With HomePod mini, Apple goes small, cheap and smart

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HomePod mini lives up to its name
HomePod mini offers a smaller and cheaper Apple smart speaker experience.
Photo: Apple

Apple took the wraps of the HomePod mini Tuesday, showcasing a pint-size smart speaker that promises high-end audio at a lower price than its big brother. But the most interesting parts might have nothing to do with music.

With Apple’s custom U1 ultra-wideband chip inside, the HomePod mini also can serve as an advanced hub for home automation. A new Intercom feature promises to connect family members wherever they are. And, in typical Cupertino fashion, the speaker will work closely with other Apple devices.

Like the larger HomePod, the small, round smart speaker comes wrapped in a mesh fabric. A backlit touch surface on the top offers volume controls and shines during Siri interactions.

The HomePod mini measures just 3.3 inches high by 3.9 inches wide, and weighs just 0.76 pounds. It packs one full-range driver and dual passive radiators, and it leans on what Apple calls “computational audio” to deliver high-quality audio out of this smaller form factor. Despite many of Apple’s glamor shots making it look totally wireless, the HomePod mini relies on a cord just like its big brother.

An experience ‘only Apple can deliver’

Long-time Apple fans might not be too shocked to hear that the $99 smart speaker will offer an experience “only Apple can deliver.”

“In creating HomePod mini, we thought carefully about what you want from a smart speaker,” said Bob Borchers, Apple’s VP of product marketing, during Tuesday’s virtual product launch. “First, you want amazing sound that ensures your music, podcasts and everything you listen to sounds incredible. Next, you want a world-class intelligent assistant that helps you wherever you are.

“And as our homes become smarter, you want it to serve as the brain of your smart home, orchestrating and controlling a wide range of devices. And finally, because it’s your home, you want a smart speaker that puts your privacy and security at the forefront. All this is exactly what HomePod mini is designed to deliver.”

HomePod mini brings ‘computational audio’

Hardware engineering lets HomePod mini deliver the sonic goods.
Hardware engineering lets HomePod mini deliver the sonic goods.
Photo: Apple

Apple says the small speaker will deliver high-end audio thanks to hardware engineering and smart software.

“At Apple, we have a passion for music, so we knew HomePod mini had to sound amazing,” said Apple audio engineer David Wilkes Jr. “We started by custom-designing every acoustic element. We created a full-range dynamic driver that delivers high output while keeping distortion to a minimum, and developed a pair of high-excursion, force-canceling passive radiators that enable amazing bass response.”

S5 chip powers software smarts

An acoustic waveguide delivers 360-degree sound. And the S5 chip inside powers the software-driven computational audio that lets the small speaker shine.

“Even before you hear the first note,” Wilkes said, “HomePod mini is analyzing the unique characteristics of the music and applying complex tuning models — optimize loudness, adjust the dynamic range and control the movement of the driver and passive radiators in real time. And all this happens over 180 times a second. The result is an audio experience unheard of in a speaker this size.”

Multiple HomePod minis inside a home play “perfectly in sync,” Wilkes said. And when you put two of them in a single room, they automatically form a stereo pair. Calling HomePod mini the “ultimate smart speaker for iPhone owners,” Wilkes promised that a new and “truly magical” Handoff experience will arrive later this year.

Obviously, HomePod mini will work with Apple Music. But Wilkes said the speaker will stream podcasts and radio stations from iHeartRadio, Radio.com and TuneIn, with support for Pandora and Amazon coming soon. Spotify was notably absent from the list of content partners.

Siri and Intercom

To play those things on HomePod mini, you’ll ask Siri. “Siri is what makes a smart speaker, well, smart,” said Yael Garten, Apple’s director of Siri data science and engineering. The device packs four microphones to hear your Siri commands from a distance.

Garten called Siri the “most popular [intelligent assistant] in the world” and praised its capabilities. It might be difficult for current HomePod owners to take those claims completely seriously given the current state of how Siri works on HomePod. However, continued advances — like asking for driving directions on a HomePod mini, and having the route magically appear in your car via Apple’s CarPlay platform — does show off the power of Apple’s integrated ecosystem.

A new communication feature called Intercom sounds even more promising.

“Intercom lets you quickly send a message from one HomePod to another, in a different room or to multiple rooms throughout your home,” Garten said. “But what’s really exciting is that we’ve taken it a step further, and designed Intercom to also work with your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and even CarPlay — something only Apple can do.”

It sounds a lot like the Apple Watch’s Walkie-Talkie feature writ large.

“You’ll get a home intercom system that goes everywhere with you,” Garten said. “The message will automatically play on HomePod speakers throughout the home, and a notification will appear on your family’s personal devices. And Intercom messages will play on AirPods as well, so you can always get your kids’ attention.”

HomePod mini also harbors Apple U1 ultra-wideband chip inside

A U1 chip inside the HomePod mini lets the device know when an iPhone is nearby and enables other advanced features.

“Bring iPhone close to HomePod mini and you’ll get visual, audible and haptic effects, so it feels like your devices are physically connected as music flows from one to the other,” said Wilkes.

And that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg. Described by Wired as “Bluetooth on steroids,” ultra-wideband radio tech enables speedy and robust data transfer, as well as extremely accurate positioning information. As UWB’s use in smartphones and other consumer products becomes more widespread, the range of possible applications undoubtedly will expand.

For instance, the U1 chip’s ability to precisely locate an iPhone enables certain security and personalization features related to HomePod mini.

It’s all pretty new, and we’ll likely hear more about it in coming months. Apple added its U1 UWB chip to iPhone 11 and Apple Watch Series 6. And the long-rumored AirTags tracking tags, supposedly coming in 2021, reportedly will take advantage of the technology. Widespread of adoption of HomePod mini smart speakers could play a key role in making AirTags an essential part of daily life for Apple fans.

Keeping up with the Joneses (and Googles and Amazons)

Success for HomePod mini is not a given, though. Apple introduced its HomePod smart speaker at the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2017, eventually making it available for sale in February 2018.

The original HomePod’s big selling point remains its high-end sound quality, thanks to an eight-speaker array and beamforming technology. However, it faces ongoing criticism due to its lack of support for third-party services like Spotify. Many customers also criticized Siri, the virtual assistant that lags Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Plus, despite a price cut to $299, HomePod remains far more expensive than most other smart speakers. Due largely to its high price, Apple’s original smart speaker remains a bit-player in the overall market.

A cheaper HomePod might catch on

The HomePod mini represents a chance for Apple to get in on the market for lower-cost speakers enjoyed by the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot. The lower price point of those devices means they sell in large volume to customers who may not otherwise buy a smart speaker. However, at $99, the HomePod mini still costs a lot more than the Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini. Those speakers retail for less than $50, and frequently go for far less during sales.

Apple is also sticking to the screenless smart assistant model. Google and Amazon both began adding displays into some of their smart speakers.

Will Apple be able to make a dent with the HomePod mini? Will the device deliver top-quality sound in the smaller form factor? All these questions remain to be answered. Still, for the relatively small but loyal contingent of HomePod fans, Tuesday’s announcement is good news.

HomePod mini preorders start Nov. 6

With high-end audio and advanced home-automation features, it sounds like the new, diminutive member of the HomePod family punches above its weight.

HomePod mini will sell for $99. Like the regular HomePod, the smaller model will come in white or space gray. Apple will make it available for preorder Nov. 6, with orders shipping on Nov. 16.

This breaking news story will be updated. Luke Dormehl contributed to this report.