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HomeKit apps: The good, the bad and the clumsy

We spent money on home automation apps that work with Apple HomeKit so you don't have to.

homekit-siri-command-examples.jpg
Apple

Imagine giving your phone a single command, such as "Goodnight," to lock your doors, turn off the lights and turn on the fan near your bed. With Apple's HomeKit software baked right into iOS 8 and iOS 9, that's possible. You'll just need to pick a HomeKit app to add your devices, group them into the rooms of your home and assign them to a "scene" named Goodnight so Siri knows what to do when you give that command.

If you're using a single HomeKit device such as a set of Phili​ps Hue bulbs or a Schlage smart lock, the choice is easy as all HomeKit hardware comes with its own free app. It gets trickier once you get past your first device and start expecting multiple products to work together. As simplicity is the ultimate goal -- dealing with half a dozen apps undoes the convenience of an automated home, after all -- you need a single app that can manage all your commands across your different hardware.

Fortunately, since Apple laid out a unified set of rules for all HomeKit devices to follow, that's possible, and there are a number of options for that one app that can do the job. I've tested 17 HomeKit apps over the past couple of weeks (and nine different HomeKit devices over the past few months) and here's what I found.

Before I start, let's talk pricing. I'm generally reluctant to pay for apps, but if an app can add convenience and functionality to your HomeKit hardware, it might be worth $10 or $15 to unlock the full potential of a couple hundred dollars of smart home hardware. That said, I had my fingers crossed that one of the free apps that comes with the hardware would do the trick.

Apps that come with hardware

I started with eight "first-party" apps, downloading and testing apps associated with a current HomeKit device, or (in ConnectSense's case) an upcoming HomeKit device. The Grid Connect Outlet is still only available for preorder, but the app is ready, so I tried it out. Here's the list; all of the following are also available for free in the UK and Australia, except for the Grid Connect app, which is only available on the US app store for now.

I tested each app on an iPhone 5 in the CNET Smart Home where we use Philips Hue bulbs, Schlage deadbolts and iDevices plugs. Controlling my whole home's worth of devices was the first capability I looked for, and a number of these apps didn't make it past this first test.

As an overview, HomeKit's organizational scheme involves Homes, Zones and Rooms. For example, I set up multiple lights and grouped them all into the kitchen, then could tell Siri to "Turn off my Kitchen lights" and have her interact with all of those devices at once. I grouped my Kitchen and my Living Room into the Downstairs Zone, and all of that into the CNET Smart Home.

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One command, and Siri can unlock my doors, turn on the lights and adjust my thermostat.

Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

HomeKit also offers Scenes, letting me group multiple actions into a single command, and as of iOS 9, HomeKit now offers triggers. I can trigger my "I'm Home" scene when my phone senses I've arrived at my address, or have my "Goodnight" scene trigger at a certain hour on weekdays, or even at sunset.

Continuing testing, I immediately eliminated the Lutron, Philips and Schlage apps. Each requires its own login -- an extra bit of tedium since you also need to log in to your iCloud account to access your smart-home info in any app. Also, once you're in each app, it controls only its own hardware. They don't have much that even resembles standard HomeKit features, such as those organizational buckets like rooms and zones.

Similarly, I didn't even try the Ecobee3 app since you need an Ecobee3 Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat to use it. Lutron, Philips and Schlage at least let you use their apps without the hardware.

Next, I eliminated iHome and ConnectSense from the running. They are structured more like HomeKit apps as they feature those same organizational buckets. You can even add your iHome switches to scenes, and you can run already established scenes using the iHome app. But again, both the iHome and ConnectSense apps can only control that specific company's devices.

Apps free with hardware: The finalists

The iDevices app, the Elgato app and the Insteon+ app each allow you full control over all of your HomeKit devices. They not only passed my first test -- accessing and controlling devices from other companies -- they readily passed my second: controlling more than just the power. Yes, you can switch your Philips Hue lights on and off with the apps, but you can also carefully tune the color-changing bulbs to your shade of choice. You can unlock and lock your Schlage deadbolts, and also tinker with security settings.

