We have thought for a while now that Apple was working on a smart speaker. As it turns out, the HomePod announced at WWDC 2017 is not quite the equal of the Google Home or Amazon Echo.
Apple insists the Siri-powered speaker is primarily a music device with superior audio. As you’d expect, it charges slightly more than its apparent rivals too.
Yet the relative affordability and usefulness of Home and Echo has driven sales as people discover how voice assistants can improve little things in their lives. Google and Amazon also have the advantage as they’ve been out for months whereas the HomePod is yet to hit the shelves.
Here’s a comparison of all three.
UK price and availability
Apple’s as yet unreleased HomePod will cost US $349 and £319 in the UK.
HomePod will be released in the US, UK and Australia on 9 February 2018. It's available to pre-order from 26 Jan. Apple says it will launch in France and Germany in spring 2018.
Apple's offering is a lot more expensive than both Google and Amazon’s alternatives; supposedly the HomePod has superior audio, but without a review unit yet, we can only say that Google and Amazon deliver smart speaker function at a fraction of the price.
The HomePod is a curious design, but then again there’s only so much you can do with a standalone speaker. The entire design is speaker grille, with a glowing area on the top - it’s not actually clear yet what it’s for, but it looks a lot like the Siri logo.
HomePod from the top
Google Home has an attractive, plump sort of vase design, with the speaker in the lower section and a cut off top half that displays an moving Google Assistant logo and a touch sensitive volume and pause control.
Amazon’s Echo is a utilitarian black or white cylinder with it’s lower half a speaker as on the Home. The top has two simple buttons for toggling the mics on and off and an action button to wake, turn off alarms and other interactions. The top rim also glows Alexa blue.
Amazon Echo in black or white, with the smaller Echo Dot
Amazon also sells a smaller, puck shaped device called an Echo Dot. This is a tiny Alexa powered device that you can hook up to a better speaker system and performs the same basic function as the larger Echo speaker for only £49.99.
Of them all, it’s really down to personal taste. The Google Home is quite Ikea, while the Alexa perhaps doesn’t look as premium. HomePod has divided opinion at Macworld towers for its design – what do you think?
All three can easily sit on an opportune windowsill or kitchen surface in earshot of your beck and call.
Features and specs
This is where things get a little different. For all intents and purposes, Google Home and Amazon Alexa are the same product. They are both mid-range speakers with built-in mics that content via Wi-Fi to their corresponding company’s data mines.
When activated with an ‘OK, Google’ or ‘Alexa’ command, they spring into life and attempt to react to what you ask of them. For example, ‘OK, Google, what’s the news’ will prompt a reading of the latest local radio news headlines, while an ‘Alexa, when’s the next train to Kings Cross’ will give you your answer.
Google especially sits on a huge amount of user and search data but Amazon has done well with its Alexa service and both speakers give answers to many requests. They are still learning, too.
The HomePod has been positioned by Apple as a music player. It will be controlled via Siri, Apple’s longstanding voice command assistant. Debatably it is less interactive than Google Assistant or Alexa, so perhaps is why Apple has chosen to focus on the audio quality of HomePod. It is unclear if the product will be able to do exactly the same everyday tasks as the competition.
The Amazon Echo has been out the longest and has seven microphones that are listening for you to say ‘Alexa’ (you can set the trigger to a few other preset words if you want). Google’s Home actually only has two mics under the hood and in our testing sometimes took a few goes to pick up a command.
Home has only one 2in driver while Echo has two speakers; one woofer and one tweeter. The HomePod steps up here with a 4in upwards facing woofer and seven special beamforming tweeters. These will help to form sound around the room the speaker is in to give the best possible sound to everyone in it. It’ll pick up your commands with six microphones.
The HomePod looks best equipped here – it will definitely be a better audio experience than Home or Echo, and will likely pick up commands better than the Home and as well as the Echo in noisy environments.
A cross-section of the HomePod
The Google Home is powered by a dual-core ARM Cortex A7 processor, while the Amazon Echo has a Texas Instruments DM3725CUS100 Digital Media Processor (thanks for checking, iFixit). Doesn’t mean much though, does it?
HomePod will have the A8 chip, the same one found in the iPhone 6 and iPad mini 4. These devices don’t need top of the range processors as the functions they perform are straight forward compared to what smartphones are put through.
Google Home is the least equipped speaker here, but we imagine the HomePod will outperform Amazon Echo on the audio front – time will tell if it can match it as an intelligent assistant.
Google Home from above
Bear in mind that HomePod will only be compatible with iPhone and iPad. Apple is unlikely to open it up to Android users, but fingers crossed – you can get Apple Music on Android so perhaps it will be possible.
Google Home and Amazon Echo work with iOS and Android devices. You need one to set them up and stay connected to their cloud services in order to function.
Music playback is also limited to Apple Music only on HomePod (for now). You can connect Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, Deezer and more to Home while Alexa can connect to Amazon Music, Spotify, Audible and Pandora. If you already have Spotify you may not want to fork out for an Apple Music subscription too in order to use HomePod. You need an Apple Music account.
Not to rip on Apple here – the product isn’t out yet. But at present there is also the least third party app support for HomePod. This is why Apple announced it at WWDC, in order to give developers time to work with the platform.
Google Home connects to third party apps to perform some actions, but it’s still learning. More established are Alexa and Amazon Echo’s ‘skills’ that have been integrated into many third party apps such as National Rail, Just Eat, Sky News and Uber. You need specific trigger words to perform these actions though. These speakers aren’t miracle workers (yet).