Apple HomePod (2nd gen) review: A smarter smart speaker
When Apple debuted the HomePod in 2018, it was already late to the smart speaker game. Sure, the company has never been worried about tardiness, choosing instead to focus on being the best. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with its first attempt. The HomePod sounded good, but lacked a lot of the basic functionality and voice assistant smarts the likes of Amazon and Google offered. Apple has spent the last five years improving both HomePod and HomePod mini, adding features like multi-room audio, multi-user support and an intercom tool.
In 2021, Apple discontinued the original model in favor of the $99 HomePod mini. But now, the larger version is back with a familiar look, but lots of changes on the inside. Like the first, the new HomePod ($299) is best suited for those who’ve committed to Apple’s ecosystem. So if that’s not you, I understand if you don’t want to go any further. If it is, just know that the company has given its speaker a lot more tools than it had at launch five years ago, including more capable assistance from Siri and more smart home abilities. Plus, the second-generation HomePod is $50 cheaper than the original was at launch.
A familiar design updated on the inside
If you were hoping for a wholesale redesign with the new HomePod, Apple undoubtedly disappointed you. However, there are some noticeable changes upon close inspection. First, the speaker’s touch panel is now slightly recessed like the HomePod mini. On the original version, that panel sits flush with the top rim. When you trigger Siri, lighting for that panel now goes all the way to the edge too. Next, the power cord is now detachable. This means if you have an issue with that very necessary component, it should be easier to get a replacement (via Apple Care). If you have excellent vision, you might also be able to discern the 2023 model is 0.2-inches shorter at 6.6-inches tall (vs. 6.8 inches) if they’re sitting side by side.
On the inside though, Apple made a host of changes. Both versions have an upward facing woofer with a group of tweeters around the bottom. For the second-generation, Apple reduced the number of tweeters from seven to five, angling them slightly upward where previously they were almost perfectly side-firing. The company also cut the number of voice microphones from six down to four. And perhaps the most important change internally, Apple swapped the iPhone 6’s A8 chip for the much more modern S7 – the silicon that powers the Apple Watch series 7.
Software and setup
Despite the lack of changes on the outside, the second-gen HomePod is a better speaker because Apple has been improving it and the HomePod mini over time. The company added stereo pairing and multi-room audio alongside AirPlay 2 a few months after launch of the first generation model. Multi-user support and audio handoffs were added in 2019 and the intercom feature arrived ahead of the HomePod mini in 2020. And in 2021, HomePod gained the ability to play any TV audio via an Apple TV 4K over eARC and both spatial audio and Apple Music lossless streaming. So many of the key features Apple is chatting up on the new HomePod are things it has been slowly adding since 2018. And many of which, I’d argue, should’ve been there from there from the start.
Everything you need to set up and control the HomePod is found in Apple’s Home app. First, you’ll need to add a new speaker like you would any other smart home device with this software, including assigning it a room or location in your home. The app allows you to set up Automations and Scenes along with configuring how you’d like to interact with Siri.
You have the ability to disable voice cues or the long press on the HomePod’s touch panel in order to activate the assistant (both are enabled by default). You can also have the speaker light up and play a sound when using Siri – or do one or neither. The Home app will let you use Siri for Personal Requests too, where the speaker can recognize your voice for things like messages, calls and reminders so long as your iPhone is close by. The software allows you to disable the HomePod’s intercom feature as well, should you prefer not to use that tool.
Like the first HomePod, the 2023 model is equipped with room calibration. This detects reflections off of walls and other surfaces to configure the sound for the best performance. The HomePod does this the first time you play music, but it isn’t constant monitoring. Instead, like it did on the previous generation, the setup leverages an accelerometer to determine when it has been moved. If it has, the speaker will then reinitiate the room sensing process when music is played.
A smart home with Siri
When we reviewed the original HomePod in 2018, one of our biggest gripes was with Siri’s limited abilities. Sure the speaker sounded good, but the lack of polish with the voice assistant made it seem like a work in progress. Apple has done a lot to improve Siri over the last five years, so a lot of those issues with the original have been fixed.
First, the HomePod, like Siri on your iPhone, is capable of recognizing multiple users. Personal Requests can allow it to peek at your Calendar, Notes, Reminders, Messages, Find My and more when you ask. Plus, HomePod can give each member of your family (up to six people) their unique responses from certain iPhone apps. What’s more, Siri can create recurring home automations without you having to pick up your phone and swipe over to the appropriate app.
