All About HomeKit 'Home Hubs'
Does HomeKit Need a Hub?
While Apple’s HomeKit has been designed to be easily accessible to the ordinary iPhone user, not having a permanent controlling device results in significant limitations to what can be done with the platform.
A simple HomeKit setup can be run just from that one device, but you won’t be able to access anything when off the local WiFi network, and you won’t be able to take advantage of most of the automation functionality that HomeKit provides.
To get the best HomeKit experience, you need what Apple calls a ‘home hub’. This is an apple device that has a permanent presence in the home and can act as the base to ensure all your smart stuff works together.
Is this a smart home hub?
Home automation platforms generally require some sort of hub device to provide a central command and control function for your smart devices, especially if you want to avoid relying on third party internet services to run your smart home.
There are clear benefits to running a local hub, notably in terms of reliability, performance, and security. Having the bulk of your smart home communications not leave your private network keeps the exposure to bad actors to a minimum and leaves you less exposed to internet outages.
With Apple’s well publicized focus on security and privacy it stands to reason they would take this approach with their own smart home platform. Certified HomeKit accessories always communicate locally whether it’s to a personal device, like an iPhone, or a Home Hub. This is why having a hub is far more reliable and performant.
What Does a Home Hub do?
The home hub acts as a coordination center for your HomeKit Home and provides a number of key benefits:
It provides for permanent connectivity to Bluetooth devices, like sensors
It ensures all automation rules are run at the correct time, whether anyone is home or not.
It provides for remote access to the Home for any authorized Home member, including control, notifications, and camera feeds.
It enables HomeKit Secure Video processing and recording from security cameras.
Certain models act as a Thread Border Router enabling communication with Thread accessories.
Can You Have Multiple HomeKit hubs?
You can have more than one home hub in a Home which provides redundancy in case one goes offline, and each hub will also act as a Bluetooth repeater for any HomeKit Bluetooth devices.
Your hub enabled devices will elect one of the configured hubs to be the primary, and the others will go into standby mode. If the primary becomes unavailable for any reason, one of the others will be selected as the primary and take over.
You can check the status of your home hubs in the Home app.
Tap the three dots icon icon in the top right corner.
Tap on Home Settings.
Scroll down and tap Home Hubs and Bridges.
The page that opens will list any home hubs first, and then any third-party hubs you may have below them under the heading Bridges. In the list of home hubs, each will show its status as Connected (the primary) or Standby (backups).
What Devices can be Home Hubs?
Thankfully Apple doesn’t require a specific hub device to be purchased, but rather supports hub functionality on three existing device types.
The HomePod is, first and foremost, and good quality room speaker. But given it’s in-home presence and on-board Siri capabilities it makes sense for it to be a home hub as well. Importantly it is currently the only way to have Siri available for Homekit control without needing to use a personal device. Like Alexa and Google, having ubiquitous voice control over your smart devices is a key feature of any smart home. While Siri may not do as well at general knowledge queries, it is actually very capable in the home automation niche thanks to it’s deep integration with HomeKit.
HomePods will automatically be enabled as a Home Hub if installed in a HomeKit Home, and indeed this can’t be turned off (another hub can be the primary though).
HomePod Mini (Thread enabled)
The newer mini device has all of the same capabilities as the original HomePod, although doesn’t pack the same audio chops as it’s bigger brother. It makes up for this with some new tech, though, in the form of Apple’s U1 ultra-wideband positional chip, and a Thread radio which will enable the connection of a new range of smart home devices to HomeKit in the not too distant future.
As with the original HomePod, the mini will automatically become a home hub when added to a HomeKit home.
Apple TV 4K (Thread Enabled)
The Apple TV is a common accessory in Apple households and can be set to act as a Home Hub as well. Being more ubiquitous, and cheaper, than the HomePod makes it a good candidate for new HomeKit users. Unlike HomePods, which are always Home Hubs, you need to enable an Apple TV to be one. Enabling Home Hub functionality can be done easily within the settings on the device after a HomeKit home is established. The Apple TV will need to be set up on the same account as the owner of the Home in HomeKit. The newer model Apple TV 4K supports Thread.
To enable an Apple TV as a home hub:
Go to the Settings screen on the Apple TV.
Select AirPlay and HomeKit.
Scroll down to Home Hubs and click it to set it to Connected.
In a pinch, an old iPad can be set to act as a Home Hub by leaving it plugged in and turned on. Not the best option for aesthetic and performance reasons, but if you were to mount it to the wall you could also use it as a smart home control panel by setting it to leave the screen on and having the Home app (or another HomeKit dashboard of your choice) open.
To enable an iPad to be a home hub:
Go to the Settings app
Scroll down and tap Home
Turn on the setting Use this iPad as a Home Hub.