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​Apple HomeKit: Everything you need to know about living in an Apple Home

Your comprehensive guide to the Home app, best HomeKit tech, and more

Apple HomeKit explained
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HomeKit is Apple's smart home system, offering a platform for users of its iOS devices to take control of their connected home.

Run entirely through Apple's Home app, unlike platforms such as Nest or Hive you don't need a central device or hub to have a HomeKit home. All you need is a smartphone or iPad (although an Apple TV or HomePod adds some neat features). Let us explain the nuts and bolts behind Apple HomeKit, how to get started with the system, and crucially, whether it’s the right platform for your smart home.


What is Apple HomeKit?

Apple HomeKit is a platform baked into iOS for controlling your smart home. The idea is simple: Instead of having a tonne of different smart home apps on your phone that don’t speak to each other, HomeKit brings them all together, offering control front and centre on your devices, as well as via Siri on your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, HomePod, and Mac computer.

But that’s just half of the story. There are two elements to Apple HomeKit: HomeKit itself is a standard – a background software technology that devices need to comply with to get access to the club. Then Apple Home is its user-facing counterpart, an iOS app you'll find on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers.

We’re going to tackle all of this as we go along. From compatible devices to using the Apple TV as your HomeKit hub, we'll explain it all.

Apple HomeKit: Apple's smart home platform explained

How does HomeKit work?

To make an Apple HomeKit smart home you first need compatible devices. Bag a few of those, and you can start building your system.

In the early days, HomeKit devices were few and far between and quite fiddly to set up, but Apple has widened its scope and streamlined its on-boarding process and there are now hundreds of devices in almost every category. That said, HomeKit is still one of the trickiest smart home ecosystems to get your connected tech on board with, but a lot of that is down to Apple's super-high encryption and security standards.

Almost all HomeKit devices are added by using the Home app to scan a unique six-figure HomeKit code found on your compatible device or in its box or manual. It feels a little archaic compared to Amazon Alexa and Samsung's SmartThings, both of which just scans your network to find devices - but it's a small price to pay for strong security.

Once paired, devices appear in the Apple Home app and can be assigned to Rooms. You can also tag them as Favorites, which gives you quick access to them when you open the app, from the Control Center, and also on the lock screen if you wish.

What you can do with each device in the Home app depends on what category it is in. Sensors will offer a live reading (checking a door is closed, if motion is detected, what the temperature is) and you can turn on/off lights and plugs, lock/unlock doors straight from the Control Center. Apple controls the capabilities of each device you add, so all your door locks, lights, and plugs will work in the same way in the app (even if they have different features in their own app).

The Ambient's verdict: Apple HomePod review

There are some practical issues with the whole setup. The first is that you need to keep those HomeKit codes safe if you need to re-add devices later (HomePass is an app that will store them all for you, or you can peel off the stickers and put them in a notebook somewhere). In rare cases you can generate new codes for some devices from within their own apps, but it's a hassle and generally only applies to existing devices that have been upgraded to add HomeKit support, such as older Lifx smart bulbs.

Because of the requirements around security, many devices that add HomeKit require an upgraded hub, which caused headaches for early users of Philips Hue back in 2015, who needed to fork out $60 for a new hub to enjoy HomeKit integration.

But there is an upside. Because HomeKit manufacturers are required to sign up to its MFi program, security is pretty bulletproof, and those wanting to ensure their smart home is protected from intrusion should consider its merits.

Apple HomeKit: Apple's smart home platform explained

Best HomeKit-compatible devices

So far so good(ish) – but here's where we hit the downside: choice. There are not a lot of options in every smart home category and many of the biggest stuff doesn’t play with HomeKit at all.

