Apple attempts to dominate the smart home
What is Apple Home and Homekit?
Apple launched its smart home controller, Homekit, alongside iOS 8 in 2014. It was rather limited, and the only way to control anything was via Siri. With iOS 10, Apple has decided to up the stakes, adding in the Home app on top of Siri control.
Via the Home app, you can control all of your HomeKit-compatible devices, automate your home, and create scenes to control multiple devices at the same time. With stiff competition from SmartThings and Alexa (via the Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot), Apple isn’t getting things entirely its own way, and Home certainly isn’t going to be for everyone.
Apple Home and HomeKit – Compatible Devices
A big issue for Home and HomeKit adoption is its hardware requirements. Apple requires every developer to purchase a licence and requires all compatible hardware to have an encryption co-processor.
The only slight give here is that Apple lets kit that doesn’t have integrated HomeKit support operate through a gateway product, such as a hub. In this case, a hub upgrade can bring compatibility to a wider range of devices, such as all of your existing smart lightbulbs.
The downside is that manufacturers have had to create HomeKit-compatible products that supersede older products. So, if you bought Philips Hue a few years ago, you may find that your Bridge isn’t compatible with HomeKit. Only the newer Philips Hue Bridge works with HomeKit, and that costs £50. Similar exceptions exist for older products – which is a shame, since it can make getting stated with HomeKit a rather expensive process.
By comparison, SmartThings will work with any compatible Z-Wave and ZigBee products, plus other kit via the active developer community. Alexa is even easier and simply requires a manufacturer to write its own Skill; approval takes only a couple of weeks. As a result, the number of devices that Alexa can control outweighs the number that HomeKit can.
Apple’s approach isn’t without its merits, though. Using encryption makes HomeKit the most robust and secure smart home system. But the sad truth is that users don’t place this high enough on the list of priorities, rating price and convenience ahead.
Related: Apple TV 4K
Apple Home and HomeKit – Interface and Setup
Any compatible smart home kit needs to be set up through the Home app. First, you have to scan (or enter manually) the unique HomeKit code. This can be written on the bottom of a device, which seems sensible, but I’ve seen devices with the code printed on a sticker on the box, which makes it far easier to lose. Hats off to the Netatmo Smart Thermostat here, which displays the HomeKit code on the thermostat’s screen.
In all cases, I recommend noting down your HomeKit codes on a bit of paper or in a document, so you have them to hand, should you need them again.
Once a device has been added to your Home app, you can organise it into a room, but you can also pin your most commonly used devices to the homescreen. Every device appears as an icon – but the icons are all a little basic and Home doesn’t immediately have that Apple look and feel.
For most products, tapping the related icon turns the device on and off. A long press brings up a slider that offers finer control, depending on the device. With a dimmer lamp, for example, you can set the brightness level; a thermostat lets you set the temperature.
Home is relatively easy to use, but not every device has all of its functions exposed to HomeKit. For example, with the Netatmo Smart Thermostat, you can only turn the temperature up or down; you can’t choose how long the temperature change should last.
With Philips Hue, Home gave me the option to alter the colour of my LED strip, but I couldn’t modify the temperature of the White Ambiance bulbs, which is something that SmartThings can do.
Hue is also a little strange in that it doesn’t expose its predefined Scenes to Home, such as the Arctic Aurora lighting mode. Instead, you have to create a new Home Scene via Apple’s app or the Hue app’s HomeKit and Siri settings option.
Overall, it’s a little frustrating that Home doesn’t provide full control over every device; some jobs still require you to dip back into the manufacturer’s app. As far as I’m concerned, Home doesn’t go far enough towards unifying everything.
Apple Home and HomeKit – Scenes and Automation
Home is designed to pull all of your smart home devices together, letting you operate more than one device at a time. This is managed via Scenes. For example, you can create a Scene that turns all your lights off and sets your thermostat to a low temperature, for when you go out.
Scenes can be organised into Rooms, but you can place your Favourites on the main screen, too. Scenes can be manually activated by tapping the matching icon. Neat is the fact that Scenes are generally automatically reversible: you can tap a Scene to turn on your lights, but you can also tap it again to turn off your lights.
Scenes become more powerful when integrated with Automation, which lets you create rules that trigger automatically. You can create an Automation that just triggers a device without having to set up a Scene first, however.
For example, you can have everything turn off when you leave your house, with your phone used to track your location. You can also set up rules based on sensors being triggered – such as a motion sensor; a set time of day, including more generic settings, such as “sunset”; or if an accessory is controlled, such as a light being turned on.
For Automation, you need to have a hub device, so that your smart home can be controlled when you’re out. This can be via a third-gen Apple TV or Apple TV 2015. Cleverly, a hub can also be an iPad or old iPhone running iOS 10, although you should leave the device in your home and plugged in so that it won’t run out of battery.
Automation is simple to set up, but it lacks some of the customisation of SmartThings. SmartThings has modes that change the behaviour of devices – for example, in Home mode, a motion sensor can trigger a light; in Away mode, the same motion sensor can be a security device.
A bigger problem for some people is that Home only works with Apple devices, so you can’t trigger rules based on Android users’ location.
Apple Home and HomeKit – Siri Integration
Siri integration is the oldest part of Apple’s smart home control, and it’s rather good. Speaking clearly, you can get Siri to trigger scenes or operate devices for you. You get some nice feedback, too. For example, when triggering a light colour change with Philips Hue to green, Siri responds with “Green it is!”.
More recent iPhones and iPads can also listen permanently for the “Hey Siri” trigger, provided that their screens aren’t covered. This means that you don’t necessarily have to pick up your phone to trigger voice control.
Amazon Echo control is easier, since it responds to all voices, not only yours, and you’ve got a device that’s permanently waiting in your home.
Should I get Apple Home and HomeKit?
Apple Home has some great features, and Siri is responsive and easy to use for controlling devices. The downsides are that the Home and HomeKit aren’t as open as rival packages, requiring new hardware and that you’re tied to using Apple products for control.
Unless you’re an Apple-only house, Amazon Echo provides wider voice control, and Samsung SmartThings offers control of more devices. For Home and HomeKit to grow, Apple needs to open up the system, get more devices to support it, and even think about releasing an Android app.
Some great features and proper security make Home and HomeKit stand out, but the system isn’t open enough for mass use.