The Apple HomePod has arrived right on cue, just as the the smart speaker space is really heating up. While Siri still has to improve in order to best Amazon and Google in the voice assistant department, the HomePod makes a compelling HomeKit hub, and a brilliant performing speaker.
Alexa has been working its way into homes since 2014 across various Amazon Echo devices, and Amazon has consolidated itself as the leader in this space. Google Home has been accelerating fast as well - three native speakers out already and you couldn't move at this year's CES without bumping into a speaker packing the search giant's Assistant.
What does this mean for Apple? How does HomePod stack up against the competition? Here's everything you need to know.
While there's been some variation in the smart speakers to date - unless we're counting the awkward, squat Echo Show - everyone has gone for the obvious small-tower design. The HomePod looks like Sonos redesigned the Mac Pro. It sits at 6.8-inches tall and comes in your choice of white or space grey; it weighs in at a hefty 2.5kg.
It has a more consistent design than the Echo or Google Home, with a mesh grille that wraps around most of the speaker, making it feel slightly cushioned, leaving just a space at the top for the integrated touch controls.
Yep, that shiny surface up top is a touch pad that can be used to physically control the HomePod – think volume, playing/pausing, skipping tracks, that kind of thing. It's not a display as such; you'll just see the plus and minus signs if you touch it and it's also where you'll see Siri's familiar multi-colored waveform.
HomePod: Audio action
It's clear that, first and foremost, Apple is pitching HomePod as a high-end speaker - it did pay $3 billion for audio specialist Beats, don't forget.
The HomePod is loaded up the wazoo with speaker tech: six microphones, seven beam-forming tweeters and a 4-inch upwards-facing woofer. It packs Apple's A8 chip inside, and this aids the HomePod in its mission to deliver room-filling sound. Its advanced algorithms dynamically and continuously analyse the music you play – tuning the low frequencies and automatically adapting the acoustics.
The HomePod also has spatial awareness and will adjust its sound depending on where in the room it's placed - helping to deliver better sound, including echo cancellation. It actually readjusts itself every-time you move it or unplug it, using the built-in accelerometer to detect a change in its location.
If a HomePod is placed against the wall, it will put all the big sounds front and centre (vocals, lead instruments etc) and beam them out directly to the room, and all the ambient reverb and backup vocals will be sent against the wall for dispersion. If the HomePod is placed in the middle of the room, with space around it, it'll do 360-degree sound, with the music evenly split in every direction.
Siri responds automatically to "Hey Siri" and, because of the six-microphone array setup - it should be able to hear you even if you have the music at full volume.
HomePod: Getting started
Setup is as simple as AirPods setup. You just hold your iPhone near the HomePod and in seconds, it's ready to go and play your music.
During setup, which takes no more than a couple of minutes in total, all of your Apple and iCloud account details will be sent from your iPhone to the HomePod, along with your Wi-Fi details.
During this setup process you'll be tutored through a few Siri commands and you'll also have the chance to give HomePod access to apps on your phone to send messages and take notes - but more on that, in a bit.
HomePod: Apple Music and iTunes
HomePod is, obviously, designed to work with Apple Music. It will learn your preferences and tastes over time, based on your listening history and Siri is there as much more than a digital DJ - Apple says this personal learning turns Siri into a "Musicologist".
And it's not just about starting songs, albums or playlists with your voice - Apple's AI assistant can handle advanced queries, so you can ask things like, "Siri, what year did this song come out?”, "Siri, who is the singer in this band," or “Siri, can you play something totally different?”
However, you don't necessarily need an Apple Music subscription to get tunes out of a HomePod. It can play music purchased from iTunes, stream Beats 1, or play podcasts without needing a subscription, although you will need to cough up for the more advanced Siri music controls and queries.
- "Hey Siri, play [album, track, playlist]"
- "Hey Siri, what song is this?
- "Hey Siri, play some [genre]" or "Hey Siri, play some [decade] [genre]."
- "Hey Siri, when was this released?"
- "Hey Siri, who's plays the drums in this band?"
- "Hey Siri, what album is this from?"
- "Hey Siri, play a playlist from Pitchfork."
- "Hey Siri, play [artist's] latest song?"
- "Hey Siri, what's the new album from [artist] called?" then "Hey Siri, play that."
- "Hey Siri, play this year’s Grammy nominees."
- "Hey Siri, play that song by [artist] featuring [artist].
- "Hey Siri, play the other one" - for cover versions, live recordings etc.
Using your iPhone / iPad to control HomePod
When you are playing something through Apple Music or iTunes, you can pick up your iPhone and control HomePod using your phone's display – either by diving into the Apple Music app, or using the music control shortcut in Control Center.
