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Filling the Gap: A look at third-party HomeKit apps
By Jesse Hollington | 04.20.16

Apple’s rollout of HomeKit has been an interesting one — a behind-the-scenes framework introduced in iOS 8 that was mostly invisible until the first HomeKit accessories began to make it to the market, more than a year later. From the beginning, Apple provided no HomeKit app or user interface of its own beyond the most basic Settings options, instead relying on third-party developers — usually hardware makers — to fill the gap by providing their own apps. Many of those apps were (and often still are) far more focused on their own hardware, often to the exclusion of providing a more complete solution. Back in December we provided our initial impressions of Life with HomeKit, and as we became more familiar with the technology, we weighed in on why we believe Apple should build its own HomeKit app.

In the past few months, however, something interesting has been brewing within the HomeKit ecosystem: Third-party app developers, most of whom have no direct relationship with hardware vendors, have begun crafting their own dedicated HomeKit apps, serving no purpose other than to interface with Apple’s HomeKit core and access and control third-party devices made by other manufacturers. These third-party apps arguably fill a gap left by Apple itself, and the hardware-agnostic approach allows these apps to place all HomeKit devices on as equal a footing as possible — at least as equal as Apple allows.

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Based on some of our own research and feedback from our readers, we decided to take a closer look at a few of these apps, and some of the intriguing approaches they’ve taken to allow users to manage their HomeKit environments. Many apps seem to bring something unique to the table, although without hardware sales to back their development, some carry higher price tags than their free accessory-paired counterparts.

A Brief Primer: HomeKit Features + Infrastructure

We covered most of the organizational structure of HomeKit in our Life with HomeKit feature last December, but to quickly review, Apple has created an underlying HomeKit organization that third-party apps tie into, so you’ll see commonalities between all of the various HomeKit apps that you install — each HomeKit app will make reference to Homes, Zones, Rooms, Scenes, and Service Groups for organizing the accessories within your home. Everything fits into these groupings which have been mandated by Apple’s HomeKit framework. As a result, changes you make to your home layout in one app will be reflected in every other HomeKit app.

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Another area of HomeKit which hasn’t been explored as much by HomeKit apps until recently is HomeKit triggers. These elements of HomeKit — which again form part of the core infrastructure — allow you to initiate HomeKit Scenes based on external conditions; originally these were limited to simple time-based rules. However, iOS 9 has expanded them to include location-based and accessory-based triggers, allowing for more sophisticated rules that can set scenes when you leave or arrive at home, or to trigger several actions as the result of another action. For example, a single manual switch such as a Lutron Caséta Dimmer, can be used to trigger a scene which could turn on several lights at once, and even adjust a thermostat.

It’s also important to understand that the rule–action relationship is based on Triggers and Scenes — a rule initiated by a trigger must always activate a scene; even if you only want to setup a timer to control a specific device, that device and its action must be placed into a HomeKit Scene.

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Trigger-based rules can also include Conditions, in which case the rule will only trigger if the necessary conditions are met. Conditions can be based on time of day or the status of other HomeKit accessories, and multiple conditions can be used — such as only turning the lights on when you come home if it’s after sunset, or only adjusting the indoor thermostat if an outdoor temperature sensor reads above or below a specific temperature.

Limitations

Before we talk about the individual apps, it’s important to understand that HomeKit still has a few inherent limitations that no app is going to be able to address, regardless of whether it’s written by an accessory manufacturer or an independent third-party. While Apple is working behind the scenes to address some of these issues as HomeKit evolves, as things stand today there are certain things you simply won’t be able to do with HomeKit. For instance, Bluetooth LE HomeKit devices such as Elgato’s Eve sensors and Schlage’s Sense Smart Deadbolt cannot be used as triggers when setting up HomeKit rules, so you won’t be able to initiate actions when unlocking the door, or when a temperature change occurs, although you can still use these as conditions in rules that are triggered by other actions. We’ve been told that Apple has recently released a new BTLE 2.0 HomeKit spec that will allow this capability, however, it appears that vendors of Bluetooth LE accessories will need to build and distribute firmware updates to their products in order to take advantage of this.

