In February 2018 Apple finally entered the smart home speaker business with the HomePod. Apple's smart speaker is 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 is 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. From our tests we'd say that this is a fair statement - the HomePod truely does sound spectacular. It's main issues relate to the capabilities of Siri, but luckily the speaker has gained some new features via a software update.
Plus, 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 in a separate article (here).
HomePod release date
HomePod pre-orders started on Friday 26 January and then the actual HomePod started shipping on 9 February. The HomePod was initially available just in the US, UK and Australia.
Apple has confirmed it will soon hit the shelves in Canada, France and Germany.
HomePod was criticised for its lack of support for some features that are seen as crucial for a smart speaker.
Actually, as we discovered when we compared the voice assistant on the HomePod with the assistants on Google Home and Amazon Echo we found that it wasn't only HomePod that lacks certain features. Each smart speaker excels in some areas and fails in others.
However, Apple's HomePod has got some new features thanks to an update to the HomePod OS. Read more about the new features coming below (here's how to get the HomePod software update.)
When we first got our hands on a HomePod we expected that Siri would be able to access our calendar, but Siri told us: “I can’t access your calendar here, sorry about that.” Given that Google had no problem adding an event to our Google calendar, and Alexa was able to add an event to a calendar once we had set it up in the Alexa app, Siri's inability to access our calendar was a real failing.
The good news is that the HomePod gained calendar support when iOS 11.4 was released (the HomePod is updated via the iPhone app, so you need to be running the latest version of iOS).
Once updated, users will see that the HomePod setup interface now shows Messages, Reminders, Calendar and Notes, where it used to just show Messages, Reminders and Notes.
Multi-room & stereo audio support
Despite the launch delays, the HomePod shipped without support for multi-room audio and stereo pairing. This lead to criticisms as other competing products (such as the Sonos One) already offered this feature.
Now that iOS 11.4 is available, the AirPlay 2 update is here that will power this feature. Read about the latest version of iOS 11 here.
Obviously in order to benefit from the feature users will need to own two HomePods. This would be an expensive option, especially since if you opted instead for the Google Home or Amazon Echo you could achieve multi-room or stereo audio at a much cheaper price point; you can buy three £89.99 Echoes with change for the same price as a HomePod.
Along with the lack of some of the features mentioned above, there have been other issues that may go some way to explain why the speaker appears to be selling poorly. We look at some of the issues with the HomePod below:
The HomePod costs £319 in the UK and $349 in the US. 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.
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. Sonos has also unveiled a smart speaker - the £199 Sonos One - and Samsung is working on a Bixby smart speaker. 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.
In April 2018 KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo published a note, obtained by MacRumors, where he explained his thoughts about why the HomePod isn’t selling more. He put this down partly to its high price, which "could undermine demand despite the excellent sound quality.” He also criticised Siri for providing an "uninspiring user experience” compared to the competition (we discuss this below).
Deutsche Bank also thinks Apple priced the HomePod too high. Analysts at Deutsche Bank published a note in April 2018 stating that the HomePod is a “huge missed opportunity” for Apple.
The note, obtained by Business Insider, stated that Apple “had a real opportunity to become a major player in the smart home with its introduction of the HomePod smart speaker… However, poor reviews and a significant fall-off in demand post the launch suggest the company has missed the mark.”
“Apple decided to stick with its premium pricing strategy, introducing the HomePod at $349,” wrote Deutsche Bank in the note. This “essentially limits the product’s market appeal to Apple fans who will pay anything for a new Apple device and to consumers with high disposable income.”
Also in April, Bloomberg published a report quoting veteran Apple analyst Shannon Cross who believes consumers assumed the HomePod would be able to do many of things the Echo and Google Home can do and were disappointed.
Another factor affecting the desirability of HomePod for the failings, noted Kuo, is the lack of additional language versions of Siri.
Kuo notes the lack of additional language versions of Siri and suggests that Apple is “facing challenges in AI/voice assistant development spanning the globe”. Something that “will cap the shipments momentum of HomePod”.
Kuo believes that if Apple is to compete with Amazon and Google in the smart speaker market, Apple needs to improve Siri’s capabilities and increase language support.
However, Kuo notes that “for most users worldwide, Siri is not a must-have function.”
Read our list of questions you can ask Siri on the HomePod here.
'Just an accessory'
The other issue with the HomePod is Apple sees it as: “Just an accessory”.
Apple never saw the HomePod as anything more than an accessory, like the AirPods earphones, according to people who worked on the product, notes Bloomberg in the April 2018 report referenced above.
It’s one of Apple’s music hardware products, which in 2018 will include upgraded AirPods and as yet unannounced over-ear, studio-quality headphones (read about the Apple StudioPods here.)
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.
Apple sold fewer HomePods than anticipated and cut orders with suppliers according to a Bloomberg report from April 2018.
That report mentions research from Slice Intelligence that suggests that when it went on sale in February 2018, HomePod sales started well, taking around a third of the US smart speaker market, but within three weeks sales had slipped to about 4 percent of the market.
Overall, between January - March 2018, the HomePod took 10 percent of the smart speaker market, compared to Amazon Echo’s 73 percent and Google Home’s 14 percent. The other competitor in the smart-speaker area, Sonos, achieved 2 percent of the market in the same timespan.
By May 2018 we had some more data about HomePod sales, as per this Fortune report, which mentioned Strategy Analytics research that indicated that Apple shipped 600,000 HomePod smart speakers in the first quarter of 2018.
The HomePod went on sale on 9 February 2018, so those figures are for three months, where the other manufacturers included in Strategy Analytics data benefitted from the full four month’s worth of sales. Not that an extra month would not have shot Apple into the same league as its rivals Amazon and Google.
In the same quarter, Amazon sold 4 million Echo speakers. While Google sold 2.4 million Home smart speakers.
Also ahead of Apple was Alibaba, who sold 700,000 speakers during that quarter. Chinese manufacturer Aibaba sells the Small Genie smart speaker. Had Apple launched the HomePod a month earlier it is possible it would have been in third place.
According to the Bloomberg report, Apple store workers revealed that HomePod inventory was piling up, with some Apple Stores selling fewer than 10 HomePods a day.
The reports make Loup Ventures analyst Gene Munster prediction in February 2018 that Apple would sell 7 million HomePods in 2018, look a little excessive. Other sales estimates have been more stark, with KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo saying he believes that Apple may only sell 2 - 2.5 million HomePod units in 2018.
Rosenblatt Securities analyst Jun Zhang also had high hopes, before launch he predicted that Apple could sell 10 million HomePod units in 2018.
UK sales data
YouGov published a Smart Speaker report in April 2018, stating that Smart speaker ownership among Britons has doubled since autumn 2017.
According to the YouGov report, only 2% of Brits with smart speakers have a HomePod.
Amazon smart speakers, such as the Echo, make up three quarters (75%) of the smart speakers market, down from 88%.
According to the research, 9% of smart speaker owners have a Google Home Mini while 7% have a Google Home.
The Sonos One is owned by 1% of smart speaker owning Brits, according to YouGov.
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 the 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 its 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, a 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 wasn't 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 isn't 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 its 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 piggyback 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 won't be able to browse Spotify via your HomePod, because SiriKit for HomePod won't 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 brought 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 receive calls on with the audio fed via the HomePod.
You won't 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.