Rich Warren: Apple's Homepod is latest to join the assistant fray

Rich Warren: Apple's Homepod is latest to join the assistant fray

Siri liberated! Read all about it! In a breathless move, Apple allowed its celebrity disembodied digital assistant Siri to escape from iPhones and iPads to its newest device: HomePod. She now lives within a seamless white (or charcoal) mesh fabric cage amid a woofer, seven tweeters and six microphones. This elegant object stands about 7 inches high and 5.6 inches in diameter. Apple's A8 microprocessor chip assists Siri's smarts and the enhanced audio fidelity. HomePod works with all WiFi standards as well as Apple AirPlay 2, but does not support Bluetooth.

If this sounds familiar, Apple now directly competes with Amazon Echo with Alexa and Google Home with Google Assistant. Each stylish device features different strengths and weaknesses in what they can accomplish, as well as audio fidelity. The one thing certain is that they don't work together, you can't intermix them. Each works only with its parent's online music store and services. While Echo and Google Home foster a wide array of applications (apps), Apple confines HomePod to its more stringent Apple-developed or Apple-approved apps. With some initial programming you can control many if not most third-party "internet-of-things" products with Echo or Google Home, while HomePod support for these tends to be more limited. Perhaps more relevant, Echo works with Amazon Prime, Google Home works with Google's Chromecast and HomePod interacts with Apple TV.

Most significant, you pay a substantial premium to sleep with Siri. Apple charges $349 for HomePod, while the full-size Amazon Echo costs $180 and Google Home is a veritable bargain at $129. Once again, these three devices are not exactly equivalent, so you must decide which features (and sound quality) matter the most to you. Even so, the HomePod costs nearly double the price of the Echo. The "baby" Amazon Echo Dot, which lacks the audio fidelity of its competition, costs a mere $50 if you want to tip toe into this area of home and music voice control. Early online reviews opine that HomePod reproduces the best sound quality of the three.

The aspect that makes these three devices powerful, convenient and fun also might be a bit creepy. All continuously listen for your commands. Simply say "Hey Siri," "OK Google" or "Alexa," or "Amazon" or "Echo" to the respective devices and they awaken to do your bidding. However, you don't have to say the magic word or phrase for them to be eavesdropping on every sound or conversation within range of their sensitive microphones. While Apple, Amazon and Google swear they're not listening, I'd rather trust the NSA. Furthermore, they admit they do store your requests and searches on their servers, although at the same time claiming that this data may not be personally identifiable. Apple claims the best privacy policy. Let's just say if you plan to run for president I'd advise not using these services.

For example, regular readers know my running feud with Google's Nest thermostat.

Nest's media relations person swears that Google is not keeping tabs on my interior climate settings. Yet, once a month I receive a personal email detailing all of my heating/cooling usage for the previous month and how I compare with other Nest users.

This eavesdropping is not unique to these home control and music devices. If you enabled Siri or Google Assistant on your smartphone or tablet, your commands, searches and other data may be captured by their respective servers. Theoretically they should not be listening to your telephone conversations or grabbing your texts, but don't put anything beyond Amazon and Google or the hackers who may infiltrate their systems.

One of the reasons for the low prices of Echo and Google Home is that Amazon and Google collect data for targeted advertising, which they then sell. Your Echo and Home accounts may be linked to your phone, tablet and/or home computer. An increasingly popular axiom notes that the piece of hardware is no longer the product, you are the product.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology

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