Apple unveiled the company’s long awaited competitor to the Amazon Echo smart speaker at the company’s WWDC conference on Monday. Like the Echo and the Google Home, the HomePod is an always-listening speaker that plays music, answers questions and controls your smart home.
It’s due out this December in the US, UK and Australia and will cost a lofty $349. (UK and Australian prices weren’t announced, but that converts to roughly £270 or AU$465.) That’s expensive — the Echo’s only $180 and the Home’s even cheaper at $130.
Apple’s upcoming HomePod has to sound better than both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. That’s the expectation the company set, and the HomePod has to follow through for it to outdo the highly competent competition.
Apple avoided making a direct comparison with the wildly successful Echo, instead pitching the HomePod as a hybrid of Echo-like smarts and a Sonos-quality speaker. Marketing VP Phil Schiller promised it would “rock the house” during the presentation and sound “free of distortion.” The HomePod is being positioned as a speaker first and foremost, but make no mistake, it bears a lot in common with both the Echo and the Google Home.
The HomePod could sell well enough just on the clout of its Apple branding, but to actually be better than either the Echo or the Home, it will need to sound great. Because I expect it’ll have a hard time keeping up with either of its competitors as a smart home control point or an entertainment device.
Seizing an opening — how the HomePod could win
Neither the Amazon Echo or the Google Home fared particularly well on our sound tests during their reviews. Both devices sound fine for casually listening to music, but we heard distortion from both of them at high volume levels. Here’s CNET editor Ty Pendlebury’s sound quality breakdown of the two speakers for audiophiles. In short, if you’re particular about fidelity, he doesn’t recommend either.
If you believe Apple’s pitch, HomePod promises to free the smart speaker from audio mediocrity.
Schiller threw out a bunch of impressive-sounding specs during the WWDC keynote. The HomePod will feature:
- 7-tweeter beam-forming array
- 4-inch, forward-facing subwoofer
- iPhone A8 chip, which will supposedly adapt the sound quality to fit the room
We heard some sound during a demo, but that’s far from a real-world example. We won’t know how well the HomePod actually sounds until we get a chance to test it in a controlled environment this December. The room-adapting sound seems particularly cool, but I wonder if it will make a tangible difference to an average listener.
Both the Echo and the Google Home provide means of connecting to your existing sound system. The $50 bite-sized Echo Dot plugs into your speakers. The regular Echo offers Bluetooth. The Google Home can cast audio to any Chromecast-enabled device or any speaker with a Chromecast streamer plugged into it.
The only way the HomePod can actually justify its $349 price — nearly double the cost of the Echo — is if it can actually qualify as a high-fidelity sound system in and of itself.
How the Echo keeps its throne
Other than sound quality, the HomePod has a long road ahead of it to compete with the Echo. After a couple of years, the Echo has amassed more than 10,000 third-party skills, essentially apps that allow it to do everything from order a pizza to call you a cab.
The always-listening Echo also revolutionized the smart home. Prior to the Echo, setting up a family-friendly connected home was a nightmare. You often had to shuffle multiple apps to control different types of devices, and adding family members to those apps was a whole other headache.
The Echo made controls simple. Just talk to the Echo’s assistant Alexa and say, “Alexa, turn off my living room lights,” and that was it. Anyone in the family could control a wealth of compatible products without having to shuffle permissions or apps. You just had to be within shouting distance of the Echo.
Apple already has an established smart home platform called HomeKit that works with Siri and your smart home. In theory, that platform will allow the HomePod to hit the ground running with connected controls, but Amazon keeps expanding what Alexa and the Echo can do. Right now, Amazon’s list of compatible products is much more impressive than Apple’s.
Developers also have to jump through an extra hoop to work with HomeKit — all HomeKit devices need to have a special MFi chip installed for security. That requirement has forced major smart home developers such as August and Ecobee to create specific HomeKit versions of their devices. For smaller developers, that might prove a lofty barrier to entry.
Once a device does work with HomeKit, it works pretty well. Plus, the extra security might be reassuring for some smart home customers. HomeKit also offers more flexible commands than the Echo via customizable “scenes.” With scenes, you can say something like “good night” to Apple’s digital assistant Siri, and HomeKit will turn off your lights, lock your doors and set the temperature you like for bedtime. HomePod will supposedly offer full compatibility with scenes right away.
HomePod could end up beating the Echo in the smart home, but in terms of total functionality, it will have a lot of catching up to do.
Don’t forget about the Google Home
By the time the HomePod launches, Google’s answer to the Echo — the Google Home — will already have its own scene functionality, which Google calls shortcuts. The Google Assistant built into the Home also responds more flexibly to commands than Alexa, and has caught up in terms of overall versatility in the few months it’s been out.
Similar to Apple and the HomePod, when Google first announced the Home, it didn’t pitch it as a direct competitor to the Echo in the smart home. Google painted the Home as an entertainment hub. Google still has an advantage on this front — you can control your TV with the Home if your TV has Chromecast built-in or a plugged-in Chromecast streamer.
Google’s only improved your entertainment options with the Home since the speaker launched last November. Now, you can use your voice to launch stuff from Netflix and YouTube. Soon, you’ll be able to use your voice to control videos from several more sources — such as HBO Now and Hulu.
Apple didn’t mention anything about TV controls when it announced the HomePod. In theory, Apple could keep up well on this front if HomePod can control your Apple TV. If you can browse your Apple TV with the HomePod, it could be even better than the Google Home. You have to launch a video by name with the Google Assistant.
Regardless, given that the Apple TV costs at least $150, the Google Home and $35 Chromecast streamer will remain the most cost-effective way of bringing voice control to your TV.
One of Google Home’s latest features is also one of its best: It can actually recognize who’s talking, and personalize responses accordingly. Your family members can each train the Home, and the Home will then provide customized answers when someone asks about personal information, like calendar appointments or traffic on the route to work.
As of yet, this feature isn’t robust enough to allow you to use it for security with the Google Home. It’s easy to fool, so Google hasn’t enabled voice recognition as a means of verifying purchases or unlocking the door. This gives Apple an angle to attack Google, but highly secure voice recognition would be a tall task, and we don’t know if the HomePod’s going to launch with any user recognition at all.
‘Hey Siri, let’s talk’
One HomePod feature flew under the radar during the initial keynote presentation — messaging. Apparently, you’ll be able to use the HomePod to send messages to others. We don’t know many details on this yet, though I’d hope it involves the popular Apple text message service iMessage.
Apple’s following a trend with this feature, as both the Echo and the Google Home recently announced ways of using those speakers as a means of communication. The Echo can call other Alexa-enabled devices. The Home will be able to call anyone in your address book. We’ll need to find out more about the HomePod’s messaging feature, but since all three are new, it’s anybody’s guess which one will end up being the best.
Like the Echo and the Home, Apple’s HomePod will offer lots of tools to help out around the house — such as kitchen timers, reminders and calendar integration. Both the Echo and the Home are great personal assistants. Both are excellent smart home controllers. The HomePod is a late, expensive entry into an already heated battle between the Home and the Echo.
Apple’s road to victory will be a narrow one. Even if it sounds great, you’ll likely be able to get a different great speaker and a $50 Echo Dot for much less than the $349 HomePod. Still, given Apple’s popularity, the HomePod can win. To do so, it needs to put music at the forefront, while making sure it can at least keep up on the other fronts that make both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home so useful.
Update, June 6: Added comparison chart.
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