THEY’RE small, helpful, and about to swamp Christmas trees across Australia.
Smart speakers are also falling in price, growing more useful, and offering better sound and greater privacy protections this year.
Experts say the smart home technology is set for a second boom this Christmas, with sales expected to soar by more than 30 per cent as more households try the technology for the first time and others hook up more rooms.
Apple’s second smart speaker, the HomePod Mini, captured the attention of many in the industry when it launched last week for $149; undercutting the company’s original HomePod by $320 and introducing a much smaller form.
Futuresource analyst Alexandre Jornod said it also showed Apple was not giving up on the smart home market yet.
“The dominance of Amazon and Google has led many to see the smart speaker market as a two-horse race but the new HomePod Mini from Apple shows that the Cupertino giant is far from conceding defeat,” he said.
“This new model places Apple firmly at a mass-market price point.”
Telsyte’s Internet of Things Home Market Study recently revealed more than one in four Australian households were using a smart speaker by the end of June and, of those homes, more than third used more than one smart speaker.
The technology was most commonly used for playing music, the firm found, followed by announcing weather forecasts, setting alarms, reading the news, and announcing messages.
But Telsyte principal researcher Foad Fadaghi said Australians were starting to experiment with new uses for their smart speakers; using them to control other connected devices like lights, TVs and doorbells, making phone calls and sending text messages, and to complete homework assignments.
Their falling prices — with all three companies now offering smart speakers for $149 or less — was also making smart speakers more attractive, Mr Fadaghi said.
“They’re priced to sell for Christmas, they’re priced to be experimental, and people won’t feel bad if they buy it and give it a try for a few months,” he said.
“One of the concerns potential buyers had is how long these were going to last before the next one came out but the price point overcomes that problem.”
Mr Fadaghi said the speakers also served as a “critical gateway” to smart home technology, and would play a role in the expected 30 per cent spike in sales of the tech this year.
Litepages chief executive Ben Rogers said he adopted smart speaker technology early, as a way to control other devices around his home and hasn’t looked back.
“I started with turning the lights on and off,” he said.
“Now we use them for everything from setting the alarm to playing music through networks we’ve set up through the house. It can also control things like air conditioners, the TV, and fans.”
Mr Rogers now has five Google Home speakers built into furniture around his house so, he said, he’s never stuck for how to spell a word or for a weather forecast.
But getting all the speakers to do what he wanted was not simple, he warned, and new buyers might have to tinker with the technology to get it working the way they wanted.
“The Google speakers are some of the best on the market if you want to be a hobbyist,” he said. “If I didn’t want this as a hobby, the Apple ecosystem is what I would recommend for people.”
REVIEW: APPLE HOMEPOD MINI
It’s bigger than a tennis ball, smaller than a shot put, and capable of getting a room full of people dancing (or at least bopping in their chairs).
Apple’s latest HomePod is a powerful handful of technology that addresses concerns raised about its first smart speaker: that it was too expensive and too large.
The HomePod Mini is neither of these things, and brings much-needed extras to a crowded smart speaker market, including privacy, clarity, and the ability to yell at members of your household across devices.
It has some downsides too, however, and its usefulness will depend on what devices you use and where you get your music.
The HomePod Mini, launched last Friday, is aggressively priced for an Apple gadget, matching the cost of inexpensive options from Google and Amazon.
There’s also only one speaker inside round enclosure but it’s capable and backed with supporting equipment and smart design.
A full-range driver ensures this speaker delivers a wide range of sound, for example, two passive radiators create bass, a suspension system stops this speaker shaking your table, and an “acoustic waveguide” design makes sure its sound is emitted from all angles.
Apple combines this with what it calls computational audio, or software that identifies a song’s elements, to deliver music clearly.
And the results compare well with its competitors. Songs played through the HomePod Mini sound particularly crisp and well balanced, with voices a priority.
At 50 per cent volume, HomePod Mini sound is at its best and capably fills a room. Its small form and limitations become more apparent at 75 per cent, but so might your neighbours.
Apple’s baby HomePod also benefits from a simple set-up process, and straightforward controls. A touch panel on the top of this speaker lets users play and pause music, swap tracks, and control the volume.
Being a smart speaker, however, you can also issue spoken commands and, like its larger brother, it collects less of your data than others. Rather than use your name, you are assigned a random ID so requests are not stored against your account.
Data is also encrypted and you can only access your personal information, like reminders and appointments, if your phone is connected to the same wi-fi network.
Apple also introduces a feature called Intercom with this speaker that will let you make announcements across your home. Better still, it not only works across these speakers but other Apple gadgets from people who opt in, letting you make ‘come to dinner’ or ‘everyone wake up’ or ‘get to the chopper’ announcements across iPads, iPhones, and Watches.
There are some shortcomings to this speaker, however. Its volume is limited by its size, it will be more useful to iPhone users, and it suits Apple Music and Pandora users. You can’t stream tunes directly from Spotify on this device yet, though it may arrive in future.