SAN JOSE – Tech giant Apple revealed a new smart speaker called the HomePod on Monday (June 5) in a move widely seen as a challenge to Amazon and Google in the smart home space.
The announcement itself was a departure from the norm as well. Traditionally, Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), where the HomePod was unveiled, is where the iPhone maker gives updates on its software.
As expected, there were updates on Monday at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center for Apple’s iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS for its mobile, computer, smartwatch and Apple TV devices respectively.
But this year’s WWDC also had many hardware launches – refreshed versions of the iMac all-in-one desktops and MacBook Pros laptops, a new iMac Pro computer, a 10.5-inch iPad Pro and the show stealing HomePod smart speaker.
“(The) HomePod is going to re-invent music in our homes,” said Mr Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing head, during the keynote address at WWDC.
The new Apple HomePod is a Wi-Fi six-array speaker and has Siri, Apple’s virtual voice assistant, integrated, so users can ask for the weather or what songs to play from their Apple Music library of digital tunes.
The HomePod can also link up with smart devices in the home, such as connected light bulbs, so that a user can control them with a voice command, like switching them on or off.
Apple also highlighted the audio quality of the speaker and how the device can adjust its sound quality based on the room it is in.
Apple's HomePod appears to rival Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home smart speakers, which also use voice assistants to act on spoken commands from users.
Said Mr Frank Gillett, principal analyst at research firm Forrester Research: “Home speaker devices have become an important host for virtual assistants like Siri. If Apple had not done this, their customers would embrace Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.”
Alexa and Assistant refer to the digital voice assistants for Amazon's and Google's smart speakers respectively.
But Apple's speaker is a lot more expensive than either of these speakers.
The Amazon Echo goes for US$179.99 (S$248.48) and the Google Home is even cheaper at US$109 (S$150.47) in the United States. But the HomePod’s American price of US$349 (S$481.79) is close to double that of the Echo and more than triple that of the Home speaker.
While the HomePod’s price point, compared to the competition, is a “steep barrier”, Forrester’s Mr Gillett noted that Apple has put a much more robust processor in the HomePod.
“They seem be using it to drive superior user experience, sound quality, and privacy,” he said.
The HomePod will ship in the US, Britain and Australia in December, and the rest of the world next year.
NEW IMAC PRO WITH REFRESHED IMAC AND MACBOOK PROS, AND A NEW 10.5-INCH IPAD PRO
The new iMac Pro is the most powerful Mac ever made, according to Apple. With an all-flash architecture and all-new thermal design, the iMac Pro comes with a new space grey enclosure and a 27-inch Retina 5K display.
The iMac Pro features Intel Xeon processors up to 18 cores and the new Radeon Pro Vega graphics processing unit with up to 16GB of video memory.
There is also an update to Apple’s all-in-one desktops, iMac. The new iMacs are updated with better graphics processor that makes them better suited for virtual reality (VR) content creation and playback.
The MacBook Pros are also updated with Kaby Lake processors and up to 50 per cent graphics processing power.
The new 10.5-inch iPad Pro comes with a faster A10X processor, that is 30 per cent faster processor performance than the A9X chip found in iPhone 7.
The new iMac and MacBook Pro are up for order now on Apple’s Singapore website and can be bought from the Apple store from Wednesday (June 7).
The 10.5-inch iPad Pro can be ordered now on Apple’s Singapore website and is expected to be delivered to customers next week.
For now, the new iMac Pro will be available in the US in December.
Apple’s software honcho Craig Federighi introduced the new iOS 11 for iPhones and iPads. There are a whole bunch of new features in iOS 11.
They include person-to-person payment in Apple Pay, iMessage being synced across iOS and macOS, augmented reality support as well as a smarter Siri virtual voice assistant.
Siri has a number of new features including translation from English to other languages like Mandarin and Spanish, by simply saying words in English. The iOS 11’s camera now has new effects, including long exposure and replay.
The App Store has also been re-designed with a new user interface, such as for the Today and Games tab.
macOS High Sierra
The new macOS 10.13 known as High Sierra was also announced. The previous macOS 10.12 was called Sierra.
High Sierra’s new Safari Web browser features autoplay blocking to prevent irritating online video advertisements from playing, and intelligent tracking prevention.
More importantly, High Sierra will see the implementation of the Apple File System (APFS). Optimised for flash drive storage, APFS offers stronger encryption and faster transfer of files among the new features.
The biggest news, however, is the introduction of the VR developer kit for High Sierra. This means Mac users can finally enjoy VR apps and games on their Apple computers.
watchOS 4 and tvOS 11
In the upcoming watchOS 4 for Apple Watch announced on Monday, there are new watch faces including Siri, Kaleidoscope and Toy Story. Other improvements include a new Music app, multiple workouts for a single session and gym equipment support.
For the new tvOS 11 also unveiled on Monday, Mr Tim Cook said that Amazon Prime Video will be arriving on the platform later this year.