HomeKit is Apple’s proprietary software and hardware smart-home platform, letting you control many of the most popular smart-home devices, including lights, switches, door locks, and thermostats. HomeKit devices link up to each other with relatively little effort and can be controlled not only via an app but also with your voice via Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri.
Introduced in 2014, HomeKit is still evolving. Compatible devices have appeared slowly, and it’s only with the release of iOS 10 that HomeKit has been given a central role (along with a shiny new app) in the Apple ecosystem. In addition to a new Apple-supplied Home app, the Control Center now includes smart-device control, and Apple has added support for new devices, including Wi-Fi cameras, and more ways to build sophisticated and useful interactions between them, such as the ability to have locks trigger other devices.
If you are an Apple user interested in smart home gadgets, HomeKit is a capable—if not quite mature—entry point to home automation, with some privacy advantages over other systems. HomeKit allows you to use your iPhone or iPad to control compatible devices with your voice using Apple’s Siri virtual assistant, your control panel, or the new integrated Home app in iOS 10. Home allows you to create recipes for automation (say, start playing music as you dim the lights) as you would with other smart home systems. Integrating a few HomeKit devices is very simple—close to plug and play when it all works right—but the system overall is not as polished as traditional hub-based smart home setups like those built around Samsung’s SmartThings, nor does it let you build interactions that are as complex. HomeKit, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same privacy concerns since all communication is encrypted and takes place locally on your devices—nothing needs to be managed in the cloud. This means a simple HomeKit setup will work without a hub, but you’ll need to add a 4th generation Apple TV—which acts as a hub and gateway—to control your devices when you’re not on your home Wi-Fi network.
Apple maintains strict control over HomeKit. Developers looking to have their devices certified as “Works with HomeKit” have to meet not only specific hardware and software standards, but must include a dedicated chip for encryption. The benefit of this approach is that HomeKit devices work pretty well and consistently together, an exception among the many smart home systems available today. Apple notes that HomeKit was designed with privacy and security in mind, and as such all communication between devices is encrypted—not even Apple has any idea what Siri requests you make, when your devices are triggered and how, what your settings are, even what devices you’re using. This is very much a departure from the norm, as other big players like Amazon, Nest (owned by Alphabet/Google), and Samsung have all been subject to scrutiny for lax privacy or security measures and the large volume of personal data they collect (and what they do with it).
This all makes producing HomeKit devices more complicated and expensive for manufacturers, which may explain why, to date, there are far fewer HomeKit-compatible devices available—just a few dozen—versus many hundreds available for other smart home standards, such as Z-Wave, Zigbee, Insteon, and ClearConnect.
In most smart-home systems a central hub—like our pick, the Samsung SmartThings—acts as a go-between between the various smart devices on your home network and the internet, letting you control everything over Wi-Fi when you’re at home, or from your smartphone when you’re out. One major advantage with this sort of system is that you can mix and match a hundreds of third-party devices (many of them low cost) because a hub supports a variety of wireless standards, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee, and is compatible with Nest and Alexa, the SmartThings companion app also lets you create far more complex interactions than you can currently set up using HomeKit. And for those who are technically savvy, there’s a vibrant community of amateur programmers who contribute code that can be uploaded to the SmartThings hub. All of that potential flexibility can also make SmartThings too complex for beginners.
HomeKit, in contrast, is almost completely decentralized: You can buy two or 10 or even dozens of devices and they will happily talk to each other over your Wi-Fi network with minimal setup and without requiring a hub as an intermediary. Devices can easily be set up to function automatically, and in fact, with the recent update to iOS 10, it takes just seconds to create and launch useful, simple automations—we created one scheme that turned on a light whenever a door locked, and another that turned off the lights when we were near home. And HomeKit lets you use your voice to control devices via Siri (more on that below) right from the smartphone in your pocket.
HomeKit’s main voice-control competitor is Amazon’s Echo line of internet-connected devices, featuring the virtual assistant Alexa. Amazon has made it much easier for third-party developers to write Alexa-compatible software than Apple has, instantly opening up a much wider—and quickly expanding—range of compatible devices. Echo also isn’t a bona fide smart-home platform in itself—it’s a controller you add to an existing smart-home system—however it’s powerfully influencing the direction of the consumer smart home as arguably the biggest hit so far alongside the Nest Learning Thermostat. Echo is a static device, however, meant to sit in your home, always listening for a command; Siri, on the other hand, lives on your mobile devices and laptops. Alexa’s always listening, though you need to be near a speaker to use it, while you need to trigger Siri, but it’s likely you’ll always have it on you.
