mini and I have no reason to doubt them.

Wrap Up

All in all the HomePod mini addresses the major problems presented by the HomePod. The price and Siri. It comes in at an affordable price and significant improvements to the range of requests it can handle. It also preserves the legacy of excellent sound quality that the original HomePod is known for. The sound can’t compare to the original HomePod but again at this price point and size, it doesn’t have to. But when compared to similarly-sized competing smart speakers, it outperforms them by delivering superior, distortion-free sound even at the highest volume.

Image – Pixel and Polygons

If you’re looking for a smart speaker that represents genuinely great value for money but without compromising on audio quality, then the HomePod Mini is the smart speaker you’ve been waiting for.

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