Since they had the basics down, I went more in depth with each of these three apps. Here's how the three "first-party" finalists fared as I dove into the more advanced HomeKit functionality:

Elgato Eve from Elgato Systems

The front page, "At a Glance" page and device page of the Elgato app.

Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET


Elgato doesn't require a separate log-in. If you've set up your home using another app, you can hop right in. From the main page, you can see your rooms and a list of device categories such as locks and lights. At the top of the main page, the "At a glance" button pulls up the status of all devices with buttons at the top letting you trigger your scenes.

Setup with Elgato is easy. Click the gear in the upper right corner and you can organize rooms and zones, add pictures to any of your groupings to help you identify them and invite users to your home. The app also tells you if the app finds the device unreachable, so you can check on it.

The app can, however, be slow to update, and I would have liked more responsive buttons for simple controls. The "At a glance" page, for example, would have been perfect if the status indicators doubled as buttons. As it stands, if I press "Unlocked" under the Schlage Back Door, it doesn't lock the door as I'd like. It takes me to the room page for the lock, listing all devices in the room. Again, I need to press where it says Unlock, and finally I get a drop-down letting me secure my door. Unfortunately, the Unlocked status remains for as much as a couple of minutes, even though I just locked the door using the app itself.

Elgato's HomeKit app lets you do almost everything you'd want to do with your connected home, but it's not polished or snappy enough to be perfect.

iDevices Connected from iDevices

The front page and the settings page of the iDevices app.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET


iDevices crams a lot onto the main page of the app, and that might be its biggest drawback. Right away, you'll see a customizable picture of your home, the name of your home, tabs for each of the rooms and the devices in each of those rooms. Cleverly, next to the devices is a button providing basic controls with a single touch. Turn your lights on or off with a press. Flip from the kitchen tab to the entryway tab and lock your doors just as easily. Press the name of any device to get more advanced functionality. So you can quickly access basic commands, and you can just as easily use the app for finer control.

Setup also works well. If you have devices in pairing mode that haven't been added to the system yet, you'll see them sticking down from the top of the front page with a plus button next to them. Finally, hit the menu button in the upper right corner to dive into room management or scenes.

In terms of day-to-day functionality, I thought it all a bit too much for a single screen. I preferred the buttons and the responsiveness of iDevices to the clunkiness of Elgato, but I preferred the organization of Elgato to the clutter of iDevices. I couldn't reorder the tabs doubling as my rooms, and the devices unassigned to rooms are listed first, so I still needed to press a number of buttons to get to my lock in the entryway.

Still, iDevices provides a good HomeKit app, if again not quite perfect.

Insteon+ from Smartlabs

The front page, dashboard and rooms page of the Insteon app.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET


I needed a separate log-in to use the Insteon+ app, but unlike the other apps that forced this extra step, I could control all of my HomeKit devices once I was up and running, not just Insteon's.

The main app page just listed my home, and I found the white background and limited initial buttons a little too simple. Elgato's front page remains my favorite, but Insteon does organization well, even if the app lacks any sort of style. Clicking the home took me to zones, then rooms and then devices.

Insteon also offers a shortcut through all of the buckets via its customizable dashboard. Click the compass on the ever-present upper bar and you'll see your devices organized by function -- such as security, and heating & cooling, similar to the way Elgato does it, except you can elect which categories are displayed from the four options.

Beneath the categories, you'll see any devices you've marked as favorites, then you'll see your scenes with a button to activate them.

You can do all of the setup and configuration you desire with Insteon, and the bland app is redeemed to an extent by the customizable dashboard -- keeping it in the running with iDevices and Elgato as the best of the "first-party" HomeKit apps.

Still seeking

Elgato, iDevices and Insteon+ all work well, and each offers unique strengths and weaknesses. None are perfect, but all three do well enough to be worth your consideration. And again, all three are free, so you can readily try them all to see which interface best suits your tastes. However, since none are perfect, and since all three are missing one big piece of HomeKit functionality -- triggers -- these apps left the door open for a third-party contender to surpass them as the best HomeKit app. Read on for the results of that search.