Even with fewer microphones to pick up your voice, the new HomePod doesn’t suffer any performance setbacks. It’s just as capable as ever at picking out your voice even in a noisy room. And, while playing music with voice commands used to be limited to Apple Music, services like Pandora, Deezer and several others can now be controlled via Siri.
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HomePod is also a smart home hub, easily pairing with HomeKit and Matter accessories. The new model is equipped with temperature and humidity sensing, and that info is displayed prominently in the Home app. Of course, you can use that data to create automations with other smart home devices. I don’t have a compatible smart thermostat, but I was able to successfully trigger a smart plug once the HomePod detected a certain temperature in my living room.
Sound Recognition is arguably the most notable new feature that Apple is debuting with the new HomePod, but it’s not ready yet. It can listen for smoke or carbon monoxide alarms and send a notification to an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch. What’s more, you’ll be able to “check in” on what’s happening via an audio feed or camera. Sound Recognition won’t arrive until later this spring, so we’ll have to wait to test it.
Audio quality wasn’t an issue with the first-gen HomePod and it’s still great here. But like the first version, Apple’s choice for tuning won’t appease everyone. There’s a continued emphasis on voice, so things like vocals in music or dialog on a TV show or movie take center stage. At times it’s fine though, with some genres and content, it leads to a rather subpar experience.
Don’t get me wrong, for the most part HomePod sounds outstanding, especially when you put it up against other smart speakers. The fact is many of those don’t sound very good at all, so Apple continues its track record for making a device that has serious audio chops and smart features. RTJ4 has ample bass for its bombastic hip-hop beats while Sylvan Esso’s No Rules Sandy gets enough low-end for its synth-heavy rhythms. Thanks to the HomePod’s excellent clarity, detailed styles like bluegrass and jazz shine. Sometimes the bass is a little too subdued for metal (Underoath’s Voyuerist) or full-band country (Zach Bryan’s 2022 live album), and the vocals too forward, but overall, it sets the standard for smart speaker sound. And the HomePod only shines brighter as a stereo pair.
When you add the second HomePod in the Home app, the software asks you if you want to use them together. Once you tell it which side the additional unit is on (left or right), the app completes the setup for you, assigning the appropriate channel to each speaker. Now everywhere you previously saw a single HomePod icon, you’ll see two, constantly reminding you of the stereo arrangement. The double speaker option is great for music. On Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart, the two-speaker arrangement adds a lot of dimensionality to each track. There was already a spatial element to the tunes, but dual HomePods heightens the sensation, making it seem like you’re in the middle of the musicians while they record each song.
When you select a HomePod for use with the Apple TV you still need to deselect your TV speakers. Those aren’t disabled just because you’ve asked the streaming box to also send audio to a HomePod or two. TV audio with stereo pair is fine, but I can’t see using a single unit for the same purpose. In a multi-room setup you might want to send the sound from a live event like the Super Bowl to a solo speaker, but having just one as your lone living room audio from a TV isn’t a great experience. While the HomePod beams sound in all directions, with a single speaker it’s clear the sound is coming from a fixed location – something that’s a lot less noticeable with a pair or with a soundbar.
As is the case with vocals, dialog takes prominence with a HomePod and Apple TV. At times it can seem slightly muffled when watching things like live sports. Otherwise, there’s good clarity, nice bass and great dimensional audio when streaming Formula 1: Drive to Survive or Slow Horses. But, honestly, if you’re looking to improve your living room audio, a soundbar and sub is a better option. The driver arrangement in those speakers does a better job of filling a room completely and evenly. Plus, most companies give you the ability to use adjustments or presets to dial in how much you want those speakers to focus on dialog so you can fine-tune things to your liking.
Because the HomePod is best suited to people who have married themselves to Apple’s ecosystem, the best alternative to the second-gen HomePod is the cheaper HomePod mini. If all you’re after is some Siri assistance with your smart home and a speaker that’s good enough for casual listening and podcasts, the $99 option will work well for you. Plus, Apple just unlocked the smaller speaker’s inactive temperature and humidity sensor and it’s due to get Sound Recognition.
