Last updated: 3 weeks ago
The Apple HomePod is a network-connected speaker unveiled at WWDC 2017, which offers access to Siri without using an iPhone or iPad. Available with a choice of white and space gray 3D mesh acoustic fabrics to cover the device, Apple is also positioning the HomePod as an audio entertainment accessory, with a focus on high quality music playback, and on using Siri to help find new tracks on Apple Music.
● 6.8-inch tall speaker weighing 5.5 pounds
● Covered with 3D mesh acoustic fabric
● Six-microphone array
● Seven-tweeter array with individual amplifiers
● Apple-designed upward-facing woofer
● A8 chip driving bass management software
● Advanced echo cancellation system
● Voice-based control of Siri
● HomeKit support
● Shipped February 9, 2018 priced at $349
● Now sold for $299
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.
Following a brief pre-order period, the HomePod was available in stores from February 9, 2018. Online orders of the device also started to arrive on that date.
AppleInsider reviewed the HomePod, giving it a score of 3.5 out of a possible 5.
New rumors suggest a smaller HomePod may be on its way with a cheaper price and more options for music.
Since iOS 13.4 released, HomePod's OS structure changed from one based on iOS to one based on tvOS, meaning a new device might be on the way.
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 are available, 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, 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 powerfully 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. Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity is also touted.
The HomePod includes 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.
Though not initially available at launch, HomePod can be used as part of multi-room audio or for stereo playback. The feature was enabled as part of a software update.
In order to maintain the security and privacy of its users, Apple has designed HomePod to only record audio once the "Hey Siri" prompt is recognized 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.
Setting up the HomePod is relatively straightforward, with users needing to plug it into an outlet and wait for it to chime, while also having an iPhone nearby that has Bluetooth enabled and an up to date operating system. Holding the iPhone near the HomePod brings up a popup dialog box that guides the user through the setup process.
This includes naming the room where the HomePod is located, enabling Personal Requests, and accepting the terms and conditions. A transfer of settings is then performed, linking the HomePod to the user's iCloud account and synchronizing with apps and services like Apple Music.
Lastly, the HomePod requires the user to train Siri on the device.
A later update enabled the HomePod to support up to six users at once, with each able to be registered to the speaker and having their own separate Personal Requests settings.
Throughout the life of the HomePod, Apple has issued software updates that add new features or improve existing functions for its users. The launch version ran HomePod version 11.2.5.
Apple's first update, version 11.3 (15E217) in March 2018, brought "general improvements for stability and quality," with Apple not explaining exactly what those changes actually were in the release notes.
The release of iOS 11.4 in May 2019 introduced multi-room audio and stereo pairing for the HomePod, as part of AirPlay 2's new features that launched at the same time.
An update to Siri in February 2019 on the HomePod quietly updated the British and Australian male voices for the speaker, to make them clearer and more natural-sounding than before. The update was not officially announced by Apple.
March 2019 added another change to Siri on HomePod, performing similar changes but for the female British voice. Again, there was no announcement regarding the upgrade.
Accompanying updates for iOS 13, Apple added quite a few features to HomePod in September 2019. Users were able to listen to over 100,000 radio stations via iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn.
In October 2019, Apple enabled HomePod to differentiate between multiple voices in its 13.2 update. By recognizing up to six users, the HomePod can offer a more personalized experience, including that user's particular music mixes within Apple Music.
The same update also added the ability to add music to HomeKit scenes for the first time, along with playing high-quality Ambient Sounds. A sleep timer can also be set, to turn off the audio automatically after a specific time.
Music Handoff allows users to switch what device is playing audio. By bringing an iPhone close to a HomePod, the currently-playing track on the iPhone, or a podcast or phone call, can be transferred to the HomePod for continued listening and speaking.
The 13.2 update was ill-fated, as some users reported their HomePods bricking after installing it. After pulling the release, Apple reissued the update in 13.2.1 at the end of the month, fixing the issue.
Siri and Music Playback on HomePod
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 music playback is also not limited to just Apple Music, as reports have confirmed Siri requests for songs included under iTunes Match can also be played through the HomePod.
Along with Apple Music, the HomePod supports playback of iTunes music purchases and iCloud Music Library, radio stations, a variety of streaming audio services like iHeartRadio and TuneIn, and the Apple Podcasts app. Through the use of AirPlay, it can also be used to play content from other audio sources, such as audiobooks from a nearby iPhone.
The HomePod will play a wide variety of audio formats, a list that is similar to those of other Apple products providing audio playback. The support list includes HE-AAC (V1), AAC from 16Kbps to 320Kbps, protected AAC from the iTunes Store, 16Kbps to 320Kbps MP3 files, MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, and FLAC.
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 revealed the HomePod will handle all music-related questions itself, with no external assistance. For other types of queries, 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 and AirPlay 2
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.
Initially, it was not possible to use the HomePod as an automated trigger or speaker for HomeKit. For example, a user couldn't set up the HomePod to automatically stop music playback when the user leaves the house.
