Tuesday 21 January 2020

Hands-on with Apple's new HomePod smart speaker

(Photo: Adrian Weckler)
(Photo: Adrian Weckler)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It may have been well-flagged in advance. Even still, Apple's unveiling of a new smart speaker system may be the standout product from its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose this week.

Apple is positioning the seven-inch device as a very smart speaker that beats rivals on sound quality. But the company is also making clear that the gadget could become the voice-connected centre of emerging smart home technology for millions of people.

This is largely down to the HomePod’s compatibility with HomeKit, Apple’s software platform that makes everyday domestic appliances work with iOS devices.

In this way, the HomePod can control smart home devices by ‘asking’ Siri to turn on the lights, close the curtains or turn the alarm on. It can also so this when you’re away from the house by using the Home app on an iPhone or iPad.

(Photo: Adrian Weckler)
(Photo: Adrian Weckler)

It can also be used via Siri for messages, news, sport or weather.

The HomePod is quite small, at only seven inches tall. However, Apple claims that some high-end technology under its hood gives it an edge for audio quality. “Spatial awareness” sensors allow the HomePod to estimate how best to modify audio levels to maximise effect in any given room. So if you put it in a bookshelf, it will adjust differently than if you put it on a table.

One of the things Apple wants is to make the HomePod addressable from anywhere in the room, even if there’s music playing fairly loudly. In this vein it has a six-microphone array to figure out whether people are nearby.

As a smart speaker, it’s designed for Siri to handle advanced searches within the music library. So you can ask it questions such as “Hey Siri, who’s the bass player in this?”.

Apple has also designed this to go seamlessly with an iPhone. So to pair it, you just hold your iPhone next to the HomePod and it’s ready to start in a few seconds.

Apple is taking privacy pretty seriously on this one. The HomePod only starts ‘listening’ to what you’re saying when you say “Hey Siri”. Even then, any data sent to Apple servers is encrypted and anonymised.

The new gadget will be a direct rival to both the Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers.

Wireless speakers are a booming tech category at present and are seen as a gateway into turning our homes into ‘smart’ homes. Everyday products such as light bulbs, heating systems and security alarms are increasingly being made to connect to the internet. Domestic appliances such as kettles, washing machines and fridges are also becoming wifi-connected.

The device is set to be available in black and white and will first be launched in the US, UK and Australia before Christmas. It will launch in Ireland after Christmas. It’s compatible with an iPhone 5S device (or newer model) running iOS11.

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