I wrote last time that despite having 16 HomeKit devices, I was already wanting more. No-one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised that the interval between ‘wanting more’ and ‘getting more’ was rather short. Every light in my home is now HomeKit-enabled, and I’ve also added some switches and motion-sensors.
The lightbulb additions were the kitchen and bathroom, and the justification of adding these two rooms seemed somewhat flimsy. Were we really ever going to want mood lighting in the bathroom or kitchen? But having added these rooms into the mix, along with some rather old-fashioned HomeKit technology, I’m glad I did it.
That doesn’t mean that HomeKit is perfect, however – but let’s start with what I’ve added and why before I list my complaints …
One of the main ways I justified the expense of Philips Hue lighting in the rest of the house was Scenes: the ability to control multiple lights when doing things like finishing work for the day or going to bed. I quickly became a huge fan of these. It’s just so much easier to tell Siri ‘Night home’ than it is to switch off five separate living-room lights and switch on two stairway lights.
But I couldn’t see any need for scenes with either kitchen or bathroom. You just want the lights on when in the room and off otherwise, and in both cases you have to walk past the switches on your way in. Also, while I could see a relaxing bath being enhanced by mood lighting, would there ever really be a time when we’d want color lighting in the kitchen?
In the end, I’ll readily admit that mood lighting swung it in the bathroom, but for the kitchen it was only really the gadget factor that persuaded me. I could have opted for white bulbs there, but now that we were down to a £100 cost difference in a four-figure investment, I took a ‘what the heck’ attitude and decided that it was better to have the option than not. Seven more Philips Hue White & Color Ambiance bulbs added.
I mentioned last time the switch problem with Hue lighting. As it’s the bulbs you are controlling, you need to keep the lights switched on at the wall – which is a problem for anyone visiting the home who doesn’t have an iPhone.
I also found a related issue: while automation is great for predictable movement around the home – like finishing work for the day – unpredictable movement is another matter. If I want to nip upstairs in the evening to fetch something from the bedroom, for example, it feels a bit silly to grab my iPhone and say ‘Hey Siri, switch on the stairway lights’ followed by ‘Hey Siri, switch on the bedroom lights’ and then a further two commands to switch them off again afterwards. Even to a confirmed gadgeteer like me, that seems like a lot of work compared to just using wall switches.
There are times when a physical switch just makes more sense. I had come up with a clunky workaround using a single Philips Tap switch, but have now added Philips dimmer switches in living-room, office and bedroom.
Each is programmed for maximum brightness white lighting to replicate how the non-smart switches worked. However, the switches are pretty clever. You get dimming functions built-in, and the on switch is a multi-function one: you can assign different functions for everything from a single tap all the way through to five taps. I think this is more functionality than we’re ever likely to need from the physical switch, but it’s great to have the option.
There are a couple of issues with these switches, however. First, they are designed for the US market, so are the wrong shape to replace UK switch plates. Second, they are currently only available in white plastic, so I now have rather basic functional switches sitting above redundant brushed steel ones.
The Philips Tap switch now controls the two stairway lights, and lives in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. This is actually more convenient than the original wall switches which are by the coat hooks and tend to get covered by jackets and bags.
For kitchen and bathroom, where you are most frequently in them for a short time, I opted for motion sensors – adding two of the Philips ones. The kitchen one is magnetically attached to the original dumb switch to act as a reminder not to use it – albeit looking a little clunky in that position.
The bathroom motion sensor is simple, as the bathroom door is normally kept closed. Opening the door then activates it. This is just magnetically attached to the shaver socket on the wall facing the door. No reminder is needed here not to use the draw-string switch: I’ve unscrewed it.
These have a clever default setting, which I’ve retained: they apply maximum brightness most of the time, but use a much dimmer night-light setting at night. I just changed the default times for this to 1am to 7am.
The kitchen has no door, and also gets frequent visits from the cats, as it’s where their food and water live. I’ve angled the sensor up a little – as well as reducing its sensitivity – to reduce the frequency of it being activated by cats. I haven’t been able to prevent this altogether, but it’s at a level where I can live with it.
Manual control (via Siri, the Home app or Hue app) is used when in either room for longer times, like having a bath or cooking.
Benefits, justifications and excuses
As I wrote in my first piece, HomeKit tech is expensive. All the more so for Brits who pay pound for dollar on Philips Hue bulbs, and I now have 19 of them. That’s almost a thousand dollars for Americans, or a thousand pounds for Brits … worth of lightbulbs. I cringe slightly as I type that – though I do take comfort from the fact that others have spent more.