Apple has been preparing for a new HomePod for five years, constantly improving both the original version and the HomePod mini. And the fact that the company has made Siri a more capable companion certainly helps. Plus, there’s more smart home abilities than before. Apple hasn’t strayed from its emphasis on the spoken (or sung) word for HomePod’s sound profile, but that’s okay. It’s clear that the company is focused on expanding the toolbox for its smart speakers after their debut, so I’d expect that much like the original HomePod, this is just the beginning for the second generation.
Your candidates for the 2023 by-election – Pointe-Claire
The City of Pointe-Claire presents the candidates for the District 1 – Cedar/Le Village by-election that will take place on April 23.
Linda DE WITT
Your elected municipal officers are essential players, responsible for making decisions in the interest of the population they represent. Anyone on the list of electors for District 1 can vote. It is the voter’s responsibility to ensure that they are registered.
During the month of March, a notice of registration indicating the names of the persons registered on the list of electors at each address was sent by mail. If your name does not appear on this list, you must go to the board of revisors to proceed with your registration. The board of revisors will meet on April 3 and 4 at City Hall (451 Saint-Jean Boulevard).
For more information, visit the 2023 By-elections page of our website.
Apple iOS 16.4 Release: Should You Upgrade?
Apple iOS 16.4 has been released six weeks after iOS 16.3.1, and it is both feature-packed and full of security fixes. Here’s everything you need to know.
Tip: bookmark this page because I will keep it up-to-date if/when new problems are found. I will deliver my final verdict in a week.
Who Is It For?
Apple iOS 16.4 is available for all iOS 16-compatible devices, which means the iPhone 8/iPhone X and newer. iOS 16 dropped support for the iPhone 6S and 7 ranges and the iPod Touch. Apple has also released a dedicated security update in the form of iOS 15.7.4 to protect older devices.
If you don’t receive an update notification, you can trigger the latest updates manually by navigating to Settings > General > Software Update. If you are running newer beta software (see ‘The Road Ahead’ section at the end), you must unenroll your device before publicly released updates will appear.
Note: this guide is not focused on older iOS updates, iPadOS or macOS, but I will touch upon pertinent issues in these guides.
The Deal Breakers
The first 24 hours after release have been relatively smooth for iOS 16.4 and iPadOS 16.4 upgraders. There are no obvious deal breakers, though a number of graphical glitches appear to have made it through to the final release. These include isolated reports of the cellular strength icon disappearing, the Reminder widget not populating and wallpaper distortion.
Concerns also remain over iOS 16’s reporting of ‘system data,’ which again ballooned in several instances for users after updating to iOS 16.4. Apple needs to address this in iOS 17.
So What Do You Get?
Apple’s iOS 16.4 release notes list the following new features and fixes:
— 21 new emoji including animals, hand gestures, and objects are now available in emoji keyboard.
— Notifications for web apps added to the Home Screen
— Voice Isolation for cellular calls prioritizes your voice and blocks out ambient noise around you.
— Duplicates album in Photos expands support to detect duplicate photos and videos in an iCloud Shared Photo Library.
— VoiceOver support for maps in the Weather app.
— Accessibility setting to automatically dim video when flashes of light or strobe effects are detected.
— Fixes an issue where Ask to Buy requests from children may fail to appear on the parent’s device.
— Addresses issues where Matter-compatible thermostats could become unresponsive when paired to Apple Home.
— Crash Detection optimizations on iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro models.
These additions are actually just the tip of the iceberg. Even by Apple’s standards, the iOS 16.4 release notes are unusually incomplete, missing out a whole host of new features and tweaks, including:
- Support for badges on home screen web apps.
- Support for home screen web apps via third-party browsers.
- PlayStation 5 DualSense Edge controller support comes to iOS 16.4, iPadOS 16.4, tvOS 16.4 and macOS Venture 13.3.
- Apple Podcasts UI changes, including a new profile icon, playback controls in the Up Next section and Channels access via the Library section.
- CarPlay Up Next adds similar functionality as well as adding podcast discovery in Browse.
- A new Always-on Display filter for Focus Mode
- An order tracking widget has been added for Apple Wallet.
- In Settings, AppleCare ‘Coverage’ shows all your active and expired AppleCare policies
- 13 new and 11 updated Shortcut actions
- The long-awaited return of the traditional page-turning animation in Apple Books.
