Apple's HomePod is the company's latest new gadget, packing a smart assistant, smart home hub and multi-room audio speaker inside an overpriced, rounded package.
Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty
At $US349 ($465), HomePod certainly pummels the smart home speaker market on pricing. Though Australian pricing hasn't been announced yet, we expect it to be around $499. Amazon's Echo costs $US180 ($240), while Sonos' Play:1 is $US199 ($265). Google Home, which is also making its way to Australia, is $US129 ($172), expected to be at least $199. All of them are spying on you, in one way or another.
Better sound, dumber assistant
The Homepod isn't being pushed on consumers as a voice assistant or even a smart home hub. Apple's banking on this thing sounding damn good, and hoping the rest will fall into place.
Among its competition, HomePod seems to have the best audio setup of the bunch. Inside are seven tweeters and a 10cm subwoofer, and HomePod supposedly adjusts its audio performance based on its placement in the home. The Echo has never received high marks for its audio quality, with its single tweeter and subwoofer, while Sonos' lineup is the preferred multi-room setup for coastal liberal elites and company bathrooms everywhere.
Want to create a multi-room audio setup that honours your Palo Alto overlords? That will run you $US700 ($932). That's closer to a thousand dollars than it is to zero dollars, so I hope you love listening to tunes. You can achieve the same multi-room audio experience with two Sonos Play:1 speakers, all for under $US400 ($533).
The company's self-awareness concerning Siri's shortcomings is evident based on how they describe it on the HomePod page:
Because it has Siri, HomePod can hear and answer questions in the most popular categories. Timers. Clocks. Measurements. Translations. News. Sports. Weather. Traffic. And general knowledge. It's great at the things you want to know, and do, in your home.
That description of what Siri can do pales in comparison to the skills Alexa boasts thanks to its Alexa Skills Kit, an API for third-party developers to integrate the assistant into their apps.
HomeKit plays catch up to Alexa's ubiquity
HomePod also doubles as a smart home hub, the latest HomeKit-friendly hub besides the Apple TV (and your iOS device). That means you won't need your phone every time you want to turn on your smart lights and cue some music — just scream into the void, "Hey, Siri!" With a six-microphone array, it should hear you.
Ditching your phone for always-on smart home control is great, but not unheard of. It's basically what the Echo does best, and Amazon's head start means it already has a foothold in the home automation market, however nascent it may be. Amazon's site is full of Alexa-enabled devices, and its compatibility with smart home hubs such as Samsung's SmartThings means Apple's already playing catch up.
It won't be a huge gap to close, however. Companies such as Ecobee and Belkin have added or are adding support for Apple HomeKit through the addition of hubs or software updates.
Spotify (or Amazon, or Tidal, or Google Play, or Pandora) fans need not apply
Right now HomePod only supports its own music streaming service, Apple Music. Apple's press release for the HomePod put into question the future of streaming music from your personal library. I reached out to Apple in order to clarify what can and can't be played on the HomePod, but never heard back.
I wasn't expecting Apple to come out of the gate with support for Amazon or Spotify music streaming, but I certainly was hopeful, especially after the company announced, in the same presentation, support for Amazon Video on Apple TV. What I was expecting was something about playing music from your personal library. There's no way Apple would prevent users from streaming their own tunes to the HomePod, but they did get rid of Magsafe on their MacBooks, so anything is possible.
Aside from looking like a concept design for what became a murderous artificial intelligence, the HomePod is pretty cute, if not a little bland. It's a 18cm tall round speaker with a microphone array used to listen to your demands.
To recap: Apple's $US349 ($465) HomePod has a less capable assistant than Amazon, is compatible with fewer music platforms than Sonos, and is more expensive than Google Home. Good thing it comes in two colours! It's out in December, so who knows what'll happen between now and launch day? Ready your wallet.