No Nest devices, no Hive, no Amazon Echo (naturally), no smart home security systems, and very few big name home cameras have any sway with Apple HomeKit. But with the rollout of iOS 13 this autumn (which brings a big overhaul to the Home app and HomeKit), we've been seeing a steady stream of new HomeKit compatible devices, bringing us closer to the point where you can fill most every smart home need with HomeKit. Here are some of our favorite HomeKit compatible gadgets (for a deeper dive on these and some of our other favorite products check out our guide to the Best HomeKit devices):

Philips Hue

The ubiquitous smart light has played nicely with HomeKit since 2015. Philips has extended HomeKit compatibility beyond the Hue bulbs, to the Hue Tap, Hue Dimmer Switch, and Hue Motion Sensor as well. If you want something a little more affordable, Lifx has updated its bulbs with HomeKit support too.

Ecobee smart thermostat

The Ecobee3, Ecobee4 and the new Ecobee SmartThermostat use HomeKit to the max, not only letting you control heating remotely, but also letting you take advantage of the platform's geofencing, triggers, scenes – and a whole gamut of HomeKit-based features. You can even use Ecobee's remote sensors as triggers for HomeKit automations.

Eve

Eve has dedicated itself to creating devices for Apple HomeKit and its app is a really great option to use instead of Apple's Home app, as it offers more advanced features and lets you create more complicated automations. The Eve range is one of the most complete on the HomeKit market, and includes motion sensors, door/window sensors, temperature sensors, plugs, radiator valves, and light switches.

Arlo Pro 2

HomeKit just recently arrive to Arlo's Pro and Pro 2 cameras, and is coming soon to its Ultra model, and we are super stoked. The Pro 2 system is a really impressive package, waterproof and completely wireless; you can put these cameras anywhere and take advantage of motion detection, low-light, and night vision modes, plus a battery life that really impresses. HomeKit integration lets you see a live feed in the Home app and set up rich notifications that can include video clips.

Nanoleaf Aurora

Nanoleaf's funky smart light is one of the best HomeKit enabled lights out there. Remote control is a given but you can also manipulate the color and design of each of the nine panels from the Home app – with up to 30 supported, via various expansion packs. Plus, Nanoleaf's Canvas modular lighting system has a neat feature where each panel can act as a HomeKit smart button, so you can just tap it to activate any Scene you like.

August Smart Lock Pro

The original HomeKit lock, the August Smart Lock Pro can be locked and unlocked using Siri on your iPhone or Apple Watch if you're nearby, or - if you have a HomePod or Apple TV running your HomeKit home, you can also control the lock remotely. Using August's DoorSense feature you can also ask Siri to check whether your door is open or closed. If you fancy a keypad for locking and unlocking your door, there are two we like that are now HomeKit compatible - Yale's Assure lock and Kwikset's Premis.

First Alert Onelink Safe & Sound

One of the few HomeKit compatible smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the Onelink Safe & Sounds can notify you when there’s an emergency through your Home app, even if you're away from home, and can be set to triggers other devices - including turning your smart lights on. Alerts can be silenced or cancelled from the iOS device, so there's no need to flap at the sensor when you've burned some toast. Plus AirPlay 2 support in the device's built-in speaker means you can play your music through your smoke alarm (when the feature rolls out, it's "coming soon" according to First Alert).

Apple HomeKit: Apple's smart home platform explained

Using the Apple Home app

When HomeKit first launched there was no app, instead you used third party manufacturer's apps to set up each device. Apple soon saw the folly of its ways however, and launched one app to control them all.

The Home app has three ways to interact with your devices. There's 'Home', which shows all your favorite devices and your favorite 'Scenes'; 'Rooms', which groups devices based on which room they're in; and 'Automation,' which allows you to automate how your smart home reacts to things. For instance you can have the lights turn off when you leave home, or set the front door to lock at night.

Read this: Apple HomeKit Secure Video explained

In the app you can also turn on notifications for any doors, locks, and sensors in your HomeKit home, a sort of de facto security system. The app is also where you go to add any accessory and to set up scenes and automations (more on that below).

If you aren't a fan of the Home app, interestingly you can use third-party apps instead. Eve's is very good, Fibaro also has one, and there are a number of paid options in the app store. The advantage of these is you can get a bit more control over some of your Home devices - but they are also more complicated than the Home app.


