When the Apple HomePod mini arrived, my smart home savvy friends were not exactly impressed. With feature after feature announced, they said "Alexa does that already," "Google Assistant does that already," almost in the cadence of the "Simpsons did it," line from South Park. Even Apple's new Intercom announcements ability is in Alexa's features: it's called Drop In.
I wasn't exactly impressed either, as I'm not a huge smart home fan: my Echo Clock with Dot is more of a clock than a speaker. I rarely think to ask it questions, I just haven't adapted my brain to that direction. But as I watched the event, Apple found a way to change my mind.
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The $99 HomePod mini, if you didn't hear already, is Apple's follow-up to the probably unsuccessful HomePod — a giant (great-sounding) speaker that costs a whopping $299. That price is so high compared to the market that Apple offers a monthly installment plan in addition to flatout purchase.
Also, the HomePod relies on Siri, which has long felt like an also-ran, compared to Alexa and Google Assistant. For example, Siri still doesn't allow for multiple timers going simultaneously, which still bugs many (myself included).
Where the HomePod mini is cooler than any Echo
The HomePod mini improves on the HomePod with one cool new feature — which you can't find in any Amazon or Google smart speaker — called Music Handoff.
Here's how it works. With Music Handoff, you simply walk up to the HomePod mini while you're listening to music or a podcast, and the HomePod mini senses your device is near, and lets you simply transfer the music on your phone to its speaker.
Apple has cracked this trick thanks to its U1 chip, which uses Ultra Wideband technology to detect nearby devices.
Handoff sounds like the way we evolve past Bluetooth
Handoff might not sound huge to some, but that's smarter than any connected, Alexa-enabled microwave if you ask me. That's because I've forever loathed Bluetooth technology. The process of turning on, and then pairing, speakers, headphones and all sorts of other things has always felt like there's too much friction happening.
That doesn't mean I don't have Bluetooth devices that I use. I've got the UE Megaboom 3 and even the stereo speakers for my record player support Bluetooth. Even when these applications try and cut down on the steps to enable Bluetooth —the UE app allows you to turn on the speaker if you're within range — it still feels too fidgety.
The HomePod mini's Music Handoff fixes all of that, and it sounds like it will work like AirPods work. You just go near the speaker, and it'll transfer the sound over.
The one problem with HomePod mini music handoff
There's just one catch. Not all apps appear to support the HomePod mini, which means you'll only be able to send sounds from some apps to the speaker.
Most folks will be annoyed by the lack of Spotify support, but at this point, I'm not surprised. I'm more frustrated by the fact that while this feature will also support podcasts, only Apple's Podcast app appears to support it. No love for Overcast, the best podcast app, bar none? I hope that's fixed eventually.
If our HomePod mini review says its sound is as good as Apple says it is, I might actually buy one. Heck, I could even see myself buying a pair, so I could also use them stereo speakers for my Apple TV, as I've yet to invest in a soundbar. The best soundbars on their own have never really peaked my interest, but if I can use the HomePod mini to cut down on time fidgeting with Bluetooth settings — and get better audio quality for TV shows?
Congrats, Apple, you found a way to sell smart speakers to someone who barely talks to Siri.
Finally, although alexa has had a feature called drop in for a while the intercom feature is more like a cross between that and announcements. Unlike drop in which opens a two way conversation, intercom on HomePod just allows you to send an audio file to 1 or more HomePod's and potentially other apple devices (watches, phones, CarPlay, AirPods etc). The person receiving can say reply and talk back more like a walkie-talkie. Both have their advantages but Apple's solution is far less creepy!
Everyone should simply be excited for the differences the platforms showoff, because the best will be borrowed from each other and we all benefit.