A lot has been made of Apple's closed door approach to the HomePod, with a lot of people calling it an all-Apple affair. That's not strictly true though - you can stream Spotify, Deezer, your favourite radio stations and a whole lot more on a HomePod but not using Siri.
The HomePod does everything any other regular AirPlay speaker does so, if your streaming app of choice, or your radio app of choice, are iOS and have AirPlay options then you can beam over your sounds. That does, of course, mean getting out your iPhone or iPad to get things going.
That means no "Hey Siri, play Frightened Rabbit on Spotify" or "Hey Siri, wake me up at 7am with KEXP", as there is with Amazon's Echo speakers or Google's Home devices (both of which actually let you set Spotify as a default ahead of their own in-house streaming services).
As with iTunes playback, Siri may not be as smart when it comes to answering queries or offering up alternatives when using third-party service over AirPlay - but that's not to say the Apple AI goes mute. You should still have no problems with basic playback controls and Siri can still grab band and track information (from Wikipedia) most of the time.
How to stream Spotify on Apple HomePod
AirPlay controls are slightly different on every app, and you'll see the familiar AirPlay button popping up in different places but, given that Spotify is the most popular streaming service on earth and that AirPlay on it can be a bit fiddly, we thought we'd talk you through it.
Firstly, fire up the Spotify app on your iOS device and choose the track you want to get things started with. Click the 'Devices Available' popup, tap 'More Devices' and then select your HomePod speaker. Easy when you know how.
HomePod: Siri as an assistant
Siri is also ready and willing to be your digital assistant - both by controlling your smart home (more on that later) but also by answering your everyday queries.
Siri can read you the news (and offers alternative sources), give you the weather forecast, traffic reports, stock prices, sports results, set timers, offer translations, convert units and currencies and so on.
- "Hey Siri, what is the weather like this weekend?
- "Hey Siri, how many dollars is [x] pounds?"
- "Hey Siri, what was the [team] score?"
- "Hey Siri, what's in the news?"
- "Hey Siri, how do you spell chihuahua?"
- "Hey Siri, where is the nearest cinema?"
- "Hey Siri, set a timer for [x] minutes?"
- "Hey Siri, remind me to..."
HomePod: Multiple users
HomePod allows for text messages and third-party messaging apps through the SiriKit platform, so you can ask Siri to send a message to a friend from WhatsApp, for example. Reminders, and to-do list apps such as Things and Evernote will work with HomePod too.
However, and as word of warning - HomePod is currently set up to be paired with just one iPhone and there's no multiple user support for voice controls. Siri will react to whoever speaks to her. So, in theory, anyone in your house could send a message on your behalf - providing your iPhone is connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
You can turn this option off - but that would also mean that you, yourself, does not have access to send messages or take notes.
HomePod: iPhone calling
You can use the HomePod as a speaker, as you can with any paired Bluetooth speaker, but you can't ask Siri to make a call, or even answer an incoming call – you have to physically tap your phone and change the speaker setting during a call.
HomePod: HomeKit smarts
We mentioned that Amazon has had a big head start in the smart speaker race but don't forget that Apple HomeKit has been around a while too, and it forms much of the foundation of Apple's smart speaker. HomePod works as a hub for HomeKit, letting you control your smart HomeKit appliances with your voice via Siri; it will even automatically add itself as a Hub within the Home app.
You can ask HomePod to turn the heat up, or bring the shades down halfway. Scenes you create in the Home app can also be activated by speaking to your HomePod, although there's no option yet to include the speaker itself in any automations or scenes, which is a shame.
- "Hey Siri, I'm going out." (scene initiation)
- "Hey Siri, turn the downstairs lights on."
- "Hey Siri, turn the heat up."
- "Hey Siri, make it brighter in here."
- "Hey Siri, how's the indoor air quality?"
- "Hey Siri, what's the temperature in the [room]?"
- “Hey Siri, is the garage door open?”
HomePod: AirPlay 2 - stereo and multiroom
Multi-room and stereo setups aren't coming until later in 2018, when AirPlay 2 arrives.
The big sell for AirPlay 2 is multi-room support from iOS devices; from your iPhone or iPad you'll be able to send music to multiple HomePod speakers - as well as other AirPlay 2 enabled speakers.
Check out our comprehensive guide to AirPlay for more info.
Planning on putting your HomePod on a wooden surface? Then make sure you check out the online fuss being dubbed #ringgate.
Users and tech reviewers found that their HomePods left white rings on wooden surfaces. The issue is a result of devices with silicone bases having an odd chemical reaction with some oiled or waxed surfaces. Apple confirmed the issue, updating its HomePod help page with suggestions such as placing it on a different surface and re-oiling the furniture.
HomePod: Price and global availabilty
The Apple HomePod is on sale now and costs $349.
A wider global release is planned for later in 2018, with Germany and France first on the list with a spring launch.
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