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Launched during Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference 2017, the HomePod is the Cupertino company's attempt to take on the intelligent speaker market, competing against the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other similar devices. At its core, the HomePod can be used to make queries to Siri, with Apple's intelligent virtual assistant providing audio feedback in response.

Apple is also using the HomePod to go after a secondary market: network-connected home speaker systems. With HomePod, Apple intends to beat Sonos and other speaker producers by making an audio device that offers superior music playback, as well as making it as simple as possible for users to play tracks and discover new artists.

Appearance & Design

The HomePod differs from its main rivals in using a 3D mesh acoustic fabric that covers most of the outside of the speaker. Two color options will be available when the HomePod goes on sale, with customers able to choose between white and space gray versions of the fabric.

The shape is also fairly unique, consisting of a cylinder with rounded edges at the top and bottom. While other similar devices have been designed as fairly tall speakers, the HomePod is fairly wide when compared to the Amazon Echo, with a diameter that is not far off the height of the speaker, at 5.6 inches.

Measuring 6.8 inches tall and weighing 5.5 pounds, the device has a single cable leading out from the HomePod for power, with no other ports or visible connections viewable externally. On the top is a round display, used to show the Siri waveform when Siri is engaged, as well as providing access to touch controls for changing settings of the HomePod itself.

Speakers & Microphones

The HomePod includes a six-microphone array with an advanced echo cancellation system that allows Siri to understand anyone speaking to it in the room, regardless of their position in relation to the HomePod, and even when loud music is being played in the background.

For audio playback, Apple designed an upward-facing woofer that uses real-time software modeling to enhance bass management, allowing it to provide deep and clean bass tones with low distortion. An internal low-frequency calibration microphone is included to assist the bass management system.

Accompanying the woofer is a custom array of seven tweeters, with each equipped with their own amplifier. Apple's speaker array also has beam-forming capabilities, for highly directional audio at a high quality.

This beam-forming capability is enhanced by the HomePod's ability to sense its placement in a room. Using the microphone array, it can detect the size of the room, its location compared to nearby surfaces, and other potential audio obstacles, using the data to optimize its playback to suit its surroundings.

Driving the beamforming, bass management, and multi-channel echo cancellation in the HomePod is Apple's A8 processor, as previously used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the iPad mini 4, and the fourth-generation Apple TV.

A trial of the HomePod's audio playback capabilities attended by AppleInsider demonstrated the speaker's capabilities were a mark above a Sonos speaker and the Amazon Echo, giving an "impressively wide and pwerfully deep" sound. The HomePod was found to be audibly consistent throughout the test room, compared to the flatter and "more obviously directional" sound offered by the competitors. 

The workings of HomePod's adaptive acoustic capabilities may be explained by a patent, surfacing in July 2017, for a "Loudspeaker Equalizer." In brief, the patent explains that data from a speaker's microphone can be fed into a processor and DSP to filter and equalize audio signals, improving the audio based on its surroundings. 

Set-up & Connectivity

While it does not have any visible external connections, aside from a power cable, the HomePod still offers a lot of connectivity with other devices. Borrowing the setup process from the AirPods, users can configure the HomePod by holding their iPhone next to the speaker.

Network connectivity over Wi-Fi is offered, with support for 802.11a, b, g, n, and ac standards, with MIMO increasing the amount of available bandwidth.

The HomePod will also include support for Apple's new AirPlay 2 protocol, allowing it to connect with other HomePods and compatible speakers throughout the home. Pairing together two HomePods enables the option of stereo music playback.

In order to maintain security and privacy of its users, Apple has designed HomePod to only record audio once the "Hey Siri" prompt is recognised locally, before sending data to its own servers. All data headed to Apple's servers is encrypted, and is sent using an anonymous Siri identifier. 

An examination of iOS 11 beta code by iHelp BR seems to suggest that an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad will be needed to set up, with Siri reading aloud a four-digit authentication code. It is thought that the pairing process may also need the last four digits of the HomePod or iOS device's serial number, with the setup process also potentially requiring two-factor authentication and the use of the iCloud Keychain. 

By signing in to the HomePod with an Apple ID, it will automatically sync with iCloud and Apple Music, with users then asked to select the gender and accent for Siri, manual or automatic updates through a nearby iOS device, and whether or not to send diagnostic data to Apple on a daily basis. Those with multiple HomePods will also be able to configure their collection across several units at once. 

Another code examination by Guilherme Rambo at the start of September indicates the HomePod will use multiple methods for pairing with Apple devices. One alternate method is for an iOS device to listen out for specific tones generated by the HomePod, with the verbal instructions provided by Siri in the event that fails. 

 

Siri

As to be expected of such a device, users are able to ask Siri questions through the HomePod. When engaged, the Siri waveform appears on the top of the speaker, indicating the digital assistant is awaiting further instruction.