Third-party apps

After searching the app store for any and all possible HomeKit apps, I collected nine new contenders for the position of my HomeKit app of choice. To qualify as a contender, the app has to be currently available in Apple's App Store and found by searching for "HomeKit" or "Apps for HomeKit." Also, the app's description had to say it could control all HomeKit devices. I wanted to cast a wide net, as I could use the CNET Smart Home to evaluate the many similar-looking options. I settled on the following list; all apps are also available in the UK and Australia, with prices listed.

HomeKit app Cost
ChampOn Home from Shenzhen Champon Technology free
Home -- Home Automation with HomeKit from Matthias Hochgatterer $15, £11, AU$23
Home Cat: Home Control from Lorenzo Laneve $2, £1.50, AU$3
HomeRoot from Erway Software $1, £0.80, and AU$1,50
Livo from Arno Pernozzoli $12 (an in-app purchase that converts to approximately £8 and AU$17)
MobiLinc Home from Mobile Integrated Solution, $5, £4, AU$8
MyTouch Home from Romain Henry $2, £1.50, AU$3
nRF for HomeKit from Nordic Semiconductor free
PowerHouz from Zysco $5+, £4+, AU$8+


A number of these third-party apps fell quickly from contention. I had the worst experiences with Livo and PowerHouz.

The Livo app focuses on panels and widgets, eschewing the typical HomeKit functionality.

Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Livo is a free download, but the free version of the app has little to no functionality. The $12 in-app purchase for the premium version isn't exorbitant, given the cost of a couple of other apps, but I didn't appreciate the bait and switch of inviting me in for free only to have the free version turn into glorified window shopping. What's worse, once I paid the $12, I didn't get a better experience.

Despite describing itself as a smart-home controller, Livo has very little to do with HomeKit other than some very basic compatibility. I could see the CNET Smart Home, and add or remove devices from it, but that was it. The rest of Livo's functionality revolves around its panels (which are supposed to be customizable smart-home widgets), but I couldn't actually add any of my devices to the panels. As a HomeKit app, it's nonfunctional.

Similarly, PowerHouz pulls a bit of a bait and switch, and since it doesn't even specify the cost of the switch, I ended this test before I really began. I paid $10 up front for PowerHouz (though the price has gone down to $5 since last week) -- and again, I was fine with that cost -- but it turned out I was really only paying for the right to tour the app. At least Livo let me tour the app for free, PowerHouz requires $5 just to see the tutorial. Then, after that long, detailed tutorial, it asked me to shell out even more for the right to actually control my smart home devices.

You can either pick a five-accessory bundle or an unlimited accessory bundle, but the PowerHouz app doesn't tell you the cost of either. Click one, and it'll ask for your iCloud password. Worse still, it calls these packages "subscriptions," meaning it may well charge you an unspecified amount of money on an ongoing basis, just to let you perform the basic functionality you can get with any number of free apps. I wasn't willing to give PowerHouz a blank check. The parts of the app I did see were unintuitive and clunky, with tacked on social features, so I don't recommend you give PowerHouz the right to any of your money.

PowerHouz has a clunky interface and keeps most of its functionality behind a mysterious paywall.

Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Most of the rest of the field proved too glitchy or too simple to be worth serious consideration. Remember, these apps, especially the paid ones, need to add value above and beyond the free apps provided by Elgato, iDevices and Insteon+ to prove worthwhile. None of the following even matched that competent trio, let alone beat them.

HomeRoot and ChampOn Home -- two of the cheaper third-party options available for $1 and free respectively -- crashed too often to be useful. Even when HomeRoot works, you can only work with rooms or devices, not scenes, triggers or any other advanced functionality. Similarly, ChampOn crashed often when I tried to pull up the Scenes tab. I actually liked the design of the ChampOn Home app, but none of the buttons in the app responded well. In theory, it offers some advanced functionality like energy tracking, but it offers no guidance as to how to use that feature, and since I had trouble just navigating through the pages of the app, I eliminated ChampOn as a contender.

