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Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers

You can now preorder Apple's $349 HomePod

Apple's first smart speaker finally emerges, well after Amazon's Echo speakers and the Google Home family dominated the conversation.

For Apple's HomePod, it's better late than never. 

The smart speaker became available for advance orders in the online Apple Store in the US, UK and Australia on Friday. While you can typically put in an order for new Apple products at 12:01 a.m. PT, the HomePod wasn't available until just before 5:45 a.m. PT. 

A little patience was required for Apple's latest product. The consumer electronics giant unveiled the HomePod at its developer conference in June and said it was slated to ship in December, but it ended up delaying the release to early this year. The device will hit stores Feb. 9. 

The HomePod is available for $349, £319 or AU$499 in white and space gray. Apple has positioned it as a speaker first, smart device second. You'll be able to ask Apple's Siri voice assistant to do things like play a song on Apple Music, send a message to a friend through WhatsApp or control your smart lights. Later this year, you'll be able to link two HomePods together for multiroom listening and stereo sound. 

Unlike past iPhone launches, the HomePod didn't immediately sell out Friday, and the Apple Store didn't have glitches that prevented people from placing their orders. As of 7:30 a.m. PT, both the white and space gray versions of the speaker were still available, and the shipment date lists Feb. 9. Apple's hottest iPhone models have tended to sell out within minutes.  

Now playing: Watch this: Apple HomePod: Everything to know before you buy
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Anticipation for Apple's HomePod is likely nowhere near as high as demand for a new iPhone. Despite efforts to get into new markets like wearables and the smart home, Apple still makes about two-thirds of its sales from its smartphones. 

Working against Apple's smart speaker is the popularity of Amazon's Echo and the HomePod's higher price compared to rivals. The speaker also doesn't easily stream music from third-party services like Spotify, and the number of other tasks you can ask of Siri is limited. Siri itself has been deemed a subpar voice assistant by researchers. And even though Apple is pushing HomePod's audio capabilities, that may not win over as many people as it hopes. 

"There is not a large market for high-quality audio," Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin said. "Most Echo owners are completely content with the sound quality and say it is 'good enough' for their needs."

Siri, can I buy a HomePod?

When Apple showed off the HomePod for the first time in June, it positioned its new device as a music experience rather than just a smart-home hub, ostensibly to "reinvent home music." It has better audio specs than other hub speakers and an A8 chip for processing (the same chip that's in the iPhone 7). It uses a wide-array mic that supposedly can hear you over the music, and naturally integrates with Apple Music. It can also control HomeKit devices. 

But the HomePod joins an already crowded market. Amazon with its Alexa-powered Echo dominates the smart speaker market, and developers have been racing to create "skills" that work on Echo  devices. Much of the buzz at this year's CES tech confab in Las Vegas centered on Alexa-supported products, not Apple-compatible devices as in the past. Google also has been making a bigger push with its Assistant in smart speakers and other smart home products. 

Then there are traditional audio companies, like Sonos and Samsung's Harman business, which also are jumping into the smart speaker market with their own Alexa and Google Assistant devices. 

HomePod costs more than comparable smart speakers. An Amazon Echo costs $99.99 at Amazon.com, while a Google Home retails for $129 at Dell Home. Versions of those speakers with weaker capabilities, like the Echo Dot, have sold for as low as $29. And, starting Jan. 26, you can get two Sonos One speakers for the same price as one HomePod (that's a $50 discount apiece on the Sonos speaker).

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