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Apple unveils HomePod speaker to take on Amazon Echo and Google Home

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/06/2017 Olivia Solon in San Francisco

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Watch: First look at Apple's Homepod

Apple is launching a smart home speaker called HomePod to compete with the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, the company revealed at its annual worldwide developer conference.

The Cupertino company described the 7in device, which comes in white and “space grey”, as a “breakthrough home speaker” designed to “rock the house”. This means that Apple has placed an emphasis on audio quality, packing the speaker with an array of seven tweeters and a woofer as well as “spatial awareness” that detects its location in a room and adapts the output automatically.

In announcing the HomePod, Apple CEO Tim Cook said there were many companies making products for enjoying music in the home but “none have nailed it yet”. He mentioned wireless speaker systems such as Sonos that “sound good but are not smart” and “other smart speakers” (presumably a reference to Amazon Echo and Google Home) that “don’t sound great”.

“We want to combine this all,” he said.

Apple’s HomePod. © EPA Apple’s HomePod.

HomePod is controlled using Siri, the company’s voice-activated personal assistant, which has, according to Apple, been trained to be better at answering questions about music such as “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?”

“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod, and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice-president of worldwide marketing.

The device can also be used to send messages, get updates on news, sports and weather and control smart home devices connected using Apple’s HomeKit.

Watch: Apple's next moves: Homepod, iOS 11 and iPad Pro (Provided by WSJ)

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Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the Homepod. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At $349, it will be more expensive than Google Home ($109) and Amazon Echo ($179) but cheaper than the Sonos Play 5 ($499). The product will launch in the US, UK and Australia in December 2017 and in other markets in 2018.

“I think it’s a very Apple-esque product in that it seeks to stake out the high end of a market with its technology, price and positioning,” said analyst Paul Erickson from IHS Markit.

However, Erickson described the price point as “aspirational” given that consumer expectations have been set by cheaper competitors, “although Apple has done a great job of being extremely profitable without having to cater to the mainstream, and they will drop their price over time”, he said.

Besides the HomePod, Apple unveiled a collection of new and upgraded products, including a new computer, the $4,999 iMac Pro. The more powerful iMac is intended to address concerns of creative professionals who had been limited to much less powerful iMacs or the much-loved Mac Pro, which hasn’t been updated since 2013.

There was also a new 10.5in version of the iPad Pro, the tablet for professional users, which can support a full-sized keyboard cover. The device has a better display, is faster, and comes with 64GB of memory. The device will start at $649 and start shipping next week. There’s also a 12.9in version that starts at $799.

“We’ve been pushing the boundary of iPads, and today, we’re going to push them further than we ever have before,” Cook said.

Just as Google and Facebook did at their developer conferences this year, Apple announced an augmented reality platform called ARKit to allow developers to more easily create augmented reality apps, such as Pokémon Go, which overlay digital objects on to the real world.

Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, demonstrated the company’s AR capabilities by placing a virtual coffee cup, lamp and vase onto a real table. Given that it is already supported by millions of iPads and iPhones it will, Federighi said, “be the largest AR platform in the world”.

There were also a couple of updates to Apple’s web browser, Safari, including a speed boost that makes it, according to Apple, the fastest ever desktop browser. It also introduced autoplay blocking, which stops music and video from playing automatically without your permission on websites as well as “intelligent tracking prevention”, which stops ads from following you around the web.

Read more about Apple’s announcements from WWDC on the Guardian’s liveblog.

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