Using HomeKit means you have to have an iOS device—an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch—running iOS 8.1 or newer, though iOS 10 is much preferred, as it includes system-level controls and a native HomeKit app. You’ll be okay with all current iOS devices and older models going back to the iPhone 5 and 4th-generation iPad (click here for the official list of compatible devices).
You can set up a HomeKit device either via its own companion app (you download these from Apple’s App store) or through the Home app. All HomeKit devices are assigned a unique identifier code, and when setting up a device with the app you simply scan that code using your iPhone or iPad’s camera rather than having to manually configure everything. In our experience, it’s been a smooth process (with only a couple of failed pairings due to incorrect scanning of a code) and required only a few seconds to a minute to join devices to our home Wi-Fi network where they were instantly linked to our other already installed HomeKit devices.
The next step is to assign your device to a Home network—you can have multiple ones, in case you have say HomeKit setups in different locations (at home, at your office, a vacation place), and you are given the option to assign that device to a room, as well as to one or more “scenes” which are actions or groups of actions that can be triggered simultaneously (users of universal remotes will know these as “macros”). That may be as simple as summoning Siri and saying “Good Night,” which triggers the command to shut off your living room lights, turn on the front porch one, and lock your front door.
Users will need to enable Apple’s free iCloud Keychain, which securely stores all the various pairing information between all your HomeKit devices, making them accessible to other devices via the cloud. This also lets you access HomeKit devices from multiple iOS devices or from devices owned by other members of your family, without having to individually configure access for each device. Enabling it is simple, done by toggling a switch in the iCloud menu in Settings.
If you plan to monitor or control your HomeKit devices remotely—i.e. when you aren’t at home—you need to have an Apple TV (either the 3rd or 4th generation) or an iPad (that has been updated to iOS 10) on your network. This means that as a complete smart-home system, HomeKit isn’t truly hubless. The Apple TV acts as a hybrid Internet gateway and smart-home hub in this respect. It allows you to remotely connect with your home network and control any of your HomeKit devices when you aren’t home; it supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and it can relay commands to Bluetooth-based HomeKit devices that are within about 25 feet. Depending on your home and device setup, this might necessitate having more than one Apple TV.
If you’ve been using HomeKit and you want to take advantage of the new Home app, you’ll want to note that changes in the setup process mean you’ll have to reauthorize at least some of your devices. In our initial testing, once we enabled HomeKit on our Apple TV, there was no further setup required, no need to configure or pair anything—it all just worked. Following our update to iOS 10, we had a frustrating time getting things up and running again, and discovered after several hair-pulling hours that Apple now requires users to go through a process of enabling two-factor authentication—meaning you need to verify your identity on one device and then enter a security code on the other. This, along with the need to enable iCloud Keychain, is woefully under-explained in Apple’s documentation, as there are no prompts in the setup process to let users know it is both required or whether you have successfully added an Apple TV to your network. This change proved a real-world major hassle in our tests when we changed our Apple ID password and went away on vacation, confident in our ability to keep tabs on things at home, only to discover our HomeKit network had become unreachable because we had failed to update the password on our Apple TV.
Once you’ve successfully added a device (or devices) to your HomeKit network, you’re able to control them in a number of ways: using the Home app, a companion app, third-party control apps, or more conveniently (and, well, niftily) with your voice via Apple’s built-in virtual assistant, Siri. Siri is usually summoned by pressing and holding the Home button on an iPhone or iPad, however with more recent devices like the iPhone 6S or 7 and Apple Watch, Siri can be triggered by simply saying “Hey Siri” and then speaking a command. (This always-on mode, or the lack of it, is a key issue, especially when comparing HomeKit with other smart-home systems; see below, Siri-ious shortcomings, for more discussion). The functions available for voice control will change based on the device you’re controlling—for light bulbs you may be able to dim them, or change their color; a presence sensor may be able to relay temperature as well as other conditions. Many devices only offer an abridged version of their full capabilities via voice control, with access to the rest requiring interaction via a companion app or some third-party apps.