Just as the version usable in iOS, Siri can respond to a range of queries, including queries about upcoming concerts, sporting event queries, and restaurant recommendations, with responses provided audibly. Typical Siri commands are also available to use, including requests to send messages to contacts, setting alarms and timers, and to read out the latest news headlines.

One way Apple is pitching the HomePod is its music playback credentials, centralizing around Siri. Subscribers of Apple Music can ask Siri to play songs from albums and playlists, tell it what the next song to play should be, ask to generate a playlist from a genre they like, and other musical instructions.

The musical functionality also extends to musical trivia about the currently-played track, such as “When was this recorded?” among other queries. Aside from individual tracks, users can ask Siri to play stations including NPR and Beats 1, and also podcast episodes the user has subscribed to in the Podcasts app.

HomePod firmware released alongside a beta for iOS 11.2 reveals that the HomePod will be handling all music-related questions itself, with no external assistance. For other types of query, such as those involving contacts, messaging, Lists, and Notes, such queries will be handed off to a connected iPhone or iPad for processing, rather than performing the query itself. 

 

HomeKit

The HomePod can connect to a user's existing HomeKit network, allowing users to perform a variety of commands via the speaker's own Siri, instead of using the version of the assistant on their iPhone or iPad, or the Home app. Any verbal Siri command that can be performed on an iOS device can be requested through the HomePod.

Notably, the HomePod can be used as the main hub for a HomeKit installation, allowing homeowners to perform HomeKit actions while away from the house or apartment. Currently, users can set up a third or fourth-generation Apple TV as the HomeKit hub for remote access, so the HomePod now gives an alternative option to acquiring Apple's set-top box.

 

Other Specifications

Aside from the above information, few other details about the HomePod's specifications are known. Apple's release of firmware for the device in late July has caused developers to delve inside the code to try and find out more information, and the first wave of data is somewhat promising. 

A report claims the HomePod will have 1GB of memory for the A8 processor to use. The HomePod's memory may be seen as overkill for the reported functionality, even taking into account a potential expansion of Siri's capabilities, though it does give Apple some breathing room if it adds more functions in the future. 

The round display at the top, showing the Siri graphic, will apparently have an unexpectedly low resolution of 272 by 340 pixels, which happens to be the same resolution as the 38mm Apple Watch. As it is likely the display for the HomePod will be physically larger, it is probable that it will have a lower pixel density than the compact screens used in the Apple Watch range. 

 

Pricing and Availability

Apple plans to ship the HomePod for $349 in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia. Shipments for the speaker were said to commence in December, but in November, Apple pushed back the expected shipping period into early 2018

"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," a statement from Apple advises. "We'll start shipping in the U.S., U.K., and Australia in early 2018."

No reason was given by Apple for the delay. 

There is a possibility that the HomePod could be offered in extremely limited quantities at launch. During an August earnings call for assembler Inventec, CEO David Ho told analysts it was aiming to ship to Apple in the fourth fiscal quarter, but with tight constraints

Before the delay announcement, one analyst predicted Inventec will only ship 500,000 HomePod units in 2017, a relatively low number compared to other major Apple products. It is probable availability for the HomePod will improve shortly after launch, with one report claiming production for the device will allegedly shift in part to Foxconn during 2018. 

Pre-Release Sightings

Despite not having officially released, there have allegedly been some sightings of the HomePod, both in terms of hardware and software. 

In September, an Instagram account called "thermrlinc" posted a photograph of what looks like a white HomePod speaker on a marble counter. Though it could be a Chinese knockoff, it is possible that the unit pictured is one that has been circulated early for testing and review. 

While not a sighting of the physical hardware, Andreessen Horowitz venture capitalist Benedict Evans discovered his iPhone was attempting to communicate with what looked like a HomePod, on a visit to Menlo Park. 

Appearing in a screenshot of the iOS Control Center card displaying media output options for an audio app, the card showed a small icon resembling the HomePod drawn in Apple's usual icon aesthetic, with the label "Kitchen." 

Amazon's Echo range, a prime competitor to the HomePod Amazon's Echo range, a prime competitor to the HomePod

The Competition

The HomePod will be entering a relatively new market that is already dominated by competing devices providing similar services to their users. There is a lot of similarity between the HomePod and its rivals, but Apple's focus on music and audio quality, as well as the only one offering access to Siri, should help it penetrate the market when it goes on sale. 

Amazon

The first company to offer connected speakers with some level of success, Amazon started with the Echo, a tall speaker that used seven microphones and beam forming technology to listen out for the user. After the creation of the Echo, Amazon introduced the Echo Dot, the portable Amazon Tap, the camera-equipped Echo Look, and the Echo Show, a version that featured a display for visual feedback and video-based interactivity.

