We're now through the second act of 2017's smart speaker drama.
In the spring came Google Home. Then, in the fall, we got a rash of entrants from Amazon, who first staked out the market in 2014, Sonos, and, yes, more from Google. Now, we await the final major debut of the year from a smart speaker upstart based in Cupertino, Calif.
Apple's HomePod, due out in December, will help define the high-end of the market. Priced at $350 (£270 and AU$465), the company's characteristically premium take on a voice-assistant speaker costs $100-plus more than Amazon's most expensive Alexa device, the Echo Show, and $150 more than its Sonos One frenemy, which will add support for Apple's Siri virtual assistant in 2018. Only Google's Home Max, at $400, costs more.
Despite Apple's long corporate tradition of extreme secrecy, we know much more about the HomePod than its price tag. After some early rumors published by The Information and CNET suggesting that the company was developing a standalone Siri-powered speaker, this summer Apple acknowledged its existence -- and shared some additional key details. At the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, confirmed the launch date, price and a handful of specs.
And then came the firmware scandal. In July, Apple released a software update for the HomePod, which, of course, was not yet available, that was chock full of dirt. Developers dug into the code and uncovered a breathtaking amount of previously unknown information about iOS 11, both the iPhone 8 and iPhone X and also the HomePod.
So, even before it launches officially, we know how the HomePod stacks up -- at least on paper -- against other major smart speakers already on the market. We'll need to fully review the HomePod before making any final conclusions, but here's an overview of what we know -- and what we think we know -- based on rumors and confirmed information.
Confirmed: It will be available in December in the US, UK and Australia
Apple confirmed three geographical regions during the WWDC keynote and promised wider global availability in 2018. In contrast, Amazon has released only a few Echo models outside of the US (i.e. the UK and Germany), though we expect the company to expand its offerings in the UK and add availability in Australia in 2018. Sonos says the One will be available globally starting on Oct. 24.
Confirmed: It will cover the basics
We know the HomePod will provide voice-activated access to Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, who will be the conduit for hands-free messaging, controlling Apple's Music app, setting reminders and getting news updates and weather reports.
These types of things are table stakes for smart speakers in 2017. Amazon's Alexa has been steadily building its arsenal of skills since 2014, and has a very deep bench of integrations with third-party developers and support for smart home technologies. Though it's newer to the smart speaker market, the Sonos One promises compatibility with Alexa as well as Google Assistant and, coming in 2018, Siri, making it the first multiplatform player. Apple will be playing catchup, but with an install base of roughly 700 million iPhone users, Siri comes out of the gate with tons of momentum and unlimited upside.
Confirmed: It will be compatible with HomeKit
Ultimately, the HomePod will serve as the hardware headquarters for Apple's smart-home platform, HomeKit. Until now, HomeKit apps have been confined to the iPhone and iPad, so the standalone speaker will make them more accessible and surely more plentiful. Apple had previously required a specific chip be added to each HomeKit-enabled device for certification, but , paving way for greater developer and manufacturer uptake. Though Sonos and especially Amazon are compatible with an array of smart home devices, neither has its own platform. Advantage: Apple.
Read: What is HomeKit?
Confirmed: It will have "spatial awareness"
Schiller said the HomePod will be able to adjust audio based on the environment, and that multiple HomePods will automatically work together to shape sound using its six integrated microphones. A number of Amazon's smart speakers have Echo Spatial Perception (ESP), which makes it so that only the Echo device that's closest to you responds to your command. Two interesting and distinct takes on spatial awareness.
Confirmed (preliminarily): It will sound good
In his keynote, Schiller played up the HomePod's "incredible acoustic properties," ticking off a laundry list of specs like real-time acoustic modelling, audio beam-forming and multi-channel echo cancellation. CNET editor Scott Stein, received a brief demo and deemed the sound quality "vivid and crisp, more so than the Sonos and Amazon comparisons on-hand."
Still, the Google Home Max has two woofers and two tweeters, compared to the one onboard the HomePod and Echo Plus; it also has more ports than the Echo Plus, with a USB-C and a 3.5-millimeter audio jack. We don't know what ports and connectors the HomePod will have. We'll need to complete a full review before we can make a conclusive determination.
Rumor: It has some sort of a screen
Steve Troughton-Smith, the developer who first discovered many of the juiciest bits hiding in the firmware leak, tweeted that the HomePod has an "LED matrix" that could "perhaps display shapes/symbols." Another developer, Avery Magnotti, followed that up with a screenshot of the code that refers to a 272x340 resolution. Such a display could go the minimalist route, simply confirming that Siri is listening to your command, our occupy more integral ground, offering virtual volume control buttons or other navigational or UI elements.
Of course, if true, the HomePod won't be alone in the visuals department. A number of Amazon Echo devices have a light ring that serves as an indicator of sorts, and the Echo Spot and Echo Show both have full-fledged displays.
Photos: Apple's HomePod smart speaker.
Rumor: It runs a full version of iOS -- just like the iPhone and iPad
Troughton-Smith discovered that the HomePod runs a full version of Apple's iOS mobile operating system -- just like the iPhone and iPad. Though the device appears to support Accessibility features like VoiceOver, it does not seem to accommodate the installation of apps or extensions -- for now.
In contrast, Amazon's smart speakers support third-party extensions, allowing third-party developers to create apps without needing native support. We assume Apple will eventually follow suit.
Rumor: It will be as powerful as a iPhone 6
Developers also found evidence suggesting that the HomePod will come equipped with 1GB of RAM and an Apple A8 processor -- making it as about as powerful as an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus in terms of hardware. If true, the HomePod will be the most powerful speaker of its kind, with more processing firepower than any model in Amazon's or Google's portfolios.
We'll continue to keep an eye on news and rumors in the run up to the HomePod's official debut in December 2017.
Editors' note: This article was originally published on Aug. 12, 2017 and has been periodically updated as more information comes to light. It was most recently updated on October 17, 2017.
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