Apple HomePod: A Look At The Smart Speaker Series

Apple HomePod
image credit: Apple Inc.

The HomePod is Apple's entry into the "smart speaker" market, a category best known for devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home

Amazon and Google tout the Echo and Home, respectively, as devices that can be used for just about anything: playing media, getting the news, controlling smart home devices, and adding third-party features, called skills. While the HomePod has all of those features, Apple positions its device as being primarily about music. While the HomePod can be controlled by voice using Siri, the primary features of the device are around audio, not voice-activated-assistant functionality.

Because of this emphasis on music over functionality, it can be helpful to think of the HomePod as being more like a competitor to Sonos' high-end, multi-unit/room speakers and its Amazon Alexa-integrated Sonos One speaker, rather than the Amazon Echo or Google Home.

HomePod Features

apple homepod
image credit: Apple Inc.
  • Siri: Apple's intelligent assistant makes its way from the iOS, Mac, and Apple TV to the HomePod. While there are other controls, Apple envisions Siri being the primary way to users will interact with HomePod. Commands include: playing music, learning more information about the music that's playing, liking songs to improve Apple Music recommendations; getting news, sports, and weather updates; sending texts via iMessage; handing off phone calls from the iPhone; controlling smart-home devices; using third-party apps.
  • Touch Panel Controls: In addition to voice control via Siri, a touch panel on the top of the HomePod gives users direct access to controlling the device. One tap plays/pauses audio, two skips to the next track, three taps skips to the previous track. The touch panel also offers volume controls and a button to activate Siri.
  • Spatial Awareness: The HomePod can use its microphones to understand the shape, size, and contents of the room it's placed in. As a result, it dynamically changes the audio it produces to best match the room and deliver better sound.
  • Multichannel Audio: If there are two HomePods in the same room, they are aware of each other. Based on that awareness, they collaborate to balance their output and create a stereo pair for immersive sound. This feature requires AirPlay 2, which arrives later in 2018.
  • Multiroom Audio: If there are multiple HomePods in a house or office, but not in the same room, all devices can be set to play the same music at the same time (they can play different music, too, of course). This feature requires AirPlay 2 (see above).
  • Supported Music Sources: Apple Music (with subscription), iTunes Store purchases, iCloud Music Library including iTunes Match, Beats 1 Radio, Apple Podcasts app, AirPlay/AirPlay 2.
  • Smart Home Integration: The HomePod can control smart home/Internet of Things devices that use Apple's HomeKit standard. If you have HomeKit-compatible devices in your home, simply talking to Siri via the HomePod can turn them on or off, activate Home app scenes, and more.
  • Third-Party Skills: Users can add additional functionality to the HomePod with third-party skills. These skills aren't added to the HomePod; rather, they are added by app developers to apps on the user's iOS device that's linked to the HomePod. Then, when the user asks Siri to activate one of those skills, the request is routed to the iOS device for completion; the results are sent to the HomePod and Siri announces them.

HomePod Hardware and Specs

Apple HomePod internals
image credit: Apple Inc.

Processor: Apple A8
Microphones: 6
Tweeters: 7, with custom amplifier for each one
Subwoofer: 1, with custom amplifier
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0, AirPlay/AirPlay 2
Dimensions: 6.8 inches tall x 5.6 inches wide
Weight: 5.5 pounds
Colors: Black, White
Audio Formats: HE-AAC, AAC, protected AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, FLAC
System Requirements: iPhone 5S or later, iPad Pro/Air/mini 2 or later, 6th generation iPod touch; iOS 11.2.5 or later
Release Date: Feb. 9, 2018

The first-generation HomePod packs a lot of smarts and audio features into a relatively small package. The brain of the device is an Apple A8 processor, the same chip used to power the iPhone 6 series. While no longer Apple's top-of-the-line chip, the A8 provides a ton of power.

The primary reason the HomePod needs so much processing horsepower is to support Siri, which is the primary interface for the device. While there are touch panel controls on top of the HomePod, Apple conceives of Siri as the primary way of interacting with the speaker.

The HomePod requires an iOS device to be connected for setup and to use some features. While it can use Apple's cloud music services like Apple Music, there's no built-in support for other music services. To use those, you can stream audio from iOS device using AirPlay. Because AirPlay is a technology exclusive to Apple, only iOS devices (or devices with AirPlay workaround tools) can send audio to the HomePod

The HomePod does not have a battery, so it must be plugged into a wall outlet in order to be used.