Amazon introduced Alexa with the Echo, the retailer's attempt at a digital assistant in the vein of Siri. As is to be expected, Alexa can answer a variety of verbal commands directly, as well as those from a companion mobile app, with Amazon also building in the ability to connect to a number of smart home devices.

Amazon has also been keen to push third-party device producers to use the technology from the Echo and Alexa in its products, including the far-field micrphone array and voice recognition algorithms. It is also possible to buy third-party hardware that offers Alexa interactivity without requiring ownership of an Echo-family device, such as the Nucleus Anywhere intercom.  

Since HomePod's introduction, Apple has reportedly started working on an update to the flagship Echo. According to an Engadget source in July 2017, the updated model will be "shorter and slimmer," the size of three or four stacked Echo Dots, with multiple tweeters instead of one, improving the microphone technology, and adding rounded edges and fabric to the exterior. 

To further compete against Apple, Amazon is reportedly testing a new networking feature that would compete against Apple's AirPlay 2, as well as the same function available in Sonos speakers. The supposed feature would allow users to stream to speakers in multiple rooms simultaneously, as well as to group together speakers for music listening and voice commands. 

In September, Amazon launched a number of new Echo devices, including an updated fabric-covered Echo with better far-field mic technology and dedicated woofer and tweeter units. The Echo Plus adds in the ability to use it as a ZigBee hub, allowing it to become more of a central control point to a smart home network. 

Also launched was the Echo Spot, a compact version of the Echo Show that could easily be used as an alarm clock. The Echo Connect bridges the Echo with a landline, allowing Echo devices to perform standard speakerphone calls. Lastly, Echo Buttons are large buttons that could be used for various applications, including trivia games with an Echo. 

Google

Originally revealed at Google I/O 2016, the Google Home opts for a shorter and wider design than the Amazon Echo, as well as offering further customization by replacing the lower speaker grille with another, different colored shell. The Google Assistant, the firm's latest iteration of digital assistant, is used in the Google Home, and offers similar functionality to the version slowly rolling out to smartphones. 

Able to support multiple units in the same house, the Home can be used to control other devices, including the Chromecast range, and can be used to play music as a network-connected speaker. It is also able to control a number of smart home devices, including the Nest, Wemo, and Philips Hue light ranges. 

In October 2017, Google launched new devices in its Home device range. The Google Home Mini is a compact version of the original, providing the same functionality in a smaller and cheaper $49 package. 

A more direct competitor to the HomePod is the $399 Google Home Max, a larger version with speakers 20 times more powerful than the regular Home model, thanks to its dual 4.5-inch high excursion woofers and custom tweeters. As well as being able to play music, it also includes intelligent context volume control, capable of automatically lowering the volume in the morning, or temporarily raising it when loud noises occur nearby, such as turning on a washing machine. 

 

Microsoft and Harman Kardon

The Invoke is Microsoft's attempt to join the market, in partnership with speaker specialists Harman Kardon. It uses a similar array of seven far-field microphones as its competition to pick up voices, but it leverages Harman Kardon's expertise to use three woofers, three tweeters, and two passive radiators for a supposedly superior sound output. 

Microsoft's own digital assistant, Cortana, makes an expected appearance, with a similar command set to those used on Windows Phone devices and through Windows PCs, places Cortana already operates. Cortana's Notebook, its storage of personal details it uses to answer some queries, may assist the Invoke in providing more personalized results to requests than its rivals. 

Notably, Microsoft has yet to ship the Invoke to customers, something the company expects to do in the fall in the United States, so it is unclear how the device will perform when directly compared to releases from Amazon, Google, and Apple. 

Samsung

While so far Samsung has yet to officially confirm a smart speaker, the South Korean electronics giant is said to be working on such a device. Said to be under the codename "Vega," the device would presumably provide similar functionality to the HomePod and the Amazon Echo, though there is no word on the potential form or specifications of the device. 

Samsung would in theory center the speaker around its Bixby assistant, which debuted alongside the Galaxy S8 smartphone. Initially available in South Korea, Bixby has been extremely slow to roll out to other markets, which may hamper the alleged speaker's development and eventual release. 

Facebook

Supply chain reports in July suggest Facebook is working on its own information appliance, though another report at the start of August indicates Facebook is looking at two different devices.

The first follows down the route of Amazon's Echo Show by featuring a large touchscreen, rather than creating a smart speaker. It is likely that the screen will be used to access content from the social network, as well as for communications between users. 

It is thought Pegatron will be manufacturing the device, which will apparently use an LG Display-sourced screen and a magnesium/aluminum alloy chassis, though few other details have leaked. The initial batch of test units are said to have already been completed, with a release tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2018. 

The second device is reportedly closer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, in being a display-less intelligent speaker. As with the others, it will use a Facebook-created digital assistant. It is suggested that Facebook may abandon this second item, if the social network believes other devices in the smart speaker market have become too firmly established to compete against. 

