If you want access to all the features of your HomeKit powered smart home when you’re away from home sweet home, you can–as long as you have an Apple TV or iPad sitting in your house. Read on as we show you how.
How the Apple TV and iPad Can Act as HomeKit Hubs
Apple’s HomeKit system allows you to control your smart home from your iOS device using applications, widgets, and, most futuristic-of-all, your voice via Siri-integration. Unfortunately, the second you leave the range of your Wi-Fi router and are not longer “home”, all that integration comes to a halt.
When you’re standing in your foyer and say “Siri, turn the lights on”, she’ll happily turn your HomeKit-integrated lights on. But if you’re standing at the edge of the block just outside Wi-Fi range and issue the same command, you’ll get a response like “I’m sorry, I couldn’t reach your devices at this time”.
Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple solution. Starting with the 3rd generation Apple TV and going forward, Apple has included HomeKit support baked right into the Apple TV. By hooking up an Apple TV to your home network, you’re not just creating an entertainment portal but, in the background, the Apple TV is also serving as a secure gateway from the outside world for all your HomeKit commands to filter into your house.
No Apple TV? No problem. In addition to enabling the Apple TV as a HomeKit hub, they expanded the range of HomeKit with the release of iOS 10. If you have an iPad running iOS 10 (and you leave that iPad in your home when you’re away) it can now function as a HomeKit hub too.
Although the solution might be simple once it’s deployed, HomeKit is still a relatively new offering and the setup isn’t without quirks. Rather than leave you to muddle through the process we’ve gathered all the relevant information here to get you up and running.
What You’ll Need
Before we dig into the setup process, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page and ready to proceed. You don’t need a lot for this tutorial, but if you don’t have all the pieces, you won’t be able to set up and test your remote HomeKit access.
First, you need either an Apple TV or an iPad that you’re willing to leave at home all the time. Your Apple TV must be either the 3rd generation model (updated to the current iOS 8.4.1-based, Apple TV Software 7.2) or the 4th generation model (running tvOS 10.0+). Make sure your Apple TV is updated before continuing. The HomeKit functionality is unavailable in older Apple TV models or 3rd generation models that have not been updated.
If you’re going the iPad route, your iPad must be capable of running iOS 10 or higher, which rules out early model iPads. You’ll need either a 4th generation iPad, an iPad Mini 2, 3, or 4, and iPad Air or Air 2, or one of the new iPad Pro models.
Second, you’ll need an iOS device like an iPhone or iPad handy. Your primary iOS device logged into your iCloud account is a perfect fit for the tutorial. If you’ve opted to use an iPad as your HomeKit hub, you will need an additional iOS device to test the system (and, obviously, to use for controlling your HomeKit system away from home when you leave the iPad behind).
Finally, to test the functionality of your system, you’ll need a HomeKit-enabled device installed and configured on your home network. For this tutorial we’re using the Philips Hue system with the new HomeKit-enabled bridge. It’s obviously a given that you either currently have or are planning to get a HomeKit device if you’re interested in this tutorial, but in your excitement do make sure that the HomeKit device in question is installed and functions properly within your home network before trying to control it remotely.
Apple TV or iPad? Location and Features Matter
Before we proceed, let’s quickly highlight why you might opt for one device over the other as your HomeKit hub. Obviously, if you only have one of the pieces of hardware, then that’s the device you’re going to use, but for heavily Apple-invested households there’s a good chance both are on the table as potential HomeKit hubs.
The first and foremost consideration is location. Some HomeKit devices rely on Wi-Fi communication (like the Philips Hue hub) and some rely on Bluetooth communication (like, for example, the Schlage Sense HomeKit-enabled locks). If your HomeKit hub is not within Bluetooth distance (~30-40 feet) of the device in question, then HomeKit connectivity with that device will be spotty-to-non-existent.
If you use your Apple TV in your bedroom, for instance, and it can’t reach the smart lock on your back door via Bluetooth, then you’ll need to either move the Apple TV or iPad to keep it within range of the locks. The same goes for the opposite: if you want to use your iPad in bed every night as a news reader or Netflix portal, then it’s a poor choice for connecting to those downstairs Bluetooth-dependent smarthome accessories.
