Image courtesy Apple

At an online press event Tuesday, Apple introduced its new line of iPhones which will support faster 5G networks. That’s nice, but a more interesting device to me was the new HomePod mini for the smart home as well as improvements to Siri. Starting on November 6 you can pre-order the new HomePod mini for the surprising cost of $99.

This is the first new HomePod smart speaker since Apple debuted its original HomePod in February of 2018. That device hasn’t reportedly sold well, no doubt held back by the introductory price of $349. Apple eventually reduced that cost to $299 but even so, a product line of one expensive smart speaker can’t compete against the broad range of less expensive Amazon Echo and Google Nest speakers.

That changes with HomePod mini and its sub-$100 price tag. It still has the smarts like the original HomePod, which is powered by an Apple A8 smartphone chip. The new mini speaker uses Apple’s more recent S5 processor, which is the same chip found in last year’s Apple Watch 5. 

The new chip, along with ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, makes the HomePod quite a compelling competitor to both Amazon and Google’s similar products. That’s provided you prefer and use iOS and/or HomeKit in your house.

For starters, the UWB chips inside both the HomePod mini and recent iPhones help the smart speaker detect when your handset is near the speaker. Apple demonstrated how music can be “handed off” between the HomePod mini and your phone in this scenario.

Image courtesy Apple

Let’s say you’re listening to a podcast on the smart speaker and it’s time to leave the house for work or school. By placing your iPhone near the HomePod mini, the two devices detect each other and allow you to pick up listening on the phone. It’s a clever and useful feature that I suspect many people will use. Apple says that in the future, placing your iPhone near the smart speaker will also surface personalized listening suggestions.

Of course, if you plan to be around the house, something most of us are doing these days, the smart speaker claims to pack a powerful punch in a small package. 

Image courtesy Apple

The rounded HomePod mini is only 3.3-inches high and 3.9-inches wide. The looks remind me of a scented candle but I’m not a designer, so maybe it’s just me. Thanks to the S5 processor, Apple says HomePod mini offers “computational audio for real-time tuning”. And it produces a 360º sound field so you can place it anywhere in a room. Apple showed it off in the middle of a room but I don’t think that’s how most people will use it. You can seamlessly pair multiple HomePod mini speakers for stereo sound or whole-home audio as well.

There is a four-microphone array in HomePod mini to speak with Siri, which does a little catching up to the competition. For example, HomePod mini can recognize up to six different people, akin to the Voice Profiles and Voice Match functionality of Echo and Nest speakers, respectively.

So if you want to get an estimate of the traffic for your commute, Siri will provide it. And if the kids then ask what’s on their weekend agenda, Siri will tell them. Apple has tied this personalization together with its iOS apps, such as Messages, Calendar, Reminders, and Contacts.

Also in the “catchup up” department is an Intercom feature for the HomePod lineup. 

Image courtesy Apple

You can ask Siri to broadcast a whole-home message or send your words to an individual smart speaker. The whole-home function also applies to AirPod users, which is pretty slick. Even more impressive is that the Intercom works with CarPlay, so if a household member is on the road, they’ll hear messages too.

Like the original HomePod and some iOS devices, HomePod mini can be a HomeKit hub. That provides remote access to your HomeKit devices when out and about. Even better to me though? An update to the HomeKit app that provides a new Discover tab, suggesting HomeKit products and automations for you.

All of these features and functions are really made possible by Apple’s custom silicon and its complete control over both the hardware and software across its product line. 

The company made a bet on UWB with its U1 chip last year and we’re now starting to reap the benefits of that bet. I think this is only the beginning of a UWB revolution in the smart home as Apple, and other companies, find more uses for the location and direction functionality UWB provides. For now, we get a taste of that future with HomePod mini.