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Computers

Apple HomePod Explored and Explained

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Originally announced on the 5th June 2017 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, The HomePod is a smart speaker system designed by Apple to challenge Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo devices.

Available in Space Grey or White, the HomePod was originally due to be launched in the December but was subsequently delayed until 9th February 2018 when it was released in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

HomePod History

iPod Hi-Fi
iPod Hi-Fi,  Photographer: Teófilo Ruiz Suárez, licensed for reuse

The HomePod is not Apple’s first excursion into a Hi-Fi speaker having previously marketed the iPod HiFi, at $349, way back in 2006. 

Also promoted on the premise of superior audio quality, the iPod HiFi was discontinued around a year and a half after its introduction.

Since 2014, a team at Apple has reportedly been working on the HomePod concept, initially as a side project. The aim of the project being to create a device with superior sound to competitors such as Bose, Harman/Kardon and other high-end audio manufacturers. 

HomePod Introduced

Apple HomePod
Apple HomePod, image courtesy of Apple 

Apple is renowned for the thought that goes into its product packaging and the HomePod is no exception. 

The thing that strikes you first is just how heavy the box is. For its relatively small size of 172mm tall by 142mm in diameter, (6.8 inches tall by 5.6 inches diameter), the HomePod weighs in at a hefty 2.5kg (5.5 pounds).

Opening the box reveals the HomePod and, on lifting it out, is a neat coil of nylon-braided electrical flex terminated in a plug. This appears to be high quality and is in keeping with the nylon mesh finish of the device itself. 

It’s a wonder that Apple can not produce iPhone charging leads of such quality. 

The HomePod is controlled by either the touch surface on the top of the device or by voice commands. Tap the touch surface or say “Hey Siri” followed by a specific command. 

Tech Spec

Whilst Apple appears to be a latecomer to intelligent home speakers, compared to Amazon and Google, it has reportedly produced the device with the best sound quality. 

It’s also the most expensive. 

Audio

Apple HomePod X-Ray view
Apple HomePod X-Ray view, image courtesy of Apple 

Apple’s HomePod comprises a high-excursion woofer with custom amplifier in addition to an array of seven horn-loaded tweeters, each of which has its own custom amplifier.

An internal low-frequency calibration microphone deals with automatic bass correction and a six-microphone array picks up far-field Siri voice commands. 

This set up enables direct and ambient audio beamforming meaning that the sound is corrected depending upon placement in a room. 

For example, placing a speaker on a shelf or in an enclosed space could lead to the muddying of bass sounds. Likewise, placing in an open space can leave the sounds somewhat flat. 

Apple’s HomePod detects and corrects these scenarios. 

Requirements and Compatibility

To set up and use an Apple HomePod, you’ll need one of the following:

  • iPhone 5s or later 
  • iPad Pro
  • iPad (5th generation)
  • iPad Air or later
  • iPad mini 2 or later, or
  • iPod touch (6th generation) 

All iOS devices must be running iOS 11.2.5 or later and 802.11 Wi‑Fi Internet access is required. 

In order to get the full benefit of an Apple HomePod, an Apple Music subscription is required for full music functionality.

It is still possible to use Spotify, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, SoundCloud and so on, but that would be streaming via AirPlay from an iOS device, or a Mac. 

Whilst that works, much of the flexibility and convenience of HomePod is lost as Siri voice control is constrained to Apple’s music service.

Setting Up the HomePod

An immediate advantage that the HomePod has over an AirPort Express with powered speaker setup is the cabling. It’s a single power cable. That’s it. 

Previously, an AirPort Express and powered speakers setup would require a cable and plug each. Plus you’d need a 3.5mm audio cable between the two. 

Plug in and turn on the HomePod and bring an iPhone close by to start the set up process. 

Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
  • A window pops up on the lower half of the iPhone screen. Press Set Up
  • If you already have devices configured with HomeKit, select the room in which the HomePod is located
  • Choose whether to enable Personal Requests or not. Enabling them will give other people greater control, so you may wish to think twice if using the HomePod in a shared environment
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
  • Enable Siri
  • Agree to the terms and conditions
  • Confirm the email addresses used for iCloud and Music in Accounts and Settings 
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
  • The iPhone attempts to configure the HomePod
  • If the connection fails, press Try Again or Enter Passcode Manually
  • Enter the passcode, if required
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X
Setting up an Apple HomePod with an iPhone X

Try asking Siri about different things and experiment with voice activated commands to the HomePod.

Controlling the HomePod

The HomePod is very much intended for people who’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem. An iOS device is required to set it up; Android won’t work. Neither can Android AirPlay content. 

Control of the HomePod is via a small touch sensitive screen on top of the speaker. Alternatively, it can be controlled by voice instructions. 

Touch Surface

  • Tap or hold + or for volume up/down
  • Touch and hold for Siri
  • Tap to play/pause music or Siri
  • Double-tap to skip
  • Triple-tap to skip back

Voice Activation

HomePod, if you allow it, continually listens and is triggered by the words ”Hey Siri”

Even when it’s playing music. In fact, HomePod is able to pick up voice commands even above music being played at volume. 

HomePod Voice Commands

The HomePod is an intelligent speaker. That means that you may ask certain tasks of it and Apple’s Artificial Intelligence—AI—assistant executes the command. 

For instance, these are some of the things that Siri can be commanded to do:

  • Play the BBC Friday Night Comedy podcast, or a podcast of your choice
  • What’s the news? (soundbites from BBC, Sky and LBC in the UK)
  • Play music
  • Pause music
  • Convert units and currencies
  • Send iMessage and WhatsApp
  • Translations
  • What’s the Weather in Brighton tomorrow?
  • Traffic
  • Notes and lists
  • Alarms and timers
  • General knowledge
  • Sports scores

HomePod as HomeKit Hub

A hub for HomeKit means the ability to set scenes and control home automation whilst at, or away from, home. 

Until now, the HomeKit hub functionality was limited to the Apple TV (fourth generation and newer) or an iPad capable of running iOS 11 that remains in the home. 

Now, an Apple HomePod is capable of acting as a hub for HomeKit

This means that, if you have embraced home automation, having a hub for your home will allow you to control aspects of that automation even when you’re away from the home network.

We really are living in the future now that we can set lights to come on, blinds to close and the heating to warm the house when leaving work to travel home.

Conclusion

Much has been written in the tech press about how good the speaker sound quality is and how Siri is the least intelligent compared with Amazon Alexa and Google.

In my experience, whilst Siri is able to hear a command even when playing music, it’s not reliable. I’ve had difficulty with Siri hearing me when there is no ambient noise or sound from the speaker. It’s a challenge for an intelligent speaker that doesn’t listen, let alone does not have a particularly extensive feature set. 

The saying goes that pioneers get the arrows; settlers get the land—and Apple often iterates devices to be better than what’s already available. Think iPod and iPhone, both better than their MP3 Player and Android predecessors. 

This time, though, there’s still much work to do.

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