Life with HomeKit: Our experiences with Apple’s home automation system | iLounge Article

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Life with HomeKit: Our experiences with Apple’s home automation system

When Apple announced HomeKit a year and a half ago at WWDC 2014, the new platform definitely piqued our interest. We had looked at a number of different home automation solutions over the years, but the one limitation that they almost universally suffered from was their proprietary nature — while there were some very good iOS solutions out there, most only worked if you purchased hardware exclusively from whichever single vendor’s system you’d chosen to go with. This not only had the obvious problem of locking you into a single vendor financially, but since almost no single company provides a breadth of different home automation solutions, many users were left juggling products and apps from multiple vendors that were loosely compatible, if at all. You could buy your lights from Philips or Belkin, for example, but you’d need to look to Nest or Honeywell for a thermostat, Schlage or Kwikset for a door lock, and so on.

Some vendors, such as Nest, created semi-open APIs and attempted to build their own partnerships, but these ended up being limited by their very nature, since hardware manufacturers have their own agendas, and it’s really not in their best interests to open up their APIs to competing products. Users were still left with tough choices of what to mix and match, and were left on their own in terms of figuring out what would best work together based on each vendor’s own promises.

In light of all of this, Apple’s introduction of HomeKit was exactly what needed to happen in the modern home automation space — an otherwise neutral third-party company creating a hardware-agnostic ecosystem that any vendor could tie into, potentially unifying all of these disparate, proprietary systems under a single umbrella. We’ve now looked at a fairly wide assortment of different HomeKit products from various companies over the past three months, and have used them on a daily basis. We can say that in a broad sense, Apple has delivered on HomeKit’s initial promise, although there’s still work to be done, and lots of room for growth. As with many of Apple’s recent initiatives, the company tends to start small and expand from there, adding new functionality as it goes along.

The Structure of HomeKit

Unlike most of Apple’s systems, HomeKit is actually one of the least obvious components on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch as it remains entirely invisible until you configure your first HomeKit device. There’s no HomeKit app, as Apple has chosen to rely on third parties to provide their own HomeKit interfaces, and a “HomeKit” option in settings won’t appear until you have configured HomeKit, which has to be done through a third-party app.

Since most vendors offer their apps for free, users who want to explore HomeKit a bit before going out and purchasing an accessory can download one of these third-party apps. Of the ones we’ve looked at thus far, the Elgato Eve app, designed to work with Elgato’s Eve sensors is the most “purist” of the HomeKit apps we’ve seen, providing access to almost all of the HomeKit settings (timed scenes or “triggers” are noticeably absent) in a well-designed and straightforward user interface.

Apple has built HomeKit to divide up your home automation accessories into various logical groupings for convenient organization and control. At the top level you have the Home, which is intended to contain all of the accessories in a single household, or even an office space. You can actually have multiple “homes” in HomeKit, which are treated as entirely separate entities, but most users will likely only use one. Within a Home you can optionally create Zones, Rooms, and Service Groups to further organize your devices; while all HomeKit accessories must be assigned to a Home, any organization beyond that is entirely optional. Rooms are fairly self-explanatory, while Zones are designed to include groupings of rooms (e.g. “upstairs” or “basement”), and Service Groups are intended to group multiple devices for unified control (e.g. “desk lamps” or “overhead lights”).

Another element of HomeKit is Scenes, which are basically pre-defined settings that apply to groups of HomeKit devices. HomeKit predefines scenes for Good Morning, Good Night, I’m Home, and I’m Leaving, which you can customize to perform appropriate tasks, such as turning the lights off and adjusting the thermostat when you leave.

Once you’ve loaded up a HomeKit app and configured your Home, a “HomeKit” option will appear in the iOS Settings app, both on the main settings menu and in the Privacy section. The main settings option shows you the Homes you’ve configured and allows you to enable or disable remote access and invite others to have “guest” access to controlling that home. The HomeKit settings under Privacy provide a list of apps that have been granted access to HomeKit, as well as an option to wipe out your entire HomeKit configuration and start over.

Your HomeKit configuration is stored in iCloud, secured with credentials stored in your iCloud Keychain, and will be automatically synced to any other iOS device signed in with the same iCloud account, provided iCloud Keychain is also enabled on that device.

