Welcome to our HomePod guide, which covers everything you need to know about Apple’s upcoming Siri speaker, from features, specs and release date to expected UK price.
Apple is finally getting into the smart home speaker business with the HomePod. This 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.
The HomePod was initially expected to be released in December 2017 – Apple itself confirmed the date earlier un 2017 – but, in November 2017, Apple pushed the release date back until early 2018. The statement is as follows:
“We can’t wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple’s breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it’s ready for our customers. We’ll start shipping in the US, UK and Australia in early 2018.”
So when is Apple likely to launch HomePod? With CES coming up from 9 – 12 January we could expect to see the company launch the HomePod that week. However, Apple might choose to wait for CES to finish before announcing the new product, in an attempt to stop it being burried by CES news.
We anticipate that a launch is imminent, so January is certainly possible. Although the launch could come as late as March, perhaps coinciding with the launch of a new version of the iPhone SE.
HomePod UK price and availability
When Apple first revealed that it is working on a smart speaker, it set the price at $349 in the US. Apple hasn’t yet confirmed UK pricing but we’d expect it to be pretty close to £349, based on the exchange rate Apple tends to use when planning its transatlantic pricing strategies.
However 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. Read more: Apple HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo
Sonos has also unveiled its smart speaker – the £199 Sonos One, and Samsung is working on a Bixby smart speaker.
Given that Apple announced pricing for HomePod back in June 2017 could Apple re-assess the pricing before launch? We think it would be wise to.
You will be able to 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.
Apparently there will be limited stock at launch with only around 500,000 units available, according to analysts. Although that prediction was made before Apple confirmed that it had delayed the launch.
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.
What will the Apple HomePod do?
If Apple emphasis of its audio capabilities is anything to go by, and the fact that HomePod is listed under the music section of Apple’s website, Apple’s HomePod is first and foremost a speaker.
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, it would seem that Siri’s place in the HomePod is as a glorified DJ and not much else.
Below we will look at the Music and Siri elements of the HomePod.
During the WWDC 2017 announcement, Apple claimed that its smart speaker will “reinvent home music”.
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.
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 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.
It’s not surprising that in 2017 the expectation is that the Apple HomePod will offer similar voice-activated capabilities to the Echo, after all it’s not as if Apple doesn’t already have it’s own voice-activated assistant to make use of.
Siri launched as part of iOS in 2011. Three years before work began on 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 Home Pod. The Bloomberg report states that Apple was “Blindsided by 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.
However, for all its focus on audio quality, Apple seems to have dropped the ball in terms of the other ‘smart speaker’ capabilities.
Where 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, filling you in on the latest news headlines, plus it has the ability to play music from Amazon Prime, or TuneIn Radio, and more.
Besides it’s music capabilities (which won’t be much if you don’t have a Apple Music subscription), Apple’s HomePod speaker will allow you to dictate messages, set reminders and edit ToDo lists, but not much else, it seems.
And where the 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 will be available for HomePod
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.
Messaging, lists and notes apps
As of November 2017 Apple has started asking developers to create Siri apps that will work with HomePod – but only for messaging, lists and notes apps.
Podcasts and news
The beta version of iOS 11.2.5 includes a news feature, indicating that Apple’s planning to add the ability to ask a 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 Washington Post, but Fox News, NPR and NCC are also options.
Amazon Alexa already offers news headlines in the form of flash briefings.
You won’t be able to place a Skype call via your HomePod, although you may be able to make a FaceTime audio call.
Beyond that, 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.
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.
The top section will include touch controls for Siri but Apple has not yet revealed how that will appear. However, developer Steve Troughton-Smith delved into the HomePod firmware and discovered that the surface at the top of the speaker (displayed above) looks to be an LED Matrix, suggesting that the device could display shapes and symbols such as weather icons and temperature.
— Alan Miller (@rosewoodat5th) July 28, 2017
Apple has talked up the HomePod’s audiophile credentials. As an all-in-one wireless speaker it’s unlikely to challenge the very best (and most expensive) high-end speaker setups, but 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 has indicated that it will have 1GB of RAM and a 272-by-340 pixel screen.
