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HomeKit hubs: Everything you need to know

Source: Stephen Warwick / iMore

If you are venturing into the wonderful world of HomeKit, you may have encountered a situation where you want to control a smart device back home but can’t access it remotely. This is where HomeKit home hubs come into play.

You may have come across the HomeKit hub terminology already on your journey or it may be news to you, but these devices are an essential piece in your smart home for remote access, granting access to people you trust, and automating your smart accessories. But what exactly are HomeKit hubs and how do they work? Let’s explore.

What is a HomeKit home hub?

How to install software updates for your HomePod

How to install software updates for your HomePod
Source: iMore
A HomeKit home hub acts as a relay to your HomeKit accessories through iCloud, allowing you to do things like turn on or off your lights or stream from your security camera even when you are away from home.

A HomeKit home hub is needed as, by default, HomeKit is limited to your personal Wi-Fi network. All the communication is handled within the boundaries of your home network. But a HomeKit hub, in combination with your Apple ID, gives your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, a way to securely talk to your HomeKit devices even when you’re not on your home Wi-Fi network.

Which devices act as a HomeKit home hub?

There are several Apple devices that can act as a home hub for your HomeKit setup. These are:

  • HomePod
  • HomePod mini
  • iPad (running iOS 9 or later)
  • Apple TV (3rd generation or later)

The 3rd generation Apple TV is somewhat limited when it comes to HomeKit home hub functionality as it cannot share access to your accessories outside of the home with other users and it does not support camera video streams, though it can be used to control your devices remotely .

How exactly does a HomeKit home hub connect to my accessories?

It’s an under-the-hood mixture of iCloud Keychain and HomeKit frameworks. Say you’re on LTE, you activate Siri, and give the command “Turn on the lights.” Without a HomeKit home hub, that command goes nowhere and Siri replies with something along the lines of “I can’t do that.”

With a HomeKit home hub on your home Wi-Fi network, however, that command travels over your cellular network back to your hub, the hub checks your Apple ID, and issues the command to your accessories.

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Home app displayed on an iPhone 11

Home app displayed on an iPhone 11
Source: Christopher Close / iMore
Now, if you’re doing this on LTE sitting in front of your lights, you’re going to see a slight delay between giving Siri the command and the command is actually happening. That’s not surprising as there are a couple of extra steps going on in the background here; Normally, when you’re on Wi-Fi, your commands go directly to the accessory or bridge that controls the accessory.

However, most commands given when off your Wi-Fi network won’t be to turn on a light right in front of you; they’re going to be to turn on lights while away on vacation, unlock your front door from the driveway, or check in on a feed from a security camera back home. For these types of tasks, a slight delay won’t be super noticeable.

How do I set up a HomeKit home hub?

Setting up a HomeKit hub is pretty simple. Typically it involves signing in to the same iCloud account that your HomeKit home is set up with and toggling on the HomeKit home hub option. For detailed steps on this process, check out that linked guide.

Can a HomeKit home hub be used to talk to non-HomeKit devices?

No, setting up a HomeKit home hub does nothing to change the compatibility of various smart home products nor does it negate the need for a manufacturer-specific bridge device (more on that below).

Though smart home products have been around for a relatively short time, there’s been a lot of change in the industry and there are many different, competing, and complementary technologies and platforms. Some devices use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, others rely on Zigbee, and newer products are adopting Thread. Plus, manufacturers have to develop their products for different platforms like HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Alexa if they want to offer support.

It’s a problem that the Connectivity Standards Alliance has set out to resolve with the new Matter smart home standard, but that unifying connectivity standard is still a little ways off. In short, adding a HomeKit home hub to your home right now simply gives you a little extra functionality within HomeKit for the devices that already support HomeKit.

What about all these manufacturer-specific hubs?

Philips Hue 2nd Generation Bridge being held in a hand

Philips Hue 2nd Generation Bridge being held in a hand
Source: Rene Ritchie / iMore
The terminology around HomeKit hubs can be a little confusing with devices from Apple and third parties being referred to as hubs. The important part to remember is that HomeKit home hubs enable you to control your HomeKit accessories while you’re away from your home and automate your accessories.

HomeKit accessory hubs — technically known as bridge devices, the likes of which you may see from Philips Hue, Eufy Security, and other device makers — are necessary to connect certain accessories to HomeKit, such as smart light bulbs and security cameras. Not every product from every manufacturer needs an accessory hub to make it work with HomeKit, but be sure to read the product description carefully just in case an extra purchase is needed.

Control away from home

As you can see, home hubs are an important part of your HomeKit smart home if you want to be able to control your smart devices even when you’re away from your home’s Wi-Fi network. They are also essential for automations, which are half the fun of having smart devices around your house.

Though it can be a little daunting diving into all things HomeKit, and wading through technical jargon, it’s well worth it for the pay-off of living in the future!

Updated April 2022: Updated for iOS 15.

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