The Magic of HomeKit

On the very surface of it, Apple’s HomeKit design brings an almost magical aspect to the home automation experience, simply by leveraging Siri voice commands. While HomeKit goes deeper than this, for many users the ability to simply say “Hey Siri, turn the lights on” will be enough by itself to justify investing in HomeKit accessories. Even the Siri commands go beyond the basics, however, letting you not only give commands to devices based on room, zone, or service group (“Turn off the living room lights”), but also trigger scenes with very straightforward commands (“Good night”), adjust thermostats (“Set the temperature to 21 degrees”), and query information from sensors (“Is the back door open?” or “What’s the temperature at home?”).

Combined with the “Hey Siri” feature on the iPhone, this gets even more useful — you can simply shout out “Hey Siri, good night” before going to bed to trigger the appropriate HomeKit Scene, which can shut off the normal lights, turn on some night lights, make sure the door is locked, and set the thermostat to an appropriate overnight temperature setting. Similarly, saying “Good morning” to Siri upon waking up can make the necessary adjustments to prepare the house to start your day. Older iPhone models will need to be plugged in to take advantage of this, so this feature is even more useful if you have an iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus, where “Hey Siri” is always on. Add an Apple Watch into the mix and suddenly you’ve got something even more futuristic.

You can also create your own custom scenes, and Siri will in fact try to match what you say to a specific scene, which works especially well if your scenes are made up of two or more words. So instead of having to say “Hey Siri, set the Movie Night scene” you can just say “Hey Siri, movie night” and the appropriate HomeKit scene will be engaged. In fact, HomeKit Scene names can even override other Siri commands — saying “Hey Siri, movie night” will normally show you a list of what’s playing at nearby theatres, but a HomeKit scene named “movie night” will take precedence.

Most HomeKit devices and scenes also work regardless of whether your device is locked or unlocked, although since Apple takes security pretty seriously, there are cases in which you’ll need to unlock your device with TouchID in order to complete a command, such as controlling door locks. It’s probably fair to say that it’s not the end of the world if somebody gets their hands on your iPhone and can play with your lights or thermostat, but you don’t want them being able to get into your house without some extra authentication.

Siri commands can also be used to adjust the brightness of lights (“Dim the lights to 50 percent”), or change colors of multicolored lights (“Set the bedroom lights to hot pink”). As we noted in our Philips Hue HomeKit review, Siri’s color commands can actually be quite mystifying and entertaining — while all of the basic ones work fine, there is a huge selection of other color names waiting to be discovered, and you can get some interesting responses by asking Siri to identify the color of a given light (e.g. “What color is the bedside lamp?”). Some of the more amusing names we’ve already found include banana mania, high noon soon, lavender blush, neon carrot, vivid tangerine, and the rather obscure Zinnwaldite brown. We can’t find any of these documented anywhere, so we suspect that Siri’s range of color names is yet another “easter egg” hidden in Siri by Apple’s developers.

Beyond Siri

While Siri is certainly the “cool factor” of HomeKit, the real power, however, goes beyond merely giving voice commands to your home accessories. For those of us who have struggled with separate home automation systems over the years, the ability to unify devices from multiple vendors into a single ecosystem almost seems like magic by itself, and this includes not only the hardware, but the choice of apps. Although individual company apps still include device-specific features — as HomeKit doesn’t provide everything yet — almost all of them can be used to control basic functionality of all HomeKit devices, not just the ones from the same vendor.

For example, Elgato’s Eve app, designed for the company’s Room, Weather, and Door sensors, is required to read air quality and air pressure, as HomeKit doesn’t yet support this additional data, while iDevices’ Connected app is necessary to configure advanced settings on the company’s Thermostat. However, Elgato’s app can be used to view and adjust the temperature on the Thermotstat, toggle the iDevices Switch, iHome SmartPlug, and ConnectSense Smart Outlet on or off, and turn on/off, adjust colors, and brightness, for Philips Hue devices. Similarly, the iDevices Connected app and ConnectSense apps can both control all of the lighting and outlets. The upside of this is that users have a lot more flexibility in choosing which app will work best for them, and aren’t really stuck to using a single vendor’s interface.

Shared Users

In iOS 9, Apple also added the ability to invite other friends and family members to have control of your home. This is an “all-or-nothing” feature at this point — giving somebody HomeKit access lets them control all of your devices, although this access is still controlled on a per-home basis.

The beauty of this feature, however, is that it’s handled by iOS’ HomeKit features directly, and doesn’t even require the invitee to install a HomeKit compatible app. Inviting another user, using their iCloud Apple ID, will display a HomeKit invitation on their lock screen, and once they accept it, they can immediately begin using the same Siri commands to control your HomeKit accessories, without installing any other apps. This even works if the invitee is not at home when they receive the invitation — in our testing of HomeKit, we invited a family member who was at work to join our Home, and she was immediately able to turn off all of the lights from several miles away.