For $5, MobiLinc Home provides a customizable dashboard, so you can access favorite devices on a single screen, but it doesn't have much else going for it. On the accessories tab, you can tap a device to switch it on or off, and scroll around the outside of the circular icon to change settings such as the colors of Philips Hue bulbs. It's a neat idea, but it's poorly executed and counterintuitive enough that getting your lights to the color you want is an exercise in frustration. You can add devices and organize them by room, but you don't have access to scenes or triggers. MobiLinc Home only does the basics, and makes them more complex than they need to be.

A free app, nRF for HomeKit is the least offensive of this first group of third-party apps. It's clunky, and it requires several buttons presses to access and manipulate any of your devices, but it works, and it's free. Still, though I don't have a problem with the nRF app, I don't see any reason to go out of your way to download it. It doesn't cost anything, but it doesn't add any value to your smart home, either. It does less than the Elgato, iDevices and Insteon+ apps. The fact that I didn't greatly mind this app says more about how glitchy and barely functional most of the alternatives are than about how useful nRF for HomeKit is on its own.

Rounding out the field of early eliminations, the $2 Home Cat app shows a lot of promise, but the current version matches all of that promise with problems galore. It's sort of the opposite of nRF, which tries to do very little and succeeds. Home Cat swings for the fences, but strikes out spectacularly in the process.

The main pages, from left to right, of MobiLinc, nRF, and Home Cat.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

The main page of Home Cat is simple, with buttons for each of your rooms filling the screen and a control at the bottom for switching from your home to settings. If you haven't placed an accessory in a room, you won't be able to control it with Home Cat until you do, and adding devices to rooms is frustrating and counterintuitive.

Home Cat does offer advanced functionality, but instead of the HomeKit lingo of scenes and triggers, it refers to the functionality as "Action Sets." Action sets basically combine scenes and triggers into one. In theory, that's fine, but in practice, you can't actually manipulate your devices with these action sets in any meaningful way, especially not in a way Siri can recognize. Home Cat has some cool ideas, but it needs a few major updates to fix a lot of flaws before it'll be worth serious consideration.

Third-party apps: The finalists

And then there were two. These two third-pary apps, though still not perfect, do almost everything you'd hope for in a HomeKit app, and add value in the form of triggers, making them both potentially worth buying.

Home -- Home Automation with HomeKit from Matthias Hochgatterer: $15, £11, AU$23

Perhaps the most highly touted HomeKit app, Home is the only one of the bunch with a significant number of user reviews. It's also the top listed option for a search for "HomeKit" in the App Store, and it has the highest up-front cost of the bunch. After looking at the rest of the field, I now understand why.

Home is competent, and that's more than can be said for the majority of HomeKit apps I tested. At times, it's even good. The design, as with Insteon+, is utilitarian. The main tab under your smart home is well organized with your devices listed by room. Clicking on a device brings up controls, though counterintuitively the top button on this control page marks it as a favorite, instead of performing the device's basic function. But from this same page you can interact with the advanced controls of your device in any way you see fit.

The utilitarian main page of the Home app on the left. On the right, don't expect to be able to follow your progress as you build a scene. This page won't update as you select different functions for different devices.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET


I flipped over to the zones, scenes or triggers tab, and again found them well organized. However, Home is utilitarian to a fault, at times, sacrificing usability. For example, when I tried to set up a scene, every device in my home showed up. I pulled up a device to start assigning actions and got a clunky interface with many options but little clarity. I chose the "target state" for an accessory and the page gave no indication that I'd done anything. It still just lists every device in its current state.

Even when I clicked back to the main page in the scene setup, I saw which devices I'd selected for the scene, but what task I'd assigned each device was often cut off. You can use Home to create detailed scenes, but it'll take some frustrating trial and error to do so.

Triggers work better, and since this is where Home has an advantage over the iDevices, Elgato and Insteon+ apps, that's a big plus. You can set a simple time trigger for a scene, like an alarm, or get into more detailed Event triggers that'll execute a scene when you come home, when the sun sets or even when another device flips on or off. If you want the fan hooked to your indoor switch to turn on when you come inside and your outdoor fan flips off, you can do that with a single command using Home's triggers.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, the app suffers from a few other oddities. On the Rooms tab, you can see your assigned accessories, but you can't interact with them. You can also rename any room or device using the Home app, but it's hit or miss if that name will stick and Siri will recognize it.