We don’t know much about the software that will run on the HomePod, but we have been able to glean some detail based on what we know about SiriKit for HomePod and various Firmware releases that have referenced the smart speaker.
iOS 11.2, currently in beta, introduced SiriKit for HomePod.
According to Apple, Messaging, Lists, and Notes iOS apps that support SiriKit will be able to be controlled via the HomePod.
SiriKit for HomePod will allow Siri commands to be sent via the HomePod to the accompanying app on the iPhone or iPad, which is where the actual processing of the enquiry will happen.
Apple is encouraging developers to: “Make sure your SiriKit integration is up to date and test your app’s voice-only experience today.”
Since there are no HomePods available for testing, developers are being told to test the voice-only experience by using Siri through headphones connected to your iOS device with iOS 11.2 beta.
A Firmware release in the summer of 2017 also revealed some details about the HomePod.
According to developer Steve Troughton-Smith, the HomePod will run the full iOS stack and use a shell app called SoundBoard. SoundBoard is likely to resemble SpringBoard on iOS, the application that manages the iOS home screen.
Looks like the 'shell' app on HomePod is called SoundBoard. It runs a full iOS stack, unsurprisingly. Its apps are prefixed with 'Air' pic.twitter.com/IPFF0vV3UT
— Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) July 28, 2017
According to Troughton-Smith, the HomePod also presents itself as an iPhone SE to iTunes, but despite discovering ‘apps’ for Apple Music and Podcast, there is no way to install any third-party apps or extensions. With rival Alexa’s library of apps growing quickly and expanding its functionality, we’re not sure this is a great idea on Apple’s part.
Given that the apps are all prefixed with the word ‘Air’, as mentioned in his tweet above, we can take a guess that the HomePod will technically run iOS app, but over the air in control from a paired iOS device (iPhone or iPad).
Further to the HomePod firmware leaks, iHelp BR found an image in iOS 11 developer beta 7 that seems to show a HomePod pairing setup similar to that of the AirPods. This is further proof that an iOS device may be necessary to use HomePod.
It goes on to discuss how Siri is necessary in the setup, and the user will have to interact with voice commands from the HomePod, rather than the other way around. As expected, a Wi-Fi connection is needed to run the device and users will need an Apple ID, similar to requirements for both Google Home and Amazon Echo.
A trusted iOS developer on Twitter has mocked up below how this will look on iPhone:
This is how the HomePod setup will look like on an iPhone. pic.twitter.com/SARqsYslL6
— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) August 22, 2017
Following this, another tweet was posted showcasing an interesting way of pairing the HomePod – using sound. Per the screenshot in the below tweet, it seems as if iOS users will be able to use audio pairing to hook up the HomePod, rather than using a standard passcode.
Of course, Apple hasn’t confirmed any such detail, though we’re likely to find out a little more about the speaker at Apple’s September event.
One thing I missed about the HomePod setup: it can be done without manually typing the passcode, through audio. pic.twitter.com/GpCl5UY3az
— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) September 2, 2017
The one thing we are familiar with already is Siri, and we know that is how we will interact with HomePod. Apple appears to be making a big marketing push to remind or persuade the public of all the things that Siri can do – witness the big-budget Siri advert starring Dwayne Johnson – and we’d imagine this is to prepare the way for the HomePod.
Apple has also made a point of emphasising its approach to privacy and security. The company claims 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”.
Future HomePod technology
Face ID in HomePod
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 it doesn’t seem like the HomePod will be getting Face ID as soon as December 2017.
Yuanta Investment Consulting analyst Jeff Pu said Apple could roll out HomePods with 3D-sensing cameras in 2019.
Apple audio patents
While this is probably a little late to be used in the first-generation HomePod, Apple was granted a patent for “A rotationally Symmetric Speaker Array”. In many ways, the technology is similar to what is said to be featured on the HomePod when it launches, but on a much larger scale.
The patent describes a system that, in theory, could automatically analyse the acoustics, adjust the sound based on the location of the speaker and direct the music towards the position of the listener.