Apple HomeKit: What it’s like to go all-in with Apple’s smart home platform

Apple’s HomeKit has seen its share of updates over the years, and I recently decided that it’s going to be my smart home platform of choice. Here’s what I’ve done, what I need to do, and what the experience has been like so far.
Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributing Writer
Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

About a year ago, I decided I was tired of all the different smart home devices and hubs in my house. Managing all the apps and platforms had become somewhat of a nightmare, especially if I wanted to give control of a device to my wife. I planned to take a few weeks and then pick a platform and stick with it. Then 2020 happened, and figuring out how to automate my lights or streamline viewing camera feeds just wasn't a priority. 

Toward the end of the year, however, I decided it was time to begin my smart home conversion. But instead of picking Google Home or Amazon Alexa as my central service, I opted to go with Apple's HomeKit platform. The last time I truly gave HomeKit a chance was a few years ago, and while it showed promise, I had issues with devices staying connected and struggled to get Siri to understand commands. 

With the rollout of HomeKit integration for more devices, including televisions and the release of the HomePod Mini, a smaller and more affordable smart speaker that doubles as a HomeKit Hub (complete with Thread connectivity), I was optimistic that Apple and its partners had overcome the initial growing pains. 

Another aspect of HomeKit that I found intriguing is the HomeKit Secure Video platform. That is, any camera that supports the protocol will store recorded video clips on Apple's servers, completely encrypted and only accessible by you. The recorded clips don't count against your iCloud Drive data allotment, but you'll need to be on the 200GB plan or 2TB plan in order to access the service -- the latter of which will let you add up to five cameras to your account. 

For the last two weeks, I have gone through my home, installing different products, setting up automations, and figuring out what else I want to add to my home. Before I dive into what I like and don't like thus far, here's what my setup currently looks like. 

Apple TV 4K

The Apple TV serves as a hub to keep your HomeKit devices always connected. 


HomeKit Hubs

To control HomeKit accessories or view a camera's live feed when not home, I have several devices setup throughout my house and office that act as a HomeKit hub.

I guess you can add my 2018 iPad Pro to this list as well, since, when it's plugged in and charging, it doubles as a HomeKit hub as well. However, I don't consider it a hub since it's not plugged in at all times. 

Logitech Circle View Video Doorbell.png

Official HomeKit devices I have installed

I won't bore you listing out every single light bulb or sensor I have installed, but here's the gist of what I'm currently using. Most of this is stuff I've had for a while, recently purchased, or was sent for testing purposes. 

Devices I can control thanks to Homebridge

I have Homebridge running on a Raspberry Pi 4, acting as a hub that can talk to devices that either require a dedicated hub to integrate with HomeKit or don't offer HomeKit support at all. For example, through Homebridge, I can view my Ring security cameras despite Ring's lack of HomeKit support. I can also control my WeMo devices without having to buy the official WeMo HomeKit adapter. There are over 2,000 different plug-ins for almost every product or service.

Right now, I'm using several different plugins to add the following devices to HomeKit:

Smart home devices I still need to get

The list of devices that work with HomeKit keeps growing. Just look at the list Apple has curated across all the different categories that HomeKit supports, complete with links for each product. My current approach is to automate as much as possible. 

One of my automation goals is to only have lights on around the house when they're actually needed, as opposed to turning lights on and off based on the time of day. It should help cut back on electricity use if nothing else. To do that, I need either some motion sensors or door/window sensors to use as triggers. 

I also want to get a new floodlight for my backyard that's motion-activated, but also one I can combine trigger when another device detects motion. I don't really care if it has video capabilities -- I have a lot of cameras set up already. 

One thing I'm going to consider while looking for new accessories is that they support the Thread protocol. Effectively, Thread creates a low-power, mesh network between thread devices that makes all communication also instantaneous. Nanoleaf's Essential Bulbs and Light Strips support Thread, which Apple quietly included in the HomePod Mini. 