- Emergency SOS via Satellite adds support for Austria, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Portugal.
- 5G standalone support for T-Mobile (US).
It’s a substantial list (credit to MacRumors) and significantly longer than the official iOS 16.4 release notes. Why Apple would exclude so many new and useful additions is unknown.
iOS 16.4 Security
Apple’s iOS 16.4 security page reveals no fewer than 33 new security patches. The good news is none of the vulnerabilities are so-called ‘Zero Day’ threats, which means hackers were unable to exploit them before Apple came up with a fix.
That said, the new patches are extensive, covering the Apple Neural Engine, Calendar, Camera, CarPlay, Bluetooth, Find My, iCloud, Photos, Podcasts, Safari, Webkit (the browser engine behind Safari) and more.
There are also two fixes (CVE-2023-27969 and CVE-2023-27933) for the Kernel, the core of the iOS and iPadOS operating systems, which patch vulnerabilities that could have allowed hackers to execute malicious code on iPhones and iPads. In short: iOS 16.4 is an important update.
Apple iOS 16.4 Verdict: Upgrade
Major iOS updates tend to cause bigger problems, but as iOS 16 matures, it is no surprise to see iOS 16.4 introduce a stack of new features and security updates without any significant issues. Bear in mind that we are only 24 hours into the release, so problems may still be found as more iPhone and iPad owners update, but I am happy to recommend keen upgraders hit that button now.
If you are a cautious iPhone or iPad owner and prefer to wait, I will deliver my final verdict in a week. So bookmark this page.
The Road Ahead
While iOS 17 will be unveiled at WWC in early June, I would still expect several more ‘minor point’ updates to iOS 16 (such as iOS 16.4.1) before its successor launches in September.
I would also not rule out seeing iOS 16.5, though we should know about this in the next few weeks, given the 6-8 week testing process Apple carries out for major point updates. If you want to try iOS updates during the testing phase, you can join the Apple Beta Software Program, but be warned: there will be bugs!
Microsoft unveils OpenAI-based chat tools for fighting cyberattacksa
Microsoft Corp., extending a frenzy of artificial intelligence software releases, is introducing new chat tools that can help cybersecurity teams ward off hacks and clean up after an attack.
The latest of Microsoft’s AI assistant tools — the software giant likes to call them Copilots — uses OpenAI’s new GPT-4 language system and data specific to the security field, the company said Tuesday. The idea is to help security workers more quickly see connections between various parts of a hack, such as a suspicious email, malicious software file or the parts of the system that were compromised.
Microsoft and other security software companies have been using machine-learning techniques to root out suspicious behaviour and spot vulnerabilities for several years. But the newest AI technologies allow for faster analysis and add the ability to use plain English questions, making it easier for employees who may not be experts in security or AI.
That’s important because there’s a shortage of workers with these skills, said Vasu Jakkal, Microsoft’s vice president for security, compliance, identity and privacy. Hackers, meanwhile, have only gotten faster.
“Just since the pandemic, we’ve seen an incredible proliferation,” she said. For example, “it takes one hour and 12 minutes on average for an attacker to get full access to your inbox once a user has clicked on a phishing link. It used to be months or weeks for someone to get access.”
The software lets users pose questions such as: “How can I contain devices that are already compromised by an attack?” Or they can ask the Copilot to list anyone who sent or received an email with a dangerous link in the weeks before and after the breach. The tool can also more easily create reports and summaries of an incident and the response.
Microsoft will start by giving a few customers access to the tool and then add more later. Jakkal declined to say when it would be broadly available or who the initial customers are. The Security Copilot uses data from government agencies and Microsoft’s researchers, who track nation states and cybercriminal groups. To take action, the assistant works with Microsoft’s security products and will add integration with programs from other companies in the future.
As with previous AI releases this year, Microsoft is taking pains to make sure users are well aware the new systems make errors. In a demo of the security product, the chatbot cautioned about a flaw in Windows 9 — a product that doesn’t exist.
But it’s also capable of learning from users. The system lets customers choose privacy settings and determine how widely they want to share the information it gleans. If they choose, customers can let Microsoft use the data to help other clients, Jakkal said.
“This is going to be a learning system,” she said. “It’s also a paradigm shift: Now humans become the verifiers, and AI is giving us the data.”
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