Jan 24, 2018

HomePod - Price, design and specs

Apple has finally entered the smart speaker market with HomePod, its long-awaited Siri speaker... or will do when the speaker eventually launches. Here's what we know about the device's release date, price and tech specs

Apple is finally getting into the smart home speaker business with the HomePod. This will be competing with the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, successful smart speakers which have also driven popularity for those company's Siri-rivalling voice assistants.

Much like its rivals, the Siri-enabled HomePod speaker will be able to respond to voice commands and play music, set alarms, control smart devices and search for information online. What's different - Apple claims - is that the device will blow the competition away on sound quality, so you don't have to sacrifice your audiophile credentials for the sake of smartness.

Release date

Apple has confirmed the HomePod will launch on 3 February, and it is available to pre-order from Friday 26 January.

It will be available in the US, UK, Australia, with France and Germany to follow in the Spring.

HomePod price and availability

The HomePod will cost £319 in the UK and $349 in the US.

Despite the supposed excellence in audio, this is an exceptionally high price - markedly higher than those for the HomePod's nearest competitors. The Amazon Echo is priced at £149.99/$179.99, and its cheaper Echo Dot is available for £49.99/$49.99, while the Google Home is £129/$129.

Sonos has also unveiled a smart speaker - the £199 Sonos One - and Samsung is working on a Bixby smart speaker.

You will be able to order a HomePod from Apple's online store and also buy one in one of Apple's high street stores. You can also expect to be able to buy one from the likes of John Lewis and other Apple Resellers.

HomePod was originally set for release in 2017, but was delayed. Despite the wait, HomePod will also ship without support for multi-room audio and stereo pairing that will instead come in a later software update. This isn't great considering Google Home and Amazon Echo can achieve this at cheaper price points; you can buy three £89.99 Echoes with change for the same price as a HomePod.

Is Apple too late to the smart speaker market?

Back in July 2017 analyst firm Raymond James was predicting great things for the HomePod, noting that 14 percent of surveyed iPhone owners said they plan to buy the device. The corresponding figure for the Apple Watch in the months before that product launched was just 6 percent.

However, there has been a lot of change in the market since the summer of 2017, not least the fact that Apple didn't meet its self-imposed deadline to launch the HomePod in time for Christmas.

Because Amazon and Google are offering smart speakers priced as impulse buys, it is likely that a number of the potential HomePod customers have already purchased competitor models.

One thing is clear, smart speakers are going to be big in 2018. According to a Canalys report: "The global smart speaker market is poised to grow to 56.3 million shipments in 2018". How much of this market Apple will be able to nab remains to be seen, although Canalys notes that: "Amazon and Google are expected to remain in the lead".

Despite all of this history has taught us that Apple doesn't have to be the first or the cheapest to eventually gain ownership of a market. It is possible that the HomePod will popularise the smart speaker in the same way as the Apple Watch, iPhone and iPod all popularised those markets. Only time will tell.

What will the Apple HomePod do?

Apple's HomePod is first and foremost a music speaker. This is how the company is positioning it - superior audio to justify the comparativley high price.

This is despite the fact that the smart speakers already on the market are predominantly focused on voice-activated capabilities. While Apple has its own voice-activated assistant in the form of Siri, it would seem that Siri's place in the HomePod is as a glorified DJ and not much else.

Below we will look at the Music and Siri elements of the HomePod.

Music

The speaker will boast excellent audio quality, according to the company. It features a 4in, Apple-designed upward-facing woofer paired with an array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier.

Apple compared the HomePod to the Sonos range of wireless speakers, suggesting that Apple is confident the HomePod is of a similar audio quality. (Since Apple revealed its plans for HomePod, Sonos has launched it's own smart speaker).

There more to the capabilities of the speaker than sound though. The HomePod uses spatial awareness technology, powered by an A8 chip to analyse the room it's in and optimise audio output for the surroundings. This is essentially beam forming, technology that directs sound around the room for a 3D effect.

It apparently works even better if you have two or more HomePods in the same room, as they'll work together to create the best sound possible. But this feature won't be available at launch, and is delayed to a later software update.

Even so, buying more than one £319 HomePod for multi-room audio is already becoming a financial stretch.

