What is Apple HomeKit, what can it do and is it right for you? Dean Evans reveals all

Smart homes can be any high-tech combination of lighting, locks, heating/cooling systems, streaming TV, smart plugs and sensors. A journey that starts with a single device can grow into a network of different smart gadgets from different manufacturers, automating your house and helping you make it a better place to live.

The trouble is, these smart gadgets often don’t work together. It’s not usually a problem if your wireless security camera doesn’t communicate with your smart light bulbs. But it’s easier (and far more effective) if they can. When devices can be linked together, a whole new world of connected possibilities starts to emerge.

What is Apple HomeKit?

It’s why systems like Apple’s HomeKit exist. According to Apple, “HomeKit works through the apps that control each of your home products. It sits backstage, enabling the apps to interconnect.” HomeKit isn’t an universal app that controls different devices, rather it’s a clever way of linking them so that they can work together.

That said, not every smart home product will work with HomeKit and it’s only designed for Apple devices (running iOS 8.1 or later). To check if a device is HomeKit-compatible, you need to look for the ‘Works with Apple HomeKit’ badge. A growing number of smart devices already support the system, including:

Here’s some more HomeKit gadgets that are worth a look.

How does HomeKit work?

Each HomeKit-friendly device can obviously be controlled using its own app — the Philips Hue app controls its lighting products, while the Withings camera comes with its own Withings Home app. There is no ‘HomeKit app’. Instead, you’ll find that HomeKit is baked into the device apps, adding extra functionality and some clever features.

For example, one of the advantages of using HomeKit is that you can also control them using voice commands. With a Philips Hue light bulb installed in your lounge, you can activate Siri on an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch and simply say ‘turn on the lights’. HomeKit’s integration with the Philips Hue app enables it to process your request and switch on the Hue light bulb.

Philips Hue in action

Of course, while this functionality is impressive on its own (and you’ll need to set up voice commands before using them), making devices work seamlessly together is the driving force behind the HomeKit initiative. With this in mind, HomeKit adds options to group devices together, allowing you to define different ‘rooms’ and ‘zones’ — upstairs lights, downstairs lights, all cameras, and so on.

Advanced HomeKit automation

Add an Elgato Eve motion sensor to that Philips Hue light bulb you put in the lounge and you can also create sequences of automated events (Apple calls them ‘scenes’). In this case, a ‘scene’ might be defined to turn the lounge light on whenever the motion sensor tracks someone entering the room, switching it off again when they leave.

You can be creative in programming HomeKit-compatible devices, controlling them through timed events (so that certain lights in your home switch on at, say, 6pm) and/or location-based events (the security cameras switch on when you leave the house).

These ‘scenes’ can also be conditional in nature. So that lounge light still switches on when you walk into the room, but only when it’s dark outside; the HomeKit security cameras switch on when everyone has left the house, not just you (and the smartphone those cameras are wirelessly linked up to).

Now try thinking bigger. HomeKit scenes can consist of multiple devices and multiple conditions. So setting up a ‘good night house’ voice command might allow Siri to turn off all the lights, lower the heating and switch on the security cameras when you go to bed. In a non-HomeKit world, you’d need to manually perform these tasks one after the other, or set each device on a timer so that you achieved the same effect.

The problem with HomeKit

HomeKit simplifies and empowers home automation. In terms of functionality, you’re only limited by the range of HomeKit-compatible devices available to you.

And that’s where there’s a slight problem. Because Apple doesn’t build any smart home devices itself, it falls to individual manufacturers to provide support for the HomeKit standard. While big companies such as Philips, Withings and Google’s Nest already support it, there are still many who don’t.

Withings security camera

Withings is one of the manufacturers that supports Homekit, with its security camera

Samsung has its competing SmartThings system, while Panasonic and D-Link have their own connected technologies that include security cameras, smart plugs and motion sensors. Google (which owns Nest) and Amazon (which sells the Amazon Echo voice controller) are both working on their own smart home ecosystems too.

Is Apple HomeKit right for you?

If you’ve already bought into the Apple way of life (i.e. you already own an iPod, iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch), then using HomeKit is a logical extension. Look for products that feature the ‘Works with Apple HomeKit’ badge. All you Android and Windows users can still buy and use the same smart devices, but you won’t be able to benefit from the HomeKit interconnectivity we’ve talked about here.

Ultimately, Apple HomeKit provides a way for certain smart home devices to be grouped together, to operate simultaneously and to respond to voice commands. What HomeKit doesn’t do is add any extra core functionality to the products that it’s compatible with. The thermostats, HD cameras and sensors that work with it, work just as well without it.

Home automation systems are still in their infancy and there isn’t necessarily a best one just yet. Our advice is to choose a system that (a) supports the devices you want to buy, and (b) supports the smartphone, tablet and watch software that you use day-to-day. Read our guides to other systems so you can make an informed decision.

To find out more about the devices that support HomeKit, visit the Home Automation section of the UK Apple Store.

Still not sure? Read our guide to Z-Wave vs ZigBee vs Bluetooth