After two years of updates, the HomePod mini is actually pretty good

But there’s still room for improvement.

Photo by Jon Fingas/Engadget

When we first reviewed Apple’s HomePod mini in 2020, we had some reservations. While it was a much better value than the original HomePod, it still had some of the same limitations of its bigger sibling. Siri wasn’t as bright as Alexa or Google Assistant, the HomeKit ecosystem was limited and there were no real alternatives to Apple Music for on-demand tunes. You bought a mini for Apple’s tight integration, and not much else.

Fast-forward to 2023 and it’s a different story. Apple has significantly expanded the HomePod mini’s functionality. It now has active temperature and humidity sensors, smoke and carbon monoxide alarm detection, access to third-party music services (however modest) and support for the Matter smart home standard. With the recent 16.4 software update, the speaker can also make use of a revamped Home architecture that’s said to be faster and more reliable. The odds are that Apple has addressed at least one of your pet peeves in the past few years.

The market hasn’t stood still, however. Amazon has improved both Echo speakers and Alexa in the years since, and Google’s Nest Audio has received upgrades like a guest mode. Then there’s competition from Apple itself — now that the company has introduced a second-gen HomePod, the smaller model may not be as compelling as before. With that in mind, we’re revisiting the HomePod mini to see if it’s still a viable option.

Smart home upgrades

Apple HomePod mini in orange
Photo by Jon Fingas/Engadget

Ask HomePod users about their top gripe and they’ll probably point to basic reliability. It’s easy to find complaints of unresponsiveness, broken commands and generally buggy behavior that can make it difficult to consistently control a smart home. The 16.4 software and its overhauled Home architecture appear to have addressed these glitches in my month-long stint with the HomePod mini. Siri is quicker and more reliable, as expected, and there haven’t been any glitches interacting with other smart home gear (including an Apple TV 4K). While some users say they still have issues, it seems like Apple has ironed out some kinks.

The most practical upgrades are the unlocked temperature and humidity sensors, though — I’m getting far more use out of them than I thought I would. My HomePod mini test unit sits in my infant son’s nursery, and the readings let me check conditions in the room without reaching for the baby monitor. It’s about as accurate as that monitor, too. You can use the sensors to automatically toggle smart home devices (such as closing blinds when it gets too hot), although I didn’t have equipment that would benefit from the feature. Before you ask: Amazon’s Echo already has a temperature sensor, but it’s good to see this functionality spread to other platforms.

Other improvements are more subtle, but still welcome. The 16.3 update added the option of setting up recurring automations using Siri. I can turn on my Hue lights every day at dusk, if I’m so inclined. And while there’s no Pandora access in Canada, it’s good to know I can use Deezer as well as radio services like iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. Just don’t expect Amazon Music — that was promised in 2020, but hasn’t materialized. Smoke alarm detection works as promised, although I’d rather have a connected alarm (such as Google’s Nest Protect) if I was truly worried about fires breaking out while I’m away.

Matter support also makes a difference. I’ve largely relied on Amazon Echo speakers in my home precisely because the range of HomeKit-compatible devices is still small. Matter opens the door to devices that were previously off-limits, including Google’s Nest lineup. While the list of Matter-ready hardware is currently modest, it’s growing quickly enough that I can comfortably recommend a HomePod mini to someone who wants compatibility with major-brand security cameras and thermostats.

Does the sound quality hold up?

HomePod mini in orange
Photo by Jon Fingas/Engadget

The HomePod mini design hasn’t changed since launch apart from a wider choice of colors, like my test unit’s orange. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As we explained in 2020, the mini punches above its diminutive weight. While it’s only somewhat larger than the third-generation Echo Dot in my nursery and the Google Home Mini in my office, it blows them away — the sound is comparable to the larger, more powerful second-gen standard Echo in my living room. There’s a surprising (though not awe-inspiring) amount of bass, detailed highs and distinct instrumentation.

The mini isn’t the loudest smart speaker in its class, and I typically set the volume to 50 percent or more if I want to listen from another room. However, it also maintains the fullness of its sound across volume levels, even at the 15 percent I use for lullabies in the nursery. While I would rather have the regular HomePod and other louder alternatives for a house party, I’d be happy to use the mini as an office or bedroom speaker.

With that said, the HomePod mini fares better with some music genres than others. A jazz tune like Ahmad Jamal’s live take on “Poinciana” sounds surprisingly immersive, while a treble-rich classical work like Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2” sparkles. Mid-range rock like Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” also plays well. However, the speaker sometimes strains to handle the mids of dance tunes like Above & Beyond’s “Gratitude,” and sounds a bit hollow with rap like Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes.” Updates like lossless audio support haven’t improved matters, either.

