The rumours told us a speaker was coming, and as usual, they were spot on. Called the HomePod, Apple’s promising Alexa-like speech recognition, but with Sonos-grade sound. It’s also the centre of Apple’s envisioned connected home and a way to get us all using Siri more. But more importantly for South African consumers, it’s a smart speaker we might actually get here.
Given we’ve seen neither Google’s Pixel handsets nor its DayDream VR headsets through any official channels, it doesn’t seem likely Google’s Home speaker will show up on our shores anytime soon. Meanwhile, the only Amazon Echo speakers we see (or hear) have to be tricked into thinking they’re in a supported region, and even then functionality can be limited. Siri, meanwhile, already supports South African English… and the Core Group brings in every major Apple product.
That should mean that we not only get the HomePod, but that it’s region-specific features might perform better than Google or Amazon’s offerings. That said, we won’t be seeing it before 2018 (the US, UK and Australia will get it first, starting in December 2017) and a lot can happen in consumer tech in six months. With a launch price in the US of $349 (roughly R4,500 today) the HomePod is going to have to offer more than the weather and decent bass. So, what’s it got to show for that price tag?
Looks and brains
Standing a little over 7in tall and distinctly resembling a Mac Pro in a jersey, the HomePod comes in white and space grey, and looks far more attractive than most speakers, jersey wearing or not. But never mind its exterior, hidden in its barrel-like body are a 4in subwoofer with “real-time sound modelling” and seven “beam-forming” tweeters. What does all that jargon mean? It means the HomePod should provide the best audio its hardware is capable of whether you put it on a bookshelf, on a coffee table in the middle of your living room, or in a corner. Because it’ll account for all of that. Well be still our beating hearts.
There are also a half dozen microphones to ensure your cries of “Hey Siri” are heard over your Black Sabbath complete discography, and pairing should be as easy as it is with Apple’s AirPods (which is very easy, indeed). Bring an iPhone near the HomePod and it’ll offer to pair to it immediately. Plus, it’ll control any Apple HomeKit gear you’ve got, like Philips Hue bulbs, or any you get down the line.
Apple Music made tangible
You can’t blame Apple for showing off the HomePod with Apple Music, but we’d like to know how well it’ll play with other services that Apple doesn’t own. Hopefully that’ll depend on Siri, where developers are increasingly adding support for non-Apple apps like WhatsApp and Spotify. But for many South African consumers, it likely won’t matter, because Apple Music is their already their go-to streaming service. New additions coming to it in iOS 11 — like collaborative playlists and AirPlay 2 — will just make the HomePod even more attractive when it goes on sale locally.
Apple’s also talked up the ability for Siri and the HomePod to respond to natural language questions about music, like “Who played guitar on this track?” or “When was this album released?”, but we’ll have to test that before we’ll be convinced of its usefulness.
Do you even know me?
One thing Apple can’t (yet) beat Google and Amazon at is knowledge about us and our digital habits. Thanks to Gmail and Google Maps alone, Google knows more about most of us than our own mothers, and outside of SA, Amazon knows more about peoples’ shopping habits than their spouses. All of which can be very handy when you’re barking commands at your digital assistant. We don’t tend to share quite as much information with Apple, but perhaps it’ll convince us to, or perhaps being able to skip tracks, save ourselves mental arithmetic and update our calendar will prove more useful than ordering groceries online anyway.
Aside from its steep asking price and the fact that you’ll need to have other Apple devices to get the most out of it, the biggest problem we foresee with the HomePod is that it’s a mono speaker. For stereo, you’ll need a second one. And that’s really going to hurt the pocket. That said, we’ve heard mightily impressive sound from other wireless mono speakers, so perhaps we should hold out tongues until, you know, we’ve actually had a chance to hear the HomePod in action.
Oh, and the name… we’re not sold on it yet. But then, we thought the “iPad” was a ludicrous name at first, too.