The new iOS 10 Home app introduced the ability to create automations—triggers and interactions between devices. Unlike competing smart-home platforms, the language and control schemes are understandable for beginners, and we set up three automations successfully in just a few minutes in our tests. The options aren’t as sophisticated as you’d find in a SmartThings hub—you can have one or multiple devices activate based on time, your location, or if another device is triggered—but they’re useful and easy to set up.
Much of the appeal of HomeKit is the ability to use voice commands to operate smart-home devices, something Amazon’s competing Echo line of voice-controlled speakers already does wonderfully. In real-world use, we found controlling devices via Siri has vastly improved with the iOS 10 update in terms of speed, but relying on it to control HomeKit devices still feels hit or miss. We haven’t tallied every request but in our daily use, Siri fails to correctly process requests often enough that we found ourselves hesitating when deciding to summon it, instead sometimes resorting to using an app. Siri will undoubtedly improve in reliability, but for now, the experience of counting the seconds go by waiting for a response only to have it fail with some frequency is frustrating.
Some unexpected quirks also make using Siri feel inconsistent. For instance, if you want to use your voice to unlock a door, you first have to unlock your phone; this is sound practice from a security perspective but negates much of the perceived convenience of voice control. Notably things are a little easier if you’ve got an Apple Watch, which can be set up to have Siri always listening for commands without requiring a touch-based trigger (though, see above); it also can control Bluetooth devices (like smart door locks) even when out of range of your other iOS devices, a convenient shortcut. A few of our editors also found Siri to be less linguistically flexible than Alexa, requiring slightly more precise and particular phrasing to have a command understood.
Another issue is that the more comprehensive your system is, the harder it becomes to remember all the voice commands to control it. For instance, every zone and room must have a distinct name, as does every individual device. If you have 10 Hue bulbs peppered around your house, each with specific names, in different rooms, and even in different zones, but only want to control one or two of them, you might easily find yourself struggling to recall specific names and end up requiring multiple attempts to command Siri—borderline tongue twisters like “Siri, dim Upstairs Office Hue 2 to fifty percent” are par for the course. This was a common and frustrating experience for us even with a modest assortment of HomeKit devices, especially when a command failed for whatever reason and Siri’s glib response was,”I’ve sent the message to the lights, but some of them seem uninterested.” (Oh really Siri, how about telling me which ones?) To be fair we’ve had plenty of Alexa misfires as well. At least Apple wisely included a fail-safe mechanism: If Siri is too busy to talk (or just failing in an epic fashion) or even if your internet service is down, you are still able to control all HomeKit devices directly from an app.
A less pressing concern but one we think might put a damper on the enthusiasm of some HomeKit users is that, despite how useful the new Home app is, to access many of the controls for some devices, or to accomplish firmware updates, still requires downloading individual companion apps. In order to get our test system running, we needed to update the firmware on several devices, along with the apps, a process we’d love to forego if it all possible. This won’t be an issue if you’re starting from scratch, but if you’re migrating HomeKit-compatible devices you previously had into the new app, expect some extra effort.
As with a lot of current smart-home technology, it’s pretty easy to get befuddled by some of the idiosyncrasies of HomeKit, especially when dealing with Apple’s two-factor authentication and iCloud Keychain. While we found it generally pretty simple to add Wi-Fi HomeKit devices to a system and for them to find each other quickly using Apple’s Home app, we’ve found inconsistent support with Bluetooth-only devices such as spotty access to Elgato Eve products when trying to access them remotely and range issues with a Schlage Sense smart door lock.
Despite those areas of frustration or concern, HomeKit has become a fully fleshed-out system that’s a worthy alternative to other smart-home platforms, particularly if you have already invested in Apple hardware or if privacy and security are a priority.
In pulling together this piece, we researched and then tested more than a dozen HomeKit devices. The following are our picks for anyone hoping to get started with their own HomeKit system.
Smart-home devices are only as valuable as they are convenient. With HomeKit in particular, you buy into an ecosystem that currently offers the benefit of extremely high standards with the downside being that fewer devices are available. Since you don’t need a hub—your iPhone essentially acts as one—unless you need to access your smart devices from outside the home, in which case you’ll need an Apple TV—and most devices connect to each other either across short distances via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (for the latter some devices come with a dedicated gateway which plugs into your home router) it’s easy to get started.