Creating scenes & automations

One of the best features of the Apple Home app is the ability to create 'Scenes,' essentially groupings of devices, which can be controlled in one fell swoop (think "bed time" or "movie mode"). Scenes can be controlled by voice with Siri, by touch in the app on your phone or watch, or by activating another device - like a smart home button.

Press the plus symbol in the top-right and choose Add Scene. Choose devices you want to control by tapping Add Accessories and then name the Scene before pressing Done.

Along the same lines, "Automations" allow you to automate the behaviour of a bunch of connected devices dependent on factors such as the time of day, or your location (based on your iPhone's home / away status), when a sensor detects something (motion or smoke), and/or when another device is controlled (such as a door locked). The different between Scenes and Automations is that Scenes require you to trigger them by voice or touch; Automations happen automatically.

The one exception is that Automations can also trigger Scenes. So you can set an Automation that triggers your 'Good Night' scene to turn off the smart lights, turn down the heat, and lock the doors at 10:30 pm every night.

For a deeper dive on HomeKit Scenes and Automations read our guide on how to set up these super useful smart home helpers.


Best Siri HomeKit commands

Controlling elements of your home by voice is a really natural interface. What’s the point of a smart bulb if you can only turn it on with your phone?

Apple's smart home runs on Siri (no Alexa or Google Assistant here). The voice assistant is built into the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and the HomePod, which means a Siri device is likely never far away.

Command all of your smart home devices with your voice and have them execute both simple and more complicated tasks. Here's some of the best uses for Siri in your smart home (all of which start with a, "Hey, Siri...").

“Turn on the lights” or “Turn off the lights.”

“Dim the lights” or “Set the brightness to 50%.”

“Set the temperature to 68 degrees.”

“Turn on the coffee maker.”

“Turn on the upstairs lights.”

“Dim the lights in the dining room to 50%.”

“Make the living room lights the brightest.”

“Set the thermostat downstairs to 70.”

“Set my bedtime scene.”

"Open the garage door."

"Lock the front door."

"Is the bedroom window open?"


Share your HomeKit Home

Once your HomeKit home is set up, you might want to afford other people control of your devices. Apple makes it easy to share your set-up with anyone - so your spouse, child, roommate, or babysitter can turn on the lights and set the heating to their preferred temperature.

Tap the house icon in the top left-hand corner of the Apple Home app, and choose Invite under People. Select a contact from the list and then press Send Invite. They will have to have an iCloud account. When they accept, their Apple Home app will be populated with all your devices.

You can have more than one home in the Home app, so if they have their own they can switch between the two (or, usefully, let Apple do it for them based on geolocation).

Apple HomeKit: Apple's smart home platform explained

How to set up a HomeKit hub

If you're at home on your iPhone, your HomeKit-enabled kit will work without a hub, but for any remote access or control, you will need an ever-present, Wi-Fi enabled, device in your house. The good news is Apple's smart home setup cleverly leverages an Apple TV, HomePod, or iPad as a secret smart home hub, so there's no need for yet another plastic box.

Read this: How to use Siri with the Apple TV

You will have to have a HomeKit hub if you want to use Automations or view live camera streams in the Home app, because the hub does all the processing for these systems locally on the device (it doesn't use the cloud).

Finally, you may want more than one hub. There's no harm in enabling all the compatible devices you have as HomeKit hubs. With multiple hubs set up, the primary home hub will show as connected and the other home hubs will show Standby as their status. They will take over remote access if the main home hub is disconnected, plus they will act as a bluetooth extender for devices further away from the main hub. (very useful in larger homes).

Set up Apple TV as a home hub

An Apple TV 4K is the best solution for a hub because it's always plugged in and it's a superb video streaming device, plus its remote control has Siri built in so you can ask it to operate your home devices without having to reach for your phone. Strangely though, there's no Home app on the Apple TV.

For setup, Apple and iCloud help with most of the heavy lifting here, but here's how to add an Apple TV to your HomeKit home.

1. On your iOS device enable two-factor authentication for your Apple ID. Head to the iCloud settings and make sure keychain access is enabled. It should be.

