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Top Five: The Best Products for Building a Smart Home with HomeKit
By Jesse Hollington | 11.10.16

Apple’s introduction of HomeKit in iOS 8 two years ago was in many ways what we had been waiting for in the home automation world — a unifying framework that would signal a departure from the proprietary apps, devices, and ecosystems that we’d all come to know, and would take us into a place where we can build out smart homes from a collection of the best accessories available from a wide variety of vendors. It’s been a long road from HomeKit’s initial debut, with many accessory makers taking a while to get on board, and Apple being slow to add support for new types of devices, and new capabilities. With iOS 10, however, the HomeKit ecosystem is finally maturing, with Apple’s own Home app, support for a wealth of new devices and automations, and a critical mass of accessories that users can now work with.

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However, with dozens of HomeKit-compatible accessories now availble to equip your home, where do you start? What are the areas you should be looking at and what are the best products? To help you get started, we’ve gone through our collection of HomeKit accessory reviews and singled out our top choices for you across the five most significant home automation categories.

Best Outlet — Incipio CommandKit Wireless Smart Outlet

Users dipping into home automation for the first time may find themselves starting with smart outlets due to their versatility. Smart outlets can be used to control lamps, fans, and other appliances — basically, anything that plugs into an AC adapter. So it’s no surprise that about a third of all of the HomeKit-compatible products we’ve looked at fall into this category.

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Our top recommendation of the bunch is Incipio’s CommandKit Wireless Smart Outlet With Metering ($40). Although we’re still not fans of Incipio’s CommandKit app, the iOS 10 Home app and a collection of great third-party HomeKit apps make it largely unnecessary for most purposes, and at $40, Incipio has come in with the most affordable single-outlet option for the features it provides. This is particularly important if you want to equip your home with several of these.

Other products worth considering: Of course, the beauty of HomeKit is that you’re not tied to products from one vendor — you can mix and match to meet your needs. Grid Connect’s ConnectSense Smart Outlet ($60) gives you two independently controllable outlets in one place at the lowest per-outlet cost, along with power monitoring, power-based triggers, and a USB port too. Users looking for Bluetooth-only solutions may want to consider Elgato’s Eve Energy ($50), which provides similar features without cluttering your Wi-Fi network, although it’s $10 more. While it’s one of the more expensive products we’ve looked at, iDevices’ Outdoor Switch ($80) is the only option right now for users who need an outdoor solution.

Best Lighting Solution — Lutron Caséta Wireless

If you’re looking to just control a couple of floor or table lamps, an outlet accessory may be all you need, but for somebody looking to get into whole home automation, chances are you’re going to want more comprehensive solutions. While it will require you to pull out a screwdriver, Lutron’s Caséta Wireless System is our hands-down favorite choice in this category. Prices vary, but $190 will get you a starter kit with the HomeKit Smart Bridge and two in-wall dimmers, after which you can add additional in-wall dimmers or plug-in lamp dimmers for $60 each. If you’re already investing in a Caséta solution, the plug-in lamp dimmers are a great outlet option for controlling floor and table lamps, as they’re the only outlet option that also provides dimming rather than just on/off control.

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Lutron’s in-wall dimmers are easily installed in place of any existing light switch, without requiring any special wiring. They don’t clutter your Wi-Fi network with extra devices (all of Lutron’s switches use their own ClearConnect protocol to communicate with the Ethernet-connected bridge), and best of all, they work just like normal dimmer switches. Let’s face it: automating your home is nice, but most people still want to just be able to walk into a room and turn on the lights the old-fashioned way, without having to reach for your iPhone or Apple Watch. While Lutron’s Caséta System has a higher up-front cost in terms of both money and installation requirements, you’re definitely getting what you pay for here; it “just works” and it does so really well.

Other products worth considering: The other major player in this space is Philips’ Hue System, which provides similar HomeKit bridge-based communications, but focuses on the bulbs rather than the switches. You’ll pay anywhere from $60 to $200 for a Starter Kit that contains two or three white or color bulbs and a HomeKit-enabled Hue Bridge; additional bulbs range in price from $15 for basic white bulbs to $60 for multi-color bulbs, and you can add specialized lighting solutions like Lightstrip Plus and the Hue Go portable lamp. You can then mix and match according to your needs. In our opinion, Hue is better suited to more specific situations, and isn’t nearly as suitable for standard overhead lighting controlled by a switch; in those cases, you’re stuck leaving the switch on all the time and controlling your lights only from your iPhone or Apple Watch, or you have to also invest in a Hue Dimmer to install alongside your existing switch (which still needs to be left on all the time). In short, Hue can be great for floor and table lamps, or specialized lighting scenarios, but it’s not something we’d recommend most people use as a whole home lighting solution. Again, though, of course, the beauty of HomeKit is that you can mix and match both to meet your specific needs.

Best Thermostat — ecobee3

While smart thermostats aren’t necessarily the top product that comes to mind when most people think of home automation, when you consider rising energy costs, they can actually be the most important element of a HomeKit setup. That said, it’s still a specialized market, with few players, and even fewer offering full HomeKit integration. Obviously, installing a new thermostat will require that you either have some DIY knowledge or are willing to pay for a professional to come in and do it for you, but for most users the energy cost savings make it more than worth the time and effort.

