16.10.20

Everyone loves a mini

mini kitchen
The kitchen is seen as a prime location for the HomePod mini where it can distinguish which member of the household is talking to it. Image source: Apple

It is no secret that almost everyone loves a “Mini” (regardless of the spelling). After all, we’ve all loved Minnie Mouse for almost 93 years; her “Birthday” is next month on November 18th. I remember a Minnie Mouse doll that my father brought home from a business trip for my sister, and how mad she got when I hid it in the washing machine. Mickey presumably loves Minnie as well; some wonder aloud about the nature of their relationship, but Walt Disney settled that in an interview in 1933 by saying that “they were secretly married in private”.

Another famous Mini loved by many is the iconic car conceived by Sir Alec Issigonis and first sold in 1959. Always regarded as a bit quirky when marketed under the Morris and Austin brands, it is now a successful worldwide brand under the ownership of BMW since 2001. 

As a short, easy to remember and very descriptive name, the moniker has been applied to many other products and services over the years. It also makes sense when a brand has a “Max” version of a product at one end of the scale and a “Mini” version at a lower price. Most recently in our market space you’d likely seen it as Google’s lower priced smart speaker, now branded under the Nest umbrella.

That now takes us to the latest mini to hit the market: Apple’s new HomePod mini. NO, that isn’t a typo as that is the way the branding gurus in Apple Park have named it.

HP mini hand iPhone
Seamless content handoff from iOS device to HomePod mini (shown here in white). Image source: Apple

Why “mini”? The top-level answer is that at $99 USD/£99 GBP/96.50€/$149 AU, the new HomePod mini is a third the regular retail price of the first HomePod model. Of course, it is also “mini” in terms of physical size. Certainly, given the pricing that is to be expected. The bigger question, is it “mini” in terms of sound? Not having been able to hear the new model yet it is impossible to say first-hand, but it appears to have the bones of what delivers good sound.

From the outside, HomePod mini follows the current industrial design trend for smart speakers sporting a spherical shape covered with acoustically transparent, eco-friendly, white or space grey fabric mesh. The secret to good sound, of course, comes from the intersection of the physical components and the DSP that drives them.  

Inside the flat topped, 3.5-in tall HomePod mini is a full range driver that is flanked on two sides by passive radiators on two sides. The driver faces downward into an acoustic waveguide that is claimed to deliver enveloping sound throughout the room. Beyond the physical side of sound reproduction, the new HomePod mini is powered by Apple’s S5 chip for what we might call DSP, but which Apple has dubbed “Computational Audio”. The stated goal is to deliver what was billed as “breakthrough audio performance”. A side note, however, that one big area where the “mini” name will apply in comparison to its bigger sibling is that the original HomePod is reported to soon get an upgrade that will allow a two-speaker setup to play content back in Dolby Atmos. Apparently the mini’s architecture just doesn’t have the computational power…for now.

HP mini internal
Despite its compact size, the internal workings of HomePod mini should have what it takes to make good on Apple’s promise to deliver “Amazing Sound”. Image source: Apple

While Apple might object to classifying HomePod mini as just another “smart speaker”, “smarts” are important in this category, and Apple certainly appears to have checked all the required boxes, and then some.

In some respects, the new intelligence here mirrors some of what the competition has already done, or is going to do in their new models. For example, two HomePod minis may be used in the same room for stereo reproduction. Also part of the new usability package is the Intercom feature that lets the user broadcast to other HomePods in the home. However, as part of the Apple ecosystem it goes even further here, extending the “dinner’s ready” announcement to other iOS devices, and even to an auto equipped with CarPlay. Even better, it does this by both voice and text. Voice recognition may be personalised to each member of the household, so the kids don’t get mum or dad’s schedules, and vice-versa. 

Siri is at the heart of Apple’s voice search and interface, and with HomePod mini it will get even better. Along with answering the usual questions and calling up music or other audio content, users will now be able to use Siri to “search by lyric” as well as the traditional use of a song, podcast or station name. Again taking advantage of the depth of Apple’s ecosystem, integration with all iOS devices and systems is being beefed up. This even extends to voice control of smart home/IoT devices. Device discovery and integration will now be dramatically simplified.

As an example, there will be seamless handoff between an iPhone and HomePod mini. This means no more “driveway minutes”. Listening to something in the phone or car but you need to get inside? No problem; content on your iPhone will automatically be transferred to the HomePod mini as soon as you are in range. In the other direction, integration between iOS devices, HomePods and CarPlay will be significantly expanded. The best example of this is to ask a HomePod mini via Siri what the opening hours are of your favorite retailer. Siri will not only give you the voice answer through the HomePod, but if you have a CarPlay-equipped vehicle it will send the navigation and directional map to the dashboard display.  

All intercom
The new Intercom feature not only announces messages via voice, but it also runs texts out to compatible iOS products. Image source: Apple

At the product introduction event we also got the details on the new iPhone 12 models, all with 5G, but I’ll leave that to others. One exception, however, is to note that the new iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max models will be able to capture, edit and playback in Dolby Vision at 4K/60fps, albeit with 10-bit, rather than 12-bit colour depth. However, that is a marvel of technology and it is something that simply can’t be done on any other single device. Consider this as a hint as to how you will be able to craft your own high-quality demo videos to show off the capabilities of the displays you sell. If I were a retailer, I’d get one of those models just for that purpose even if I never used the phone to text or make a call!

At the end of the day, I’ve been playing off the word “mini” but when you put this all together there is nothing “mini” about it. 

mini word
HomePod mini may have what seems to be a diminutive name, but there is very little about it that is “mini”. Image source: Apple

At the start of the October 13th event, Tim Cook stated that the new HomePod mini will offer “Amazing Sound, a World-Class Assistant, Smart Home and Privacy and Security”. I’m the only one in my family who is not an “Apple Person”, other than the Apple TVs that sit aside the Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast and Nvidia Shield boxes scattered across my office and the rest of the house. However, given what the HomePod mini will do, I’ll be putting in my order on November 6th and waiting for the delivery which is set for the week of November 16th to see if it makes good on those promises.