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Apple’s HomePod is coming. Here’s what you need to know about smart speakers

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Apple’s HomePod is coming. Here’s what you need to know about smart speakers

Apple is getting into the smart speaker market with the HomePod, the company’s first entirely new product in three years. It’s a relatively young hardware category made popular by the Amazon Echo.

Now, more tech companies are rushing out their own versions of the device. You’ve probably heard about talking speakers, but perhaps you’ve wondered how they work and what they mean for your privacy.

Here’s everything you need to know about tech’s hottest new gadgets.

What is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker is a small Wi-Fi connected speaker controlled with voice commands. To use the hands-free device, you speak a trigger phrase — “Hey Siri,” “OK Google,” “Alexa” — and then ask a question such as “what’s the weather?” or make a request like “order a Lyft.” The speakers are powered by smart assistants like Siri and Alexa that talk back.

What is it used for?

A smart speaker is primarily used to stream music and news, set timers and reminders, manage shopping lists, and control connected-home devices like lights or thermostats. Amazon recently added message and call options, so the speakers will likely be used even more for communication in the future. The Echo is handy for ordering things from Amazon Prime, but it struggles with answering basic knowledge questions. Meanwhile, the Google Home, unsurprisingly, is great for Googling things.

Who makes them?

Amazon (AMZN, Tech30) created the smart speaker market in 2014 with the release of the Echo. Google (GOOG) followed in 2016 with Google Home, and Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) is currently working with Harman Kardon on the Invoke smart speaker, which uses voice-assistant Cortana. In early June, Apple (AAPL, Tech30) announced the HomePod, but it won’t be available until December.

Third-party devices such as Lenovo’s Smart Assistant also use Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

As of now, most smart speakers plug into a wall, so they’re not portable. Amazon’s smaller, battery-operated Tap device is designed to play on the go. You can push a button to start Alexa voice conversations or use the new hands-free mode.

Here’s a look at the options available now or coming this year:

  • Amazon Echo ($180); Echo Dot ($50), which connects to bigger speakers; the portable Echo Tap ($130); and Echo Show ($230), a speaker with a touchscreen and camera launching June 28
  • Google Home ($129)
  • Apple HomePod ($329), which debuts in December
  • Harman Kardon Invoke with Cortana, slated for a 2017 year-end launch. No pricing announced.

What about sound quality?

The Amazon Echo and Google Home are adequate speakers for the price point, but music lovers can connect them to Bluetooth speakers for better sound. The Echo Dot also attaches to existing speaker systems over Bluetooth or with an audio cable.

Apple is marketing the HomePod as a much higher quality speaker — and it is. When tested against Sonos speakers and the Amazon Echo, the sound was superior. Using its microphones to measure the size of a room, the HomePod “senses” its location and adjusts the sound accordingly.

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