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.

When is the HomePod release date?

After months of speculation, Apple officially announced the HomePod at its WWDC 2017 developer conference, and took the opportunity to announce the release window: December 2017.

The company didn't confirm a specific date for the launch, but did announce that it would initially be available in the US, UK, and Australia, with more markets to follow in 2018.

How much does it cost?

The HomePod will cost $349 in the US when it launches in December, though Apple hasn't yet confirmed UK pricing - we'd expect it to be pretty close to £349 though.

That's markedly more expensive than the 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.

What does it look like?

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," just leaving space at the top for the Siri interface - a small screen that lights up with a Siri waveform when she's assisting you with something.

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

What features does it have?

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 its in and optimise the audio output so that it sounds the best it can for whatever room its in. 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.

Of course, all of that just makes for a good speaker - what makes the HomePod special is that its 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 over music, 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 things like 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."