Report sources indicate the display-based device will cost a few hundred dollars, while the speaker could be in the "low $100 range" at launch. 

Sonos

One of the major companies offering networked speakers in the marketplace, Sonos is moving into the smart speaker space with a new Wi-Fi-enabled speaker with voice control. A published filing with the U.S. FCC reveals it has created "S13," a device described as a "high-performance all-in-one wireless smart speaker" that "adds integrated voice control functionality with far field microphones." 

Of note is part of the description advising it will connect to "multiple voice platforms and music services." As Sonos hasn't publicly entered the virtual assistant space yet, it is possible that this could mean it will work with other open virtual assistant services, such as the previously rumored Amazon Alexa integration. 

While this could also include Google Assistant and Samsung's Bixby as well, it is unlikely to include Siri, as Apple has so far restricted its usage to its own hardware. 

 

Privacy

Like other products, Apple has tried to maintain the privacy of its customers when using the HomePod. While the speaker does communicate with Apple's servers, it does so by anonymizing the data and using encryption. 

In July, the automatic acoustic adjustment feature of HomePod was the subject of a query by one concerned user to the firm, prompted by a report claiming Roomba robot vacuum cleaner manufacturer iRobot was interested in collecting maps of customer homes generated by its cleaners, with the intention of providing the room-based location data (for example the dimensions and furniture placement) to other companies. 

Later, iRobot's CEO Colin Angle backtracked from the earlier report, claiming iRobot would "never sell your data," and that customers have control over the sharing of the information. A PR representative also claimed the earlier report was a "misinterpretation" of Angle's statements. 

In theory, this data could have been used by Apple to further enhance the audio profile of the HomePod, or even for the speaker to collect its own room data for alternative purposes. 

In a response to a customer query about room-mapping technology, Apple advised it is refusing to repurpose the data collected by the HomePod for uses outside of the device, and had no intention of saving or sharing any similar data. Apple's statement also advises that the limited amount of data that it does recieve stems just from Siri queries, and that it had taken steps to protect that data. 

"No information is sent to Apple servers until HomePod recognizes the key utterance "Hey Siri," and any information after that point is encrypted and sent via an anonymous Siri ID," wrote Apple. "For room sensing, all analysis is done locally on the device and is not shared with Apple." 

 

User Interface Sounds

An examination of the HomePod firmware revealed a number of secrets relating to the speaker as well as other devices, including the "iPhone 8," though one unexpected revelation was the inclusion of HomePod's user interface sounds. 

Extracted by Avery Magnotti from the audioOS resources in the firmware, a total of nine distinct sounds were discovered. In the order of presentation, the sounds are named alarm1, Lighthouse, SessionInactive, SetupFinal, SetupStepSource, SetupStepTarget, timer1, TwoShot, and WOCAudioPasscodeTone. 

It is possible that Apple could change the sounds ahead of the HomePod's release, or to add to the sound collection when new features are added in the future. 

 

Firmware leaks future Apple product details

Aside from revealing the HomePod's sounds, the firmware also provided a variety of details relating to the rumored "iPhone 8," expected to ship this fall. The release is still being scanned for details, but a considerable amount of information has already surfaced. 

An early revelation was a confirmation that Apple was going to use a bezel-less design for the smartphone, complete with a sensor cut-out at the top, in the form of a graphic. In the same discovery, code seemed to suggest Apple was including a facial locking facility in the device. 

A later analysis of the code notes references to facial recognition in Apple Pay processes, with "pearl," believed to be a codename for the feature, appearing multiple times. Another report suggests the facial recognition will even work when the "iPhone 8" is laid flat on a table or desk. 

One other analysis revealed Apple was introducing code for the UIStatusBar that introduced a "split" option. It is thought the code would be used to fit the status bar either side of the cutout, fitting in the power and connectivity indicators into the small spaces beside the camera and sensor array. 

The same analysis also seemed to quash the rumors of an embedded Touch ID sensor under the display, with developer Steven Troughton-Smith reasoning that there should be new UI assets instructing users on using the feature, but no reference has been found to such items. 

Lastly, code has indicated that Apple will be using a "SmartCam" feature with the "iPhone 8." Thought to use a similar machine learning system to the search used in Photos, the feature could be used to adjust the settings of the camera based on the identified objects or scene within the frame. 

The "iPhone 8" isn't the only hardware to have details revealed in the HomePod code. Examination of the firmware also suggests that the next upgrade of the Apple TV could introduce support for higher-specification viewing technologies, including 4K video, 10-bit HDR support, and Dolby Vision. 

As for the Apple Watch, the firmware has hinted at new activities coming to the wearable device's Workout app, with yoga, wrestling, water polo, and skiing among the new additions. 

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