Apple HomeKit Review

Compatible Hubs:
Compatible Voice Assistants:
Protocols: ,
Manufactured by:
Apple Home - Home App, Apple TV, and Apple HomePod
Apple Home - Home App, Apple TV, and Apple HomePod

Apple is a clear leader in the mobile device market and they have lots of experience developing personal computers and software. They are taking that experience to the home automation realm to help you build and control a smart home. The Apple Home app is the command center, while Apple HomeKit is the platform that manufacturers use to make their accessories work with the app.

Our Verdict

While Apple has proven that they make great mobile devices with high user satisfaction, they haven't parlayed that into a brilliant home automation system. There is a lot of promise with the system, especially coming from a company focused on user experience and privacy. We think the HomeKit platform can prove to be a leader in smart home control, but it just isn't there yet.

Devoted Apple users should keep an eye on future development and make HomeKit compatible purchases when possible. The App is truly beautiful and very functional. It could be a disrupter in the future. However, Apple fans with more advanced smart home ambitions will be disappointed in the number of compatible accessories. Android users shouldn't make the switch to Apple just for the Home app.

What We Like:

  • Seamless iOS and macOS integration
  • Apple has high standards for privacy and security
  • Closed ecosystem (requires MFi certification) means devices are guaranteed compatible
  • Beautiful and easy to use app that can be customized with photos of your home
  • The Home App is available for the Apple Watch

Flaws:

  • Only works on iOS and macOs — Android and Windows users are out of luck
  • No Z-Wave or Zigbee radios, which limits accessory options
  • Closed ecosystem limits number of compatible accessories, but more are being added over time
  • No vacation mode unless individual accessories include it
  • Requires an always-on and always-home Apple TV, HomePod, or iPad for remote control

Alternatives:

  • We recommend you look at other home automation options unless you are 100% committed to Apple and their dedication to privacy.

Description

The Apple Home is a software-based home automation platform. The Home app is the main control hub of the system and it works seamlessly with the Siri voice assistant.

In order to monitor and control your home while you are away, you need to add an in-home piece of hardware such as the Apple TV or HomePod. Those devices provide your system with a constant connection to the internet so that commands sent from your phone can get routed to smart home components even when you are away. An iPad can also serve as the role of hardware hub, but it must remain in the home and you should be sure it never runs out of battery. If you already have one of those three devices, follow Apple's instructions to set them up to be your hardware hub.

Keep in mind that the Apple Home app is only available for iOS and macOS devices. Android and Windows users in your household won't be able to control your smart home at all. This is a major issue for us, since most other hubs are compatible with both iOS and Android.

Features

HomeKit compatible accessories communicate over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Low Energy. These are both very common protocols so compatibility is simple. In addition, Apple requires manufacturers to certify their products under the MFi program, which means better security and compatibility for users. We'll get into more detail about that in the Compatible Accessories section below.

Protocols Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE
Multi-User Yes
Voice Control Yes, built-in Siri
Local Control Yes
Geo-Fencing Yes
Vacation Mode No
IFTTT No official support
Battery Backup Not Applicable

Radios / Protocols

As mentioned earlier in this article, the Apple Home communicates over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE. Since there isn't a hardware hub as part of the system, this makes sense — just about every home has Wi-Fi at this point. However, it can also be very limiting.

Since there isn't a hardware hub, there is nowhere to include a Z-Wave or Zigbee radio. Both of these are very common and secure home automation protocols and many hardware hubs support them. In addition, there are a number of accessories that communicate with Z-Wave or Zigbee, but none of those will work with the Apple Home.

Apple tends to maintain closed systems when they introduce a new technology. Eventually, they open up to third-parties like they did with the App Store, which didn't exist when the iPhone was first released. Perhaps Apple will eventually include other protocols, but at this time they clearly have reservations about that. We aren't sure if their concerns surround security, privacy, or user experience, but we hope they do open their system to more manufacturers and accessories.

Multi-User

It is easy to invite other iOS users to control your home. You can limit their access to only when they are inside the home or you can give them full control from remote locations. In addition, you can provide others with Edit permissions so they can add/remove accessories, scenes, and other users. We recommend being very careful who you give Edit access to since they will have full control over all of your home settings.

Unfortunately, you aren't able to adjust user access to individual components on the system. You give permission to control all accessories or nothing.

Voice Control

The Apple Home includes the Siri voice assistant natively built into the app. You'll use your iPhone, Apple Watch, or iPad to speak to Siri. You can also use a HomePod if you have one set up in your home. Unfortunately, you aren't able use other voice assistants like Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant.

Thankfully, the Home app includes a full graphic user interface since some people feel a little weird telling Siri to adjust the lights. We understand that voice control is the future and is convenient when your phone is out of reach, so it is definitely nice to have.

Local Control

Local control is a smart home feature that allows commands to run on your home network without having to go out to cloud servers. Early home automation systems required all commands to be processed in the cloud. You would tap to turn the light on, that command would travel to the hub's server in the cloud, then come back to your network to adjust the light.

Most smart homes have implemented local control and Apple is no different. Commands given via the app are instantaneous. Voice commands are just a bit slower since Siri has to process the voice direction before it can issue the command. However, the speed is on par with other voice assistants.

Geo-Fencing

The Apple Home app includes built-in geo-fencing, which allows you to set up control based on your location. You simply identify locations in the app (home and work, for instance) and then set up commands to occur when you and your phone move into or out of those locations.

The app sets up a digital "fence" around any location you choose. When you cross that fence with your device, it knows to trigger the specified command. This is helpful for turning the lights on when you arrive home or turning all the lights off when the kids leave the house.