Of course, users you’re sharing with can also install any of the HomeKit-compatible apps if they want more options, and will immediately see the same configuration information that you do, although shared users cannot add or remove devices or otherwise change your HomeKit configuration or layout in any way — they’re basically restricted to controlling the accessories you’ve already set up.

The Limitations of HomeKit

Apple has traditionally been known for starting with the basics and then growing solutions iteratively, and HomeKit follows this exact same approach, both in terms of the features of the framework itself as well as the slow pace of third-party accessory adoption. As a result, HomeKit isn’t without its limitations. Many of these are simply first-generation issues that we expect to be fixed at some point in the future, while others may just be inherent in the approach that Apple has taken. Only time will tell which are which.

No Apple TV Control

Apple has chosen to leverage the Apple TV as a HomeKit hub for remote access; when you’re on your local Wi-Fi network, your iOS device will send commands to your HomeKit accessories directly, but when you’re away from home, the Apple TV acts as a gatekeeper. This is also the case if you’re using Bluetooth LE HomeKit devices and your iPhone is out of range of them. The third- and fourth-generation Apple TV models both work fine for this purpose, and the process is actually almost entirely transparent — you’ll need to be signed into the same iCloud account that you use for HomeKit, but other than that, it just sits there and works for most users. In short, if you’ve got an Apple TV, you’ll magically have remote access away from home, and don’t really need to know or care why.

With that in mind, however, when the fourth-generation Apple TV arrived with its Siri interface, we were quite surprised to discover that Siri HomeKit commands didn’t work with the Apple TV, and while tvOS 9.1 added Siri for Apple Music, the only thing it did for HomeKit was to add a response confirming that HomeKit commands do not in fact work. This seems like a particularly odd omission considering that the Apple TV already participates in the HomeKit ecosystem. It also seems cumbersome to have to reach for our iPhone to dim the lights for a movie when the Siri Remote is already in our hand. It seems almost a given that Apple will eventually address this, hopefully in a tvOS update, but for now if you’re hoping for the ultimate couch-potato lighting control experience, you’ll need to keep your iPhone handy or go with something like the Harmony Elite Universal Remote Control.

Location and Sensor Triggers

One of the things that Apple promised with HomeKit was the ability to use your location and input from other HomeKit sensors as triggers for scenes or other HomeKit actions. Sadly, at this point most of this seems to be MIA — it apparently only debuted with iOS 9 in September, and HomeKit partners are still scrambling to integrate some of these new features as best as they can. Elgato, for example, has promised a coming firmware and app update for its Eve sensors that will add HomeKit Notification support so that you can take actions such as adjust your thermostat based on a Room sensor temperature, or turn on lights based on a door sensor. This has yet to materialize, however.

Further, while Apple added HomeKit Push Notifications in iOS 9, these are presently limited to Security Systems, Locks, Doors, and Windows, with the latter two referring to motorized accessories, not contact sensors, again limiting what users will be able to do in terms of receiving push notifications. For example, while you will apparently be able to trigger a scene with Elgato’s Window & Door sensor, you won’t be able to receive a push notification, as Apple simply hasn’t (yet) provided a framework for this.

Similarly, location-based HomeKit triggers remain missing from most of the HomeKit apps we’ve looked at. Ecobee’s app for its smart thermostat has apparently added location-based HomeKit triggers, but unlike most HomeKit apps we’ve looked at, you’ll need to purchase and register an Ecobee thermostat to make use of it.

HomeKit Partners and Accessories

When Apple debuted HomeKit back in 2014, the company had a long list of vendors that would presumably be supporting HomeKit. For whatever reason, however, it chose to initially invite vendors to the HomeKit party who were — while established in their own rights — almost entirely new to the home automation world. Instead of seeing the classic vendors like Belkin and Philips at the table, at CES 2014, we were introduced to a collection of brand new accessories from companies such as Elgato, iHome, iDevices, and Incipio, among others, some of whom had been quietly invited to work on HomeKit solutions several months prior to Apple’s official announcement of the platform. While not all of these companies have yet released their HomeKit solutions, those we’ve seen have been good to great, but it’s still something of a disappointment for those who invested in other vendors ecosystems hoping that HomeKit support would arrive.

