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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Apple’s smart home is still a few bricks short

Smart home tech is having a moment, thanks in no small part to the newly released Matter standard, which promises better interoperability between devices from various manufacturers. It’s even encouraged Apple to overhaul its Home app in its latest software platform releases, improving the interface and promising (at some point in the not too distant future) better reliability.

That’s no small thing: reliability remains the biggest frustration for a lot of smart home users. What’s the point in having a fancy light bulb that you can control with your voice if it’s harder to use than a normal light bulb?

But beyond issues of reliability, Apple’s smart home implementation has remained at times an exercise in frustration. Even now, years after its first release, it’s still missing a couple features whose absence leaves me scratching my head.

Pick a hub, any hub

Currently, HomeKit relies on a home hub to provide certain features, such as handling automations. You can see which of your devices are available as hubs under Home Settings in the Home app’s menu.

Home hubs on standby
Red Five, standing by. And standing by. And standing by.

The problem is there’s no way to choose to prioritize a certain device as your home hub, especially if you have more than one that’s able to act in that capacity. Apple TVs allow you to disable the home hub feature in their Settings, but that’s not even possible on the HomePod.

So, as a result, you might end up with the “wrong” device being used as the hub for your home. Does that matter? Well, it can, especially if the device that ends up being the hub doesn’t have the most reliable network connection. Or if you want a Thread-capable device (a HomePod mini or the most recent Apple TV) handling hub duties.

Apple, as is its wont, tries to be smart about this, picking what it thinks is the best option for the home hub at any given moment, but in my experience that can leave you in a weird spot. More than once now, I’ve ended up with all four of my home-hub-capable devices on Standby, which can lead to some smart home devices working inconsistently and automations not working at all. A reboot of my router can often fix the problem, but that’s not exactly something I enjoy doing on a regular basis.1

The company could simplify matters by simply allowing you to designate which hub is the primary. It’s possible that the forthcoming revamped underpinnings combined with support for Matter will obviate this issue; in a Matter system, smart home tech doesn’t need a hub, instead communicating in a peer-to-peer fashion. But at the moment, it’s still a major annoyance.

Oughta-mations

The smart home shortcoming that really gets me banging my head against the wall, though, is automations. Apple’s smart home automations are pretty easy to set up: for example, you can make it so your lights turn on or off at certain times of day—or even have them automatically adjust to turn on, say, an hour before sunset.2 You just step through the process, picking the trigger, conditions, and action. Voilà!

Apple also lets you make personal automations via the Shortcuts app, that do things like, say, trigger based on a condition on your device. (You know this. It’s not like we don’t write about it enough.)

The maddening part, however, is that these two systems are utterly unconnected. Recently I wanted to set up an alert to go off if a sensor detected the temperature in my kid’s bedroom rose above a certain level. Seemed like a perfectly reasonable use for a home automation: I created a new automation, selected the temperature sensor, chose the threshold, and then…hit a brick wall. Because the only options for actions to be triggered by smart home devices are to control other smart home devices or set a scene.

The bizarre assortment of apps available to Home automations converted to shortcuts.

So, okay. I guess I could have it turn on the lights in my room if it got too hot. Or have the Sonos speaker in our bedroom belt out Buster Poindexter & His Banshees of Blue’s “Hot Hot Hot”3. But I can’t simply have it send an alert to my iPhone.

I find this utterly baffling.

Yes, there are some third party systems that can intermediate and handle this fucntionality, but they’re clunky and require more configuration than the average person’s going to go through. Apple does offer a Convert to Shortcut option when you’re setting up a Home automation, but as far as I can tell, it only offers a subset of actions (Calculator? Contacts? iTunes Store) and, frankly, seems so restrictive as to be broken.

Some smart home devices can send notifications, but users have little control over the content of those alerts or even what conditions trigger them. (For example, the sensor for my ecobee thermostat can detect temperature and motion, but the Home app only allows it to send notifications for motion activity.)

I’d love to see Apple enable the option for a home automation to run any shortcut as an action. I can understand that there might be concerns about which device in the house will run said shortcut, but even the HomePod can trigger shortcuts, so I’m not sure that issue quite holds water with me. Either way, it’s a glaring oversight that really holds back the utility of smart home tech, and it’s one I hope Apple fixes in the not too distant future, because it would surely open up a ton of possibilities.


  1. “Restarting your router” is second only to “logging out of iCloud and then back in again” on the list of Worst Troubleshooting Steps. 
  2. Growing up, my parents had an analog automated timer where you had to press down all these pins to set up the time. And then, twice a year, you had to get down on your knees, pull it out, and painstakingly reconfigure it because of good old daylight saving time. Everything about that tech was worse. 
  3. Yes, we actually considered this. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]

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