Teardown: Apple HomePod smart speaker
Image credit: Apple/iFixit
The tech smarts in Apple’s new speaker come at a cost.
Apple’s HomePod is a late arrival to the smart-speaker market, though the company has rarely put much store by first-mover advantage. It is also a typical Cupertino product in that it is premium-priced (£319 in the UK and $349 in the US). By comparison, the Sonos One, its best-reviewed rival for audio, costs $200, while its main competition for cylinder-sized smart assistants are the Amazon Echo ($99) and the Google Home ($129).
By either measure, Apple does not seem to be convinced by the use model competitors are promoting where consumers scatter multiple assistants around the home (remembering also that both Echo and Home can be augmented with hockey-puck-sized sister units).
HomePod is also limited in that it will either play content from Apple Music or whatever app is running on a paired iOS device (the speaker is not yet compatible with Apple’s own Mac OS X desktop/laptop operating system). Other assistants come with a much wider range of options and pre-installed apps. Then there is no external audio input and while Bluetooth 5.0 is specified, it is for connection to home appliances only. This garden has high walls.
As a result, one big question mark that has been hung over the HomePod follows reports of slower-than-expected sales for Apple’s flagship iPhone X. There is concern that, notwithstanding its very loyal customer base, Apple may again be pushing pricing beyond the limit.
Nevertheless, Apple is seeking to reward buyers with an array of innovative features. Most target audiophiles.
The speaker array comprises one four-inch high-excursion, upward-firing woofer and a seven-tweeter array, quite a set-up given the 172mm x 142mm dimensions. Various physical enhancing techniques, including venting to reduce pressure and thereby distortion from the tweeters, are used.
Even the exterior mesh has a custom design. “[It] consists of a net-like layer on the top and bottom, with tiny wiry coils in between,” according to an iFixit teardown. “This type of construction allows sound waves to travel through the fabric, with little to no reflection, while dust is kept out.”
Moving to the HomePod’s electronics, Apple has brought back its A8 64-bit ARM-based processor first seen on the iPhone 6 in 2014, and repurposed it to further improve audio performance (as well, obviously, as drive the on-board Siri digital assistant).
The A8 pulls data about the speaker’s acoustic surroundings from a six-microphone array and then equalises the output to match them, including real-time modelling of the woofer’s mechanics. The beam-forming microphone array is also sufficiently sensitive, Apple says, to pick up the owner’s Siri queries while music is playing.
Later this year, Apple will add stereo capability if you are willing to splash out for a second HomePod and the AirPlay 2 generation of the company’s wireless technology will allow you to add speakers in other rooms (albeit again full-size ones) and control other AirPlay-compatible speakers.
Then, there is HomePod’s Siri capability. It performs the same array of functions as in other implementations. Apart from playing music, it can answer questions, read text messages, play news bulletins and podcasts, send voice messages and offer hands-free calling when paired with an iPhone. And it can be used to control home appliances that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit platform.
For many owners, this will be a perfectly satisfactory array of options in a better performing, easy-to-use package (and reviewers confirm that it takes only about a minute of Q&A with Siri to get your HomePod running).
Even for them, there is one design issue worth noting. The iFixit teardown scores the HomePod at just 1 out of 10 for repairability. It notes that the speaker is “built like a tank” so should last well – but if anything does go wrong, things get messy.
“Very strong adhesives secure the touch input cover, microphone array, rubber foot, and (most annoyingly) the main point of entry on the top of the device – which otherwise looks designed to twist off without much fuss,” iFixit notes. “Even though it looks like there ought to be a non-destructive way inside, we failed to decode it. Without a repair manual, your odds of success are slim.”
An AppleCare package for a HomePod costs $39 for three years of service. After that time, like the company’s other extended warranties, it cannot be renewed. US repair costs for one of the speakers once out of warranty (you get one year as standard) is $279, with an extra $20 in shipping costs if you do not get the work done at a Genius Bar. In other words, it will cost almost as much to fix an older HomePod as buy a new one. Caveat emptor.
Generally, it is hard not to look at HomePod and feel that something is missing. Certainly, it does not feel like a product that will seed the speaker/assistant market. Amazon took it into the mainstream some time ago. Against that, £319 for something that is still in many ways ‘just a peripheral’ does feel steep.
Apple HomePod: exploded view
1 Mesh cover
2 Main assembly
4 Tweeter (l and r)
6 Microphone array (three per array)
7 Control panel
8 Daughterboard (microphones)
9 Logic board
10 LED diffuser
11 Power supply
13 Power distribution ring