Technology

HomePod: Everything we know about the Apple smart speaker so far

(Source: 9to5mac.com)

With the launch of the Apple Watch Series 3 and iPhone X behind us, there’s still one more new Apple product on my shopping list this year: HomePod. Apple previewed its new smart speaker back in June at WWDC, and now it’s almost time for HomePod to hit the market. Here’s what we know about HomePod so far:

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What is HomePod?

HomePod is the first Apple-designed music speaker since the iPod Hi-Fi (which shipped in 2007 and was discontinued a year later). HomePod plays music wirelessly over Wi-Fi directly from Apple Music or over AirPlay from nearby iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple TVs. HomePod has Siri built-in for voice control using a six microphone array which makes it a smart speaker.

Apple is heavily pushing the audio quality of HomePod for music playback as something that distinguishes it from other smart speakers:

HomePod features a large, Apple-designed woofer for deep, clean bass, a custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters that provide pure high frequency acoustics with incredible directional control and powerful technologies built right in to preserve the richness and intent of the original recordings.

Apple’s pitch for HomePod in June was that wireless music speakers like Sonos and smart speakers like Amazon Echo exist, but not in the same package. That’s not so much the case five months later (you can literally buy a Sonos speaker with Amazon Alexa built-in now), but HomePod will still probably be the best smart speaker for anyone deep in the Apple ecosystem.

What can it do?

Using voice control through Siri, HomePod is primarily a wireless music speaker for Apple Music. Other music services like Spotify should work using AirPlay from a nearby device, but only Apple Music will offer smart voice control. Here’s an example of what Apple Music and Siri will be able to do on HomePod:

Like Google Home and Amazon Echo, HomePod will also be a smart home controller and the only smart speaker to work with HomeKit accessories. HomePod is also a HomeKit hub so you can control accessories remotely and run automations through it without an Apple TV or iPad at home. Here are some examples of what Siri can do with HomeKit on HomePod:

HomePod isn’t just limited to Apple Music and HomeKit control. HomePod will also be able to play Apple Podcasts like 9to5Mac Happy Hour, set alarms, get sports and weather updates, set Reminders, and even send messages. Here’s Apple on HomePod and Siri:

Because it has Siri, HomePod can hear and answer questions in the most popular categories. Timers. Clocks. Measurements. Translations. News. Sports. Weather. Traffic. And general knowledge.

It’s unclear if voice calls will also be supported and it looks like HomePod could ship without any multi-user features included, but these are things we should learn more about soon.

Other smart features include multi-room audio playback using AirPlay 2, stereo pairing between two nearby HomePods, and automatic audio tuning based on spatial awareness.

It automatically analyzes the acoustics, adjusts the sound based on the speaker’s location, and steers the music in the optimal direction. Whether HomePod is against the wall, on a shelf, or in the middle of the room, everyone gets an immersive listening experience.

Sonos offers what sounds like a similar audio tuning feature called Trueplay, but Sonos speakers require being manually tuned each time they’re moved whereas HomePod will do this automatically. We’ll have to see how the results compare.

AirPlay 2, Apple’s new wireless streaming feature, isn’t out yet either so multi-room playback is still untested. In theory, however, AirPlay 2 should extend HomePod’s multi-room playback to more speakers as Apple TV and third-party speakers that work with AirPlay 2 will be targets as well minus the Siri input. Sonos has even committed to supporting AirPlay 2 on its existing speakers sometime next year.

Third-Party Apps

Third-party app support will be very limited to start. HomePod is primarily a smart speaker that works with Apple services like Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, HomeKit, Reminders, and other Siri features that aren’t available on competing smart speakers.

Siri does support third-party apps on iOS, however, and HomePod will have limited support for these through SiriKit for HomePod starting with iOS 11.2. SiriKit for HomePod enables third-party apps that use SiriKit on iOS for Messaging, Lists, and Notes to work with HomePod without any additional configuration.

You just interact with Siri on the HomePod, and the task is handled on the nearby iPhone or iPad with the right app installed. This should allow you to use Siri on HomePod to work with apps like Things, OmniFocus, WhatsApp, and WeChat. For apps like Spotify and Overcast, you’ll need to rely on AirPlay from another device which won’t have Siri features.

Design

HomePod comes in two colors: white or black … err space gray. Both versions are wrapped in a mesh fabric and feature an LED waveform along the top to show Siri activity. While this area isn’t exactly a screen, its LED light is dynamic and can change to show volume controls as well. The top surface is also touch sensitive and can be used to invoke Siri or control audio playback.

9to5Mac Apple HomePod WWDC 2017

Specs

Apple pitches HomePod as a better sounding speaker than the $299 Sonos Play:3 which puts it above the $199 Sonos One and likely below the $499 Sonos Play:5 in terms of audio quality, but we’ll have to test HomePod when it launches to know for sure.

In terms of specifications, Apple details dimensions and internals for an idea of what to expect.

Dimensions:

  • 6.8 inches high (172 mm)
  • 5.6 inches wide (142 mm)

Weight:

  • 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg)

Audio Technology

  • High-excursion woofer with custom amplifier
  • Array of seven horn-loaded tweeters, each with its own custom amplifier
  • Six-microphone array for far-field Siri and room sensing
  • Internal low-frequency calibration microphone for automatic bass correction
  • Direct and ambient audio beamforming
  • Transparent studio-level dynamic processing

Wireless

  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO
  • Multiroom speaker support with AirPlay 2

In terms of processing power, HomePod ships equipped with Apple’s A8 chip which debuted with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and is also used in the fourth-gen Apple TV.

Release Date / Availability / Price

Apple unveiled HomePod back in June at its Worldwide Developer Conference, but Phil Schiller didn’t give a firm release date beyond December: “It will start shipping this December, first in the US, UK, and Australia, and then next year we’ll start bringing it around the world.”

My guess would be December 1, December 8, or December 15, all of which are Fridays before Christmas which Apple is likely targeting if possible. December 22 is also a Friday before Christmas, but Apple surely wants to ship before then if possible.

HomePod will cost $350 in the US; Apple hasn’t announced international pricing yet.

Pre-Order Date

Okay, so we know HomePod is shipping sometime in December, but when can buy it? Apple won’t take your money yet, but pre-orders for new devices usually happen one week before release.

That means we could see HomePod pre-orders start as soon as November 24, which happens to be Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the US.

Apple could even ship HomePod on December 8 and open pre-orders on Black Friday to get in on the shopping action as two-week pre-order periods aren’t unheard of.

I’m totally guessing here though. It’s equally likely that HomePod could ship at the end of December and pre-orders not start until mid-December. Here’s to hoping for sooner than later.

Stay tuned to our HomePod Guide for the latest stories and more!

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