Just like any emerging technology that's making waves, Apple isn’t far away when it comes to the connected home. Apple HomeKit is the company’s smart home play, offering a platform for iOS users to take control of their connected home.
But unlike platforms like Nest and Hive, there’s little here that’s physical for you to hold or feel. Let us explain the nuts and bolts behind Apple HomeKit, how to get started, 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.
But that’s to tell half the story. In fact 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. The front-facing element of HomeKit is Apple Home, the smartphone app.
This is baked into iOS and has been since iOS 9. But things have been shaken up in iOS 11. We’re going to tackle this as we go along, but you’ll see Apple Home integrate with your devices in totally new ways, including from your devices lock screens and via Apple TV.
How does HomeKit work?
To make an Apple HomeKit smart home, first you need compatible devices. Bag a few of those, and you can start adding them to your system.
Setting up HomeKit devices used to be nigh on impossible but, with iOS 11, Apple has made things a lot easier - although it is still by far the most difficult of the major smart home ecosystems. HomeKit devices can be added within the app by scanning the code using you iPhone or iPad's camera, and if that fails, each has a six-figure code on the box and device itself, which can be input manually. It feels a little archaic compared to Amazon Alexa, which has the power to scan your network to find devices.
They will then be added to the Apple Home app, which is visible from your Home app and lock screen. Devices will then be added to the Apple Home app, which is visible from your Home app and lock screen.
The level of control afforded depends on the device itself. Sensors will offer a live reading (checking a door is closed or motion hasn’t been detected), or you can long-press to control devices (turn on/off lights and plugs) straight from the control centre.
And there are practical issues with the whole set-up. The first is that you need to keep these codes safe if you need to re-add devices later. You can generate new codes for some devices, but it's a hassle, and that applies to devices that have been upgraded to add HomeKit support, such as older Lifx smart bulbs – which means battling the Apple's Wireless Accessory Onboarding system to generate a virtual code, which doesn't always work. And, 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 programme, security is pretty bulletproof, and those wanting to ensure their smart home is protected from intrusion should consider its merits.
That sounds great – but there are some downsides. First – don’t think that all smart home stuff is Homekit by default. That’s far from the truth. In fact, a lot of the biggest stuff doesn’t play with HomeKit at all. No Nest devices, Hive, Amazon Echo (naturally) or any big name home cameras have any sway with Apple HomeKit, which is unlike Apple not to get big names on board. That’s because schemes like Works With Nest, Works with Alexa and works with Sonos all aim to do exactly the same thing.
The ubiquitous smart light has played nicely with HomeKit since 2015. Philips has recently extended HomeKit compatibility beyond the Hue bulbs, to the Hue Tap, Hue Dimmer Switch, and Hue Motion Sensor as well.
Ecobee smart thermostat
The smart thermostat uses HomeKit to the max, not only letting you control heating remotely, but also lets you take advantage of the platform's geofencing, triggers, scenes – and the whole gamut of HomeKit based features.
Elgato Eve range
Elgato has dedicated itself to creating devices for Apple HomeKit and its Eve app - arguably, is fit to replace the Apple Home app. The Elgato Eve range is one of the most complete on the market, and includes motion sensors, window sensors, plugs, radiator valves.
Nanoleaf's funky smart light is one of the best HomeKit enable lights out there. Remote control is a given and you can control the colour and design of each of the nine panels from the Home app – with up to 30 supported via various expansion packs.
First Alert OneLink Wi-Fi
One of the few HomeKit compatible smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the OneLink notifies you when there’s an emergency. 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.
Introducing the Apple Home app
Home has a few different ways - three, specifically - to interact with your devices within the app. There's 'Home', which lists out all your smart home devices, favourites first; 'Rooms', which groups devices based on which room they're in; and 'Automation', which allows you to automate smart home reactions. For instance you can turn off the lights when you leave home, or set things to happen at certain times of the day.
These automations can be grouped together into 'Scenes'. They're basically super simple ways of activating an automation. For instance, you can create a 'Good Night' scene that turns off the smart lights, turns down the heat and locks the doors. Or you can create a 'Movie Time' scene that turns on the mood lighting and gets a movie ready for playing. These scenes can be activated by either Siri or in the Control Center.
How to use Siri and HomeKit
The turning point for the smart home has been voice assistants, and devices like Amazon Alexa have become gateways to the smart home for many people.
Controlling elements of your home by voice is just really natural. What’s the point in having a smart bulb, if you have to turn it on via your phone. Find phone, unlock, open app, change setting – that’s more complicated than getting up and hitting the switch.
Obviously Apple has Siri built into the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and soon, the HomePod. That means a Siri device will never be far away. You can the command your smart home devices with simple tasks, and we’ve outlined some ideas below.
“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.”
One great aspect 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"). Press the plus 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.
Invite other users
Once your home is set up, you might want to afford other people control of your devices. While those people might not share the same iCloud account as you, that doesn't mean they're locked out of turning on the lights and setting the heating temperature.
Tap in the top left-hand corner of the Apple Home app, and choose 'invite' under People. Select an iCloud contact from the list and then press Send Invite. When they accept, their Apple Home menu will be populated with devices.
How to use Apple TV as a smart home hub
Apple's smart home setup cleverly leverages the Apple TV as a secret smart home hub, which enables access to your smart home devices remotely.
This enables you to view cameras from remote locations or switch on your heating before you get home, all from the HomeKit app and without those smart devices having their own hub. It doesn't apply to that many devices right now, but as HomeKit grows, this will become a key focus. You can also use your Apple TV make motion sensors and other smart home devices.
Set up Apple TV as a home hub
Apple and iCloud help with most of the heavy lifting here, but here's how to add an Apple TV to your HomeKit set-up.
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
Ensure you're signed into your iPad using the same iCloud account as the rest of your iOS devices.
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. If you have multiple home hubs set up, the primary home hub will show as connected. The other home hubs will show Standby as their status and will take over remote access if the main home hub is disconnected.
Is HomeKit right for you?
Right now HomeKit, as a platform, is quite a way behind the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant. Despite HomeKit surviving three generations of iOS, it's still lagging in terms of usability and compatible devices. Apple hasn't enjoyed the luxury of everyone on the market bending to its will, and companies such as Nest seem to be dedicating their time to supporting Alexa, rather than building for HomeKit.
But for dedicated iOS users, Apple HomeKit is worth the bother. It's secure and, once set up, a bulletproof platform that doesn't suffer dropped connections and temperamental hardware. You can also enjoy Siri control, which means that as long as you have an iPhone or Apple Watch to hand, you can control your scenes and devices.
And there's more on the horizon. Apple HomePod will allow for Amazon Echo style control – which will be music to the ears of Apple users looking at Amazon's line-up of devices.