First impressions of Ap­ple’s HomePod

With six months to go be­fore its re­lease, Ap­ple’s HomePod is a bit of a mys­tery, and that’s okay, writes Ja­son Snell

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We re­cently learned that Ap­ple’s much-ru­moured smart speaker is real, and it’s called HomePod. Now the wait be­gins – six months un­til it ships in De­cem­ber. But while we’re wait­ing, Ap­ple is still tweak­ing the prod­uct and get­ting it ready.

Sure, a few of us lucky souls were able to lis­ten to a HomePod at Ap­ple’s de­vel­oper con­fer­ence, but no­body out­side of Ap­ple has talked to one or picked

one up. At the risk of stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, that’s be­cause this is a prod­uct that’s not fin­ished yet. Ap­ple doesn’t want to pub­licly com­mit to a fea­ture and then re­al­ize it can’t ship it; the prod­uct as the com­pany con­ceives it to­day may not be the prod­uct that ends up in cus­tomers’ hands in De­cem­ber.

What we know

At this point, some as­pects of the HomePod are locked in. First and fore­most, the hard­ware it­self: It’s pos­si­ble that Ap­ple will tweak it here and there be­tween now and when it goes into full pro­duc­tion, but it’s un­likely to change much. That means the 7in tall speaker, cov­ered in 3D mesh fab­ric in black or white, is what we’ll get in De­cem­ber. The seven tweet­ers, 4in woofer, and ar­ray of mi­cro­phones, that’s a given.

I can tell you that what I heard from the HomePod speak­ers in San Jose, I mostly liked. Cer­tainly, the de­vice can fill a room with im­pres­sive, dy­namic sound. I’ve still got some ques­tions about the pro­cess­ing the HomePod does to the sound, but we’ll get to that in a bit, since that’s likely driven by soft­ware that’s still a work in progress. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the HomePod’s speak­ers are im­pres­sive.

Pow­er­ing the HomePod is an A8 pro­ces­sor, the same pro­ces­sor used on the iPhone 6, iPad mini 4, and fourth-gen­er­a­tion Ap­ple TV. That pro­ces­sor will be tasked with a whole lot of sig­nal pro­cess­ing, from fil­ter­ing por­tions of the out­go­ing Ap­ple Mu­sic track and rout­ing it to var­i­ous speak­ers to

in­ter­pret­ing the in­put from the mi­cro­phone ar­ray and rec­og­niz­ing when there’s a Siri com­mand in­com­ing. It’ll also be in charge of pro­cess­ing other Siri com­mands, talk­ing to the net­work, and plenty more. The speak­ers and mi­cro­phones may be a bit new for Ap­ple, but the rest of this de­vice is as­sem­bled from fa­mil­iar bits of Ap­ple’s hard­ware, soft­ware, and ser­vices.

Of course, Ap­ple has com­mit­ted to Siri sup­port for more than just mu­sic play­back. Gen­eral queries about news, sports, weather, and other gen­eral in­for­ma­tion should be there. Ap­ple says you’ll be able to send texts via Mes­sages, which sounds

like the HomePod will be able to share phone and mes­sage in­for­ma­tion just like Macs, iPads, and iPhones can to­day.

There’s also sup­port for HomeKit. Right now, you need a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Ap­ple TV or an iPad res­i­dent in your house in or­der to sched­ule some HomeKit de­vices and con­trol them all from out­side your home. The HomePod will also serve as a HomeKit hub, so you don’t need one of those other de­vices to be present at all times. There are also some care­ful se­cu­rity de­ci­sions that Ap­ple has had to make for a prod­uct that’s al­ways sit­ting in­side your house – for in­stance, while you can do a lot of home con­trol with HomePod, there will be lim­its – so, for ex­am­ple, some­one out­side your front win­dow can’t shout for your HomePod to un­lock the front door.

What we don’t know and what could change

A long lead time is re­quired to man­u­fac­ture and build up in­ven­tory of hard­ware, so Ap­ple will fi­nal­ize the HomePod hard­ware far sooner than it has to fi­nal­ize its soft­ware. In fact, as an em­bed­ded home de­vice, a new HomePod will prob­a­bly con­nect to a net­work for the first time and im­me­di­ately up­date its own soft­ware. That gives Ap­ple a lot of time to tweak the on-board hard­ware.

