Last week we took a look at the three most popular home automation platforms — Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Home, beginning with some background on each of the services and then following up with a comparison of accessory compatibility and voice assistant features. Today we’re going to wrap up with a discussion of some of the other factors that are important to consider when choosing which platform to use for home control and automation.
Although voice control seems to be getting the most attention — there is admittedly something very “Star Trek cool” about being able to just call out a voice command to turn on lights — it’s fair to say that “cool” isn’t always “practical” and sometimes it really is easier to just press a button in an app or check a device’s status just by looking at a screen, rather than having to ask a question to your voice assistant.
This is where Apple handily beats out both Amazon and Google. Amazon added rudimentary direct accessory control to its Alexa app last fall, but Google still provides no way to control accessories except by issuing commands to Google Assistant. On the other hand, with Apple’s HomeKit, Siri was never really the primary way of controlling home accessories — just merely one method in a multi-pronged approach. Apple initially provided only the underlying framework, leaving it up to third-party developers to build their own home control apps, but this actually resulted in a decent collection of apps for controlling HomeKit accessories long before Apple unveiled its own native “Home” app in 2016.
The result is that not only does HomeKit provide a solid solution for monitoring and controlling home accessories from an iPhone or iPad, but users can choose from a range of apps that provide different features and layouts. As with all things Apple, of course, the downside is that you can only do this from Apple mobile devices — there is no HomeKit framework available for other platforms like Android, Windows, or Linux, and in fact even Macs are late to the party — HomeKit support isn’t coming to the desktop until the release of macOS Mojave later this year.
At a basic level, all three home automation platforms allow for multiple users — by default, Amazon Echo, Google Home, and HomePod are no respecters of persons, so anybody can call out automation commands. On the voice assistant side, however, Google Home has a slight edge here, since not only can it identify specific users by voice, it can run different Google Routines for each user.
So with an Echo or HomePod, you’ll get the same “Good morning” routine no matter who says it, whereas Google Home can identify who is saying “Good morning” and run a personalized routine for that specific person. It’s a nice bonus, but we’re not convinced that it makes up for the other limitations of Google’s Routines as they stand right now.
Siri on the HomePod will respond to any user calling out to it, however, with HomeKit, you’ll need to “invite” users to share your home if you want them to be able to use Siri from their own iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch devices, along with being able to use HomeKit apps directly. Guests can be restricted to only controlling accessories and not editing or reconfiguring your home, but it’s not possible to limit access to only specific rooms or devices. HomeKit also does not provide any personalization of common scenes based on who initiates them, although you can set up different personal scenes for each user just by giving them different names.
All three platforms provide remote access capabilities, subject to the obvious requirement to use an app-based voice assistant on a mobile device when away from home. Apple’s HomeKit requires you to have an Apple TV, HomePod, or iPad at home to act as the “home hub” for remote access, which you won’t otherwise need if you simply want to control devices from your iPhone when you’re already at home.
On the other hand, with both Amazon Alexa and Google Home, you need to have at least one of their speakers at home to even use their platforms, which means that you get remote access included by default. It’s a subtle difference, considering that you have to purchase additional hardware either way, but Amazon and Google’s speakers start at $50 — considerably less than any of Apple’s “home hub” devices.
Considering that many home automation systems will be able to control things like door locks and garage door openers, it’s very important to consider how secure the platform actually is, both in terms of internal signals between devices and how things are locked down or authenticated on the front-end.
While there have not been any reports of breaches on any of the three platforms, Apple actually gets a slight edge as a result of the company’s insistence that accessories utilize hardware encryption chips and be certified by Apple.
On the other end of the spectrum, Amazon has an open SDK that lets just about any developer add Alexa support to its devices through simple software modules. Apple’s approach seems like the more secure one — provided, of course, the accessories themselves don’t provide their own native remote access solutions that could be less secure.
On the front end, Apple, Amazon, and Google all handle things like door locks differently. Google Home simply won’t unlock doors at all, while Amazon has recently added PIN capabilities to Alexa that will allow you to unlock some compatible door locks by speaking your PIN after the command — although this can be used by anybody who hears you say your pin aloud, so we’re not sure this qualifies as particularly great security.
In our opinion, Apple handles this one the most effectively by requiring users to authenticate to their device before commands to open or unlock doors will be accepted. Apple’s HomePod and Apple TV will only allow you to lock/close or check the status of a door, since these devices have no way of authenticating who is speaking. Unlock or open commands issued to a locked iPhone or iPad will require the user to unlock the device in the normal manner — with Face ID, Touch ID, or a passcode — before the action will be performed, while Apple Watch users can just talk to their wrist without requiring an additional step — the “Wrist Detection” feature keeps the Apple Watch unlocked until it’s removed from the user’s wrist.
We’re using the term “advanced automation” to refer to all of those things that go beyond simple routines and schedules, into the ability to actually build rules that allow multiple devices to be triggered based on things like sensors, user location, or even the activation of another device such as a button or light switch.
Of the three platforms we’ve looked at, Apple’s HomeKit is the only one that provides any “true” home automation capabilities, with advanced rules and triggers having been baked into the framework since day one. For example, using the location of your iPhone, HomeKit will allow you to create a rule that automatically turns off your lights, turns down your thermostat, and locks your doors when you leave home, and then turns the heat back up when you come back into your neighborhood. As of iOS 11, this can even be used to consider multiple users, allowing you to only turn off the lights after the last person leaves home, or turn on specific lights when a specific person arrives.
HomeKit also allows for rules that can use other HomeKit devices as triggers, ranging from the obvious ones like using motion sensors to turn on lights, to more sophisticated schemes that allow temperature and humidity sensors to control outlets with heaters and dehumidifiers attached, or even to turn on all of the lights in your home when a HomeKit-compatible smoke alarm goes off. Rules can also include conditions, such as turning a porch light on when you come home only at night, or only turning on the air conditioner when you’re on your way home if the indoor temperature is above a certain level.
Serious home automation enthusiasts will consider this last category the most important one, and in fact to this group, the lack of support for true automation tasks basically disqualifies Amazon and Google from consideration entirely. Of course, not everybody is looking for this level of home automation, and if all you want to do is control your devices and have things turn on and off using a schedule, none of the rest is going to matter. You can also always add IFTTT to the mix for more advanced automations, but in this area HomeKit goes beyond what IFTTT is even capable of — although again, the tradeoff is that you’ll be limited to using HomeKit-compatible accessories and Apple devices.
Which platform to focus on depends largely on your requirements, and it’s also worth adding that while Apple, Amazon, and Google are the behemoths in the room right now in terms of home automation, there are other home automation solutions out there that may better serve users with more advanced or more specific needs. It’s also not a zero-sum game; while we’d recommend picking one platform to use as your “primary” ecosystem, most home accessories can work with more than one platform simultaneously, so you could still use Alexa to control some of your accessories in a HomeKit environment, for instance.
In brief, however, if voice assistants are your primary interest and all you’re looking to do is turn lights on and off with your voice, Alexa has pretty much become the standard, and will give you the widest range of compatible accessories, but you won’t be able to do much more than the basics.
For those who are already iPhone users and plan to remain so, Apple’s HomeKit is a more solid, well-rounded home automation solution, and offers the most power and flexibility, at the cost of a more limited collection of devices.
Google Home is the least worth considering of the three unless you’re heavily invested in the Google ecosystem, but it’s also worth keeping an eye on, as Google seems determined to catch up to Alexa both in terms of device support and features.