In addition to the issue of primary importance–location–there’s a pretty compelling secondary consideration: features. With iOS 10, Apple introduced the Home app, a much needed dashboard app that provides an at-a-glance interface for your HomeKit home. Bafflingly, despite the Apple TV functioning as a HomeKit hub from the beginning, they have not released a version of Home for tvOS.
An iPad running as your HomeKit hub, on the other hand, has two distinct advantages over the Apple TV in this regard. Not only does it have the Home app, which functions as a really nice dashboard on the iPad’s spacious screen, but it has the “Hey Siri!” feature. This means not only can you easily use your iPad as an interactive hub via the large touch screen but you can also turn on the “Hey Siri!” feature and control your smart home via voice, issuing commands to your HomeKit hub like “Hey Siri! Set the living room to Movie Mode”. The end result is a very the-future-is-now experience where you can, Star-Trek-like, hold the power right in your hand or control it with your voice.
First: Prepare Your Devices For Remote HomeKit Access
Despite the new Home app and Apple’s clear move towards making HomeKit more accessible, some of the inner workings of the HomeKit system are still frustratingly opaque. We’d strongly encourage you to read this section carefully as failure to do these simple steps will lead to a failed remote HomeKit setup with no error message or indication as to why.
First and foremost, you need to ensure every device involved in this process (the primary iOS device you use for HomeKit and the Apple TV/iPad you’re using as a hub) are logged into the HomeKit administrator’s account (if you set up the HomeKit system, this is you). Don’t worry about other users in your home who have their own iCloud logins–you can share access with them later.
Second, whether you’re using an iPad or an Apple TV as your HomeKit hub, you must enable enhanced security on your iCloud account or you will not be able to remotely access your HomeKit home. Starting with the release of iOS 10, it is now mandatory you enable two-factor authentication on your iCloud account to enable remote HomeKit access. Grab your iOS device or Mac computer to do so–on iOS you can enable two-factor by heading to Settings > iCloud > Passwords & Security. If you need help setting it up check out our step-by-step tutorial here.
Finally, even if you don’t use any other iCloud features at all, you must turn on the iCloud keychain as it is now a HomeKit security dependency. To do so, navigate to Settings > iCloud > Keychain and ensure that the setting is on (tap it to toggle the entry if it is not).
Double check each of these tasks before proceeding: same iCloud login for all devices, two-factor turned on for your iCloud account, and iCloud Keychain turned on for any iOS device involved in the setup.
How to Configure Your Apple TV as a HomeKit Hub
If you’ve opted for the Apple TV as your HomeKit hub extraordinaire, this is your whistle stop. Sit down at your TV with your remote (or Bluetooth keyboard if you hate entering passwords with the remote as much as we do) and follow along.
Step One: Enable HomeKit Access on the Apple TV
Once you’ve done the extra security legwork we just outlined, you enable HomeKit access to your local network simply by logging into your Apple TV with the same iCloud/Apple ID as the device you use to control your HomeKit system at home. That’s it. Unlike HomeKit in iOS 9, there’s no opting in on your iOS device to–HomeKit is now totally integrated and on by default (so long as you have appropriate security settings on your account).
So to that end the only thing you need to do on the Apple TV is navigate to Settings > Accounts and confirm that the entry under the Apple ID: iCloud section is the same ID you use on your primary iOS device that controls your HomeKit system. If you just enabled two-factor authentication on your iCloud account for this tutorial, you will need to log in again to authorize your Apple TV. Click on the iCloud entry, even if it appears as if you are already logged in. Re-enter your password and then, when prompted, enter the two-factor authentication code sent to your phone.
After you complete this step, you’ll see an entry in your Apple TV’s iCloud account menu labeled “Home” and next to it should read “Connected”.
If it is not set to “Connected”, please review the security considerations in the previous section and ensure you’ve done all of them properly. You can return to this menu at any time to both check on the status of your HomeKit hub and, if you desire, to turn it off. By simply selecting the entry for “Home” and tapping on it with your Apple remote, you can toggle it to “Not Connected”.
