Apple apparently testing HomePod smart screen on iPad mini

 The iPad mini 2021.
The iPad mini 2021.

Apple has long been rumored to be getting into the smart screen game, both with a dock for existing iPads and with a dedicated smart home device like the Echo Show. Now 9to5Mac has spotted evidence that Apple is testing exactly how that would function with a little help from its smallest tablet.

By examining the firmware of the latest tvOS 17.2 beta, 9to5Mac found support files for the 8.3-inch iPad mini 6. Digging further, the site also discovered that the tvOS 17 SDK also has support for the mini, and some of the frameworks with audio calibration data have updated drivers for the tablet too.

These are likely remnants of internal testing, not intended to be seen by anybody outside of Apple. But it points to the company using the iPad mini 6’s 8.3-inch screen as a testing ground for tvOS on a possible smart screen — which isn’t too surprising as HomePods use audioOS, a fork of tvOS.

While the final unit is expected to pack a smaller display — 7 inches according to the analyst Ming-Chi Kuo — the slightly larger mini still likely makes a good testing ground for how tvOS could function with a small touch screen rather than with a remote on a giant TV. Kuo believes the device will arrive in the first half of 2024, which feels plausible with this internal testing underway.

Apple’s other smart home screens

But what about the iPad dock? In the same report, 9to5Mac claims it gained access to a “preliminary interface” of StandBy Mode for iPad.

For the uninitiated, StandBy Mode is a feature that arrived for iPhones in iOS 17 which turns your locked iPhone into a digital clock, camera or picture frame when resting horizontally. The site claims this feature “should be introduced with iPadOS 18 next year”, and it certainly sounds like it’s designed to work with iPad docks, turning them into fully-fledged smart screens.

And, of course, that’s not the only screened HomePod that Apple is noodling away on. Last week, a leaker got hold of a prototype that looked like a regular HomePod 2 with a small LCD screen embedded in the top. The limited interface sounds more like Car Play than Nest Hub, but it’s apparently something Apple is actively working on, with apps that run on tvOS like Apple Music and Apple Podcasts reportedly being tweaked to work with the new aspect ratio.

In short, 2024 could be a big year for Apple’s smart home plans. And ultimately, that could be a bigger deal than the company’s first steps into mixed reality with Vision Pro which is also coming next year.