Apple’s latest major product is now available to purchase: It’s called HomePod, and it’s unlike anything Apple has done before.
It’s a speaker, yes, but it’s also a home assistant powered by Siri. It’s Apple’s equivalent of the Amazon Echo or the Google Home — but mixed with a bit of the Sonos home speaker concept.
Apple CEO Tim Cook says HomePod, which ships February 9, is Apple’s attempt to “reinvent home music.” But what makes it different from the competition? And at $350, why would someone spend the extra money for HomePod?
Here are the best answers we’ve found:
If you’re familiar with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, you’re familiar with the HomePod.
In other words, “HomePod is a combination speaker/microphone that both plays music and responds to your voice requests.”
—In the case of Amazon Echo, a digital voice assistant named Alexa powers the experience.
—In the case of Google Home, a digital voice assistant named Google Assistant powers the experience.
—In the case of Apple’s HomePod, Siri powers the experience.
Siri can play music, tell you the weather, and even command various connected devices in your home.
What makes HomePod different from the competition? In short: Apple stuff.
Are you an Apple Music subscriber? HomePod is probably perfect for you. And that’s because Apple’s subscription music service doesn’t really work with Amazon Echo or Google Home.
Sure, you could connect to the Echo or the Home as Bluetooth devices, but that stinks. You want to be able to speak with these devices and for them to play music that you requested. If you want to do that with Apple Music, HomePod is your only real choice.
On the flip side, HomePod does work with music services other than Apple Music — but only through Apple’s Airplay 2 functionality. Think of it like Bluetooth with a different name; you can play music from any service that supports Airplay 2 through your phone.
Unfortunately, AirPlay 2 won’t arrive on the HomePod until “later this year” — and when it’s available, you can’t just say, “Hey Siri, play Kendrick Lamar on Spotify.” Voice control will work only if you’re using Apple services, which is a tremendous bummer. You basically have to be all-in on Apple’s ecosystem — Apple Music, iTunes — to make use of HomePod.
Apple is selling HomePod as a fantastic speaker first and foremost.
The speaker aspect of HomePod is at the forefront of Apple’s marketing. When the device was introduced last summer at Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, the first thing that Apple’s SVP of marketing Phil Schiller spoke about was audio quality.
More directly: Apple seems to be targeting folks who buy stuff like Sonos speakers rather than folks who buy devices like the Amazon Echo.
“The speaker delivers the deepest and cleanest bass possible, with low distortion,” Apple’s PR says. Beyond deep bass, a set of seven tweeters sits in a ring — facing outward — in the base of the HomePod, providing what Apple calls “well-balanced smooth timbre.” That’s important, as tweeters output the high end of songs (the treble) while woofers output the low end of songs (the bass) — HomePod has speakers handling the entire spectrum of sound.
Rather than competing directly with the Echo and the Home, Apple’s HomePod is trying to create a new, high-end speaker/home assistant device.
HomePod can control your smart-home stuff. If you’ve got Philips Hue lighting, for example, you can control your lights through Siri: “Hey Siri, turn on the kitchen lights.” Or you could connect a Nest thermostat. “Hey Siri, make the living room 72 degrees.”
But that’s clearly not the focus of HomePod.
During Schiller’s presentation, he mentioned music over and over. Home applications got a glancing mention at best and showed up dead last in a list of functions the HomePod could perform — long after basic stuff like unit conversion and reminders.
It seems that even Apple is aware of Siri’s tremendous limitations or, at the very least, the limited number of compelling smart devices around today.
To that end, one major selling point of HomePod is so-called room-sensing technology.
You can place speakers anywhere in your house — that’s true of every speaker.
But the HomePod is designed to take an active role in where it’s placed. After it is placed and plugged in, HomePod will take stock of where it’s placed, according to Apple. “Within seconds, [HomePod] is perfectly optimized to deliver an immersive music-listening experience wherever it is placed,” Apple says.
In practice, that means it’s not pushing sound waves into nearby walls. Instead, it’s focusing those sound waves toward the parts of a room where people are. It’s a neat trick, but it’s not necessarily crucial for most people.
Apple also advertises the ability to pair two HomePod speakers with each other for true stereo sound, or the ability to listen to the same song (or different songs) in different rooms, but that feature, like AirPlay 2 support, also won’t be available until “later this year.”
Beyond sound quality and Apple Music, HomePod has one unique selling point: deep Apple integration.
If you’re the kind of person who uses Apple Mail, Apple Calendar, Apple Maps, and Apple Reminders, HomePod is the home assistant you’ve been waiting for.
In the same way that Google’s Home is better suited to people who use all of Google’s apps/services, HomePod is better suited to people who use all of Apple’s apps/services.
It’s simple: When you ask HomePod to, say, tell you your appointments for the day, it’s going to pull that information from your Apple Calendar. That same scenario plays out for everything with HomePod; if you’re asking Siri to do something, it’s doing the Apple version of that thing — from music to directions to reminders.
In an especially bizarre twist, Apple is limiting third-party apps on HomePod. Basic stuff like Spotify and Google accounts and Uber don’t appear to be heading to HomePod, at least at the moment. The only app categories that Apple is accepting involve messaging, lists, and notes. That means no Spotify (or whatever other music service) through voice.
HomePod arrives on February 9, and it costs $350.
Apple HomePod costs a whopping $350. What gives?
Naysayers will most likely cite the “Apple tax” as a means of explanation. “It’s more expensive because it’s Apple and Apple is a premium brand.” That’s not incorrect, but it’s not entirely fair either.
—Apple’s HomePod has a 4-inch woofer in the middle.
—It has a ring of seven tweeters in its base.
—It has an Apple-made A8 chip powering it — the same chip that powers the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
It could certainly be a prettier device, or even have a larger speaker, Apple clearly seems to be putting some of that cost into the device’s quality. Whether the addition of Siri will convince the kind of audiophiles who are already buying the less expensive Sonos Play 3 speaker is another question.
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