Also keep in mind that HomeKit Remote Access requires a third- or fourth-generation Apple TV. Apple uses this as a HomeKit “hub” to allow for access to HomeKit devices when you’re away from home. While some vendors offer their own remote control capabilities, these are independent of Apple’s HomeKit and will limit you to controlling that vendor’s devices only. Third-party HomeKit apps provide support for HomeKit only, and won’t be able to control any HomeKit devices unless an Apple TV is available in the home. Further, since the Apple TV acts as a bridge for BTLE devices, you’ll also need to make sure those devices aren’t too far away from your Apple TV — the common recommendation seems to be no more than about 40 feet, although in our own testing we’ve had some limited success with greater distances.

Third-Party HomeKit Apps

So with all of that out of the way, we can now take a look at what third-party developers have done in creating their own, unique, HomeKit apps.

Home — Smart Home Automation

Home ($15) by Matthias Hochgatterer was one of the first HomeKit apps to support the full set of HomeKit triggers, coming out very shortly after iOS 9 was released to the public. Updates for the app have also been relatively aggressive, including support for not only the latest HomeKit features, but also adding in an Apple Watch app and 3D Touch support. Three separate Today widgets allow favorite accessories, groups, and scenes to be displayed on the Today screen, as live interactive widgets that provide on-off controls and status information.

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The user interface in the app itself is utilitarian, but it gets the job done, presenting tabs for Accessories, Home, Groups, Scenes, and Triggers, laying the information in each screen out in standard lists. Unfortunately, information in every list is laid out alphabetically by the name of the room, accessory, group, or scene, and no custom sorting options are available, meaning you won’t be able to organize your accessories into an order that more accurately reflects your home’s layout, or how you use your accessories. Selecting an accessory presents a screen with additional information and controls, including a switch to set that accessory as a favorite, making it available in the Today screen widget and in the Apple Watch Home app. A similar favorite switch is available for Groups and Scenes.

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In an effort to fully embrace all HomeKit accessories, Home’s developer also clearly wanted to ensure no potentially useful information or attributes were left out of the detail screens, so for many accessories you’ll see a plethora of custom fields that do little more than add clutter to the display, and sadly there’s no way to hide these. It definitely gives the app a feeling of being designed more for the serious HomeKit enthusiast who wants to explore all of the details of their accessories, as opposed to the average user who just wants to control lights or check temperatures. It’s worth noting, however, that the favorites setting combined with the Today widget and Apple Watch app do provide a simpler alternative for controlling a few accessories, although controls in these areas are limited to simple on–off switches for lighting accessories — you won’t be able to adjust a thermostat or unlock a door, for instance.

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While Home carries a relatively hefty price tag — particularly considering the free price tag of very good accessory apps such as Elgato’s Eve app — early adopters who wanted access to all of the latest HomeKit features may find the price justifiable, and there’s no doubt in our mind that this is the Swiss Army knife of HomeKit apps, with full support for a wide range of accessories, setting up complex HomeKit triggers, and the ability to access HomeKit accessories, groups, and scenes from the Today screen and the Apple Watch.

MyTouchHome

MyTouchHome ($2) by Romain Henry takes a more unique approach to HomeKit accessory management, eschewing the classic list-based view in favor of a more whimsical series of colored circles used to represent zones, rooms, accessories, and more. An initial screen presents a hierchical layout, with home-wide accessories and top-level zones (e.g. “Upstairs”), and drilling down into individual zones will display the rooms in those zones, and then the accessories from there.

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Swiping to the right of the initial screen takes you through similar screens presenting scenes, scheduled triggers presented as a week view, event triggers, and users. Once you get down to the bottom level — usually an accessory with a room or scene, or a specific trigger configuration — you’re presented with a more familiar list view screen. Here, MyTouchHome nicely presents the key details and controls, with additional information available by tapping the “i” button in the top-left corner of the screen, although this seems to work better with more straightforward accessories such as lights — more sophisticated devices like thermostats still appear to provide a more confusing series of options.

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MyTouchHome also provides a Today screen widget, but its capabilities are limited to showing you scheduled upcoming timed triggers. MyTouchHome also doesn’t seem to do a good job of inheriting timed triggers that have been set in other apps — only those configured through MyTouchHome are actually shown. Triggers aren’t removed by MyTouchHome, however, and all of your triggers will still run since it’s the HomeKit framework that activates them, not any individual app. But it’s going to be confusing if actions are running that you can’t see in your app of choice, and you’ll have to go back to another HomeKit app to actually adjust them. MyTouchHome also provides notifications when timed events are triggered, although these are generated by the app itself, not by any HomeKit APIs. So if you delete your timed events in another app, MyTouchHome may still fire off notifications when those events were supposed to occur.

