Apple WWDC: Hands on with HomePod, iPad Pro and all the new Macs

San Jose: After a marathon set of announcements this morning, Apple invited press into a hands-on area for a brief play with their new Macs, iPads and the much hyped HomePod, Apple's take on the multi-room speaker.

The biggest crowd was gathered around the HomePod table. Apple spent a long time framing this as a high end speaker first — something that competes with the Sonos or the Samsung Multiroom — and in a different league to "smart" speakers like the Google Home or Amazon's Echo.

A cynical view would be that this was to justify a high price tag but, after listening to the speaker in action, the comparison seems justified.

When first unboxed, the HomePod scans the room, emitting reference sounds and listening back to them to work out where it has been placed.

Apple's HomePod attracted the biggest crowd at the WWDC hands-on area. Photo: Peter Wells

Apple's HomePod attracted the biggest crowd at the WWDC hands-on area. Photo: Peter Wells

If beside a wall, the speaker will use that wall to reflect some of the audio back, to help divide the bass from the high end, and give a more immersive sound experience. Place the HomePod on a centre table and the speaker will emit the best 360 sound for the space.

It's all very clever technology, and at first listen the HomePod easily bested market leader Sonos in a side-by-side comparison.

Bass was deeper, and vocals more distinct from the rest of the mix. The comparison to the Echo was even more stark, with Amazon's speaker sounding about as good as audio leaking from a nearby commuter's headphones.

The HomePod is due to be released in Australia in December, with the price to be announced soon (expect around $500 based on US pricing).

10-year-old Australian app developer Yuma Soerianto uses the new iPad Pro. Photo: Peter Wells

10-year-old Australian app developer Yuma Soerianto uses the new iPad Pro. Photo: Peter Wells

Perhaps unexpectedly, the next most exciting unit on display was the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, running iOS 11.

iOS 11 features a swag of iPad only features, including a new Files app, a new dock, and new drag-and-drop features to enable better multitasking and sharing between apps.

iOS 11 will give the new iPad Pro improved multitasking and file management capabilities. Photo: Peter Wells

iOS 11 will give the new iPad Pro improved multitasking and file management capabilities. Photo: Peter Wells

These new improvements are intuitive iOS interpretations of the actions we know from desktop computers, adding productivity power to the iPad, without impacting the famously simple-to-use device.

The hardware is improved too. Apple has reduced the bezel around the display to fit more screen in a device that feels just like a regular iPad. That means a bigger, more comfortable keyboard, while still being light enough to hold and use one-handed.

The new Mac laptops and desktops have been update with Intel's Kaby Lake processors. Photo: Peter Wells

The new Mac laptops and desktops have been update with Intel's Kaby Lake processors. Photo: Peter Wells

The screen is incredible, with detailed images like a 3D map of New York rendered beautifully on the faster 120Hz display. The new iPad Pro is available to purchase now, in both 10.5- and 12.9-inch models, shipping from next week.

iMac and MacBook Pro models received welcome updates, but most improvements are under the hood. Still, it was impressive to see the new MacBooks running multiple 4K HDR tracks in Final Cut Pro, without breaking a sweat.

iMacs have been updated with more powerful internals and brighter, more colourful screens. Photo: Peter Well

iMacs have been updated with more powerful internals and brighter, more colourful screens. Photo: Peter Well

The most noticeable improvement is the 27-inch iMac's screen. It was already the best monitor on the market, but the improved display has even more colours, and was ridiculously bright in the dark hands-on area.

The new iMacs and Macbooks are on sale today.

The iMac Pro is extremeley impressive on paper, but isn't ready for testing just yet. Photo: Peter Wells

The iMac Pro is extremeley impressive on paper, but isn't ready for testing just yet. Photo: Peter Wells

At the back of the room was a single iMac Pro to look at, but not to touch. Like the HomePod, this souped-up machine isn't due in stores until December. Apple said both are appearing at WWDC as 'sneak peaks', and they weren't lying.

The rest of the room was set up to show off the new software capabilities of the new Macs and iPads, WWDC being a conference for developers after all.

Apple is making a push into VR with updates to macOS and new graphics chips in its iMacs. Photo: Peter Wells

Apple is making a push into VR with updates to macOS and new graphics chips in its iMacs. Photo: Peter Wells

Banks of iMacs and MacBook Pros were connected to HTC Vive VR headsets, a first for Apple computers. The iMacs are capable of powering VR thanks to upgraded graphics cards inside, while the MacBooks require a Thunderbolt 3 external GPU.

It's exciting to see Apple supporting external GPUs in their MacBook Pro line. Razer already sells laptops that can dock with an external GPU for better gaming performance, and while this is a niche use, having the ability to use a powerful desktop GPU with a laptop will be welcomed by graphic artists, video editors, and other creative professionals.

MacBook Pro can handle VR too, with some help from an external graphics processor. Photo: Peter Wells

MacBook Pro can handle VR too, with some help from an external graphics processor. Photo: Peter Wells

If Apple is catching up to PCs when it comes to virtual reality, it's just leapfrogged over everyone in augmented reality.

Rows of iPads were set up to show off ARkit, a set of tools coming with iOS 11 in September that will enable App developers to create incredible augmented reality experiences.

ARkit makes immersive augmented reality apps possible on iOS. Photo: Peter Wells

ARkit makes immersive augmented reality apps possible on iOS. Photo: Peter Wells

Pointing an iPad at an empty table would magically make a virtual chess board appear, or a virtual Lego kit, complete with animated Lego figurines admiring the structure.

iPads could also place virtual furniture around the physical space, which might be handy for those redesigning their living room.

These were flashy demonstrations designed to prove the possibilities of AR, but if Apple's AR toolkit for developers is as easy to implement as Apple suggests, iOS could quickly become the platform for augmented reality.

The author travelled to California as a guest of Apple.

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