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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. 

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. 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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 are said to commence in December. 

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.  

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. 

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. 

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