Apple is finally getting into the smart home speaker business with the HomePod, its rival to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, which have driven popularity for their Siri alternatives.

Much like its rivals, the Siri-enabled speaker will be able to respond to voice commands and play music, set alarms, control smart devices, and search for information online. What makes the HomePod stand out is that Apple claims it will blow the competition away on sound quality, so you don't have to sacrifice your speaker just to make it smart.

Here's everything we know about the Apple HomePod, including features, release date and expected UK price.

Release date

The HomePod will come out in December 2017 - that's official, straight from Apple - but we haven't yet heard the exact release date.

The HomePod will initially be available in the US, UK, and Australia, Apple announced at its WWDC 2017 developer conference, with more markets to follow in 2018.

One analyst firm is already predicting great things for the HomePod launch, noting that 14 percent of surveyed iPhone owners said they plan to buy one of the devices. The corresponding figure for the Apple Watch in the months before that product launched was just 6 percent.

UK price

It's been announced that the HomePod will cost $349 in the US, but Apple hasn't yet confirmed UK pricing. We'd expect it to be pretty close to £349, based on the effective exchange rate Apple tends to use when planning its transatlantic pricing strategies since the Brexit referendum.

Both of those figures are markedly higher than those for the HomePod's nearest rivals. The Amazon Echo is priced at £149.99/$179.99, with the cheaper Echo Dot available for £49.99/$49.99, while Google Home is £129/$129. Read more: Apple HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo

Design

Echoing speculation in the weeks running up to its announcement - and in line with the designs chosen by rivals Amazon and Google - 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 just 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.

Contrary to some rumours, there's no obvious touchscreen - the top section includes touch controls for Siri, but there's certainly no substantial screen similar to Amazon's Echo Show.

HomePod release date & UK price rumours

Features

During the WWDC 2017 announcement, Apple made a great deal of the HomePod's musical functionality, going so far as to claim that the smart speaker will "reinvent home music".

To start with, that comes from the speaker itself. It features a 4in, Apple-designed upward-facing woofer paired with an array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier. During the announcement, Apple compared the HomePod to the Sonos range of wireless speakers, suggesting that Apple is confident the HomePod is of a similar audio quality.

The speaker itself is backed by spatial awareness technology, powered by an A8 chip, which apparently means the HomePod can analyse the room it's in and optimise the audio output for the surroundings. 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.

HomePod release date & UK price rumours

Of course, all of that just makes for a good speaker - what makes the HomePod special is that it is a smart, Siri-powered speaker. That means it can connect to Apple Music and all of your other Apple services to serve as a home assistant.

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.

When it comes to music, that means it can 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'.

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

Apple also made a point of emphasising its approach to privacy and security. It claims that 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".