In a move that’s only surprising because of its lateness, Apple has announced its own entry into the world of AI-powered speakers. In direct competition with Amazon Echo and Google Home products, we now have the Apple “HomePod”.
Hey, we all made fun of the iPad’s name back in 2010 too, so don’t be too quick to mock it.
Anyway, let’s talk about what this product means for those of use with a vested interest in the smart home revolution. Is it going to make waves or just sink to the bottom mumbling “sorry, I can’t take any requests right now”?
The HomePod is a handsome device. I know it’s not hugely shocking that the likes of Jony Ive and the people who work under him have gotten adept at making pretty things. It’s almost a cliche by now. The HomePod is sleek and has an annoyingly nice shape. I want to hate it just because, but honestly this would look great in just about any home.
The HomePod is, basically, a sort of a void that appears as mostly speaker mesh. That doesn’t sound too attractive, but I think the pictures speak for themselves. I’m already not a fan of the black version, but the white looks beautiful.
The Sound of Music
At this point you might be asking “Why does it have so much speaker mesh?” and that’s a great question. Other smart speakers are usually more “smart” than speaker. In other words, the sound quality from an Echo (Dot or otherwise) or the Google Home are at best functional. You aren’t going to host any house parties or get audiophile tingles from those speakers straight out of the box.
That’s the reason half of this site consists of guides that tell you how to hook up better speakers to your Echo or Home. Usually, the speaker of choice is something from Sonos, who have an impeccable reputation for audio fidelity. So Apple is taking on an opponent that both Amazon and Google wisely decided to avoid.
After all, Sonos is officially planning to integrate Alexa and Google Assistant in their own smart speaker. Somehow I don’t think that Apple will be invited to this particular party.
Right now the only music service that’s supported by the HomePod is (obviously) Apple Music. It remains to be seen if Amazon or Google music services will be allowed onto the HomePod, but if we end up with no 3rd-party services that could kill the HomePod before it has a chance.
The HomePod does come with a new version of Apple Airplay dubbed Airplay 2: More Air, More Play.
OK, that second bit is made up.
Nonetheless, it stands to reason that you should have the ability to stream other audio sources to the HomePod with Airplay, but how well things will be integrated remains to be seen. It’s also probably not a coincidence that Apple has added support for lossless FLAC audio in iOS 11.
Hear Me Roar
For nerds like me who care about this stuff, the specifications make for interesting reading. The brains of the outfit is the A8 chip which has featured in the iPhone 6es, the 6th generation Touch, the iPad Mini 4 and the 4th generation Apple TV.
There’s a little screen on the top that displays a “live waveform” similar to the Siri screen on a phone or tablet. Inside the mesh, there are six mics to hear you from anywhere in the room. There are seven tweeters and one woofer.
Although the speaker is relatively small as a whole, the woofer is a special “high-excursion” model that moves the diaphragm as much as 20mm. The whole speaker is about 6.8 inches tall and weighs 5.5 pounds.
It’s How Much?!
We have to talk about the elephant in the room: the price. Jokes about the “Apple Tax” aside, $350 is not an insignificant sum. If you’re already the owner of products like the iPhone, iPad or Mac then it may not seem off-brand, but can someone who’ll be entering the Apple ecosystem with the HomePod justify it?
I think to a large extent that cost should be seen in light of the audio quality of the speaker. Having not had ears-on time with the speaker myself, it’s hard to say how it will stack up to Sonos products, but I’m certain Apple engineers have spent more time than could possibly be healthy doing just that: listening to Sonos audio.
If the HomePod really is an audio match for the Sonos range then the price is sensible. Buying an Echo and Sonos combo can easily cost the same, so perhaps we should not be too quick to judge the price.
Why So Siri-ous?
Let’s not forget that at the heart of all this lies good-old familiar Siri. When Siri first launched along with the iPhone 4S and iOS 5, it was revolutionary. Today Siri is much improved compared to her rather dumb incarnation at launch, but similar assistants from Google and Amazon are in possession of more functionality if not quite as much personality and polish.
That’s all going to change with the release of iOS 11 in September 2017. Siri is getting significant upgrades, much of which is going to center on the HomePod and more Apple HomeKit abilities.
On top of this, there will be a lot going on under the hood too. Apple is upping Siri’s machine learning game and this will affect the quality of her speech and make her proactive with suggestions once she knows you better.
New Kid on the Block
Apple may be one of the most valuable tech companies in the world right now, but the company has had more than its fair share of flops over its history. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that the HomePod will take off.
This is also a new market for the company that it has no experience in, so we’ll see what Amazon, Google, and Sonos do in response. For the consumer, more competition is good, but I worry about fragmentation of systems and services as these providers war it out amongst themselves. Walled gardens are rarely good for consumers and hopefully, we won’t see those walls built any higher than they need to be.