Apple has finally settled on a release date for its smart speaker compatible with voice assistant Siri. The much-anticipated smart home system has a £200 heftier price tag than its rivals and no free music playback option.
Initially expected at the end of 2017, Apple delayed shipment to add last-minute improvements to the smart home system. But now that the smart home system will be available to order online on Friday in the US, UK and Australia and set to hit shops from February 9, the race for smart hub supremacy has encountered a third running mate.
Apple HomePod, £319
Able to send messages on WhatsApp, set timers, check news, weather and travel updates, the Apple HomePod offers virtually the same capabilities as its rival hubs. Again, machine learning learns user preferences to deliver an individual service. Siri will play any song you can think of – as long as you already have an Apple Music subscription. This will be the make-or-break of the hub’s success; will users opt for the Apple unit when its rival products play music from a range of libraries, some at no extra cost?
The HomePod “brings advanced audio technologies like beam-forming tweeters, a high-excursion woofer and automatic spatial awareness, together with the entire Apple Music catalogue and the latest Siri intelligence, in a simple, beautiful design that is so much fun to use,” according to Philip Schiller, senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, Apple. Yet these specifications sound remarkably familiar to Amazon’s existing home hub tech.
At its launch, customers will not be able to play music across multiple HomePods or activate stereo mode. Apple promises a free software update later in the year to boost playback capabilities.
Apple have emphasised its hub’s ability to use “spatial awareness” to adapt its audio based on its physical position in a room – something which Google and Amazon have not highlighted in their own products in the same way. Apple’s smart home system has six microphones compared with Amazon’s seven. Siri will also obey commands to change lights, locks, speakers, garage doors, central heating and more via HomeKit smart home accessories https://www.apple.com/uk/ios/home/accessories/.
Third-party messaging is available through the SiriKit, which Apple has opened up to independent developers at developer.apple.com/sirikit.
Set-up is billed as quick and easy: “simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds”. HomePod is compatible with iPhone 5s or later, iPad Pro, iPad Air or later, iPad mini 2 or later, or iPod touch (6th gen) with iOS 11.2.5 or later.
HomePod will arrive in France and Germany this spring.
Google Home: £49/£129
Released in November 2016, the half-kilo home hub has become a staple of Internet of Things technologies in the home. Wi-Fi dual band and Bluetooth connectivity enable a broad connection spectrum; Google’s plastic pod can be linked with smart lighting and thermostats (such as Hive), controlling the interior climate as it hears simple voice commands beginning with “Hey Google”.
Google Home’s dual-core ARM Cortex media processor ensures speedy machine learning, enabling hub to get to know the user’s personal preferences. Google’s smart home system hardware range is proliferating, with Google Home Mini (£49) launched on October 19 2017. For the musically-inclined, the small, rounded Hub readily connects to the Chromecast Audio Dongle or a Cast-enabled television for playback.
In terms of functionality, the natural language processing software of the Google Assistant occasionally cannot cope with imprecise phrasing and sometimes commands are ignored or repetition is requested. However, the audio sensitivity is generally excellent and when the assistant does understand a command, it responds instantaneously. Capabilities include hands-free calling, music played from Google Play, Spotify or Bluetooth, verbal Google searching, news and travel updates and setting timers/alarms. A microUSB power adapter is included.
As of late December, Google Mini has a few touch controls. The Google Home Max, already for sale in the US ($399) is a version of Google Home with stereo speakers. A UK release date has not been confirmed but is anticipated “in early 2018”.
Amazon Echo: £50/£90/£120/£140/£200
Leading the charge on the smart home system front is the immensely popular Amazon Echo, first launched November 6 2014. AI assistant Alexa is now available in many types of genie lamp, including the Echo Plus (£140), the 2nd Generation Echo (£90), and their little sister, the 2nd gen Echo Dot (£50).
New to the market are the Echo Spot (£120) which has a 2.5″ screen and the Echo Show (£200) which has a 7.0″ display – both of these run video calls to a limited selection of devices. All Echo models include a line-out with 3.5 mm cable except the Show.
As well as readily fulfilling wishes for weather, traffic, sports to-do lists and calendar updates, Alexa’s stand-out smart home system capabilities include requesting an Uber and ordering a Dominoes’ pizza. Echo will also connect hands-free phone calls.
The 2nd gen cylinder will play songs from Amazon Music, Spotify, TuneIn and others (but not Sonos) as well as news briefings and radio through its Dolby-powered speaker. Separate subscription to Amazon Music must, of course, be purchased separately. With seven microphones, its ability to hear its user – even over music – is said to be superior to the Google hub. The hefty (821g) supports 802.11 Wi-Fi, but will not play ball with ad-hoc or peer-to-peer networks.
Amazon’s more advanced Echo Plus is a Zigbee standard home hub which will connect with Philips Hue lighting, Hive and selected other IoT devices like the FitBit. However, Bluetooth is not supported. Dolby speakers will deliver BBC News briefings and audiobooks and Alexa is also happy to help with hands-free messaging. It’s the heaviest yet at just shy of 1kg (954g). Most customers are happy with it, with one in five reviews on Amazon detailing a less-than-impressed stance.
From capability and integration perspectives, Amazon seems to come out on top, particularly as it offers the widest range of models and its two newest products enable video calls.
Some users have already grown bored with the relatively limited hands-free controls on all smart home systems, including the space-taking Echo range. Google’s powder-puff-sized Mini has the edge on its competitors due to its audio sensitivity and compactness. Of course, the machine learning software has ways to go yet across all smart home devices, and at times, any of them will fail to understand the user. But as natural language understanding technologies advance, it seems Google will remain a serious contender to Amazon.
As for Apple, delays, subscription music and limited functionality do not inspire deep confidence. However its HomeKit interconnectivity and third-party messaging functions are worthy USPs.