Coming Home to HomeKit

The Background

From the outset, Apple’s HomeKit intrigued me. Over the years we have gradually become great fans of the Apple ecosystem, always appreciating the level of quality and smoothness that they bring to their products. Also, I was just very excited about the smart home trend in general and the possibilities that it brought. I’d hoped to build a seamless Jarvis-like experience with Apple’s HomeKit as the stable and secure foundation.

Before long, however, it became clear that Apple’s home automation system and accompanying digital assistant weren’t where I needed them to be for full adoption, and competitors like Alexa were way ahead of the game. So I jumped into the smart home game with Amazon’s devices, always looking back over my shoulder wondering if I should have waited for Apple.

Sensing the Need for Change

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on digital assistants, you know that their privacy concerns is something that weighs on my mind. This is something I wrestled with and came to some level of peace with in the end, but it never completely sat well with me. We were quite happy with the functionality of our various Amazon devices, but a part of me always wondered if they were leaking more of my family’s life than I was comfortable with. Amazon has pledged to take steps to protect your recordings from being listened to by random employees or others, but in the end they are still tied directly to your account.

There is also a noticeable difference in the experience between HomeKit and Alexa. Knowing that part of me still wanted to be on HomeKit, as much as possible I had bought devices along the way that would work with either system. Because of this I was able to do a lot of comparison between the two. Below are some of the major areas that made HomeKit stand out for me:

Responsiveness: With Alexa or Google everything works over the internet. Your devices must be able to talk to Amazon, which must be able to talk to the device providers’ servers. This creates a lot of unnecessary steps for something as simple as turning a lamp on or adjusting the thermostat. When your ISP is fast and everyone’s servers are working correctly it isn’t typically a problem, but we had more experiences than we liked where the device was sluggish or simply unresponsive (including when the internet is completely out). By contrast, Apple’s HomeKit works locally on your home network, cutting out the middle man. When a device was unresponsive via Alexa I’d go to the Home app on my phone and usually still be able to manage it, so I knew the device itself was not the issue. For the same reasons, it’s also much faster to turn a light on or off through HomeKit. The response is almost instantaneous. Apple isn’t perfect and sometimes there were issues with it as well, but they were by far the minority.

Smooth Integration: I can’t really fault Amazon for this, but as I said we are a mostly-Apple household. It’s unsurprising then that Apple’s system integrated much better with our lives. The Home app is built right into our laptops, tablets, and phones. We can easily control things directly from our watches. Devices are able to tie into many of the things already in use in our daily life. Amazon has a decent app (which has come a long way) but the level of integration is lightyears different. In reality it’s probably just fractions of a second, but it becomes very annoying to open up the Alexa app, fish through menus, and wait for its delays in order to interact with devices. In my experience, any time you’re trying to chain together third party services the experience is going to feel bolted together or clunky. It’s no less true here. The Amazon ecosystem worked, but it was clunky.

Privacy: I’ve already touched on this, but privacy was a huge motivator for me. In short, Apple doesn’t attach your voice recordings and information directly to your account. Instead it uses random identifiers. While this sounds like a small difference it really leads to a much greater peace of mind. In both situations there are soundbites of my family out there on someone else’s servers, but with Apple they are disassociated from us. They are random clips in a sea of other voices instead of being hyperlinked directly to me. Not that I have anything to hide, but you never know how pieces of conversation can be taken out of context or taken offense to. If something is sitting there listening to me, it’s better knowing that it’s not also yelling to the world who said it. The same goes for video recordings. We had been using a Ring doorbell and as part of the change went with Eufy instead. Now my videos are either using HomeKit Secure Video (stored in my iCloud account) or stored locally in my house. No more risk of Ring employees having their laughs at them.

Welcome Home(Kit)

With all of the above in mind, I decided to finally take the plunge and revert to the HomeKit-only journey I’d originally set out on. It helps a lot that HomeKit, Siri, and the rest of Apple’s home automation have come a long way in the intervening years.

So I disconnected our Amazon echoes and unplugged non-HomeKit smart plugs. Despite my intense frugality I purchased HomePods. We removed the Ring doorbell, as mentioned above, and installed equipment from Eufy. Since I had kept one foot in the HomeKit door, the changeover was surprisingly painless. The most difficult part was physically mounting cameras.

I was worried at first that we would miss some of the functionality that we’d come to enjoy in the echoes, like using them as intercoms between rooms. This has surprisingly been a non-issue. If we need someone we just yell down the stairs like families did in days gone by. Seriously though, there has not been an Alexa feature that’s offset the extra peace of mind and pleasantness of a smoother experience.

Altogether I couldn’t be happier with the change. The level of quality and smooth experience is higher, as I knew it would be. I have a peace of mind knowing that I’m doing everything possible to protect our privacy while living in a world of devices that listen to us. And all of our things work together in a very enjoyable way, as one would expect inside the walled garden. I find that Siri is still behind others in some regards, but the 2020 version is more than capable of what I need her to do. And the fact that she’s got my back in regards to privacy makes up for a lot.

Your mileage may vary if you’re not already invested in the Apple ecosystem as we are, but I’d still encourage you to give HomeKit a chance. The older I get the more I decide that a little extra monetary cost and a slower pace of development are well worth it for a result that is high in quality and well thought out. That has certainly turned out to be the case once again in this situation.

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