Like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, Apple's HomePod is a multitasking voice control assistant.

James Martin/CNET

Apple's first smart speaker -- the HomePod -- will be available for preorder in the US and UK starting Jan. 26 (Jan. 27 in Australia), the company announced on Tuesday. It goes on sale on Feb. 9, with the price set at $349, £319 or AU$499.

The confirmed release date is two months later than the December 2017 window originally announced when the product was first unveiled back in June at Apple's 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose. 

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, debuted the HomePod on stage during the keynote address at that show, but his presentation was short on details. That said, here's what we know so far about what Apple's Siri-powered rival to the Amazon Echo and the Google Home can do:

  • Send messages, set timers, listen to podcasts
  • Siri integration (via a "six-microphone array")
  • HomeKit-compatible
  • Can work with Apple Music subscription 
  • Powered by an A8 processor (same as iPhone 6)
  • Spatial awareness
  • White and space gray color finishes 
  • Measures 6.8 inches tall by 5.6 inches wide (172 by 142 mm)
  • Weighs 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg)
  • Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-compatible
  • Works with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch (view complete list of compatible devices here)
  • Integrates with Apple's Home app for iOS
  • Built-in touch display allows for manual music control (adjust the volume, play/pause, skip, skip back)
  • Multiroom audio and stereo pairing via AirPlay 2 coming later in 2018
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Major competition from Alexa and Google Assistant

The big challenge for the HomePod is that millions of households already have a smart speaker on the kitchen counter or bedroom nightstand. But those are all working on rival platforms from Amazon (Alexa) or Google (Assistant), which allow you to play music, control lights, door locks and other home appliances just by using your voice.

Alexa's open software makes it easy for developers to create their own uses for Amazon's entire family of Echo speakers, all of which answer to the wake word "Alexa." And with its wide-ranging product line -- the $50 Echo Dot, the $100 second-generation Echo, the $130 Tap, the $130 Echo Spot, the $200 Echo Look  and the $230 Echo Show -- you could buy several Echo speakers for the price of a single HomePod.

The Google Home, Google's $130 Echo competitor (announced in May 2016) works in much the same way. Say, "OK, Google," or, "Hey, Google," and the Google Assistant will kick into listening mode. Google also offers a smaller Google Home Mini speaker for $50, as well as the $399 Google Home Max

Notably, third-party speakers that incorporate Alexa (Ultimate Ears Blast) and Google Assistant (JBL Link) offer an ever wider choice beyond Amazon and Google themselves. And at least one product -- the Sonos One speaker -- will be compatible with both platforms after a 2018 software update adds Google support to its Alexa compatibility. 

Meanwhile, both Amazon and Google are increasingly open platforms with wide compatibility among smart home devices, from thermostats to ceiling fans to lightbulbs, to name just a few.

HomeKit, by comparison, has lived exclusively in iOS devices for three years, without a companion piece of hardware to call home. (Ironically, even though Amazon quickly established itself as a leader in the smart voice assistant space. Apple got there first when it introduced HomeKit at WWDC 2014.) That means anyone without an iPhone or iPad was automatically excluded from HomeKit. A standalone Siri speaker should make HomeKit much more accessible to Android users, children and other family members who'd rather not use an iPhone to ask Siri a question.

Manufacturers wanting to integrate with Apple's smart-home platform used to have to stick an MFi ("made for iPhone") chip in their products before they hit shelves. So instead of a simple software update that would extend to existing customers, companies had to introduce second-generation versions of their products with an MFi chip installed. This happened with the Ecobee3 thermostat, the August Smart Lock, the Lutron Smart Bridge and a wide range of other products. Apple announced at WWDC that it would no longer require the MFi chip for HomeKit devices.

The question now is whether Apple's Siri speaker will be enough to compete with Amazon and Google at this late stage. Amazon has set itself apart with its sheer number of Alexa products and open software. And while Google offers fewer devices, it's quickly catching up to Alexa in terms of features. I particularly like that you can enlist the Google Home to follow along with a recipe or to turn on your favorite Netflix show (if you also have Chromecast). 

Will the HomePod one-up those Google Assistant and Alexa conveniences? We'll find out soon enough.

First published June 5, 2017.
Last updated Jan. 23, 4.44 p.m. ET: Added preorder and release date info, along with additional context.