Home isn't quite polished enough to be a runaway winner, but it does add functionality that the hardware-associated apps don't and proves useful and mostly competent.

MyTouch Home from Romain Henry: $2, £1.50, AU$3

The final contestant goes toe to toe with Home for a fraction of the cost. It features easy-to-set-up triggers, an appealing design and a competent interface, making MyTouch Home well worth your consideration at a low $2 cost.

MyTouch Home organizes your devices and rooms into colored circles. Click a zone to pull up the rooms within. Click the room to pull up the devices. It's intuitive to use and the circles within circles make it easy to navigate HomeKit's buckets.

The main page of MyTouch Home is friendly. The device page is bland and confusing, but the scene-building page does a good job of helping you track your progress.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET


When I had too many devices in a single room, though, the names were so squeezed I couldn't see what was what, and MyTouch Home is missing some basic functionality. It's not as robust in terms of everyday setup and maintenance as the Home app. For one, you can't change which accessory is assigned to which room with the app. MyTouch Home also lacks some of the finer single-device controls. For Philips Hue lights, for example, you don't have any color wheel or visual assistance when picking your desired shade; you have to choose a hue percentage.

On top of that, as with the Home app, basic control of devices takes too many presses. And though the app is attractive overall, the page for each device gets back to being utilitarian.

MyTouch Home actually outdoes the Home app when it comes to setting up scenes, and equals it with triggers. Swipe over to the scenes tab, and you can add actions for your accessories one at a time, with a new colored bubble popping up on the main page of the scene after each addition. The text can be cut off, and adding an action still requires dealing with "target characteristics" and other obtuse language, but it's definitely easier to track your progress than with the Home app.

Rounding out the features, the MyTouch Home app has a tab specifically for scheduling scenes on days of the week, and MyTouch Home dedicates another tab to adding users to your home. I found that handy in the CNET Smart Home, and appreciated not having to look around for the invite button when a colleague of mine wanted to be added to the home.

MyTouch Home handles the advanced features of HomeKit as well as any app I've tested, and I found the colorful interface appealing, but it falls short by lacking some basic setup functionality.

Time to make a choice

The perfect HomeKit app isn't out there, yet. Perhaps one of the current contenders will update soon and get everything right. Perhaps Apple will come out with one that makes third-party apps unnecessary. Until that time, five imperfect options stand out from the 17 available apps -- Elgato, iDevices, Insteon+, Home and MyTouch Home.

My ideal for Apple's HomeKit is to have a single command affect all of my connected devices. The free Elgato, iDevices and Insteon+ apps can all do this, and I recommend you start there. Elgato gets the edge in organization, iDevices in responsiveness and Insteon+ in customization. If none of those characteristics jump out at you, you might as well try out all three, since they're free.

The trigger functionality of the Home app on the left and the MyTouch Home app on the right is largely the same.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart

If you want to go one step further, Home and MyTouch Home offer triggers, so you can have the lights set, the doors unlock and the thermostat adjust automatically when you pull into your driveway. Each of the five finalists offers a particular strength that might make it the best fit for you.

Home is the only one of the bunch that can handle all of your HomeKit needs, but you'll need to endure some frustration if you rely on that as your only app. My recommendation, then, is to pick your free app of choice from the three "first-party" contenders, and pair it with the $2 MyTouch Home app. MyTouch Home can't stand on its own, but it nicely fills in the gaps left by the top three.

Winners

Elgato Best organized
iDevices Most responsive
Insteon+ Most customizable
Home Most robust
MyTouch Home Simplest triggers

Now if I say "Good morning" in the CNET Smart Home, the lights in the kitchen turn a pleasant orange as my coffee machine kicks into gear, and the deadbolt on the front door simultaneously unlocks so I can grab the paper. I can wrangle a half-dozen devices from a half-dozen different companies without ever needing to deal with the headache of aligning settings from a half-dozen different apps. I regularly use two: the iDevices app for its responsiveness, and the MyTouch Home app for its easy-to-use interface. It's not quite the ideal of a single app to control everything, but in the burgeoning market of smart home devices, it's a step in the right direction.

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