An essential guide to Apple HomeKit

Apple launched HomeKit in 2014 and for many users it remains a bit of a mystery, an outlier in the smart home space that is wound up with the iPhone, Siri, and an unintuitive corner of the smart home universe. What is HomeKit, and is it appropriate for your home? Let’s dig in and break down what it is and how it works today.

What is HomeKit?

While HomeKit is exclusive to Apple and its licensees, it is really just a communications protocol, a framework of technologies that lets your iOS device work with any number of smart home products. Apple currently claims that more than 100 brands of products are now included in the HomeKit universe, including all the usual smart home suspects, including smart plugs and switches, light bulbs, thermostats, motorized window shades, and more.

The centerpiece of HomeKit is its centralized control through the iOS Home app, which is now standard on all iPhones and iPads (and is now part of MacOS as well). Through Home, you have access to all your HomeKit-compatible devices (Accessories), which can be separated by room and assigned to Scenes (in which a number of devices are controlled simultaneously with a single tap) or controlled via Automations (for basic scheduling or as responses to trigger events). Devices that appear in the Home can also be controlled via Siri voice commands, either through an iOS device or a newer Apple TV (third-generation or later) or HomePod smart speaker.

homekit kitchen Apple

HomeKit can control any aspect of your smart home, ranging from lighting, to security cams, and from motorized window shades to thermostats and more.

In a nutshell, Home works a lot like any other smart home control app, except that it is not tied to a specific vendor’s product. If your devices are set up through HomeKit, they’ll appear in the Home app. You can also add compatible devices to your HomeKit network after the fact, and that won’t prevent you from using those same devices in other smart home ecosystems.

How does HomeKit setup work?

HomeKit setup is easily its biggest strength. For most products, setup involves using your iPhone to scan a QR code printed on the smart device (or affixed via a sticker). Sometimes the QR code appears on the device’s packaging or manual. Once the device is scanned and the device is powered up, your phone gets to work making the necessary connections. This process has changed a bit over the years, but now it is generally quite streamlined, and I’ve found that HomeKit devices—for the most part—set up quickly and seamlessly.

HomeKit devices can connect to your phone for setup via either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. You don’t necessarily need an internet connection to get a HomeKit device up and running, but it certainly helps smooth out the process.

HomeKit setup can often be confusing to novices because nearly every smart home device maker also makes its own app which can also be used to set up the device. Instructions vary—wildly—from brand to brand on this front. Some will direct you to start with the brand’s app, then switch over to Home at some point, and then switch back to the brand’s app to complete setup. Most of the time you can ignore the brand’s app altogether and just set things up in Home directly. Or you can ignore Home and just use the official app. Once setup is complete, you can generally use both apps to control the device, although that can present new challenges.

homekit room device control Michael Brown / IDG

A best practice is to create rooms and assign your smart home devices to them, so you can see and control everything at a glance.

How do I interact with HomeKit devices?

As noted above, the big idea is that you interact with your HomeKit devices in the iOS Home app, but you can also use the device’s sanctioned app to do the same thing. In fact, in most brand-developed apps, you will not only find that brand’s devices, but HomeKit-compatible devices developed by other brands as well. This can quickly get confusing if you have a complicated, multi-vendor setup, and it can create challenges if, say, you set up automations or schedules in both apps. When schedules conflict, results can be unpredictable, so it’s advisable to stick to one app for control operations whenever possible.