But, in truth, I do think it’s worth it. Let’s start with the practical benefits.
Mood lighting. It’s called that for a reason: it can affect your mood. The ability to use different colored lighting to create different atmospheres in a room – from focused work to relaxing with music and wine – is really lovely. A blue or purple gives a nice hi-tech feel – and the association with business class cabins in airliners doesn’t hurt – while a sunset orange can give a winding-down feel to the day. When I need more light but don’t want the harsh feel of pure white, a yellowy white is a good compromise. Even my partner, who previously just smiled indulgently at my gadget lust, now admits she does like the ability to control the color.
Automation. I was already totally sold on scenes – a single Siri command replacing multiple light switches – and I still get a kick out of this each time I do it. Adding motion-sensors to kitchen and bathroom, so the lights come on automatically and go out again a couple of minutes later, is also really nice. Admittedly, motion-sensors have existed forever, so you don’t need to invest in HomeKit for them, but you do at least get more intelligence. It’s great when you go to the kitchen for water in the middle of the night and get only a dim nightlight rather than a blast of light.
Energy efficiency. Ok, I’m not going to spend a grand on lightbulbs and then claim I did it to save money, but the Hue LED bulbs are massively more efficient than the halogen bulbs they replaced. I don’t know that they’ll ever pay for themselves in reduced energy costs, but at least you get a warm fuzzy feeling from the environmental friendliness of it. They also last forever, being rated at 15,000 hours, which is going to be around five years for the main rooms, and ten years plus for other rooms.
But I make no bones about the fact that I’m a gadget guy and the gadget factor played a significant role in my purchase decision. It’s one of the reasons I’ve invested in several different generations of home automation tech over the years, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve upgraded to HomeKit today.
Simply said, I like having a hi-tech home, and I enjoy the ability to control it with voice commands. It’s in part a toy, but toys are fun.
I know some people will be reading this thinking that it’s an extravagant purchase, but I have a simple attitude to buying things: if it will bring me or someone else pleasure, and I can afford it, why not?
While each manufacturer provides their own app, the theory with HomeKit is that you can control everything through a single app: Apple’s own Home app. The practice, as I’ve noted before, is a little different – and I have to say this has now become a little irritating, mostly due to the inconsistency.
For example, the Home app can’t select any of the animations on my Nanoleaf Aurora light panel as part of Scenes – but Siri can. It would be fair enough to say that Siri and the Home app are for top-level control, while the manufacturer apps are for more fine-grained tinkering, but it seems odd that Siri can do something the Home app can’t.
Conversely, you can group Philips Hue bulbs together in the Home app, but not in the Hue app. The upshot of all this is that both initial setup and modifying can be a little frustrating as you work out what needs to be done in each app.
There are also random times when Siri is inexplicably unable to activate a scene but you can do so by pressing the button in the Home app.
Another irritation is Siri’s repetitive responses to HomeKit commands, seen above. It does have a few different ones, but by far the most common is ‘Your wish is my command. Voilà, <Scene name>!’ A second is ‘Your humble abode is now ready for <Scene name>.’ Both quickly grow tiresome, and my thumb is quick to hit the Home button to cut them off. I really, really wish I could set Siri to simply say ‘<Scene name> active’ instead.
Then there are updates. I remember tweeting with mild amusement the first time one of my plug sockets needed a firmware update. But last night, when I came to activate the ‘Night home’ scene, very little happened. Opening the Home app to try activating it by pressing the button wasn’t any better, and I quickly found that none of the Philips Hue bulbs were responding.
The Home app gave no clue as to the reason for this, simply reporting ‘no response.’ I had to open the Hue app to find out that the bulbs were all updating.
I understand that manufacturers are constantly adding features and fixing bugs, but there are a couple of issues here. First, smart home tech ought to be smart enough to do firmware updates in the middle of the night – say 3am or 4am – rather than at midnight, exactly when people are likely to want to turn them off. Second, there ought to be a way for HomeKit devices to keep the Home app advised, so that it can say ‘Updating’ rather than the uninformative ‘No response.’
One final irritation is that while you can give others guest access to control your HomeKit devices, this isn’t just a one-off action in the Home app: you also need to send separate invitations from the specific manufacturer apps. To me, this rather goes against the HomeKit philosophy of one app to do it all.
Worse, the Elgato Eve app reports that it can take anything from ‘several minutes to several days’ to grant guest access? Days? What the–?!
But overall, I’m very happy with my system. I’m not planning to add anything else for the time being, but will update if I do, or if I have anything else useful to share about the experience of living in a HomeKit world. As ever, please share your own thoughts and experiences and in the comments.