For remote access
Not everyone needs to access their smart devices while they’re away, but to do that you’ll need an Apple TV connected to your home network, where it acts as a gateway so you can use Siri or apps on your iOS device to remotely control your home from wherever you are. Both the 3rd- and 4th-generation Apple TV units are HomeKit-enabled, but we recommend the 4th-generation model, as it’s faster and more functional (and Apple recently killed of the ability to create or run Automations with the 3rd gen).
The Apple TV is also a polished and user-friendly media streamer (see our full review in our Media Streamers guide) and a sensible buy for an Apple household. The setup of a HomeKit devices happens automatically once you sign in to your iCloud account on the Apple TV. (This is a crucial step—for HomeKit to work correctly, your iOS devices have to be signed into the same iCloud account, which is typically used for purchasing content from Apple’s ecosystem of apps and digital media.) The Apple TV isn’t really a hub—Wi-Fi HomeKit devices communicate directly with each other over a network, or via an iOS device if it’s in range—but the Apple TV does act as a Bluetooth gateway, allowing both local and remote communication with Bluetooth smart-home devices such as an Elgato Eve Room or Door/Window sensor or smart locks like the Schlage Sense or August smart lock.
One gaping hole in the Apple TV’s smart-home functionality (which should be resolved later this fall) is the inability to use its Siri remote to trigger or control HomeKit devices. Another issue is the need to keep Bluetooth devices within 25 feet or less of the Apple TV. Even in homes of modest size, this can make it difficult to place devices where you want them, and some users may need multiple Apple TVs or iPads in order to get their preferred devices to function properly in a large setup.
Best HomeKit thermostat
There are still few HomeKit options for controlling your home heating and cooling, but among the options we’ve seen the Ecobee3 is our preferred HomeKit-compatible thermostat and one of our overall favorites. The hardware setup and installation are DIY-friendly—though unlike Nest and some others Ecobee requires a three-wire setup or the use of an adapter cable, which may complicate things for older homes—and getting Ecobee integrated with your HomeKit devices is simple. The Ecobee unit is handsomely designed, and it’s intuitive to control using onscreen touch controls or its app, but we found the ability to control it by Siri voice commands a surprisingly attractive advantage of. To tweak the thermostat or check on temperatures in the nursery there’s no need to dial up an app or run upstairs, and unlike Alexa-compatible options, you don’t need to be in range of your Echo speaker if your iPhone is in your pocket.
Another advantage of the Ecobee3 over other systems is the ability to place an included, battery-powered secondary temperature, motion, and humidity sensor in a remote location. This makes the Ecobee3 more useful in large homes or ones with few or poorly-placed thermostats. In our test setup, which was a single radiant heating zone serving four disparate rooms (a hallway, an open room, a large bedroom, and a nursery), the sensor was the perfect antidote, creating a median temperature that kept the nursery cozy when occupied without allowing the other rooms to get too chilly. Accomplishing this either isn’t possible or takes serious techie gymnastics with the other thermostats we’ve tested.
Best HomeKit lighting control
*At the time of publishing, the price was $203.
While the Philips Hue is our favorite smart LED bulb for most smart home users, and the newest version is HomeKit compatible, Lutron’s Caseta Wireless Dimmer Kit works even better with Apple’s smart home system and is a straightforward option for controlling traditional home lighting.
Unlike individual smart bulbs, which are controlled singly or as groups using an app or voice command, Lutron’s smart dimmer allows you to control your existing switched lights and can be controlled wirelessly with Siri or iOS apps and also by using physical switches—an old-school approach that’s sometimes more useful than many of smart-home aficionados care to admit. For instance, when your smartphone isn’t handy or the internet or your home network is on the fritz, you can always shut off or dim your home’s lights without having to pull a circuit breaker—a not uncommon situation some early smart lighting adopters have faced. That said, the ability to use voice commands for controls, especially for scenes instead of with individual control of devices, is a highlight of HomeKit and the way we found ourselves using Caseta most often.