Incidentally, this isnt the first time Apple has made its own speaker. Apple used to sell the iPod HiFi, a product that launched in 2006 (also costing $349). iPod HiFi was discontinued a year and a half later.

The company promoted the iPod HiFi as having superior audio.

The iPod HiFi may have died, but Apple didn't completely give up on it's audio ambitions. A team of people at Apple has been working on the HomePod idea since 2014. Initially it was a side project to create a speaker that sounded better than anything Bose, JBL, or Harman Kardon made (according to a Bloomberg report).

These engineers wanted to create a speaker that would appeal to audiophiles. However, the market has changed a great deal since work on the project started in 2014. People now expect much more than good quality audio from a speaker thanks to the growing popularity of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo.

Siri

It's not surprising that in 2017 the expectation is that the Apple HomePod will offer similar voice-activated capabilities to the Echo, after all it's not as if Apple doesn't already have it's own voice-activated assistant to make use of.

Siri launched as part of iOS in 2011. Three years before work began on HomePod.

However, according to the Bloomberg report, which is based on interviews with insiders: "The Siri team was told that the HomePod was about music and quality sound... Yes, the speaker would be voice-activated but it wouldnt be positioned as a personal assistant."

Amazon launched the Echo in 2014, after Apple had started work on the Home Pod. The Bloomberg report states that Apple was "Blindsided by Echo".

Apparently the Apple engineers "jokingly accused one another of leaking details of their project to Amazon."

Apple's decision to focus on the sound quality seems to be a direct reaction to the fact that they deemed the sound quality of the Echo to be inferior, suggests Bloomberg.

However, for all its focus on audio quality, Apple seems to have dropped the ball in terms of the other 'smart speaker' capabilities.

Where the Amazon Echo offers voice-activated apps that do a range of things, from shopping on Amazon, to adjusting your thermostat, turning off the lights, telling you about the weather, filling you in on the latest news headlines, plus it has the ability to play music from Amazon Prime, or TuneIn Radio, and more.

Besides it's music capabilities (which won't be much if you don't have a Apple Music subscription), Apple's HomePod speaker will allow you to dictate messages, set reminders and edit ToDo lists, but not much else, it seems.

And where the Echo taps straight into the cloud to access all this information, the HomePod will have to piggy back the iPhone in order to perform these tasks. It's a little like the way apps on the Apple Watch need a companion app on the iPhone in order to work.

That's not to say that Siri has been completely neglected by the HomePod team. There are six microphones built into the top ring of the device so that it can pick up your voice from anywhere in the room, even with music playing, and a Siri waveform will appear on the top section (which doubles as touch controls) when she's responding to one of your queries.

What Apps will be available for HomePod

Music apps

When it comes to Apple Music, HomePod will be able to do things like play a certain song, album, artist or genre on command; let you know information such as when a song was recorded or who the drummer was; and even just "play more like this".

If you were hoping to be able to do anything other than listen to Apple Music with your HomePod you may be disappointed.

For example, you wont be able to browse Spotify via your HomePod, because SiriKit for HomePod wont offer support for music apps that aren't Apple Music. That said, there is nothing to stop you streaming Spotify playlists from your iPhone or iPad to your HomePod speaker - in theory. Apple will probably block it.

Messaging, lists and notes apps

As of November 2017 Apple has started asking developers to create Siri apps that will work with HomePod - but only for messaging, lists and notes apps.

Podcasts and news

The beta version of iOS 11.2.5 includes a news feature, indicating that Apples planning to add the ability to ask a HomePod to read a Podcast powered news summary.

If you ask: "Hey Siri, give me the news" you should get the option to hear a podcast. Currently the default podcast is a news summary from The Washington Post, but Fox News, NPR and NCC are also options.

Amazon Alexa already offers news headlines in the form of flash briefings.

Phone calls

You wont be able to place a Skype call via your HomePod, although you may be able to make a FaceTime audio call.

Beyond that, the smart functionality is similar to what you're already used to from Siri. The HomePod can be used to set reminders, answer questions, or check the weather. It can also integrate with all your HomeKit-compatible appliances to become the hub of your smart home.