Vacation Mode

One missing feature in the Apple Home is a vacation or away mode. This is considered a basic security feature that makes it look like someone is home by turning lights or entertainment devices on and off randomly.

You will have to rely on lighting accessories that include vacation mode if you want to make use of this feature. Otherwise, you can set up static on and off times for your devices, which isn't perfect, but it gets the job done.

IFTTT – If This, Then That

If This Then That is a web service that helps tie two incompatible devices or services together. There isn't an official Apple IFTTT section, but some people have developed some of their own Apple applets. However, there aren't many that are helpful for home automation.

Battery Backup

Battery backup is not relevant to Apple Home since it is entirely app based and there isn't a physical hardware hub required to control your home. If the power goes out, you will lose connectivity to your accessories until the power is restored.

Compatible Accessories

Device manufacturers must use Apple's proprietary HomeKit Accessory Protocol (HAP) language and the component must be certified under Apple's MFi program. The benefit of this strict program is that users experience better compatibility and security. The drawback is that fewer manufacturers create products that are HomeKit compatible due to the licensing fees and other added costs.

Some manufacturers sell a bridge device that allows their regular components communicate with HomeKit. For instance, instead of developing a standard smart light switch plus a more expensive HomeKit compatible light switch, many manufacturers have created a HomeKit bridge that talks to their standard light switches. That way, everyone buys the same switch and Apple Home users simply purchase the extra bridge at a nominal cost.

Apple provides a list of compatible products on their website. You can also identify compatible products in retail stores by looking for the Works with Apple HomeKit logo, which looks like this:

Works with HomeKit Logo
Works with HomeKit Logo

It is unfortunate that there are so few options, but we hope that more companies work to get their accessories certified. We think this will also take some work on Apple's part since they are clearly focusing more attention on their other products.

Setup

Setting up the hub is very easy. Most iOS devices include the app by default, but if you don't have it you can download it from the iOS App Store. The Home App is also available on Mac desktops and laptops starting with macOS Mojave.

Once you have the most recent OS installed and you are logged in to your iCloud account, you just need to make sure you turn on iCloud Keychain. Then you start to set up accessories, rooms, scenes, and automations.

Adding devices is very easy. Open the Home app and tap the Plus (+) button in the upper right of the Home or Rooms screen and then select Add Accessory. A barcode reader comes up and you scan the code on the side of your accessory's package. You can also manually type the code. Then follow prompts in the app.

Apple's website includes this short tutorial on how to get everything set up.

The Apple Home App

Apple is known for their high level of design and the Home app doesn't disappoint. The interface is beautiful and highly customizable. You can take photos of your rooms to use as a background for individual accessory controls. Anyone familiar with the iOS user interface will easily navigate through the app.

Apple Home App - Home Screen, Rooms, Automation, Light Control, and Add Accessory
Apple Home App - Home Screen, Rooms, Automation, Light Control, and Add Accessory

There there are three main sections along the bottom of the screen:

The Home section is a customizable dashboard with quick access to your favorite scenes and accessories. This screen also gives a brief overview of what is turned on or off in your home.

The Rooms section is where you organize the different rooms of your house and assign accessories to those rooms. You can also create scenes specific to individual rooms.

It isn't obvious, but you navigate between rooms by swiping left and right. Alternatively, you can select a room from the list menu in the upper left corner of the screen. Tapping the Plus (+) button in the upper right corner brings up a menu to add accessories or scenes.

The Automation section is where you add commands that react to changes in your home, like someone (or everyone) arriving or leaving. You can also set automations based on the time of day (including sunrise and sunset). Finally, you can create commands that react to another smart component — for instance, turn the lights blue when the air conditioning comes on (although, we're not sure why you'd want to do that).

Security and Privacy

Apple takes security and privacy very seriously. However, even if the device and accessory security is top-notch, you must also take every precaution to make your home network as secure as possible. Most smart home security breeches are the result of poor security practices at the local level. Security problems with the manufacturers is less common.

Apple is in the hardware and software business so you can be confident that they aren't selling your personal data to advertisers. In fact, they are very strong proponents of personal privacy. They work hard to protect their customers from privacy over-reaches from governments.

From a security standpoint, all communications over the HomeKit Accessory Protocol (HAP) between accessories and Apple devices are fully encrypted from end-to-end. In addition, all communications are mutually authenticated. All data stored on their iCloud service are also fully encrypted. You can feel confident that your data is safe.

Apple did have a vulnerability in iOS version 11.2 (December 2017) that allowed an attacker to take control of some smart home locks and garage door openers. They quickly patched the vulnerability and released an update that closed the flaw. We continue to remain skeptical about smart door locks given the risk associated with them. However, you should keep in mind that someone with locksmith skills (or a powerful drill) can open a manual lock quicker than a hacker can open a smart lock.

Here are some links to Apple's security and privacy policies related to HomeKit and the Home app:

About the Manufacturer

Wikipedia's history of Apple indicates that Apple Computer Company was founded in 1976. They changed their name to Apple Computer, Inc. in 1977. Apple gained popularity in the mid-1980s with their Macintosh line of computers that used a graphic user interface instead of the traditional command line interface of personal computers at the time.

Apple struggled in the personal computer market through the 1990s as they battled Windows-compatible PCs. That all changed in January 2009, when Apple introduced the iPhone, a revolutionary device that allowed people to carry powerful computers in their pocket. Since then, Apple has been at the cutting edge of mobile device design through the introduction of laptops, tablets, watches, and multiple streaming devices.