With the introduction of the 13.2 HomePod update, Apple made it possible to use the speaker as part of a custom HomeKit scene, with the ability to add music to HomeKit scenes.
Forthcoming 2020 Updates
HomePod played a minor role in Apple's WWDC 2020 keynote. The smart speaker was mentioned in a brief presentation about the Home app's new facial recognition feature, which can parse video feeds from a HomeKit-enabled camera to detect the faces of people who are tagged in the Photos app. For example, when a door camera recognizes a face, HomePod can announce who is at the door.
Apple elsewhere teased an upcoming feature that will allow HomePod users to replace Apple Music with a third-party music streaming service.
Aside from the above information, few other details about the HomePod's specifications ware known prior to release. Apple's release of firmware for the device in July 2017 caused developers to delve inside the code to try and find out more information, including how the HomePod had 1GB of memory for its A8 processor to use.
While this is seemingly likely, a teardown didn't confirm or deny this but did reveal the use of 16GB of flash memory. 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, has a resolution of 272 by 340 pixels, which happens to be the same resolution as the 38mm Apple Watch. As the display for the HomePod is physically larger, it has a lower pixel density than the compact screens used in the Apple Watch range.
Pricing, Delay, and Release
Apple's HomePod was available for $349 at launch in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia. On January 26, 2018, Apple confirmed the HomePod will arrive in stores in the U.S, U.K., and Australia starting from February 9 that year.
In April 2019, Apple reduced the price in the United States down to $299, as a permanent price cut. Similar cuts were made for the model in other markets.
Pre-orders for the first shipments of the HomePod commenced on January 26, with initial orders placed via the Apple Store app. Shipments for the speaker were originally said to commence in December, but in November, Apple pushed back the expected shipping period into early 2018.
No reason was given by Apple for the delay.
Since its launch, the HomePod has been made available in more countries, including Canada, France, and Germany in June 2018, Spain and Mexico in October 2018, China and Hong Kong in January 2019, Japan and Taiwan in August 2019, and India in January 2020.
At the time of its release, Apple revealed the additional cost of AppleCare+ for its HomePod customers, as well as out-of-warranty repair costs.
Enrollment into AppleCare+ for HomePod costs $39, which extends the warranty to two years, which also grants a longer customer support window. Out-of-warranty repair costs for AppleCare+ customers cost $39 each, for up to two incidents.
By contrast, an out-of-warranty repair for non-AppleCare+ customers, such as fall damage or submergence, will cost $279.
As part of AppleCare+, HomePod customers will get a replacement HomePod shipped to them in advance of the return of the non-functional one. This express replacement service is included, though the original HomePod needs to be returned within 10 days to avoid additional charges, up to and including the cost of the new HomePod unit.
Apple also offers shipment of the HomePod to a service center, like it currently offers for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, at a cost of $19.99 on top of any associated repair fees.
Videos advising of how to use the HomePod have been published to Apple's YouTube Support channel since its launch, starting with a trio of guides advising how to use Siri to play music, to use the touch controls, and how to adjust the HomePod's settings. A later guide "How to get the most from HomePod" is a longer video covering basic HomePod functions including personal requests, talking to Siri, using it as a speakerphone, and controlling smart home accessories.
Ahead of the release of HomePod, Apple provided select publications with early hands-on time with the device. Reviews were mixed, largely praising the sound quality, but finding the current state of Siri on the device a bit lacking.
For audio quality, reviewers said the HomePod had a "sensational voice" that made it "literally laughable" to hear competitors in contrast. Music is said to be "richer and fuller" than competitors, with an impressive amount of bass that doesn't overwhelm the midrange tones.
The HomePod's ability to dynamically adjust its audio based on its surroundings was also praised, creating an enveloping sound around the listener. In one case, it was suggested the HomePod's design gives a sense “this is how the songwriter and producer wanted the song to be heard when they recorded it.”
On music playback alone, the HomePod was considered a smash hit by the critics, though the speaker's other features were less well-received. Complaints ranged from mispronunciation of artists' names, failure to learn one critic's taste in music after a week of usage, and a lack of access to third-party apps, but the main complaints were for Siri-related tasks.
All the reviewers agreed that the HomePod can respond to the “Hey Siri” prompt extremely well, including while loud music is playing. Siri itself was seen as a letdown, with issues accessing calendars, setting timers and custom alarms, and failing to provide recipes.
The extended smart home functionality was noted as better than competitors, with HomeKit setup through HomePod seen as easier than the Amazon and Google equivalent processes.
Post-launch testing seemingly confirmed critic opinions that the audio quality of the HomePod was of very high quality. One extensive report on the Audiophile subreddit compared it to the KEF X300A speaker, in a technical breakdown calling the graph of the HomePod's reproduction of sound "near-perfectly flat" at all frequencies.
Testing of Siri, however, indicated it to currently be the weakest point of the system. Trials performed by Loup Ventures in 2018 of 782 queries reveal that Siri on the HomePod understood 99.4 percent of the statements, but could only answer 52.3 percent correctly, compared to the 81 percent correct for Google, 64 percent for Alexa, and 57 percent for Cortana.