Installation of the included in-wall replacement dimmer switch is the same as with a regular switch and so appropriate for experienced DIYers, but novices may want to leave it to a pro, as it involves fiddling with home wiring. Once the dimmer, the Smart Bridge (which connects to your Wi-Fi router), a portable Pico Remote control, and the companion Lutron app are installed and setup, the app guides you to assign the switch to a room and zone, and then you can create lighting scenes, or schedule lighting based on specific hours or sunrise and sunset.
Best HomeKit smart lock
*At the time of publishing, the price was $217.
August’s HomeKit-enabled smart lock replaces the interior knob of your existing deadbolt with a large dial. On its own, it can be controlled via August’s app or your voice when you’re in Bluetooth range, and you can share access with others as well; when connected to HomeKit and coupled with an Apple TV, you can control the lock remotely via Siri or app. And if you splurge on an August Connect, which acts like a Wi-Fi bridge, you can get notifications when anyone accesses the door. August also has a Keypad, a slim doorbell-button-sized Bluetooth console that lets you control an August Lock or assign and share unique door codes for opening and shutting the door without the need to download an app (though it doesn’t offer your guest voice control).
In our tests we found it handy to add August to a scene with another smart lock, an outdoor light, and a Caseta dimmer; we labeled the scene “Good Night.” When triggering it via voice command, it would lock (or in the case that the doors were already locked, it would confirm the fact) turn off one light and turn on another. Triggering via Siri was a better solution for us than simply creating a schedule to accomplish the same scene, since we rarely end the day at the same hour and thus would risk getting locked out of the house or having the lights go out on us, and doing it all with a single voice command instead of having to launch an app (or several) is efficient and fun. We had a fairly good batting average with Siri actually connecting and having all the devices work as commanded, but nowhere near 100 percent, which you’d want in a device as mission critical as a home lock. That said, because of the multiple redundancies for controlling these devices—even if voice commands fail, you can fall back on an app, third-party apps, a keypad, or even a physical key—we’re still comfortable recommending it, especially as August continues to offer firmware updates and improvements that may improve reliability.
The August was our pick over the Schlage Sense, a keypad-based model that replaces your entire deadbolt. In our initial review we felt the Sense was a largely fine smart lock but that it was missing a few key features, such as the ability to send notifications (we had a much better experience with a Z-wave version for our Smart Lock guide). A recent update has added notifications as well as the ability to use the Sense as a trigger, both of which make for a major upgrade; however, after the update, our device initially failed to reboot and the app went haywire. We’ve since resolved the issue, but before we can recommend the Sense we’d like to pursue further testing. We’ll update as soon as possible.
Plug-in smart switches range from basic on/off switches to sophisticated models that can act as light dimmers. The iHome iSP8 builds on its standard smart-switch capabilities—which it performs very well—with smart-home integration and energy-monitoring features, so you can see how much energy your lava lamp is wasting. And unlike competing smart switches, such as models from Belkin or Insteon, since it’s a HomeKit device you can add it to scenes with the rest of your smart devices, and it doesn’t require a hub. If your smartphone isn’t nearby, or if you want to take a break from delivering voice commands via Siri, the iHome switch also offers a separate remote control. The remote is extremely basic, offering just on and off features for the one plug, up to 35 feet away from the device. However, it does not need line-of-sight, which we very much appreciate. The iHome’s companion app for iOS devices is easy enough for someone new to HomeKit to use, offering options for zones, rooms, scenes, schedules, and triggers, as well as a few graphical elements under the Scenes section. It would be nice if iHome could extend some of those aesthetics to the rest of the app, but the current app is extremely user-friendly.
As noted above, HomeKit received a major update with the September 13th release of iOS 10. Though that introduced a number of welcome improvements, we look forward to further refinement. This fall, among other updates, we should see the addition of Siri control via the Apple TV’s remote control.
Despite a lot of initial hype, HomeKit adoption by manufacturers and users has been slow, causing a fair amount of confusion for people looking to build smart-home systems. There are at last a number of highly competent and polished devices available, and by and large, setup is easier than with most other smart home systems we’ve tested, though one of HomeKit’s signature features—voice control via Siri—is neither as user-friendly or widely compatible as Amazon’s Alexa. Quibbles aside, there’s still plenty to like about HomeKit in general and the devices we’ve tested in particular, and we think Apple is clearly invested in making HomeKit a priority.
(Photos by Michael Hession, except where noted.)
Originally published: October 10, 2016