With the launch of the Philips Hue lights that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit home-automation framework, I was finally ready to test the computing giant’s efforts in the smart home area. I had been playing around with a Lutron bridge that came out earlier this summer and supported HomeKit, and found it was fine, but it didn’t knock my socks off, especially when compared with the other options out there on the market. This wasn’t Lutron’s fault, but more a function of the limitations of the HomeKit device ecosystem.
That’s still the best way to sum up HomeKit at the moment: Limited. And most of its limitations are a function of the closed ecosystem that Apple has mandated. On the positive side, Apple (appl) has kept HomeKit closed to ensure that it is secure, and so it could standardize things such as how to add new devices to a home network, which makes a consumer’s life easier. In this it has succeeded. And while the devices are limited, there is a good chance that in a few months or even a year, the HomeKit experience will be much better than it currently is, as more products and richer apps come on the market. But as it stands today, if you want to get into home automation right this moment, I wouldn’t hitch your wagon to Apple’s ecosystem.
I had the Lutron bridge that came out earlier this summer paired with two dimmer switches, a lamp module and my Nest thermostat, the new Philips Hue bridge that is HomeKit enabled paired to five Hue lights and a Schlage Sense lock installed on my back door. It’s a good group of devices, but unfortunately it was the wrong group, because none of the apps associated with these particular products have a way to bring all of other devices together, unless it’s through Apple’s Siri. That meant I needed to download a separate app to try to control all of the devices as one coherent unit. I went with the iDevices app.
For my iOS device I was using an iPhone 6 with iOS 9 loaded on it. This is worth noting, because for me, Siri is only accessible when I hold down the home button or when I call out “Hey Siri” while the phone is plugged in. This is a total pain when trying to turn on the lights in the house or unlock a door with your hands full. Folks with the most recent iPhone 6s and 6s+, however, can turn on Siri to take commands via voice when the screen is off and when the handset isn’t plugged in. Suddenly, Apple’s HomeKit and voice control makes a lot more sense and becomes way more useful. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be retroactively applied to older phones, so it’s one less reason I’m tempted by HomeKit until I upgrade to a newer iPhone.
As with any smart-home purchase, you are buying a product that is going to cost more than the “dumb” version, and you will have to install it into your home and then connect it to your network. When it comes to the Philips Hue light bulbs, you’re looking at a $199.99 starter kit that contains a HomeKit-ready bridge that plugs into the wall and your Wi-Fi router, as well as three LED light bulbs that change color. Additional light bulbs cost $60. Of all the devices in my current setup, these are the easiest to install, and if you are sure you want to devote yourself to home automation and want to start with lights, this is a good starting point—both because Philips Hue lights will work with other systems if you aren’t in love with HomeKit, and because they offer a lot of nice features.
They are pricey though, and if you are transferring your old Philips Hue setup to the new HomeKit setup, I’d wait, because you’re going to lose some functionality, notably the link to the Amazon Echo at this time. If you do make the switch or simply buy the new gear, you get the ability to turn your lights on and off with a voice command to Siri. You can also turn on scenes such as setting the lights for reading or a movie night or party mode with your voice, or merely turning them to a color. You cannot yet group lights into a room, or control other devices from the Philips Hue app because it doesn’t have all of the HomeKit functionality, but hopefully that will come in time. Another reason to wait.
Adding the Philips gear to your home network, however, is easy as can be. You just scan a picture of a code on the bridge and voila, the device is added to the network. There’s no password to type or complex setup involving multiple Wi-Fi networks. Just a scan of a code and it’s on. Adding the Schlage lock worked the same way, but this being a lock, the actual installation of the $229 deadbolt was a bit more involved. I had to take off my current deadbolt and pop on the Schlage in a 15-minute operation that required a screwdriver.
The Schlage software was pretty simple, and the lock itself is sturdy with an integrated keypad. When I tell Siri to lock the back door, she does. When I tell her to unlock it, she does that too. This is one area where HomeKit has an advantage. Currently I can’t actually tell my Amazon Alexa to unlock any of my locks because of security considerations. Presumably because Apple is so secure, worries of people being able to hack my door lock through some third-party access to my connected lock aren’t a concern.
Finally there is my Lutron bridge, which was one of the first-generation HomeKit devices approved in the early summer. The bridge connects to two light switches installed in my home, and my Nest thermostat. On its own it works fine, and thanks to me dividing the lights in the Hue system and the Lutron system into upstairs and downstairs “zones,” I can actually use Siri to control the two of them together. So when I tell Siri to turn off downstairs lights, my living room lights which are connected to the Hue bridge and my dining room lights, which are connected to the Lutron switch, both turn off.
What is the unified software experience like?
The missing piece for me is that none of these partners are using the full HomeKit framework to control all of the HomeKit devices in the home. Right now, iDevices, which makes a connected meat thermometer and some connected outlets, Elgato, which makes sensors, and iHome which makes a speaker and some connected outlets all have applications that pull all of the HomeKit devices together. I chose iDevices even though I don’t have its devices and it did find all of my HomeKit products quickly and without any action on my part. That was pretty awesome.
But the awesomeness soon stopped. When I originally brought my devices onto the network, I named them descriptively, so the light in the front left quadrant of my living room became “living room front left.” This was a pain when trying to voice control it using the Siri in the Philips Hue app because I had to say, “Siri, turn Living room front left light red” in order to make that happen. With iDevices I could group my living room devices together so I could say “Siri, turn living room lights red.” Only I couldn’t. Because I had named the lights living room, iDevices wouldn’t let me name a room living room. Instead it told me I already had used that room name and asked me to pick a new name. Instead of renaming those lights I just called the room Den.
So, if you are installing all of this for the first time, maybe go with LR front left instead of the full name to spare yourself some incremental drama. Especially if you’re pretty sure you won’t want to ever individually control that one light. If you want individual control, name it something associated with the light that won’t change, like fridge light.
From the iDevice app, I can do things like create modes where I can tell Siri Goodbye and all my lights turn off and my door locks. That’s pretty sweet, but it’s also something I’ve been able to do for the last year with other smart-home platforms, so it’s not anything I’m wowed about. The voice control is the strongest element here. I haven’t been able to use voice control on my phone to set off any of my mode changes like Good night or “I’m leaving” and had them control as wide an assortment of products as Apple’s HomeKit’s does. That’s mostly because Amazon’s Echo, the closest voice competitor doesn’t allow for the control of locks.
In short, there are really good things about Apple’s HomeKit. Adding new devices to the network is easy. The software experience is pretty self-explanatory. The Siri integration does work for the most part, although when it doesn’t I wish Siri would tell you what didn’t work.
However, as someone who has already spent about $3,000 buying a variety of connected products that range from switches and thermostats to locks and automated shades, I can’t really invest in HomeKit. I don’t want to buy new products and since my day-to-day phone is an Android and my husband’s is an iPhone 6, this just isn’t the platform for us. If you haven’t invested yet in home automation and everyone in your house is on an iPhone 6s handset (or soon will be), then HomeKit could be the easy way to step into home automation. But it’s not the panacea I had hoped for and there is still a learning curve when it comes to naming devices and figuring out how to group things and bring devices together.
In some ways that’s the fun of making these systems work for you, but for many it may be exactly what makes them back up that pricey door lock and bring it right back to Home Depot or Best Buy and demand their money back.