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There’s no question in our minds that if you’ve got the money to spend, ecobee’s ecobee3 ($249) is the smart thermostat to buy. Not only can this thermostat be fully controlled via Siri and HomeKit, but it includes sophisticated algorithms to maximize energy savings, such as Smart Recovery, which minimizes furnace run time and heats up your home based on factors such as schedules and outside temperature. A remote sensor is included in the box that also allows you to factor in the temperature in another room, with a motion sensor to determine whether or not it’s occupied. Additional sensors can be purchased in two packs for $80, and as an added bonus, they can even be used as rudimentary HomeKit motion sensors to trigger other actions — such as turning lights off when a room is unoccupied. In fact, ecobee3 is so good at reducing energy consumption that many utility companies now recognize that by offering monetary incentives when you buy one.

Other products worth considering: If you’re looking for just a basic thermostat that allows HomeKit control and scheduling and don’t care for the other smart features, iDevices’ Thermostat ($150) is a more budget-friendly choice. You’ll get the ability to monitor and control your thermostat temperature via Siri, as well as set up automation rules based on location and other accessory triggers or time of day. It’s not as clever about optimizing your energy savings as the ecobee3, but it gets the job done if all you really need is scheduling and remote control. While we haven’t specifically reviewed it, ecobee has recently released ecobee3 Lite ($169) — a less expensive model that leaves out the remote sensors but still provides all of the other smart features.

Best Door Lock — August Smart Lock

If you’re looking to fully automate your home, a smart lock or two can really help complete your setup — not only is it great to avoid fumbling for your keys in certain situations, but these locks provide a great way to remotely let trusted people in when you’re not at home. Users can also issue virtual “keys” that can be easily revoked or set up to work only at certain times of the day or week.

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August’s Smart Lock ($229) is our top choice in this category by a slight margin. It offers what you’d expect in terms of HomeKit-specific features: Siri voice control for remote locking, unlocking, and status, as well as HomeKit triggers so you can set up rules which do things like turn on your lights when your front door is unlocked. However, August gets an edge for its own in-app features that provide things like automatic unlocking when you arrive home, which combines both geofencing and Bluetooth proximity to ensure that your door only unlocks when you walk up to it — not when you’re still a few hundred feet away from home. We also like the fact that August’s Smart Lock fits onto your existing lock hardware; this lets you use any actual deadbolt you prefer, which can be handy not only for aesthetics, but also keeping a lower profile by not advertising your smart lock. The downside is that if you want to assign manual entry codes, you’ll need to shell out another $80 for the Smart Keypad. But that’s certainly not necessary to use the lock, particularly with features like proximity unlocking.

Other products worth considering: Schlage’s Sense Deadbolt ($229) is the other major contender in this space. While its feature set isn’t quite as comprehensive, it includes the entire lock hardware with Schlage’s reputation behind it, as well as an integrated keypad, and it comes in two different styles and three finish options. Since August sells its Smart Keypad separately, Schlage’s solution is actually more cost-effective if you want the integrated keypad, and don’t mind its physical appearance.

Best Sensors — Elgato Eve Room & Weather

For many, a big part of home automation is also home monitoring. If you’re going to have lighting and thermostats that you can control remotely, it’s sometimes helpful to know what the conditions are when you’re away from home. In addition, sensors can be used to trigger HomeKit actions, such as adjusting a thermostat when outside temperatures change.

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Elgato’s Eve Room and Weather Sensors have become an integral part of our HomeKit system for their ability to monitor not only room temperature and humidity, but also indoor air quality and outdoor air pressure. Not only is it useful to be able to see this data (and Apple’s Home app can put it right up on the main status screen), but it’s a great way to set up rules that can adjust temperature based on weather conditions. Further, while it’s not a HomeKit feature (yet), the Eve sensors maintain a running log of all of the data they’re collecting, which can be viewed and exported from Elgato’s own Eve app.

Other products worth considering: Elgato also offers a Door & Window Sensor ($40) that can be used to determine whether a door is left opened or closed, and trigger actions when that status changes. First Alert’s Onelink Wi-Fi Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarms ($150/$160) are worth mentioning only because they offer a more complete HomeKit solution, but at the price they’re pretty hard to justify unless you really need it. You’re paying a premium of well over $100, but if you’re frequently away from home, these HomeKit alarms can let you set up rules to do things like turn off your furnace if carbon monoxide is detected, or turn on emergency lighting when smoke is detected, and you’ll also get remote notifications — and the ability to ask Siri if your house is on fire.

A Few Notes for the Near Future

Unfortunately, there are still gaps in the HomeKit family, mostly due to limitations from Apple’s side. While iOS 10 added support for many new products, it seems manufacturers are still working on implementing support. Some existing products that will hopefully see HomeKit support soon include August’s Doorbell Cam ($199), which is a handy solution for knowing who is at your front door; right now it integrates directly with August’s Smart Lock, of course, and provides motion sensing and video streaming and recording through its own app. August has promised that full HomeKit support will arrive, which should hopefully broaden the Doorbell Cam’s usefulness as part of a whole HomeKit solution. Likewise, with support for Garage Door Openers having arrived in iOS 10, we’re hoping to see devices from companies such as Chamberlain adding HomeKit support to their Wi-Fi garage door openers in the near future, although they have nothing to announce at this time.

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