UPDATE: Check out our Apple HomePod review
Apple's HomePod may be its worst-named product ever, but it's also its most interesting for several years, for music lovers.
The Apple HomePod has an official release date of February 9, with pre-orders from Friday 26 January 2018 (it was originally meant to go on sale just before Christmas 2017, but that didn't work out.)
The Apple HomePod price is £319. It comes in a choice of white or space grey, with pre-orders via Apple's website and the Apple Store app. HomePod will subsequently go on sale in Apple Stores, Argos, Dixons Carphone Warehouse/Currys PC World, John Lewis, Very, Littlewoods, EE and Apple Premium Resellers.
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Apple HomePod features
HomePod is is a voice-controlled, fairly high-end, Wi-Fi speaker with seven 'beam forming' tweeters and an upward-firing woofer. It's about 18cm tall.
It's a hybrid disruptor: taking on Google Echo and Amazon Home as a voice-controlled AI – Siri in a box, in effect. However, more significantly, it's a high-end wireless speaker going up against the multi-room likes of Sonos and Naim.
It looks like the HomePod will be the first to market in the 'hi-fi AI' sector but a number of rivals are incoming from Denon, Sony, Panasonic and probably Sonos itself over the next 12 months.
Apple's AirPod true-wireless headphones have been a huge success, and the brand is playing up the fact that, "Setup is as easy and intuitive as setting up AirPods – simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds." There are also integrated touch controls for easy navigation, again echoing Apple's in-ears.
It's Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo vs Google Home
Amazon Echo-style home assistants are already well established and widely loved. That could leave Apple HomePod looking very much like it's arrived late at the party.
Siri is a fairly decent voice assistant and from HomePod will be able to do similar things to Echo and Google Home: reading news headlines, giving calendar updates and controlling smart home equipment.
HomePod is a convenient way to send messages, set timers and reminders, check the weather and listen to shows or podcasts. News and sports updates will be via BBC and Sky News, as on Echo and Google Home, and also LBC, the home of the thoroughly on-brand Nigel Farage. And, naturally, "HomePod can also be used as a speakerphone with iPhone for crisp and clear audio quality."
At launch the range of smart home kit Siri can control is likely to be narrower than Amazon or Google's devices. That's because devices must be Apple HomeKit compatible and not many are. Apple cites 'hundreds' of devices, but I'll be damned if I've seen more than half a dozen in the UK to date.
HomePod is also a Sonos rival
While Siri has some issues as an AI, what Apple's nailed is that HomePod will by default be by far the best-sounding smart speaker.
Despite everything Google and Amazon's devices can supposedly do, the fact is, everyone uses them for two things: playing music and being a kitchen timer.
However, Google and Amazon's speakers sound quality is not great by any means. So by employing advanced DSP and using decent speaker drivers, HomePod immediately is more appealing.
You can buy several and use them for multi-room, or even pair two of them in stereo in the same room.
Access to Apple Music immediately makes that service more valuable, just as Amazon Music Unlimited benefits from serving Echo.
The voice searching elements for finding tracks from Apple Music also seem more sophisticated even than what Amazon Echo offers.
Apple HomePod: should you buy one?
If Apple has had a defining feature in its post-iPod glory years, it's not that it is very good at innovating per se.
What it's been great at is taking other brands' existing but rather half-baked ideas, and finding a way to make them work either aesthetically, technologically, or in terms of marketing. Or, with its greatest successes, all three. The HomePod looks like an example of that in action.
Yes, it's a late-arriving rival to Echo and Google Home, but the brand that invented the iPod and made music such a major part of selling the iMac and iPhone has nailed it here by concentrating on HomePod's audio prowess
The fact that Siri can also operate your smart lights and tell you the news, weather and the sporting results of the "Red Sox" is some tasty icing on top.
At £349, you might be better off buying an Echo Dot and plugging it into a £300 speaker but Apple's solution is, characteristically, more elegant.
However it's also worth keeping in mind that there will be new rivals from third parties appearing in 2018.
Sony and Panasonic, among others, have devices lined up that combine their audio and design expertise with Amazon or Google's AI software. It's going to be a good year for AI-powered assistants.
Apple HomePod official specs
The official Apple release on the HomePod contained the following.
"At just under 7 inches tall, HomePod represents years of hardware and software innovation:
– Apple-designed upward-facing woofer, paired with the custom A8 chip, enables bass management through real-time software modelling that ensures the speaker delivers the deepest and cleanest bass possible, with low distortion;
– custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier, provides well-balanced smooth timbre as well as precise directional control of a multitude of beam shapes and sizes;
– Apple-designed A8 chip provides the brains behind the advanced audio innovations;
– automatic room-sensing technology allows HomePod to quickly learn its position in a room, whether it’s in a corner, on a table or in a bookshelf, and within seconds, is perfectly optimized to deliver an immersive music listening experience wherever it is placed;
– six-microphone array with advanced echo cancellation enables Siri to understand people whether they are near the device or standing across the room, even while loud music is playing;
– Siri waveform appears on the top to indicate when Siri is engaged, and integrated touch controls also allow easy navigation;
– automatic detection and balance of two speakers using both direct and reflected audio to deliver amazing audio wirelessly for an even more immersive experience; and
– easy setup that is as intuitive as setting up AirPods — simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds.
Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of Apple hardware, software and services. With HomePod, only after “Hey Siri” is recognised locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers, encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier."