Thursday, May 30, 2024

Apple Home: How to start a smart home

My smart home journey began, like so many others, with a poorly placed light switch. My partner and I had just bought our first house, and the switch that illuminated the kitchen was in the laundry room all the way on the other side, meaning we had to wander through darkness to get to it. I hated that light switch.

So what to do? Well, I could spend a bunch of money I didn’t have to hire someone to move it, try to do it myself and accidentally burn my house down with a bad wiring job, or take the plunge on a smart home. I took the path of least resistance (that’s an electricity joke) and got started on smartening up my house.

I started out with an Amazon Echo Dot and quickly found that I hated the skills system Amazon uses; plus, the sound quality of its little black puck was terrible. So I got a Google Home Mini. It looked nicer but had invisible touch controls, and the app felt half-finished. I could’ve stopped there, but driven by the sunk cost fallacy, I gave Apple Home a shot. 

After you start your Apple-centric smart home, the HomePod Mini can add more convenient voice controls.

Apple Home, formerly known as HomeKit (which still refers to its smart home APIs), is Apple’s nine-year-old smart home platform, started in 2014 as a Siri-driven experience. Amazingly, it had no app until two years later and no smart speaker until the company finally released the first HomePod in 2018. The Verge’s Nilay Patel loved the HomePod’s audio chops but said it suffered in many other ways, not least of which is its place in Apple’s infamous walled garden, making it a “lonely” device. It couldn’t distinguish between voices, couldn’t operate your TV, and could only handle one timer at a time. But I just wanted my lights to turn on and off, and for me, it seemed to do that better than the others, so I stuck with it. Apple has closed the gap since then in all of the big, meaningful ways, but it’s been a slow process.

Today, Apple Home’s advantages are mostly two-fold. First, there’s Apple’s easy-to-use, attractive Home app. I found Apple Home to be a breath of fresh air after using Amazon’s Alexa smart home app, which perplexingly hides most of its actual smart home controls in a tab.

Second is being so locked into the company’s ecosystem that you benefit from its strict requirements for Apple Home-compatible devices. Those requirements include the ability to control devices locally — which means you still get basic control from your phone if your internet service goes out — and features like HomeKit Secure Video (HKSV), which gives users encrypted cloud video storage and facial recognition based on users’ Apple Photos library, among other things (more on this later). Admittedly, though, this is a double-edged sword since compliance with Apple strictures has resulted in a more limited, spendy product choice. 

Apple’s system has, among the big smart home platforms, also seen perhaps the most enthusiastic support for the new Matter protocol, which is partially based on Apple’s platform and still in its early days. If you’ve invested in almost any recent Apple Home Hub — that is, an Apple TV or a HomePod — you’ll find that device is also a Thread border router. That’s important because Thread is the wireless standard to be used in many inexpensive smart home devices going forward. For more, our own Jennifer Tuohy has a great introductory guide on the subject.

Starting your smart home

If you’re going to go with Apple Home, you may want to start with an Apple Home Hub — as mentioned above, either an Apple TV (ideally from 2021 or newer) or a HomePod. If you’re planning to purchase a HomePod, be aware that If you get the newest version, you’re essentially only paying for better sound (which, again, is stellar) because the $99 HomePod Mini, at only a third of the price, brings all of the same functionality. The 2022 Apple TV 4K, starting at $129, is a powerful TV streaming box and probably the best such product for most people to buy anyway, though you won’t get Thread support, as it’s reserved for the 128GB version.

Whichever you choose, buying an Apple Home Hub enables you to control your smart home when you’re away and lets you share access with others, provided they have an iPhone. Without a Home Hub, things get less convenient, but you can still add and control smart home products with your Apple devices.

Smart light bulbs are a great way to add to expand your repertoire.

As for smart devices, start small. Smart light bulbs are a great jumping-off point, and I’ve generally had the best experience with Philips Hue, though setup is a little more involved for Hue bulbs than for, say, Nanoleaf’s Essentials A19. Both brands offer bulbs compatible with Apple’s Adaptive Lighting feature, which gradually tunes the warmth of the bulb throughout your day to be cooler or warmer, depending on the time.

For smart plugs, I’ve tried a few, and all have been iffy at one time or another. The best, though, have been my Eve Energy smart plugs. Eve’s plugs are not cheap but feel worth it, as they offer a built-in power meter function that tracks how much power is flowing through them, even offering an estimate of what that’ll cost you based on the last week, day, or minute of usage. The Eve app also succeeds where Apple’s Home app fails by showing how your Thread network is structured, which helped immensely when I had to troubleshoot responsiveness issues with my Thread devices a few weeks ago.

