The smart home speaker market is no longer a straight shootout between Amazon Echo and Google Home. At this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple made its rather-delayed entry into the the domain of connected speakers – by announcing the multi-featured Apple HomePod (it will hit the markets in December). Given that more than 100 million smart speakers will be shipped by 2024, generating revenues of more than $14 million, the HomePod does have ample scopes to make a mark in this market. For that to happen though, it has to match up to the challenge of Amazon Echo (primarily), which debuted in 2014, and is currently by far the most popular AI-based smart speaker in the market (has a 3X lead over Google Home). We will here do an Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo analysis, and try to determine which of these connected speakers comes out on top:
(Note: Amazon Echo has been in existence for over a couple of years, while Apple HomePod is yet to be launched. The comparison, if required, will be updated after the latter is commercially released)
Speakers & Microphones
Apple HomePod has been positioned primarily as a high-quality audio device – and it certainly has the edge as far as the built-in microphones and sound configuration architecture (upgraded Sonos-like speakers) are concerned. Each of the 7 tweeter speakers of the HomePod has its very own ‘custom amplifier’ setup (along with the 4” woofer). The single woofer (2.5”)+speaker combination of Amazon Echo rather pales in comparison with the much more advanced setup of Apple’s speaker. Also, Homepod has six far-field microphones (Amazon Echo has seven), along with a low-frequency mic. Casual listeners might not quite get the subtle improvements in sound quality that the HomePod will offer – but for the discerning users, it can well be a significant factor.
By 2020, nearly 3 out of every 4 homes in the United states will have connected speakers (at least one). In other words, smart speakers are well on their way to becoming mainstream – and physically, they need to blend well with the actual room decors of end-users. Once again, Apple HomePod – with its typically minimalistic designs – would have the edge. It is less tall than the Amazon Echo (<7” compared to >9”) and is covered with the speaker grille. There is a glowing area at the top, just like Alexa blue that glows on the Amazon Echo when it is being talked to. The Echo is rather too conspicuous with its crisp cylindrical structure – and can tend to stick out in a room.
Apple HomePod is powered by the proprietary A8 chip (which debuted on iPhone 6/6 Plus a couple of years ago). It will allow the new speaker to deliver superior-quality audio performance, customized for different locations/rooms – thanks to the capability to analyze spatial data. Amazon Echo, which has the powerful DM3725CUS100 digital media processor, generally offers the same audio quality everywhere, and is not affected by locational changes. Make no mistake though – the audio quality of Amazon Echo is excellent, and the HomePod – with all its elaborate settings – will have a tough job of surpassing that.
Utility as a well-rounded smart home device
The Cupertino company has tried to avoid a head-on tussle with Amazon Echo, by positioning the HomePod as a ‘music first’ smart speaker (Siri was referred to as ‘musicologist’), and focusing primarily on the audio features of the device. There is built-in support for the HomeKit platform, allowing users to adjust room temperatures, switch on/off lights and other appliances, access weather information and perform other smart home tasks. There is no HomeKit-like hub for Amazon Echo, which relies on its third-party set of ‘Skills’, to provide a vast range of services for connected homes. Still, it seems that the target group of users for the two smart speakers will be different – those more interested in AI home assistants (with audio as an afterthought) will go for Amazon Echo, while people who are more concerned with the music/sound capabilities will consider the Apple HomePod.
Note: Amazon has also partnered with Samsung for the integration of SmartThings in Echo.
5. Siri vs Alexa
Apple’s much-loved AI digital assistant Siri is getting smarter with time. It can offer contextual search options, translation services and a selection of other advanced features to HomePod users – tasks that Amazon’s Alexa is not equipped to perform. For regular web searches, information access and even timer-setting activities, the efficiency levels of Alexa and Siri are roughly the same (although the HomePod will be more likely to accurately understand voice commands in a crowded, noisy room). Alexa is a powerful AI digital assistant, but Siri on HomePod has the potential to be just a bit better.
6. Trigger words
Amazon Echo offers greater options to users, when it comes to choice of ‘wake words’ or ‘trigger words’ to activate the device. ‘Alexa’ is, of course, the default word to ‘wake up the device’, but people can also use ‘Echo’, ‘Amazon’ and even ‘Computer’ (added in January 2017; a nod to ‘Star Trek’ fans, perhaps?) to get started in Echo. On the other hand HomePod will have the single ‘Hey Siri’ phrase to start up the HomePod. Not only are the options to ‘call’ the Amazon speaker more, it also seems natural to say its ‘wake words’ repeatedly, than having to say ‘Hey Siri’ (or, for that matter, ‘Ok Google’ for Google Home) many times.
