Insteon Hub Pro (HomeKit-enabled) review: Insteon's HomeKit Hub shows potential, but needs work
Slowly but surely, Apple's been building a foundation for connected-home devices directly into its iOS mobile operating system. It's called HomeKit, and its goal is to standardize the smart home so that all of your gadgets work seamlessly with your phone, with Siri and with each other.
Launched this summer, the Insteon Hub Pro was one of the first HomeKit-compatible devices to hit the market. Essentially, it's the same thing as Insteon's existing smart-home hub , which acts as a centralized brain for Insteon's wide range of connected home devices. Plug it into your router, and the Insteon Hub will translate those gadgets' proprietary Insteon signals into something your home network -- and thus, your smartphone -- can understand.
The Insteon Hub Pro adds in HomeKit support and tacks an extra 50 bucks onto the price, bringing it up to $150 (not yet available in the UK or Australia, it's about £99, AU$210, converted roughly). With HomeKit in the picture, you'll be able to put those Insteon devices under Siri's control, or control them alongside other HomeKit-compatible devices from different manufacturers. That makes the Insteon Hub Pro a pretty clear candidate to anchor HomeKit-oriented smart homes.
There are tradeoffs though -- most notably that the Hub Pro doesn't currently support the full catalogue of Insteon devices. It can bring Insteon's connected light bulbs, switches, and dimmers into the HomeKit fold, but key devices for keeping an eye on the home -- cameras, motion sensors, leak detectors, etc. -- aren't compatible yet. The arrival of iOS 9 brings new HomeKit support for these types of devices, but as of now, the Hub Pro still can't put them to work, nor does it take advantage of HomeKit's new iCloud remote access in iOS 9, which eliminates the need for an Apple TV to access your devices when you're not at home. That all might change with a simple firmware update, but I wouldn't recommend buying in until it does.
HomeKit in a box
Insteon is a California based start-up that's been in business for a few decades now, so its platform is fairly well developed. Its devices communicate with one another using Insteon's proprietary dual-mesh signal, which combines a wireless radio frequency with your home's existing electrical wiring. The idea is that the second transmission layer serves as a backup in case of wireless interference in the first, making for a more reliable connection.
As for the "mesh" part, when a signal gets sent out over Insteon's network -- the hub telling a light bulb to turn on at sunset, for instance -- the signal gets transmitted through every device in the system, all of them acting as a sort of repeater for the network. That gives the system a scalability boost -- the more devices you add, the more robust the network becomes.
All of that applies to the Insteon Hub Pro, with the added benefit of HomeKit compatibility. Basically, what the Hub Pro does is add in specific security-minded hardware to comply with Apple's standards, and also software tweaks that help it manage devices in a way that fits in with HomeKit's bigger scheme. That brings Siri into play -- ask her to turn off a light bulb that's connected to the Insteon Hub Pro, and she'll get right on it. You can also use the the Hub Pro (and its corresponding Insteon+ iPhone app) to add and control other HomeKit-compatible devices side-by-side with your Insteon gear. And yes, as a HomeKit device, we're talking iOS control only. Sorry, Android users.
As for the hardware itself, the Hub Pro is simply a boxy rectangle of white plastic -- same as the old Insteon Hub . It's a minimalist design that you'll likely plug into your router and forget about, though the shiny, white plastic aesthetic extends to much of Insteon's more visible gadgets, as well -- most notably its lamp dimming and appliance on/off plugs (sold separately). Similar to Belkin WeMo Switches , the Insteon plugs are simple enough to use, but I don't like that the sockets are located on the bottom of each device -- that makes it tough to plug and unplug your lamps or appliances if the socket is in an inconvenient spot. For basic on/off management, I might be inclined to go with another HomeKit-compatible switch, like the iHome Smart Plug or the iDevices Switch , instead.
There are some key limitations to keep in mind before you buy in with the Hub Pro. Apple's been a bit slow to extend HomeKit support to things like motion sensors and leak detectors, and though support is finally ready with iOS 9, Insteon hasn't updated its firmware to take advantage of it yet. That means that, at least for the time being, you won't be able to connect any of Insteon's sensors with the Hub Pro.
Unless Insteon finds a way to update the system or add new HomeKit-compatible hardware, you're limited to Insteon's switches, light bulbs, dimmers and other devices you turn on and turn off. That's probably a deal-breaker if you've already got a lot of other Insteon gear up and running in your home -- in that case, you should almost certainly stick with the existing Insteon Hub. Still, I would expect that we'll start seeing HomeKit-compatible sensor hardware from other manufacturers before the end of the year, and when those devices arrive, you should be able to add them under the Hub Pro's control.
Another limitation, at least in the short term, is that you can't access any of the Hub Pro's devices from beyond your home network unless you have an Apple TV in your home to act as a gatekeeper. That's one of HomeKit's original security features, and while iOS 9 lifts the restriction by moving the iCloud Keychain into that gatekeeper role, again, Insteon hasn't updated the firmware to take advantage yet.