The Consumer Reports critique claimed the HomePod's audio quality is beaten by the Google Home Max and the Sonos One, going against the grain of other publications praising the feature. According to the publication, the HomePod's bass was "a bit boomy and overemphasized" with hazy midtones and underemphasized treble, which apparently made the sound muddy compared to its competition.
Early on, the HomePod showed promise, with analysts reporting Apple had secured roughly 600,000 HomePods in the first quarter and around 700,000 shipments of the device in a quarter six months after launch, effectively taking up approximately 6% of the smart speaker market.
By the fourth quarter of 2019, Apple still saw strong sales of the HomePod, achieving 2.6 million shipments over the holiday quarter and capturing a 4.7% share of the market. Shipments were up 65% year-on-year from the 1.6 million units shipped in Q4 2018, though the market share increase wasn't as big from the earlier quarter's 4.1% share.
The increase in sales means Apple is seeing success with the HomePod, but the slower share growth is due to there being a more saturated market.
In the Q4 2019 quarter, Apple's speaker shipments were outpaced by Amazon (15.8 million units, 28.3% share) and Google (13.9M, 24.9%) at the top of the list, with Baidu, Alibaba, and Xiaomi's speakers also shipping roughly twice as many as Apple.
The customary teardowns of the HomePod arrived shortly after its release, with iFixit's attempt notably using some unusual techniques to open up the device.
After removing the glued shut threaded connections and cutting away the acoustical mesh, it was noted the HomePod is held together with glue and necessitated the use of a hacksaw to gain access. The entire device was suggested as being built "like a tank," indicating it to be a quite durable speaker that should last a long time.
Inside the casing, the team found a CX20810 Synaptics analog to digital converter used with the microphone array, as well as conductive screw-posts providing power in a similar fashion to the cylindrical Mac Pro.
It is noted that, while it is seen to have an A8 processor with 16GB of flash storage and "likely" 1GB of application RAM, more components could've been added, but were not. A few locations on the main motherboard are unpopulated with chips, but have SMD pads, strongly suggesting some design changes were made late in the process.
Ultimately, the tank-like nature and heavy usage of adhesives hampered the "repairability" score, with iFixit giving the HomePod 1 out of 10. While it features a clever design and is extremely durable, as well as using Torx threaded fasteners, the seeming lack of a nondestructive way to take it apart makes it hardware that is extremely difficult for customers to repair themselves.
Further investigation into the components used by Apple to produce the HomePod suggests Apple's margins for the device are slimmer than those of the iPhone. Research from TechInsights estimates the HomePod costs $216 to produce, equating to a margin of approximately 38 percent, lower than the 56 percent, and 66 percent margin estimates for the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
The parts breakdown puts the microphones, tweeters, woofer, and power management at $58 in total, with other miscellaneous parts including the OLED panel costing an extra $60. The A8 chip apparently costs $25.50, with housing and other unmentioned components priced at another $25 on top, while the manufacturing, testing, and packaging processes add on an extra $17.50.
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 2017, 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 advised the limited amount of data that it does receive 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."
Allegedly troublesome initial development
The HomePod had a difficult conception, a mid-November 2017 report from Bloomberg claimed, with sources revealing the project was canceled and restarted multiple times, and had gone through considerable changes throughout its development.
Originally a side project of some Mac audio engineers who wanted to take on Bose and Harman Kardon with better audio, some of the engineers were reportedly speaker makers, and were looking to implement beamforming technology in their projects.
Initial prototypes ranged from a flat panel to a larger unit with dozens of speakers, with some on the project putting forward the idea of making it a Beats product, and offering more color options than the few Apple showed at the HomePod's launch.
Apple turned the project into an official product in 2014, with a dedicated team led by Gary Greaves at Valley Green 1, an office near to 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino. The team started testing the device outside of the project in 2016, with test participants including some retail staff.
Shortly after launch, reviewers discovered that the HomePod would cause a white ring to appear below the device on certain surfaces, similar to a coffee ring.
It is noted that the effect only occurs on "oiled" wood surfaces, and only in the region of the silicone ring at the base of the HomePod. On other surfaces, such as MDF plywood, polyurethane-sealed wood, laminates, glass, and granite, no ring appears.
AppleInsider asked professional woodworkers what could have caused the ring, with the consensus suggesting a reaction between the silicone ring and a different form of silicone common in furniture polishes. The reaction is possibly similar to the "fisheye" that can develop in some furniture, as a result of chemical differences between the wood's finish and the polishes.
An Apple support document recommends users wipe the surface gently with a soft damp or dry cloth to remove the marks, if they do not disappear on their own after several days. If marks persist, Apple suggests cleaning the surface with the furniture manufacturer's recommended process.
The phenomenon is not limited to the HomePod, as reports following the ring appearances reveal the Sonos One speaker has similar problems with its vibration-insulating causing similar contact marks.
Accessory producers have also been quick to capitalize on the issue, with one vendor offering HomePod-specific coasters with days of reports surfacing.