Instead of relying on a direct Bluetooth connection, which has its limitations of device count and distance, or a Wi-Fi connection, which has its own limitations of power consumption and traditional Wi-Fi issues, Thread provides a direct connection to all other Thread devices on a network. And, if one should temporarily lose connection, another Thread-capable device on the network will pick up the slack. The more Thread devices on your network, the more reliable the system will be. 

Eve's door and window sensors received a firmware update late last year that added thread support, so that's likely the direction I'll go for sensors. 

I have a total of five HomePod Mini's and several Nanoleaf Essential Bulbs and Light Strips around my house, all of which communicate via Thread. It's the first time I've used any Thread devices (because they were the first Thread-capable devices released to consumers), and I've been impressed by the speed and their ability to constantly stay connected. 

Apple HomeKit Automations.png
Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Automation and Shortcuts are the key 

The real power of Apple's HomeKit platform isn't its ease of use, but its the ability to easily automate certain interactions and combine those automations with the iPhone's Shortcuts app. With the Home app and Shortcuts, it's possible to create impressive routines that completely automate a task. 

For example, right now I have a home automation setup that is triggered by the light switch in my office. When it's turned on, the rest of the lights in my office also turn on, my HomePod Mini begins playing music, and a command is sent to my Mac over SSH that wakes it before I even get to my desk. By the time I get situated in my chair, my MacBook Pro is unlocked (thanks to my Apple Watch), and I'm ready to start working. 

Another automation I have involves mostly Homebridge connected devices. I have several different buttons on my Streamdeck Mini, one of which I use before recording my weekly Jason Squared podcast and video series. When pressed, it turns on my Key Light Airs, pauses any music in my office, opens Zoom, Krisp, and Audacity, as well as turns a Hue light red inside the house. This red light is my best effort to create a "Now Recording" light to let my family know I'm on a call so as not to come into my office. Another button on the Streamdeck reverses all of those steps and begins playing music again. 

I'm just scratching the surface of what's possible with HomeKit automation and Shortcuts, but I'm incredibly excited about the potential. 

HomeKit devices on iOS 14.png
Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Things I like, things I dislike, and what I want to see added

Apple has added a lot of features and capabilities to HomeKit since it first launched. Siri is now somewhat programmable, allowing you to name automations and shortcuts that you can then use Siri with, making it easier to know exactly what to say to trigger an action. 

I have appreciated the ease of setup for almost every product, including those that aren't officially supported via Homebridge. The ability to control Apple TVs, like turning a bedroom TV off at a set time each night, or run a Shortcut that turns off all TVs in the house and starts playing music when it's time to eat is a feature I need to explore some more. 

Up until a few days ago, every camera I have added to the Home app would lose connection to HomeKit for about an hour in the middle of the night. I tried creating IP reservations for the cameras, rebooting my Wi-Fi, and doing whatever else I could to troubleshoot the issue. Coincidentally, I added an Apple TV 4K to my house, and since then, I haven't experienced a single camera disconnection. I'm not sure if the older Apple TV models just don't have the processing power or a strong enough Bluetooth connection, but the 4K version seems to have fixed it. 

There are some features that Apple needs to add to HomeKit, especially when it comes to cameras. Right now, there's no way to mute notifications. So, with the Circle Video Doorbell, for example, I'm not able to mute alerts when a person is detected for a set amount of time. When I was shoveling snow off the driveway and sidewalk, I was constantly receiving alerts that a person was detected -- but there was no need for them. Ring and Nest both offer ways to mute alerts for a set amount of time, and it's something HomeKit needs. 

Another feature I'd like added is the option to add a child to the Home app, but limit which devices they have access to and can control. I don't mind giving my kids access to lights in or near their rooms, but they don't need the ability to adjust settings for cameras or our front door's deadbolt. 

I plan on updating this post often as I add or remove devices and learn more of the nuanced features or shortcomings that HomeKit offers.

Have any suggestions for Shortcuts, devices, or automation tips, please leave a comment below.

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