7. Platform and device compatibility
Although the usability of Apple HomePod will be limited to the iOS platform only (Amazon Echo can be paired with both Apple and Android phones), the extensive range of popular Apple home devices (iPhones and iPods and Macbooks and iPads) hand an advantage to the former. It will that much more easily integrable in the regular setup of smart devices used by people. Amazon Echo, on its part, has only its own speaker for playing music through (the smaller Echo Dot can be attached with speakers via 3.5 mm ports or via Bluetooth). Apple also has the option of enabling transfer of music/video files from the HomePod to Apple TV (as Google does for Home and Chromecast). If this feature is indeed incorporated, using Apple’s speaker would become really easy.
8. Support for music stores
Amazon Echo fairly blows away the HomePod in terms of third-party music support. Users can stream music from Audible, Pandora, TuneIn, Spotify and iHeartRadio, in addition to Amazon Music and Prime Music, on the Echo speaker. In contrast, the HomePod will only have Apple Music to start things off. The audio experience on the new speaker will be more customized and (hopefully) of a better quality – but the sheer range of music support on the Echo makes it win this round hands-down.
9. Multi-room functionality
Apple HomePod has this, while Amazon Echo does not. Apple announced the AirPlay 2 wifi standard last month – and that will ensure smooth multi-room support for the smart speaker in particular, and the HomeKit platform in general. Amazon Echo, in its present form, does not have any such comparable feature. However, there is a corollary to this: the support for third-party apps is very limited on AirPlay 2 (understandably, with it being a new standard). For regular single-room functions, the Echo does not have any such limitations.
Note: Multi-room support is offered by Google Home as well.
10. Integration with third-party applications
Google Home arrived last year, and already has a fairly impressive list of supported third-party apps. Amazon Echo, by virtue of being the oldest player in the market – offers even more in this regard, with support for regular, essential applications like Sky News, National Rail and Uber. Apple HomePod is the new kid on the block, and it will take some time to build a network of supported apps. It can be reasonably expected that between now and December, there will be news of several new apps becoming available on the HomePod. For the moment though, it’s advantage to Echo in this context.
11. Market share
The stranglehold that Amazon Echo has over the worldwide smart speaker market won’t make things easy for the HomePod. On average, 7 out of every 10 connected speakers sold is an Echo device – and there are, at present, well over 8 million people using this home speaker. The combined sales figure of Amazon Echo and Google Home will nudge towards 25 million units by the end of this year – a significant figure in a market that is not really wide yet. However, the smart home market is expanding rapidly – and if the Apple HomePod is as good as many tech enthusiasts feel it has the potential to be, there will be a market for it.
12. The price factor
Apple has always been a company that makes ‘premium products’ (let’s forget about the icky iPhone 5C for the moment!). The Cupertino tech giant has retained that approach for the upcoming HomePod, which will be priced at a hefty $349 in the American market, nearly double the price tag of $179 for Amazon Echo. What’s more – for the consumer looking for a smart speaker that offers plenty of cool functions as well as an affordable price, Google Home ($129) can seem to be the best alternative. The cost of the smaller Amazon Echo Dot (second generation) is as low as $50. Apple has been trying to market the HomePod as much more than a smart speaker (hence the focus on audio/music, and less emphasis on Siri/AI capabilities) – but the much higher price point will be barrier for customer adoption – particularly since similar (and arguably, equally good) devices are available at much cheaper rates.
Compared to Amazon Echo, the form factor of the Apple HomePod has a slightly more bulky feel about it (Homepod weighs 5.5 pounds, while the weight of Echo is only 2.3 pounds). The more advanced mic and speaker setup of HomePod should offer better audio quality – but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to motivate users to fork out the considerably higher price. There are no rooms for doubting that HomePod has several top-class features – but managing the steep price tag will be a big challenge. At the moment, it appears that HomePod will find favour among those who are already invested in the Apple device ecosystem, while for others, Amazon Echo (or Google Home) will remain the preferred choice.
We are still months away from the launch of Apple HomePod. A lot can change in the interim, and the new speaker might well get new features that enhance its overall attractions.
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