Apple Homekit: Finally good smart home controls

Expensive, inflexible and unreliable: that was Homekit when it was introduced. A lot has happened in the meantime, Apple's smart home solution is competitive. We show the state of affairs.

When Apple launches new products or technologies, it will either become a trendsetter or a pipe cracker. When the Smart Home Framework Homekit was introduced in 2014, it was more reminiscent of the flopped Newton than the iPhone: components were rare, expensive and unreliable.

Years later it looks different. In the meantime, mass market products such as Philips Hue, Ikea Tradfri or dirt-cheap sensors from Xiaomi (Aqara) from China are also working with Homekit without any problems and without tinkering. And on the plus side, as is typical for Apple, there is a highly attractive interface, intuitive operation and a surprisingly large range of functions.

In the early days, the iPhone or iPad communicated directly via Bluetooth with sensors and actuators, for example adapter sockets and magnetic contacts for doors or windows. The ranges were poor, the costs of the products were just as high as the power consumption from the batteries or button cells – the frustration among first-time buyers was correspondingly high.

In the meantime, Homekit doesn't care which wireless standard the components are connected to, as long as there is a gateway in the same WLAN. This fits perfectly with the concepts from Philips Hue or Xiaomi Aqara: The hub is connected to the WLAN via a smartphone app, LED bulbs, adapter plugs or sensors are taught in and in this case communicate via the proven Zigbee.

Heating controls like Tado or Netatmo, lighting systems like Ikea Tradfri, Philips Hue or Nanoleaf, Velux blinds, surveillance cameras from Arlo or Logitech, garden irrigation from Gardena, Smartlock from Nuki and doorbells from Netatmo are just a few examples of compatible components – and who is ready tinkering also gets almost everything else tied up.

At least some of the manufacturers mentioned bring their own excellent apps, examples are Hue or Tado. Then what do you need homekit for?

Exactly for this: So that you don't have to start the right app depending on the device manufacturer. Different products from different manufacturers quickly collect in a smart home. There are even good reasons to rely on several suppliers in the same segment at the same time – the original Hue LEDs bring more colors and are available in more shapes, for example in Edison style. Ikeas Tradfri bulbs are significantly cheaper and have no disadvantages when it comes to white light only. But jump into the Hue app for the standard lamp and into the Tradfri app for the ceiling lamp? This is not only cumbersome, but also difficult to convey to others and anything but intuitive. And if automatic processes are now planned, for example if a Tradfri motion detector is to control the Netatmo radiator thermostat and the Hue light, there is nothing more to be done with the manufacturer's on-board resources.

This is where Homekit comes into the race. All compatible devices or their hubs are taught in, then everything that is smart in the house – and that is compatible with Homekit – appears on one surface. There you can group the devices by room, program scenes with just a few clicks, or put automation together – more on that later.

So that everything works so well, there should be a control center in the house. This can be an iPad from iOS 10 (generation 3 or newer), an Apple TV from generation 4 (the current 4K version is generation 5) or a homepod speaker (test report). The control center maintains the connection to linked sensors and actuators, takes care of the processing of defined tasks and establishes the connection to the Internet.

Although the Homekit devices can be controlled and viewed even without an Internet connection, this is not particularly convenient – the iPhone that is used for control must be connected to the same WLAN, automatisms do not work and access from outside via the Internet can not. For a decent smart home solution, there is no way around a control center. One advantage is that the logic does not run in the cloud, but locally.

The choice of sensors such as water level detectors, door and window contacts, motion detectors or wall switches as well as actuators such as heating controllers, adapter plugs for standby consumers or floor lamps or smart LED light bulbs are due to your own preferences and wallet. Thanks to wide support, Homekit can be implemented really cheaply.

Aqara sensors are a good example. The daughter of the Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi convinced in our test (smart home with Xiaomi), the author of these lines has been using sensors of the first generation for over two years. There is a large selection of battery-operated water level, vibration, motion or opening detectors at prices from around 15 euros. A cheap alternative are the Ikea motion detectors from the Tradfri series, which currently cost 10 euros. Since the sensors communicate via Zigbee, the right gateway is required in both cases – ideally, you should limit the number of different manufacturers in the smart home in order to avoid having to keep batteries at gateways.

While rudimentary environmental information such as sunrise and sunset time is available in the Homekit environment anyway, weather sensors for rain, wind, etc. can be used for further details; suitable products are available from Netatmo or Eve, for example; as well as smoke detectors.

It starts with the light in most smart homes. The cheapest entry is the dimmable, white E27 LED bulbs from Ikeas Tradfri series for just 8 euros each, which are also available in cold and warm white and in color. If color comes into play, we recommend a look at the Philips Hue series – the color rendering is nicer, there are also matching LED strips or Edison lamps in retro style. Existing consumers such as standard lamps, television (standby when you are away) or kettle are connected to the Homekit via compatible adapter plugs.

In addition, Nuki door locks can be connected, Eve Aqua controls the irrigation in the garden, also from Eve or Tado there are suitable heating thermostats (theme world).

If you already use smart home components from different manufacturers and systems, you may also get them into the homekit world. Open source software such as ioBroker, which creates the link between the different worlds, helps.

As a test, we connected Xiaomi actuators of the first generation without Homekit compatibility, Enocean sensors from Loxone and KNX sensors and actuators with Homekit. We have the existing ioBroker in the installation Yahka (Yet another Homekit adapter) added. This is software that simulates a homekit-compatible gateway in the network. This is a bit fiddly, because you have to create the link between Homekit functions and the control of the Smarthome components yourself with some hurdles – for example, when connecting a KNX blind adapter, the values ​​must be inverted so that an open blind in Homekit is also available is displayed open. Overall, this is a nice evening or weekend project, at the end of which is an exemplary visualization via smartphone and iPad.

Also for ioBroker alternatives like Node Red or Open Hab comparable Homekit plugins are available, but we did not try them out in the context of this article.

Homekit had a bumpy start, but is now a great solution with first-class visualization and simple scene and automatic control. On the credit side, there is a high level of compatibility with inexpensive smart home components, the possible handicraft factor if you want, the offline functionality without cloud constraint and the Apple-typical attractive and simple display and functionality.

Although the 4th generation Homepod and Apple TV as control centers are significantly more expensive than simple Alexa speakers or Google Home, there is a full-fledged home server that takes care of the implementation of predetermined automatisms even when you are away. After initial skepticism, we became real Homekit fans in just a few days.


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