Aqara Smart Home Starter Kit review: This muddy smart home kit has a glimmer of promise

The success of easy, all-in-one smart-home systems like SimpliSafe has led to a flood of competitors attempting to muscle into the market. These have achieved varying degrees of success, but they tend to have one thing in common: They’re dirt cheap.

Aqara is the latest brand to throw its hat into this ring, with its Aqara Smart Home Starter Kit. This Zigbee-based, Apple HomeKit-compatible system consists of five components. At the center is the Aqara Hub, a chunky disc that connects directly to wall power. As the brains of the system, the hub harbors a Wi-Fi bridge (2.4GHz only) and an onboard siren.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart home systems, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

Two sensors—a door/window sensor and a motion sensor—are included in the box. You also get a basic smart plug and a single-button wireless switch that you can use for various control operations. The hardware is all utilitarian in design but surprisingly compact and unobtrusive. Only the oversized smart plug fails to fit in with the rest of the group.

aqara smart plug Aqara

The utility of the Aqara smart plug is limited by its large size.

Setup takes place through the Aqara Home app, though if you’ve got an Apple device handy you can also set things up with HomeKit. Aqara and HomeKit have a slightly rocky integration, and in my testing the Aqara app didn’t import any of my HomeKit settings (such as room names), nor did it incorporate other HomeKit devices on my network within the app. Conversely, the Aqara gear did successfully show up in the iOS Home app.

aqara app 2 Christopher Null / IDG

The scattered Aqara Home interface tries to jam everything onto one screen, and it sort of succeeds.

After walking through some simple setup instructions to bring the Hub online, Aqara proceeds to connect the sensors and other accessories automatically. This was something of a surprise to me, as I had yet to even remove the plastic tab that engages the batteries to power them up.

The app doesn’t even direct you to do this, but all the sensors (which are presumably pre-paired) nevertheless show up in the Aqara Home app. Once I powered up the sensors and connected the smart plug, everything became active in the Aqara Home app, successfully paired and ready to work. One oddity: Aqara also automatically paired a smart light bulb to my app—even though no bulb is included in the starter kit.

Aqara’s app doesn’t offer the most intuitive of interfaces, and it’s hard to tell at first glance whether its primary function is intended to be a security system or a more general system for controlling smart devices. The answer, of course, is both. Aqara wants to be a little bit of everything, telling you whether the door is open, how much light is in the room (there’s a luminance sensor built into the motion sensor), whether the smart plug is turned on, and whether the alarm is enabled—all at once. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to any of this, though if you don’t have too many sensors and accessories (the hub maxes out in supporting 32 anyway), it’s not difficult to get a sense of the system’s status at a glance.

Putting all of this to productive use is another matter, and it quickly becomes clear that Aqara has a lot of growing up to do, particularly as a security solution. Let’s start there, because the security features of Aqara are terribly undercooked. By default, Aqara sets up a rule that sounds the alarm if motion is detected or if the door/window sensor is tripped—which is a great start, but that’s really all it can do. There’s no timer system that engages the alarm after a minute when you’re leaving the house, and no keypad for visitors to disable the alarm when they arrive.