Just like any emerging technology that's making waves, Apple isn’t far away when it comes to the connected home. Apple HomeKit, alongside the Home app, 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 on your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch or HomePod.
But that’s to tell only half of 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 iOS app you'll find on iPhones and iPads.
We’re going to tackle all of this as we go along, with Apple Home evolving all of the time and integrating with your smart home devices in totally new ways.
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, since iOS 11 went live, things are a lot easier - although it is still by far the most difficult of the major smart home ecosystems to get your connected tech on board.
HomeKit devices can be added within the app by scanning a six-figure code on your 'Works with Apple HomeKit' product's box, using the iPhone or iPad's camera; or if that fails, the code can be input manually. It feels a little archaic compared to Amazon Alexa, which has the power to scan your network to find devices - but it's all down to Apple's super-high encryption and security standards.
Paired devices will be added to the Apple Home app, which is visible from both the Home app itself, the Control Center (you can choose your favourites) and also the lock screen if you wish.
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 Center.
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 from within their own apps, but it's a hassle. You'll have to do this for 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 as seamlessly as it should.
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.
So far so good(ish) – 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. 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.
The Ambient's verdict: Apple HomePod review
Obviously Apple has Siri built into the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and 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. 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.”
Creating scenes and automations
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.
Along the same lines is the Automation aspect of the Home app, which allows 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).
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.
If you're at home, on your iPhone, your HomeKit enabled kit will work without a hub but for any remote access or controls, 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.
Set up Apple TV as a home hub
Using an Apple TV 4K as a hub allows you to view cameras from remote locations, all from the HomeKit app and without those smart devices having their own hub. It doesn't apply to that many cameras 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.
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.
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 makes 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?
Right now HomeKit, as a platform, is slightly lagging behind the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant - things have got better since the HomePod went live. Despite HomeKit surviving three generations of iOS, it's still playing catch up 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. Or maybe Apple isn't letting as many people in its smart home club. Who knows?
But for dedicated iOS users, Apple HomeKit and the Home app 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, Apple Watch or HomePod to hand, you can control your scenes and devices.
Apple HomePod also allows for Amazon Echo style control – which will be music to the ears of Apple users looking at Amazon's line-up of devices.