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MyTouchHome also includes an Apple Watch app, and is one of the few apps to also add both a Glance and a WatchOS 2 Complication to the mix. On the Apple Watch, you get a similar layout of zones, rooms, and accessories, and can drill down to control just about any device in your HomeKit environment, including door locks and thermostats. Although like the parent iOS app, some of the more sophisticated accessories display a lot of superfluous information. The Glance provides an interesting summary of devices in your home by category, including temperature, number of lights that are on, status of door locks, and more. The Complication replicates the Today extension, providing information about the next scheduled event.

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At first glance, we liked MyTouchHome’s unique layout, but it also places form over function, requiring a lot more navigation upward and downward through our HomeKit configuration than we feel should be necessary — for example, if you’re using zones, you can expect at least three taps to get to the point where you can actually adjust an accessory’s settings, then another three taps to get back to the top level. Even doing something as simple as turning on two or three lights in the same room requires an up-and-down between detail screens and a parent menu — there’s no single view of on/off controls anywhere within the app. Tap-and-hold gestures work in some places, but they’re limited to renaming or removing zones, rooms, and accessories, rather than providing any options for control. While the layout of MyTouchHome is nice, and the Apple Watch features are interesting, we found it too “fiddly” to be practical.

Devices

Devices ($3) by LinkDesk is another app that goes for a different visual layout with a simpler presentation of HomeKit organization. All HomeKit accessories are laid out in a single list, rather than broken down into hierchical levels. Icons show the status of each accessory — lights show brightness and color settings in a semi-circle, thermostats and room sensors show a thermometer reflecting the approximate temperature, and door and lock sensors visually show locked/unlocked and opened/closed status. Tapping on any icon provides an enlarged view that allows direct control of that device, with tap and swipe gestures used to adjust brightness for lights or temperatures for thermostats. We found the graphical controls to be a nice change from the traditional on/off switches that populate most HomeKit apps.

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Options at the top of the screen allow accessories to be grouped by room, category (type of accessory), and most recently used, and tapping on the “All Devices” heading at the top allows you to filter by a zone, such as “Upstairs” or “Outside.” Accessories can be organized into rooms, including the ability to create new rooms, by tapping the “Edit” button in the top-left corner, and zones can be managed in a similar way when viewing the zone selection screen. Pulling down also reveals a search field at the top of the screen that can be used to filter the list of accessories.

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Screens for groups, scenes, and time-based triggers are here as well, and Devices uses a nice visual icon layout to quickly summarize what each scene or trigger does for each device. Sadly, the app only supports time-based triggers at this point, so users who want to configure event-based triggers will need to look to another app. Unlike the first two apps we looked at, no Today widget is available here. But Devices does provide a basic Apple Watch app that presents a similar interface to that of the iPhone version, with a single list of accessories that can be organized by category or room, and the app can be controlled through tap gestures to turn accessories on or off, or by using the Digital Crown to adjust settings such as brightness and temperature.

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If you’re looking for a different approach to managing your HomeKit environment, Devices is definitely worth a look. The visual presentation is interesting and accessory controls are relatively accessible, and we found the Apple Watch app to be a useful addition, with access to the vast majority of accessory controls. Also, the relatively simple layout doesn’t require too much fiddling. Our only disappointment was that triggers are relatively limited compared to the other apps we’ve looked at.

Hesperus

While we don’t normally cover pre-release apps, we felt that Hesperus, an upcoming app by Oltica was worth a mention. The app should make its debut on the App Store very soon — it’s currently making its way through Apple’s review process, and although pricing has not been formally announced, Hesperus’ developer has told us that he plans to release it for free, without any limitations; we were provided with a pre-release copy to look at.

Hesperus uses an icon-based layout similar to Devices, while providing a more attractive visual presentation and more detail at a glance — temperature sensors and thermostats will show numeric values right on the home screen, for instance. Further, you can initiate basic actions for accessories — such as on/off or lock/unlock — simply by tapping on the icon without the need to navigate into separate screens; an ellipsis button in the top right corner of each icon provides access to more specific options such as brightness, color, and temperature controls. A subtle “View Accessory Detail” link from this screen provides access to a detailed view of accessory information and settings, but we liked that this is hidden away by default, avoiding the clutter of some of the other HomeKit apps we looked at.