At this point, your Apple TV is successfully linked to your HomeKit network.
Step Two: Disable Sleep on the Apple TV
We were unable to find any official word in the Apple TV/HomeKit documentation as to whether or not you needed to set your Apple TV unit to never sleep in order for the remote HomeKit functions to work.
After a little trial and error, though, we established that it’s probably best if you set your Apple TV to never sleep. While we’d be happy to hear from Apple that it’s not necessary, in our tests the commands didn’t pass through to the home when the Apple TV was sleeping. You can disable sleep mode by navigating to Settings > General > Sleep After and adjusting the setting to “Never”.
If you’re worried about energy consumption, don’t be. We slapped a monitoring device on our Apple TV and determined that leaving it running 24/7 for a whole year only used around $2.50 worth of electricity.
How to Configure Your iPad as a HomeKit Hub
If you were sold on our iPad-as-Star-Trek control device earlier, this is the section of the tutorial for you. Grab your iPad and let’s get ready to enjoy life like we live on a starship. Compared to setting up the Apple TV for HomeKit access, the iPad setup feels significantly simpler on account of how quickly you can breeze through it.
First, if you haven’t jumped through the iCloud two-factor authentication hoops and turned on iCloud Keychain, as we specified in the preparation section above, do so now. Once you have done so, simply navigate to Settings > Home and toggle “Use this iPad as a Home Hub” to on.
That’s it. Once your iPad is logged into the same iCloud account as the HomeKit administrator and the security settings are correct, it’s just one toggle. Boom. Done.
How to Control Your HomeKit Devices From Afar
Now that we’ve configured everything, it’s time to test it out. Access to HomeKit from afar happens through either the Home app or through Siri, so you’ll want to iron out which commands do what before you rely on it when you’re truly away from home.
The easiest way to test things is to turn off the Wi-Fi on your iPhone and use the cellular radio to connect “remotely” to your house. Swipe up on your iPhone to access to the Control Center and turn Wi-Fi off.
Once Wi-Fi is off, press and hold the home button to summon Siri. Issue a command that you know works with your HomeKit system. In our case we issued a command to change the color of the Hue bulbs. (Don’t ask us why, but Siri likes to add articles to our spoken commands so we end up sounding like Super Mario.)
Alternatively, you can open up the Home app, any HomeKit widgets you’ve configured, or any of the HomeKit shortcuts on the new iOS 10 Control Center.
If a voice command, shortcut, widget, or other HomeKit trigger works when you’re at home now, when you’re away, it will work just fine too.
Again, Placement Is Everything
One little quirk we’d like to point out again (to save you from hours of pulling out your hair) is the importance of placement in regards to HomeKit functionality and your Apple TV or iPad. This is the second version of this tutorial, as we updated it to reflect the changes iOS 10 brought to HomeKit. Far and away the number one topic readers wrote in regarding the first version of this article was placement issues and a misunderstanding of how Bluetooth played a role in their HomeKit household.
The Apple TV and iPad can interact with HomeKit devices in one of two ways: they can send a signal to the HomeKit devices through your wired or wireless home network or they can communicate with the devices via Bluetooth.
A good Wi-Fi router will reach from the depths of your basement to the rafters of your attic (and possibly even out to the curb in front of your house). Bluetooth signals, on the other hand, degrade significantly over even the span of a large first floor. When we had the Apple TV on our test bench way up in our office, we couldn’t get remote HomeKit access to work with our new Schlage Sense HomeKit enabled lock. Finally, it dawned on us that the lock was communicating with the HomeKit system via Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi. When we put the Apple TV in a more traditional and centralized location (by the living room TV), it was close enough to the lock that remote HomeKit was restored.
If you’re having trouble with a device not responding, take into consideration the placement of your HomeKit hub device relative to the smart home device and whether or not it uses Bluetooth communication.
Once you’ve followed along with the tutorial any command you can issue in your own home like “Turn the lights off”, “set the thermostat to 75”, or the like will work while you’re standing down the street or halfway around the world.
Have a pressing question about HomeKit or other smart home software or hardware? Shoot us an email at email@example.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.