The sound is nonetheless enjoyable, and holds up well next to my standard Echo. While the HomePod isn’t as loud, it provides more consistent detail. The problem, as you might guess, is that a roughly comparable sound isn’t a draw by itself. Apple has a size advantage, but that’s about it. And it’s safe to say that you’re better off spending extra for higher-end speakers like the regular HomePod or Sonos Era 100 if you care about fidelity or tricks like the HomePod’s support for spatial audio.

Some things are still broken

Apple HomePod mini and Amazon Echo Dot
Photo by Jon Fingas/Engadget

As much as Apple has improved the HomePod mini over time, certain elements are just as frustrating as they were three years ago. For one, Spotify support is missing. That’s not under Apple’s control at this stage, and we wouldn’t expect Spotify to warm up when it’s still engaged in an antitrust battle over pricing and app integration. Nonetheless, it rules out the most popular streaming music service on the planet unless you’re willing to use AirPlay.

And no, Siri isn’t much brighter than before. Most of the updates since launch have revolved around Apple TV support (such as playing a movie), Find My friend locations and compatibility with the cheaper Apple Music Voice Plan. Siri does a solid job with straightforward tasks like playing music or checking the weather, but it has neither Alexa’s third-party skills nor Google Assistant’s talent for answering general knowledge questions.

For that matter, the HomePod mini isn’t necessarily the best speaker for a nursery or shared bedroom. You can adjust Siri’s volume or peg it to that of your voice, but there’s no Alexa-style whisper mode that responds in hushed tones. If you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently startle someone by cuing up a playlist — trust me, I know. You can tap your iPhone on the HomePod to silently transfer music (still one of Apple’s best tricks), but that’s not much help if you’re rocking a child to sleep.

Support for other platforms remains non-existent. You still need an iPhone or iPad just to set up a HomePod mini, while the absences of Bluetooth audio and a line-in jack rule out even basic connectivity with non-Apple devices. While Matter support improves the range of smart home devices you can use, the mini remains a no-go if you use Android.

A better value, for the right person

Apple HomePod mini in orange
Photo by Jon Fingas/Engadget

Even with all those hangups in mind, the HomePod mini is a better value now than it was in 2020. It’s more useful and reliable in a smart home, and you aren’t as locked into Apple’s ecosystem as you were before. You’ll be pleased with the sound quality for the money, especially if you want a smart speaker that doesn’t occupy much space on an end table.

Moreover, the HomePod mini may be appealing precisely because it’s not part of the Amazon and Google ecosystems. My Echo speakers irritate me by peppering Alexa responses and notifications with unwanted pitches — no, I don’t want to subscribe to Amazon Music or rate the power cords I bought last month. Google isn’t as egregious, but it frequently offers unwanted tips. While the HomePod’s functionality is more limited, I’m tempted to switch just to escape the annoyances of its rivals.

These days, the HomePod mini is also tempting if you’re particularly privacy-minded. I’m not too fussed about it myself, but it’s no secret that Apple’s rivals generally collect more data. Amazon and Google grab personal profiles and contact information Apple doesn’t, for instance. Both likewise use queries to help target ads, and Amazon defaults to collecting voice recordings for service improvements where it’s strictly opt-in for Apple and Google. HomePods still have to gather some data, such as IP addresses and device names, but I’d feel more comfortable with the mini than its alternatives if I wanted to keep info sharing to a minimum.

Having said this, the mini is still best-suited to Apple devotees. It makes the most sense if you subscribe to Apple Music, and the proposition gets better the more Apple hardware you have. HomePods just aren’t as alluring in mixed-platform households. You may also want to wait for more Matter-compatible devices if you’re going to use this speaker as the cornerstone of an elaborate smart home setup.

This is still a stronger purchase than the high-end HomePod for most people. You’re getting the same environment sensors and voice assistant features, and the sound is pleasing if you’re either a casual music listener or tend to listen to spoken-word content like podcasts and news radio. The more expensive model is strictly for buyers who want the best possible audio quality from an Apple speaker, or want to try spatial audio without spending $450 on the Sonos Era 300.

Versus Amazon and Google, it’s more complicated. We noted in our smart speaker buying guide that the fourth-generation Echo and Nest Audio are both louder and punchier than the HomePod mini, although they pay for that with larger enclosures and less consistent sound across frequencies. They aren’t tied to one mobile platform, however, and they have rich smart home ecosystems even without Matter playing a part. Throw in more flexible voice assistants, wider hardware variety (there’s no Apple equivalent to an Echo Dot or Nest Mini) and well-established ecosystems and they’re the safer choices.