How Apple’s HomePod Stacks Up Against Amazon Echo

Could Apple’s new HomePod make the tech giant relive some painful history later this year?

In 2006, Apple unveiled an iPod-connected speaker called the iPod Hi-Fi. More than a year later, the iPod Hi-Fi, which languished on store shelves, was discontinued. In a statement at the time, Apple said that the “iPod ecosystem” had enough speaker systems, and it wanted to focus on its core divisions, including the newly announced iPhone.

What Apple (AAPL) didn’t say at the time, was that the iPod Hi-Fi was criticized by customers and analysts, alike, who said it was overpriced at $349. It also lacked some key features, like an AM/FM radio, which made it less attractive than cheaper alternatives with those add-ons.

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Now a decade since the iPod Hi-Fi was discontinued, the HomePod could be viewed through a strikingly similar lens.

It Costs How Much?

At WWDC on Monday, Apple pitched the HomePod as a must-have speaker for the home. The squat device comes with what Apple calls a “powerful speaker” and supports the company’s virtual personal assistant Siri to help users control smart home components around the home, like light bulbs and thermostats. Better yet, Apple said, the HomePod’s built-in A8 processor makes it one of the most powerful home speakers on the market.

At the end of its presentation, Apple said that it believes it’s delivering an outstanding value for the device at $349. If customers bought a smart home hub and high-end speaker separately, Apple said, they’d pay much more.

But customers who buy a HomePod might not be looking for two distinct devices. Instead, they might opt for the Amazon (AMZN) Echo and Google (GOOGL) Home, two products that also come with speaker (albeit not as powerful as Apple’s), voice control, and built-in virtual personal assistants, and more importantly, have much lower prices. Google Home, for instance, retails for $129. The Amazon Echo is available for $180, or nearly half the HomePod’s price.

A Missing Feature?

In an interview last month with technology news site Gadgets 360, Apple senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller suggested that a screen can greatly enhance a virtual personal assistant experience. He pointed to ways Maps, his company’s navigation app, can use a screen to deliver users more information than a simple voice command could.

“I think voice assistants are incredibly powerful, their intelligence is going to grow, they’re gonna do more for us, but the role of the screen is gonna remain very important to all of this,” he said.

His comments prompted some industry-watchers to suggest he was hinting at Apple working on a smart home hub with a built-in screen.

Meanwhile, Amazon was thinking about a screen. And soon after Schiller’s interview was published, Amazon announced a new smart home device, called the Echo Show, which comes with a screen in addition to virtual assistant support and speakers.

While the Echo Show doesn’t have the same attractive design as the HomePod or the Echo, it has that missing feature Schiller suggests is important. And when it’s released on June 28, it’ll be available to customers for $230, or more than $100 cheaper than the HomePod.

To be fair, the top of the HomePod is the single biggest mystery surrounding the device. Apple makes no mention of a screen in its HomePod marketing material, but also hasn’t said how the top pad, which appears to come with touch features and has LED lighting, could be used. Apple could announce touchscreen support in the HomePod later this year before the device’s release, putting in direct competition with the Echo Show and eliminating its feature advantage.

Is this the iPod Hi-Fi all over again? It’s far too early to tell. And to Apple’s point, the HomePod comes with some compelling features its competitors do not, including the higher-end sound and ample power.

But HomePod isn’t without its similarities to Apple’s last, failed attempt at home sound. And whether it’ll be enough to get customers to justify spending more on a HomePod than other appealing smart home hubs when it launches in December will be interesting to watch.

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