After months of leaks and delays, the intriguing smart speaker is now available for preorder.
It's go time. You can now preorder the Apple HomePod . (Here's how to do it.) The company's inaugural smart speaker will hit store shelves on Feb. 9 in the US, UK and Australia.
The release will conclude the HomePod's tumultuous prologue, which started with rumors of a standalone Siri-powered speaker in 2016. In 2017, Apple confirmed its existence at its Worldwide Developers Conference -- just weeks before the "firmware leak" that disclosed previously unknown details about the device (as well as iOS 11, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X). Originally scheduled to debut in time for the 2017 holidays, the company officially delayed the HomePod launch until "early 2018," citing a need for "more time."
Time has passed, and in the interim, Amazon , Google and others have solidified their places in the growing smart speaker market. The Google Home Mini and Amazon Dot, discounted to $30, were everywhere during 2017's Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale.
Apple will enter this increasingly competitive market with considerable headwinds. Even before it hits stores, we have some idea of how the HomePod will stack up, at least on paper, against the other players in the market. Of course, we'll need to get our hands on the HomePod before drawing any conclusions, but here's an overview of what we know -- and what we think we know -- based on rumors and confirmed information.
Apple began accepting preorders on Jan. 26, and the HomePod will go on sale Feb. 9. The company plans to launch it first in three regions -- the US, UK and Australia -- but we expect availability to expand globally later this year.
In contrast, Amazon has released only a few Echo models outside of the US (for example, in the UK and Germany), though we anticipate more Echo offerings in the UK and Australia in 2018. After initially launching in the US, the Alexa-powered Sonos One is now available in Australia, Germany, the UK and the US.
Read: Apple's HomePod went through years of starts and stops
This is Apple, after all. The HomePod will launch squarely into the high end of the smart speaker market. Priced at $349, £319 or AU$499, the characteristically premium device is over $100 more expensive than Amazon's priciest Alexa smart speaker, the Echo Show.
It will cost over $150 more than Harman Kardon's Cortana-enabled Invoke and the excellent Sonos One -- a frenemy that has promised to add support for Apple's Siri voice assistant in 2018. Only Google's Home Max, at $399, costs more -- but, as seen during Black Friday 2017, its manufacturer has shown a willingness to grant deep discounts.
We know the HomePod will provide voice-activated access to Siri, which 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 2018. 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 is the first multiplatform speaker; it already supports Alexa and Google Assistant, and will add Siri later this year.
Read: Apple HomePod vs. Google Home vs. Amazon Echo
Siri has been relatively well integrated into Apple's ecosystem of mobile apps. But Apple says the HomePod will also support some non-Apple messaging apps, like WhatsApp, as well as other voice-controllable functions via Siri, such as note-taking in Evernote. This is an area that Apple will be playing catch-up, but with an install base of roughly 700 million iPhone users, the HomePod will come out of the gate with lots of momentum.
The HomePod will also control smart home gadgets, such as lights and thermostats, and 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 discontinued that policy in June, paving the 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?
Apple says 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. (The ability to connect two or more HomePods together for multiroom listening isn't coming until later this year, however.) 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.
Read: Amazon's 'ESP' is here to make Alexa a better listener
Apple has played up the HomePod's "incredible acoustic properties" and specs such as real-time acoustic modelling, audio beam-forming and multichannel 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 3.5mm 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.
Read: Apple HomePod: A first listen
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-pixel resolution. Such a display could go the minimalist route, simply confirming that Siri is listening to your command, or 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: Say hello to Apple's HomePod smart speaker
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.
Developers also found evidence suggesting that the HomePod will come equipped with 1GB of RAM and an Apple A8 processor -- making it 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.
Editors' note: This article was originally published on Aug. 12, 2017 and has been periodically updated as more information came to light. It was most recently updated on January 26, 2018.