That said, the upside to this approach is that these companies appear to have entered the HomeKit environment more natively, which may be what Apple intended. They had no preconceived notions or proprietary ecosystems to support, and as a result their HomeKit solutions and apps are far more tightly integrated into the Apple way of doing things. By comparison, Philips — the only major pre-HomeKit home automation vendor to join the club at this point — has integrated its Hue ecosystem into HomeKit in a way that feels more like an adjunct than a native feature set — you’re basically using the Hue system but “syncing” your lights and scenes with HomeKit so they can be controlled via Siri and other HomeKit apps. However, the Hue app itself doesn’t provide any control of other HomeKit accessories.

When and if other vendors will introduce HomeKit support remains an unknown. Most that we’ve talked to keep giving us the generic response that they’re “working on it,” but nobody will provide any kind of a timeline or even a solid confirmation that it’s going to happen. For whatever reason, few of the names on Apple’s large list of potential HomeKit vendors have released HomeKit compatible accessories yet.

New Hardware Required

Don’t expect firmware upgrades that will add HomeKit support for your existing systems. Apple takes security very seriously, so much so that users of other systems will need to buy at least some new hardware to get HomeKit integration, much like Philips Hue users were required to replace their bridge with a new model. The responsibility for this falls solidly in Apple’s court — HomeKit requires Apple-designed chipsets that ostensibly manage security and encryption, as well as the usual MFi authentication, of course.

That said, depending on what you’re using, the cost of entry into HomeKit may not be all that prohibitive. Lighting systems that use a central bridge only need to replace the bridge, not all of the bulbs, whereas other devices like thermostats will need to be swapped out and replaced entirely.

Device Naming and Siri confusion

While Siri voice control is magical, HomeKit still seems to be riddled with confusion in certain areas, and it’s unclear whether these are limitations based on specific vendor implementations, or problems with HomeKit and Siri in general. It’s not uncommon to find commands that logically should work that simply don’t. Asking Siri to “turn off the heat” for example, will announce that it can’t find any thermostats, yet you can tell it to adjust the temperature and it will find the thermostat without any issues. Similarly, since the Elgato’s Eve Door & Window sensor is a “contact sensor”, it doesn’t seem to be found if you ask Siri if a “door is open” but responds fine if you refer to the accessory by name. The Elgato sensor isn’t a “door” class of accessory, but of course you can name it “back door” and Siri will locate it just fine by that name.

This last point also partially reflects how names of rooms and accessories can sometimes get a bit mixed up with accessory types, so you’ll have to be a bit careful with your accessory names for this reason. For example, “Living Room Light” will be too generic of a name for a specific device, as telling Siri to turn on the “Living Room Lights” refers to ALL of the “light” devices in that room. More descriptive names like “Floor Lamp” and “Table Lamp” are often better for this purpose.

Similarly, naming of accessories can still be confusing across the various HomeKit apps out there. Devices appear to have two names in many cases — the general name for the device and the name that you use to refer to it via Siri, and each app we’ve looked at displays and handles these a bit differently. Further, since names must be unique, moving around and renaming devices is often a multi-step process. We often had to rename the old device to get it out of the way before the same name could be assigned to a new device.

Ultimately, we feel that Apple would do well to create its own HomeKit app to at least try to unify this and present it in the proper way. It was rumored this might appear in iOS 9, but it never materialized, so we’re hoping that Apple is still “working on it.”

Conclusions

In many ways, HomeKit remains in its infancy, taking its first steps into a larger world of home automation, and looked at from that point of view, it’s actually pretty remarkable what Apple has accomplished here. The system is not without its limitations, which we’re willing to overlook — for now at least — as growing pains associated with a new technology. If anything, the biggest disappointment has been how long it seems to be taking for existing vendors to join the club, and a lack of any information as to the reasons for these delays. Users eager to gain HomeKit support may find themselves moving away from other systems, but if you’ve already setup your house with Belkin’s WeMo, it’s a huge cost of investment to move to something like Philips’ Hue system just to gain HomeKit integration.

That said, we remain reasonably optimistic about what HomeKit will deliver, and even with all of the current limitations, it’s pretty much the only way that any iOS user should be approaching home automation accessories going forward. Not everyone will have as many HomeKit accessories as we do, but if you plan on buying multiple home automation accessories at any point, we’d suggest going in the HomeKit direction. To get more information on specific products we’ve seen, visit our HomeKit + Home Automation review section.

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