I've reached out to Insteon to try and get a timetable for any potential updates, but haven't heard back yet. Watch this space -- I'll let you know when I hear more or if any notable updates arrive.
Insteon in the CNET Smart Home
To put the Insteon Hub Pro through its paces, I installed it at the CNET Smart Home here in Louisville, Kentucky. Though the hub itself sells for $150, you can also purchase a starter kit with a few extra Insteon devices included. For my purposes, I tested out a kit with a brand new Insteon LED, Insteon Lamp Dimmer and an Insteon On/Off Switch. I also dug through our storage closet and found the Insteon LED and Insteon Lamp Dimmer I tested two years ago when I reviewed an older model of the Insteon Hub -- I wanted to see if I'd be able to use them with the new system, too.
It turned out that I could, though adding devices to my setup was a bit of a wonky experience. The app detected my freshly plugged-in Hub Pro with ease, and after entering the HomeKit-specific code printed on its underside, I was up and running. But when I tried to add my devices to the setup, the sweeping radar animation would often spin and spin and spin before finally giving me an error message. After tapping back in the main menu, I'd discover that my device had, in fact, been added to my setup. So, a glitchy process, but at least a successful one.
Once you've managed to add your devices into the app, you'll be able to control and customize them. Those customizations include the name you'll use for Siri purposes, along with an icon. Insteon gives you oodles of options here, which makes it easy to tailor the app to your home's specific style. Some of those icons animate when you use them -- a desk fan that spins when you turn it on, for instance. It's a little thing, but I liked it.
I also liked that Insteon-controlled lights remember their dimming level after you turn them off -- turn them back on again, and they'll return to that level. You can see that pre-dimmed level in the app by looking at the on/off status button for the device. When it's greyed out in the off position, you'll still see a green ring around it -- a complete ring indicates a pre-dimmed level of 100 percent, while a half circle indicates 50 percent, and so on. It's a nice, subtle touch.
As of now, the Insteon+ app lets you set up schedules for when your devices turn on and off, and moving forward, it's likely to take advantage of HomeKit's new rule-creation capabilities that let you tie a device to your phone's location or to another HomeKit-compatible device, like a motion sensor. But, again, that's an iOS 9-specific upgrade, and Insteon hasn't updated the app to take advantage of it yet (detecting a pattern here?)
The star of the show is Siri, though. Tell her to turn a specific device on or off, and she'll take care of it. You can also group multiple devices by room, then tell Siri to control all of the devices in that room with a single command. You can also create "zones" (the entire downstairs of your home, for instance), or create "scenes" with saved device settings for things like movie night or party lighting.
Those Siri controls weren't perfect, though. Aside from the usual voice control misfires ("Brighton the bedroom lamp," "Did the kitchen light to ten percent"), I encountered a few instances where my Siri command wouldn't accomplish anything. In some cases, Siri would think she had turned something on when in reality nothing had happened, and in others, she'd simply tell me that she couldn't see any devices at the moment. In one case, a lamp seemed to freeze on me -- I couldn't turn it off with Siri or through the app, either. It wasn't until I physically turned the lamp off and back on again that I was once more able to control it remotely.
All in all, these fails amounted to about 5 percent of my experience. In the other 95 percent of my tests, things worked as expected, with Siri turning things on and off without delay. She'll also dim your lights to a specific percentage, which I found useful, though you can't tell her to turn something on or off at a certain time or after a certain amount of time, even with the iOS 9 updates. For that type of scheduling, you'll still need to dig through the app.
I also made sure to spread my devices out through the 5,800 sq. ft. CNET Smart Home in order to test the range out. The toughest challenge for the system was a lamp dimmer that I placed in the upstairs master bedroom -- as close to the opposite corner of the house from the hub as I could get. Even with the distance, remote control and scheduled automations worked as well as everything else -- a solid affirmation of Insteon's mesh approach.
The Insteon Hub Pro shows a lot of potential. Though there isn't much competition yet, it seems to be the best choice to serve as a HomeKit control hub capable of managing a wide variety of Apple-friendly smart-home gadgets. The problem is that most of those HomeKit-compatible gadgets aren't here yet. On top of that, Insteon hasn't yet taken advantage of the latest HomeKit upgrades -- remote access, sensor support, and automation triggers. All three of those are smart-home essentials.
For those reasons, I'm holding off on recommending the Hub Pro. It's simply too limited an experience in it's current state when compared to more well-developed systems like SmartThings , Staples Connect , and even plain, vanilla Insteon -- all of which cost less than the Hub Pro's $150 asking price. It also wasn't as flawless a performer as I'd liked to have seen, especially given Insteon's reputation for reliability. As HomeKit improves, so too should the Hub Pro, but until it does, I say wait and see.