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Automation

You may have noticed I haven't mentioned anything about timers, rules or schedules. That's because all those items are included under Automation. Here's the catch: You can't create any automation rules unless you have a hub. The "Create new Automation" option doesn't even appear unless your Home app is connected to a hub. A hub can either be an Apple TV (version 4 or later), or an iOS 10.x device you're willing to turn into a hub. Just to save you a little time, the composite screenshot below shows you which settings you have to check on your iOS device. In this case, I'm using the same iPad as a hub and for the Home app.

Apple Home - settings to enable Automation

Apple Home - settings to enable Automation

Automation provides a way to control accessories based on the change of location, time of day, when another accessory is controlled, or when a sensor detects something. In my previous look at HomeKit schedules and rules (aka automation) using manufacturer's software, the only actions that could be triggered were scenes. However, in the Apple Home application, once the trigger condition is met, you can execute scenes or turn on one or more individual devices.

The gallery below illustrates Automation. I created an automation that turns on the dining room lights at 40% brightness at sunset every day of the week. The automation was easy to create, but unfortunately, as you'll see in slide # 2, the sensor trigger is grayed out. I found this disturbing because using the eve room sensor, I have three sensors whose conditions appear within Apple Home. I had originally planned to create a temperature based rule.

Closing Thoughts

All of the installed accessories, with the exception of the read-only sensors of the eve room, could be easily controlled using the Home app. It didn't matter whether I was dimming a Philips light that was connected to the Philips HomeKit bridge, or a standard incandescent light screwed into the Incipio Smart Light Bulb Adapter. Once you rename the product to a friendly name, the manufacturer's name doesn't matter. The accessory name is the same as the name recognized by Siri. And, I'm happy to report that based on my empirical tests, Siri seems to have improved since I first tried to use Siri for home automation last year. Siri didn't mess up one command. But then again, maybe it's because I took care to name the accessories with a name that could be easily recognized.

One side note: I experienced the same problems connecting the Philips Hue hub to the Internet as I did with the hub in the original Philips review. Again I contacted Philips, and they couldn't find an answer to the problem. I'm guessing that they are using a standard port that I'm using for something else on my network - most likely my NAS. Enabling UPnP on my router also didn't fix the problem. Without being able to connect to the Philips back-end, I wasn't able to test integration with Amazon's Alexa.

After working with the Apple Home application for several days, I got to know the product pretty well and there's a lot to like about it. First, the HomeKit setup experience is far simpler and easier than what you go through to install non-HomeKit Smart Home devices. The Home app streamlines the setup experience by standardizing it across all accessories. The steps of Discover, connect, pair, configure accessory really can be accomplished in less than a minute or two.

Every accessory was discovered immediately. I didn't have to worry whether the accessory was using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or both. Pairing using the iOS device's camera is a snap. It will take you longer to find the card with the pairing code than the actual setup process. Contrast that simplicity with other Wi-Fi smart products that direct you to go to your settings, select Wi-Fi, find a network named "Vendor_name-XXXX", return to the app, select your home Wi-Fi network and enter the password, etc. Apple wins the setup contest hands down.

I do have a minor nit. For a company that undoubtedly has almost unlimited access to photos, you'd think that they could include more than two pieces of wallpaper with the application. But no, you're stuck with the red leaves or the three white vases or whatever photos you take with your iOS device's camera. I think Apple could do better.

Apple has long used icons for notifications - such as the number of unread emails. In the Home app, the accessory icons deliver a lot of information at a glance. If a light bulb is on, the background field of the icon is white and the bulb is yellow. If the light has been dimmed, the percentage of brightness is also shown. If the light is off, the background field changes to a muted color that's complimentary to the background color, the bulb dims, and the status goes to off. The Fan icon is animated if it's turned on - the fan blades rotate.

However, I'd like to have more control over the layout of the Home screen. If you start to build out a large HomeKit-based Smart Home, you'll wish that you had more screen real estate for accessories, and perhaps less real estate for Favorite Scenes and Status. Alternatively, perhaps there could be an additional icon at the bottom of the screen that would take you to an "At a Glance" page where could see all devices sorted by room, or type, or status.

There are some problems with the Apple Home app, too. As noted before, the Home app doesn't appear to be able to update, or perhaps even to check for new firmware for accessories. This shortcoming alone keeps the Apple Home app from being a universal replacement app.

A more serious problem with Home is it seems unaware of many accessories' advanced features. All three smart outlets had some power monitoring, tracking, and on one product, cost estimating capabilities. The Home app treated each of them as if they were just a simple Wi-Fi-enabled switch like the iHome ISP5. Home didn't even report the current power consumption of any of the outlets, much less the more advanced power tracking features. The only advanced feature that Apple Home picked up was the dual outlets on the ConnectSense Smart Plug.

Without access to advanced features, your ability to create elaborate automation features is limited in Home. Even though Home recognized the eve room's three sensors and reported their statuses, you couldn't use that status information to create an Automation. I couldn't for example, create an automation that would turn on a fan if the temperature exceeded, say, 74 degrees.

Using the eve app installed on iOS 10.1, I was able to create an Automation (Rule as Elgato calls it) that turned on my office fan if the temperature in my office exceeded 74 degrees. The Home app recognized the rule but the rule was read-only in the Home app. You couldn't edit any of the conditions. It's not clear whether the Elgato eve app executed the rule, or whether the Home app executed it.

There are also some issues related to the platform itself. First, it's designed for iOS 10.x and above. If you're going to make use of location-based automation, you're going to need more than one iOS 10.x device or an Apple TV. Similarly, for remote access, you need either a dedicated iOS 10.x device or an Apple TV (Rev 4 or later). Either can act as a hub and provide remote access. But if you don't have an Apple TV and have only one iOS 10.x device and you take it with you, your home automation ceases.

On the other hand, most non-HomeKit products rely on cloud services for even basic on/off functions. So, no internet, no control - even locally. This one feature alone puts HomeKit far ahead of other smart home technologies.

Another problem that hopefully Apple will address is the lack of notification. While there is a notification and status section of the Home app's Home page, there doesn't appear to be a way to trigger an email or text message based on a sensor or the status of an accessory. Some Smart Home systems can send a text if, say, it detects motion or a door open/close trigger. That still remains a missing feature in Apple Home.

In the end, Apple Home is like a universal remote control for your entertainment system. It does a pretty good job for basic control of collections of devices. But for more esoteric tasks, you may have to pull the original remote out of a drawer. You haven't eliminated the need for multiple remotes - you've just reduced the number of times you need to reach for them. I hope Apple continues to improve Home and make it smarter, so I can really throw those other remotes away.

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