The whole system has enabled a kind of convenience that ripples through my entire day for the better.

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Practical Mac

A few months ago I dipped my toe into the world of HomeKit-enabled smart-home devices. As I suspected at the time, I wasn’t going to be satisfied just getting controls for a few lights, so since then I’ve added a pair of environment sensors, a door sensor, several smart plugs and more lights.

Even that is a modest number of devices to smarten up my home, compared to what’s possible, but the field is young and I’m not made of money. Still, it’s enough that I can say I like this smart-home future.

Making devices that add “intelligence” to one’s home isn’t new. I remember attending the Consumer Electronics Show in 2006 and touring a Microsoft-built smart house where everything was tied into Windows.

But the technology has always been incredibly fragmented, with several systems competing to become standards. As a result, anyone looking to set up a smart home needed to be more than your average nerd. A friend of mine automated many aspects of his house using other systems over a few years, which also required him to write a lot of his own code to manage it.

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HomeKit is Apple’s stab at making a friendly ecosystem for the millions of people who own iOS devices (it doesn’t yet tie into macOS). That enormous base has enough gravitational pull that Apple can do smart-home technology the way it wants to, primarily by insisting that suppliers adhere to quality-control guidelines to be deemed HomeKit compatible.

One of the main advantages to this approach is that all communication between devices is encrypted. That didn’t sound so interesting until recently, when a malicious botnet took out large portions of the internet for a day in October by directing a massive Distributed Denial of Service attack through millions of such devices.

Having everything part of the HomeKit system helps them work better together. For the most part, I’ve found this to be true.

Stutters I’ve encountered have had more to do with my Wi-Fi network than the devices themselves; if a device can’t connect to the network for whatever reason, it’ll stop responding. (That doesn’t leave you without control, however; flipping the actual switch for a light, for instance, turns off the power, and flipping it back on turns the light on.) I’ve yet to do a full reset of my network, which may help.

I discovered that the iHome power outlets (www.ihomeaudio.com/experience/smarthome/) work only with 2.4-GHz Wi-Fi networks, not 5 GHz-only networks. I suspect that I have dead zones for 2.4-GHz coverage in my house, which I haven’t noticed, because all of my other Wi-Fi–enabled gear uses both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz as available.

Setting aside the technical considerations, what’s been most intriguing is how my family and I have responded to these little forays into living in a smart home. I was skeptical at first of the benefit of having lights that could be controlled from my phone — I do still remember how to flip a switch. But the key is in setting up schedules and scenes.

Now, many lights turn on by themselves: our porch light and living-room lights automatically come on at sunset and turn off at 1 a.m. (which is an obvious indicator if I’m still awake that I need to head to bed).

In my home office, the lights and a portable space heater turn on in the morning so my workspace is warm and welcoming when I start working. And if I leave the house on errands or to take a walk, the space heater is automatically turned off when I go past a geofence surrounding my house, so I don’t accidentally leave the heater running all day.

Other devices are interesting, especially for people who want lots of data. Elgato’s Eve family of devices (www.elgato.com) includes indoor and outdoor sensors that track temperature, humidity and air quality. An Eve Energy outlet not only lets me control the power to my space heater, it also records power consumption over time and offers projected costs of use. A simple Eve door/window sensor sends me a notification when my front door is opened or closed.

HomeKit ties into Siri, so I’m finding myself using Siri much more often on my Apple Watch and iPhone to control things. It’s easy enough to say, “Hey, Siri, good night” to turn everything off at the end of the evening, or “Set the living room to the Bright scene.”

The whole system has enabled a kind of convenience that ripples through my entire day for the better. There are many other gadgets that tie into HomeKit, from security cameras to door locks and more, so my endeavors are still small scale. But they can improve over time with the foundation that’s there already.

And let me tell you, using a smart plug to control our Christmas tree lights, after years of fighting with stand-alone timers and flaky remote switches, is almost worth it all for me.

Happy holidays from Practical Mac, and best wishes for 2017!

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