2. You'll need to be signed into the same iCloud account on the Apple TV (Settings > Accounts to check).

3. iCloud should do the rest but you can go to Settings > Accounts > iCloud to check if HomeKit is connected. You can also check the status of home hubs (Apple TV or an iPad) by tapping in the right-hand corner of the Apple Home app screen and looking under Home Hubs.

Set up iPad as a home hub

First make sure you're signed into your iPad using the same iCloud account as the rest of your iOS devices.

Next, go to Settings > Home and turn on 'Use this iPad as a Home Hub'.

Open the Home app and tap in the upper-left corner. Then look under Home Hubs to see if your home hub is connected. To work as a HomeKit hub your iPad needs to be powered on all the time and remain in the home.

Set up HomePod as a home hub

Apple's smart speaker, HomePod, can also act as your HomeKit hub and, like the Apple TV option, makes a lot of sense to use as it's likely to be static in your home, and powered on all of the time.

Like Apple TV, HomeKit hub setup on the HomePod is an automatic affair - just make sure you've enabled two-factor authentication for your Apple ID, approved keychain access and signed into the same iCloud account.

You'll see your Apple HomeKit hubs listed in the Home app, and the app will also tell you which one it's using.


Is HomeKit right for you?

Obviously, HomeKit is only right for you if you use an iPhone (it won't work with Android phones), and in some ways it lags behind the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant, mainly in terms of compatible devices.

However we're seeing a flood of HomeKit-ready devices hit the market this year thanks to a key change Apple made a while back when it decided manufacturers could make their devices HomeKit-friendly with a software change rather than a chip.

Usability has also vastly improved, and the Home app is a very powerful smart home manager, giving you a lot more options for control and automation than Alexa does. For running your smart home it is also way better than Google Assistant, which doesn't have any type of automation options that don't rely on voice or touch. Overall, HomeKit is more on par with a smart home system like SmartThings or Wink, although it's not quite there yet

With the launch of iOS 13 soon, we're expecting 2020 to be HomeKit's year. It's very secure and once set up is a pretty bulletproof platform that - thanks to being locally-controlled and not cloud dependent - rarely suffers from dropped connections or temperamental hardware.

Siri control is the icing on the cake, as long as you have an iPhone, Apple Watch or HomePod to hand, you always have instant control over your scenes and devices.

Apple HomeKit: Everything you need to know about living in an Apple Home

Apple HomeKit: More tips and tricks

Use the Home app for MacOS

Apple's Home app for MacOS lets you catch up with what's happening in your home and control essential devices straight from your desktop.

Make your smart TV smarter

Coming in iOS 13, select smart TV models fromLG, Vizio, and others will be HomeKit compatible. This means the TV shows up in your Home app as a device and can be controlled from there: turn it on or off, control the volume, and switch HDMI inputs. You'll also be able to use Siri to control the TV, plus add it into Scenes and Automations, as well as use your iPhone's control center as a TV remote.

Put HomePod and Apple TV to work

With iOS 13 you will finally be able to add both HomePod and Apple TV to automations and scenes, so you can have music start playing when you open the front door or have the Apple TV fire up Netflix as part of your Netflix and Chill scene.

Shortcuts bring more fun

Also in iOS 13, HomeKit will integrate with Apple's Shortcuts app so you can tie in features of your phone to your home. For example you can have the lights turn on when you turn your alarm off, or integrate Apple's CarPlay into your home automations.

Use Spotify on HomePod

Thanks to some nifty updates, you can now take advantage of Spotify via your HomePod as an AirPlay 2 speaker, and even use multi-room audio. Check out our guide to find out how.

Add HomePod to Sonos

Sonos and HomePod finally work together, so you can take advantage of multi-room, without investing in a whole new set up. Check out our guide to get it working.

Control your HomePod with your iPhone

HomePod is mainly controlled via Siri, but for those awkward moments your iPhone can also play a crucial role to stop, start, pause, and control the volume.


TAGGED    apple    smart home

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