Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is now well under way, and one of the biggest announcements isn’t the usual software offering. While iOS 11 will undoubtedly generate a lot of headlines and column inches, the announcement of a smart speaker to compete with products already produced by Google and Amazon is certainly a significant development.
The Apple HomePod will compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home, but the branding and customer loyalty that the consumer electronics giant has built up will undoubtedly count for a lot in this ongoing battle. While the proof will be in the pudding with this speaker system to some extent, details released do give those some indication of its capabilities.
Fans of existing Apple devices will be delighted to see the four-letter word Siri immediately linked with the HomePod, as the smart assistant is central to the functionality of this speaker system. Simply saying the words “Hey Siri” will effectively awaken the Apple HomePod, while playing music can also be achieved in extremely straightforward fashion with the intelligent assistant.
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Apple stated in its presentation that the team which works on Siri on a regular basis has integrated new updates into the AI system for the HomePod, ensuring that the music playback request works better than ever before.
Meanwhile, Apple has also ensured that the HomePod will be a home assistant, working hard to deliver artificial intelligence that enables the device to answer all manner of questions. The consumer electronics giant envisages households interacting with the system regarding everyday information, such as weather or traffic, effectively providing a service that essentially makes life easier for consumers.
Another central feature of the HomePod is that it delivers what is basically a smart home hub for all HomeKit-compatible devices. With smartphone technology becoming increasingly important and a more viable commercial marketplace for the biggest technology manufacturers, it is clear that Apple wishes to make its move in this increasingly significant niche.
Thus, HomePod makes it possible to control all HomeKit Devices remotely, using the Home app on any iOS compatible device. This is nothing new in and of itself; both Amazon Echo and Google Home offer similar facilities. But the fact that this is an Apple gadget is undoubtedly a big deal, as is the tie-in with existing Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad. The massive installed user base for Apple smartphones, tablets and smartwatches almost ensures the success of this system out of the gate, if indeed speakers of this nature are to become a significant consumer electronics niche.
The seven inch tall speaker is powered by an A8 chip, in common with the existing iPhone 6. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Mac Pro, featuring a cylindrical design. It also features a four-inch woofer and seven beam-tweeters, while the system also utilizes spatial awareness in order to adjust the sound that it projects to the room that it has been installed in. Furthermore, two separate HomePods will automatically sync meaning that this is a smart, flexible and intuitive system.
Early observation of the HomePod device led some observers to suggest that the functionality is not particularly impressive. However, Apple clearly attempts to make the device stand out by delivering excellent music-related functionality and really emphasizing the speaker aspect of this speaker (which would seem quite logical!). This was not a particular focus of either the existing Google or Amazon systems, and Apple clearly feels it can make it a unique proposition with this emphasis.
Thus, Beats and HomePod engineers have collaborated on developing a system designed to deliver high-fidelity audio quality. Aside from the seven beam-forming tweeter array, Apple also revealed during the presentation that this speaker system will feature “precision acoustic horns,” and “directional control”. Detail was not exactly forthcoming on precisely what this represents, but demonstrations of the music playback quality of the device have already received a warm reception.
Virtual surround sound
Surround sound is also included in the HomePod, which enables the small speaker to fill up a room with compelling soundscapes. This effectively makes the new Apple speaker system a competitor to existing technology produced by the likes of Sonos. This company was even namechecked by Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller during his pitching of the HomePod, noting that previous speaker systems of this nature have failed to deliver adequate sound quality.
Reviewers have previously criticized the sound quality delivered by speakers produced by both Google and Amazon. The Echo, for example, has just two speakers, including a 2.5-inch woofer which certainly will not compare in quality to the system delivered by the Apple HomePod.
Nonetheless, regardless of the particular qualities of this system, one thorny issue undoubtedly remains. There is no doubt that many consumers will have concerns about the potential invasion of privacy that this machine represents, and Apple certainly took the time to address this during this presentation. Whether this will really assuage the fears of people concerned that Apple is effectively spying on them with Siri is highly debatable, particularly in the existing post-Snowden climate.
But Apple claims that Siri will never send any data to Apple servers until the aforementioned wake expression is uttered. Little information was given on how Apple will store or protect data gleaned by the system, but the corporation has a relatively clean record in this area. However, despite the efforts to reassure people in this area, it seems inevitable that many will be concerned about the potential for the Apple HomePod system to be rather invasive. Conversely, many consumers will completely ignore this and purchase the system anyway.
Price and release date
Apple announced during its Worldwide Developers Conference presentation that the new speaker system will cost $350. The Californian corporation will offer the HomePod in white and space grey, with orders beginning in December ahead of the critical Christmas marketplace. Although the HomePod possesses less features than the existing Echo system, the combination of outstanding music playback and aesthetic beauty should attract many consumers to the smart speaker.