Language support

Appropriately for those initial target markets, the HomePod is slated to offer only English-language support at first; Siri of course is far more versatile, supporting dozens of languages, so it shouldn't be difficult for Apple to expand into other territories.

HomePod design

Apple has opted for a cylindrical design for the HomePod. Available in either white or Space Grey, the HomePod stands just under 7 inches tall, and is covered almost head to toe in a "seamless 3D mesh fabric".

There's space at the top for the Siri interface, a small screen that lights up with a Siri waveform when he or she is assisting you with something.

The top section will include touch controls for Siri but Apple has not yet revealed how that will appear. However, developer Steve Troughton-Smith delved into the HomePod firmware and discovered that the surface at the top of the speaker (displayed above) looks to be an LED Matrix, suggesting that the device could display shapes and symbols such as weather icons and temperature.

HomePod specs

Apple has talked up the HomePod's audiophile credentials. As an all-in-one wireless speaker it's unlikely to challenge the very best (and most expensive) high-end speaker setups, but the tech specs are still pretty impressive:

  • A8 chip
  • High-excursion woofer with custom amplifier
  • Seven horn-loaded tweeters
  • Six microphones
  • Internal low-frequency calibration microphone for automatic bass correction
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi?Fi with MIMO; AirPlay 2 with multi-room support
  • Available in white or Space Grey
  • 172mm high; 142mm wide; 2.5kg

A firmware update for the HomePod has indicated that it will have 1GB of RAM and a 272-by-340 pixel screen.

HomePod software

We don't know much about the software that will run on the HomePod, but we have been able to glean some detail based on what we know about SiriKit for HomePod and various Firmware releases that have referenced the smart speaker.

iOS 11.2 introduced SiriKit for HomePod, while HomePod will only work with iOS devices running iOS 11.2.5 and later.

According to Apple, Messaging, Lists, and Notes iOS apps that support SiriKit will be able to be controlled via the HomePod.

SiriKit for HomePod will allow Siri commands to be sent via the HomePod to the accompanying app on the iPhone or iPad, which is where the actual processing of the enquiry will happen.

Apple is encouraging developers to: "Make sure your SiriKit integration is up to date and test your apps voice-only experience today."

Since there are no HomePods available for testing, developers are being told to test the voice-only experience by using Siri through headphones connected to your iOS device with iOS 11.2 beta.

A Firmware release in the summer of 2017 also revealed some details about the HomePod.

According to developer Steve Troughton-Smith, the HomePod will run the full iOS stack and use a shell app called SoundBoard. SoundBoard is likely to resemble SpringBoard on iOS, the application that manages the iOS home screen.

Apple has confirmed that HomePod set up will be similar to that of AirPods, where you hold your iphone near the product and it will automatically begin the set up.

The one thing we are familiar with already is Siri, and we know that is how we will interact with HomePod. Apple appears to be making a big marketing push to remind or persuade the public of all the things that Siri can do - witness the big-budget Siri advert starring Dwayne Johnson - and we'd imagine this is to prepare the way for the HomePod.

Apple has also made a point of emphasising its approach to privacy and security. The company claims the HomePod will only send any information to Apple's servers after 'Hey Siri' is recognised, and that even then it will be "encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier".

Future HomePod technology

Face ID in HomePod

The company that is building Apples HomePod smart speakers believes that future models could offer facial recognition.

Inventec Appliances President David Ho said: "Engineers are designing smart speakers that will not only come with voice recognition but also incorporate features such as facial and image recognition. Such AI-related features are set to make people's lives more convenient and to make the product easier to use."

A version of the HomePod firmware released earlier in 2017 referenced facial recognition features, but it doesn't seem like the HomePod will be getting Face ID as soon as December 2017.

Yuanta Investment Consulting analyst Jeff Pu said Apple could roll out HomePods with 3D-sensing cameras in 2019.

Apple audio patents

While this is probably a little late to be used in the first-generation HomePod, Apple was granted a patent for "A rotationally Symmetric Speaker Array". In many ways, the technology is similar to what is said to be featured on the HomePod when it launches, but on a much larger scale.

The patent describes a system that, in theory, could automatically analyse the acoustics, adjust the sound based on the location of the speaker and direct the music towards the position of the listener.


MacWorld

by Dominic Preston