The thing I’m most cu­ri­ous about is how Ap­ple chooses to han­dle the way mu­sic is pro­cessed by the speaker sys­tem it­self. From Phil Schiller’s pre­sen­ta­tion in the Key­note and my own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence lis­ten­ing to the HomePod at WWDC

2017, it’s clear that Ap­ple is ap­ply­ing a whole lot of in­tel­li­gence to break­ing apart the com­po­nents of a mu­si­cal track and rout­ing the au­dio to dif­fer­ent speak­ers.

The re­sult is some­thing that’s a lit­tle like sur­round sound – and all this from what is es­sen­tially a mono speaker. (I’m a bit sur­prised that the HomePod doesn’t ap­pear to try to em­u­late stereo ef­fects with its many tweet­ers, but at least for now Ap­ple seems to sug­gest that for real stereo ef­fects you’ll need to buy two HomePods and use them in con­cert.) With most speak­ers, to get the full ef­fect you need to be sit­ting right in front of them, but the HomePod is fir­ing off sound in all di­rec­tions, so as I cir­cled the HomePod I lis­tened to, I never felt that my ears were fall­ing out of the sweet spot.

That said, the idea that Ap­ple is pro­cess­ing the au­dio sig­nal in or­der to route por­tions of it to dif­fer­ent speak­ers might give some au­dio­philes pause. Even I felt that one track, Ste­vie Won­der’s

Su­per­sti­tion, Ap­ple’s sep­a­ra­tion of bass and tre­ble went too far – turn­ing a crunchy com­pressed 70s tune into some­thing that was no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent, and to my ears, not for the bet­ter.

So I won­der if Ap­ple will be spend­ing the next few months tweak­ing its au­dio al­go­rithms. Will the pro­cess­ing ap­proach change based on the genre of a given song? Will a HomePod’s owner be able to con­trol the ag­gres­sive­ness it uses to process au­dio, just as many de­vices let us ap­ply EQ set­tings? Will Ap­ple of­fer dif­fer­ent pre­sets, so dif­fer­ent lis­ten­ers can find the set­ting

that sounds right for them? We just don’t know – and Ap­ple might not know yet, ei­ther.

We also don’t seem to know much about the swishy Siri logo at the top of the HomePod. It doesn’t ap­pear to be a screen, per se, but more of an in­di­ca­tor area – per­haps dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of lights sig­nal dif­fer­ent kinds of ac­tiv­ity or other sta­tus. There’s also hard­ware to con­trol the vol­ume of the de­vice right on the top. There’s prob­a­bly a lot more de­tail here that Ap­ple’s hold­ing off on dis­cussing for now – per­haps be­cause it mud­dies the core mes­sage, or per­haps be­cause it’s not fi­nal yet.

We don’t know what the process is that the HomePod uses to cal­i­brate it­self. When it comes out of the box, does it use its own mi­cro­phones and some test tones to fig­ure out the sound char­ac­ter­is­tics of its home? Or does it re­quire cal­i­bra­tion from an ex­ter­nal source? Sonos’s

cal­i­bra­tion rou­tine in­volves wan­der­ing around a room hold­ing your smart­phone to lis­ten to pulses and tones be­ing emit­ted from the speaker. I’d imag­ine that Ap­ple would like to avoid that if it could, but can it?

We don’t know how good the mi­cro­phones on the HomePod are, though Phil Schiller sug­gested that they’re ex­cel­lent, able to un­der­stand you across the room at a nor­mal voice while mu­sic is play­ing. We’ll have to see if HomePod can live up to that prom­ise, but I’m hope­ful. I have the sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that an ar­ray of good mi­cro­phones will make Siri on the HomePod feel a lot more re­li­able than Siri on an iPhone or iPad.

There’s a lot we don’t know, but that’s okay. This sum­mer, we’ll all be learn­ing about what’s com­ing this au­tumn in iOS 11, macOS High Sierra, watchOS 4 and tvOS 11. At some point this au­tumn there will be new iPhones, pre­sum­ably. Mean­while, in the back­ground, Ap­ple will be putting the fin­ish­ing touches on the HomePod – and the new iMac Pro, too. I can’t wait to hear more details about both prod­ucts – once Ap­ple’s fig­ured them all out.

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