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By default, accessories for the entire Home are shown. A button in the top right corner allows you to filter to a specific zone or room, and you can also assign unique icons to each grouping for navigating between them more easily at a glance. Buttons at the bottom of the screen provide access to Scenes, Schedules, and Actions. The Scenes screen provides a similar icon-based visual layout to Devices, showing at a glance which accessories are included and their target settings; Scenes can also be quickly activated from this screen with a left-to-right swipe gesture. Schedules are presented in a simpler list view, while Actions provide an interesting and unique graphical representation of the triggers, conditions, and results of each. Right-to-left swipe gestures on the Schedules and Actions screen allow you to quickly delete or disable individual triggers.

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Setting up a new time-based or event-based trigger takes you through a step-by-step process asking you to give the trigger a name and then specify a time and recurrence for time-based triggers, or a series of triggers, conditions, and accessories or scenes for an event-based trigger. It’s an intuitive process, but we did find having to walk through all of the steps a bit more cumbersome when we simply wanted to make a quick modification to an existing event-based trigger. That said, it’s a very polished user experience compared to most other apps that we’ve seen, and Hesperus has one other trick up its sleeve — rather than relying on only triggering scenes with time or event-based triggers, you can build any grouping of devices you like, saving you the step of having to build a scene when setting up an automation sequence. Under the hood, Hesperus is actually creating a new scene for the actions you select, since that’s the only way HomeKit will do this, but the scene is hidden within the app so that you don’t have to deal with managing it separately (the scene will be visible in other HomeKit apps, however).

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While Hesperus hasn’t been released on the App Store, an early look can be found on the developer’s website, and users can sign up for early access, presumably subject to availability. We were definitely impressed by the design polish and layout of Hesperus. Apple Watch support is conspicuously missing compared to other apps on the list, but while it would be a nice addition, we think it’s a relatively minor omission at this point — we find that using Siri voice commands from the Apple Watch is usually far more convenient than fiddling with an app on our wrist. For the typical user, Hesperus is the best third-party HomeKit app we’ve seen by far, and considering it will be available for free we highly recommend at least taking a good look at it once it makes its debut on the App Store.

Update (Apr 21, 2016): Hesperus has been released on the App Store.

In Summary

It’s very interesting and encouraging to see what third-party app developers are doing with HomeKit apps. There’s an extensive set of them currently available on the App Store, and we actually downloaded about a dozen, but found that only the four above were worth any mention at all — like any collection of apps on the App Store, many of the others were very limited in functionality, had poorly-designed user interfaces, or were either expensive or very heavily ad-supported.

Obviously independent third-party developers aren’t usually writing apps for free — they need to eat somehow too — so it’s going to be an uphill struggle for them to compete with deep-pocketed accessory makers who are generating most of their revenue from hardware sales and giving away their apps for free. As a result, HomeKit apps have to try all the harder to bring something unique to the table, and with HomeKit being a core feature set common to all apps, it’s ultimately only the user interface and design that’s going to make one app stand out over the others.

While the four apps highlighted above are worth at least a look, particularly if you’re interested in something unique or user-friendly, we still find it’s hard to find a need to spend any money on a HomeKit app when most accessory vendors are providing free options that are only getting better — a $15 price tag on an app like Home begins to seem even more excessive by comparison. For example, Elgato’s Eve app is a completely free option that provides a comprehensive set of HomeKit capabilities in a relatively attractive user interface, and you don’t even need to buy an Elgato device to download and use the app. Similarly, iDevices Connected is another good free app that provides an Apple Watch solution that works well on the wrist for most users’ needs, and again, it doesn’t require the purchase of an iDevices product. Further, since you can mix-and-match HomeKit apps — they all speak to Apple’s core HomeKit framework — you could easily use a different app on your iPhone from the one on your Apple Watch, and even a third app for Today screen access. Ultimately, apps are certainly a personal preference, and considering the cost of equipping your home with HomeKit accessories, many users may understandably have no problem shelling out a few bucks more for something that makes their own HomeKit user experience more enjoyable.

While there’s no clear overall winner, and all the apps we’ve seen excel in different ways, our current recommendations would be:

Best app overallHesperus (free)
Best free app for Apple WatchiDevices Connected (free)
Best paid app for Apple WatchDevices ($3)
Best app for Today screen useHome ($15, but it’s the only one that does it)

And of course, you can always use a combination of the apps to get the best solution for you.

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