Picking the right smart home security camera is tricky

Smart home security cameras can be a good go-to next, though picking the right one is tricky. Go for one that supports HKSV if you have an iCloud Plus subscription, as that gets you 10 days of video history, the ability to set detection zones, and object recognition for people, animals, vehicles, and even packages. In addition to being able to view camera notifications on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, an Apple TV can show picture-in-picture streams from your cameras, which comes in handy when I’m watching TV in my basement and can’t hear knocks on my front door (of course, notifications can be turned off as well).

I use a pair of EufyCam 2C cameras, though there are reasons to be cautious about Eufy’s security practices. Otherwise, Netatmo and Logitech both make well-liked alternatives, as do Eve and Aqara. Be careful not to confuse Apple Home compatibility with HKSV support, though. Arlo makes fantastic cameras, for instance, but their support is limited to live video streaming and basic motion detection in the Apple Home app.

Motion sensors like this Aqara motion sensor P1 can offer peace of mind.

If you want to add peace of mind beyond what cameras offer, you can look for door and window sensors like those for Ecobee thermostats. The Aqara water leak detector actually saved my bacon once when a leak I’d patched in my basement sprung open in the middle of the night — my iPhone alerted me to it, waking me up so I could stop the leak before it got to anything important. Door / window and motion sensors can also be great for setting up automation, so your lights are on right after you walk in the room.

Finally, with enough HomePods (Mini and above) in your home, you actually may not need separate humidity or temperature sensors, as those are built in, though in my experience, they’re not as accurate as dedicated sensors. In addition, their built-in alarm recognition means you can be notified if your smoke detector goes off when you’re out of the house. Those features aren’t unique to HomePods, but having all of them in one device is. Some Amazon Echo speakers have temperature sensors and can detect sounds like smoke alarms but lack humidity sensors, while Google’s Nest speakers can detect alarms, but only if you pay for its Nest Aware subscription, and lack built-in temperature and humidity sensors.

Ecobee thermostats can work with door and window sensors.

I set up my own Apple Home system by slowly identifying pain points in my house that I thought a smart device would make better. I now have a mix of smart lights and smart dimmers; various environmental, motion, and leak sensors; outdoor smart security cameras; a smart garage door opener module (that is, shockingly, compatible with my ancient Automatic Doorman opener); and more. I don’t even know how many devices I own at this point because many of them are Zigbee devices that rely on various hubs, like my Aqara and Hue hubs, to connect to Apple Home. 

I collect information like I once did Pogs, and I love being able to find out the conditions in every part of my house — and being able to check on things there when I’m away. Various sensors have also allowed me to adjust my dampers for the best air distribution and helped me know where to place humidifiers and dehumidifiers for the best result.

Making it better

As I said earlier, Apple’s onerous certification program has resulted in a more limited selection and higher prices, which can be a big pain in the butt when you’re looking for smart home devices. But as Matter is rolled out more, we should see a lot of those limitations fall away as basic smart devices like light bulbs, switches, plugs, and sensors become more commoditized. It also means no more looking for HomeKit certification for device makers, as Matter is intrinsically cross-platform.

As Matter is rolled out more, we should see a lot of limitations fall away

But there are other things Apple could do better. Improvements to Siri are always welcome, as right now, it often refers me to my phone for certain queries, such as web searches or business information (though other times it gives me the answers I’m seeking through the speaker), and my phone never seems to be aware it’s supposed to be showing me something. It would also be great to see more third-party support for Apple’s assistant — two years after opening Siri to other developers for use, Ecobee is still the only company actually taking Apple up on the offer.

There are ways to get around Apple’s lack of third-party support, such as Home Assistant, an open-source project that adds customizable HomeKit support to far more devices than do so natively. I’ve never tried this myself, partially because I haven’t had a need and partially because it’s time-consuming and I’ve just never gotten around to it.

I’d also love to see some fun or more granular automations injected into Apple Home. There are hacky ways to get this to happen, but they’re obscure and require more technical know-how than many people possess. For instance, I have a scene that flashes green and yellow lights on a pair of Nanoleafs and plays Todd Rundgren’s “Bang on the Drum All Day’’ whenever I yell “Go pack!” at Siri — but frankly, I won’t touch that scene ever again because I still have no idea how I got the lights to actually do what I wanted them to. 

Should you use Apple Home? 

If you want more choice and don’t want to wait for Matter to truly take over (assuming it really does), Google and Alexa are your options — that is, unless you’re willing to invest your time, energy, and brain power into Home Assistant integration, an open-source project that adds customizable HomeKit support to far more devices than do so natively.

But if you want to have a smart home and you’re concerned about privacy and security, then Apple has the best track record for those things. And as the Matter protocol matures, choice and affordability limits will fall away. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, it’s almost no contest, as the company’s famous interoperability extends to its smart home platform, making for a much more synchronous experience.

Photography by Wes Davis / The Verge


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