Apple has finally entered the smart home speaker business with the HomePod. Apple's smart speaker 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.
Now that the HomePod is on sale in the UK, US and Australia there are already rumours about the next generation HomePod and a suggestion that a cheaper model could be in the pipeline. We have the latest rumours about HomePod 2 below.
HomePod release date
The HomePod is out now! It launched on 9 February and is available first in the US, UK and Australia, with France and Germany to follow later on in the spring. HomePod pre-orders started on Friday 26 January.
If you order for delivery now you'll have to wait a few days - we just tried (on 9 Feb) and got an estimate of 13 Feb. But we did find that, at time of writing, there was stock availability for in-store pickup in a range of stores near us.
The HomePod costs £319 in the UK and $349 in the US.
For all its audio excellence, 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.
If you'd like to read a more detailed comparison of HomePod and its main rivals, take a look at Apple HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo.
Sonos has also unveiled a smart speaker - the £199 Sonos One - and Samsung is working on a Bixby smart speaker.
You can 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.
Despite the launch delays, HomePod will 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. Read our list of questions you can ask Siri on the HomePod here.
The HomePod launched in February 2018, but there are already rumours about a new HomePod that could arrive later this year.
In a note to clients, Rosenblatt Securities analyst Jun Zhang said: "We believe Apple could launch a low-end Home Pod in the fall with a retail price of roughly $150-200," reports AppleInsider.
Face ID in HomePod
Another potential feature for a next generation HomePod could be facial recognition.
The company that is building Apple's 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 the feature didn't arrive in the first generation HomePod.
Yuanta Investment Consulting analyst Jeff Pu said Apple could roll out HomePods with 3D-sensing cameras in 2019.
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.
Rosenblatt Securities analyst Jun Zhang has high hopes: he is predicting that Apple could sell 10 million HomePod units in 2018.
What does 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 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, our suspicion is that Siri's role in the HomePod is primarily as a DJ: it can do much more than that, as we discuss in the Siri features section below, but it simply isn't as good a voice assistant at the moment as Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant.
Below we look at the Music and Siri elements of the HomePod. Read our How to use HomePod guide here.
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 also 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 launched as part of iOS in 2011, three years before work began on the 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 wouldn't be positioned as a personal assistant."
Amazon launched the Echo in 2014, after Apple had started work on the HomePod. The Bloomberg report states that Apple was "blindsided" by the 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.
Smart speaker features
For all its focus on audio quality, Apple may be behind the game in terms of other 'smart speaker' capabilities.
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 and filling you in on the latest news headlines, plus it has the ability to play music from Amazon Prime, TuneIn Radio and more.
Besides its music capabilities (which won't be much use if you don't have an Apple Music subscription), Apple's HomePod speaker will allow you pull up news, traffic and weather information, dictate and send messages, set reminders and edit to-do lists, take calls and control the HomeKit-enabled accessories around your smart home. Which is a solid enough feature set - but Alexa and Google Assistant are so advanced now, and so embedded into the market, that we can't see Siri competing in terms of pure voice functionality.
And where Amazon's 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 are available for HomePod?
Generally the HomePod is a closed device, unlike the iPhone no third-party apps are currently available, although some apps that use SiriKit can be used with HomePod.
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.
There may be more functionality coming though. Back in November 2017 Apple started asking developers to create Siri apps that will work with HomePod - but only for messaging, lists and notes apps.
Apple encouraged developers to: "Make sure your SiriKit integration is up to date and test your apps voice-only experience today."
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 via AirPlay.
Messaging, lists and notes apps
You will be able to access your Notes, Messaging and Reminders via the HomePod.
Developers have been encouraged to "Make sure your SiriKit integration is up to date and test your apps voice-only experience today," suggesting that there may be some integration with third-party apps in the future - but only those used for messaging, lists and notes.
Podcasts and news
iOS 11.2.5 bought a news headlines feature to the iPhone, and the same feature allows the 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 BBC, but you can also choose Sky and LBC in the UK. In the US the Washington Post is the default, but Fox News, NPR and NCC are also options.
Amazon Alexa offers news headlines in the form of flash briefings.
You can make and recieve calls on with the audio fed via the HomePod.
You wont be able to place a Skype call via your HomePod, though.
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.
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.
Apple has talked up the HomePod's audiophile credentials. 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 indicated that it will have 1GB of RAM and a 272-by-340 pixel screen.