NB: This review has been updated to reflect changes or problems previously reported that have now been improved upon or solved due to a recent firmware update for the Aqara Hub. I have mentioned these updates where relevant.
If you’ve been following our stream of updates regarding Aqara and its progress towards HomeKit compatibility, you’ll know that we’ve been anticipating this new Hub for a while, and whilst some people have already had their hands on it for around a week (thanks Eric on Twitter), this is our first ‘hands on’ with an Aqara hub of our own. Unfortunately for myself, the timing of this new product arriving on my doorstep couldn’t have been worse, as at the time of writing, I’m packing lots of boxes due to an impending move! This means pretty much almost all of my HomeKit stuff is now packed away. My HomeKit hub – the Apple TV – is still active however, so luckily I can still test this device with HomeKit.
So you know by now that I really appreciate strong packaging; It’s a must if you’re having stuff shipped across country, let alone halfway around the globe (this came from Hong Kong to Taiwan, which still involved it being flown here). So far, nearly every Xiaomi product I’ve purchased has come in a very thin cardboard box, and today’s delivery was no exception. There is hardly any protection afforded with these boxes, and even though I can see it may be to bring costs or weight down, if something gets damaged in transit, then that would hardly be a saving. I think when Aqara start selling their product in the US this may change, but for now it just isn’t very good. Thankfully the product survived!
Once open, you see the (unprotected) hub, along with a HomeKit code sticker on the inside of the lid (hidden in the pic above). This is a Chinese version of the hub, and as such, comes with Chinese pins as standard. The resellers provide an adaptor, which, if you plan on just having this hidden away and acting as a hub, is fine, but if you want it to be hugging the wall a bit more, then you should wait for the US or EU versions to surface. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait, so here we are.
So first impressions – given that I already own a couple of Xiaomi/Mijia hubs – is that it’s fairly familiar, with a similar speaker design, a physical button that can be used for different functions, an LED band that encircles the hub, and on the rear, the pins, along with a HomeKit code stuck on the hub itself. The speaker part is different in that it’s concave as opposed to the convex shape of the hubs I do have, along with the Aqara branding. Nothing out of the ordinary in that respect, so I’ll move on to the setup.
First off the bat, setting up the device was a bit of an ordeal; It took numerous attempts to get it to be recognised by HomeKit or the Aqara app. I finally managed to get it to go through after changing the wi-fi network (we’ve got two here but they’re both connected to the same source). Once it was set up, the Hub appeared in the Home app as a light (for the LED band) and as a bridge, although in the Home app you can no longer see any hubs or bridges in their respective rooms, so essentially you just see the light to represent the hub itself in HomeKit. You will have to set up an account with Aqara via their app in order to access various app-specific functions, but it would seem this is only possible once the Hub has been set up, so do that first.
Even though the Hub appears as a light, you can still see in the ‘details’ section of the device how many accessories are attached to it, in its role as a hub. You can see in the 2nd picture above that it states that four accessories are currently connected to my Hub (more on that later). As far as I could see, there was no mention of, or any way to access the speaker part of the Hub, which means it’s only accessible or controllable as an automation via Aqara’s own app. As I mentioned before, I’m in the process of moving house, so for now I’ve set up the Hub and the devices connected to it in a virtual room. In this test room, you can see that I’ve already got five different sensors going through the hub, although there are only four devices – the Aqara temperature and humidity sensor (this is where the two sensors come from), the water leak sensor, the motion sensor, and the door/window contact sensor. Note: I will be doing separate reviews of these devices, so I won’t elaborate on them here.
Adding these devices has to be via the Aqara hub, seeing as they don’t come with HomeKit codes themselves, but the process is fairly straightforward, by clicking on the plus icon in the top right corner, selecting your chosen device from a set of images, and following the instructions on-screen and via the Aqara hub voice prompt. One thing to note here is that whilst this is a Chinese hub, in that it came from China, and it has Chinese pins, even though the voice prompts are in Chinese, you can change the voice to US English.
Ironically enough, even though I was able to add four devices without any problems, one Aqara device I couldn’t add was their Wireless Remote (Double Rocker) Switch, with the voice prompt telling me that the device was added successfully. However the end result was that it had in fact failed to be added. [UPDATE] I have been able to now add this switch, but it still seemed to not go through. The switch doesn’t appear in the list of devices in the Aqara app, but if you go into automations, you do see the switch as an option for use in automations.
Going through the process, the screen prompt instructed me to press the buttons and wait for three flashes from the built-in LED in the device I then moved on and tried to create an automation in the Aqara app, using one of the sensors that had been installed successfully, only to find that they don’t appear in the automation section of the app in order for me to even create the automation. In fact, the only device that appeared was the hub itself. [UPDATE] the firmware update has now solved this issue and I am now able to choose all the sensors that had been added for use in automations. The good news is that whilst I was having problems with creating automations in the Aqara app, there’s no such issues when creating these in the Home app.
In the Home app, I was able to select the Aqara water sensor as a trigger (‘A sensor detects something’), along with the usual Time and People options, and from there select something to be enabled. In this case I chose the Aqara hub as the enabled device, but as you can see, the only option was the light, not the speaker. This option may be available in the Aqara app, but as I couldn’t use any of these devices in the automation section of the Aqara app, I can’t be certain. [UPDATE] With the previously mentioned firmware update, you can now select the speaker in automations, but still only via the Aqara app, not the Home app.
Going briefly back to the hub itself, it’s worth mentioning that while the device is fairly light, it does feel tough. The LED band that encircles it is also super bright, to the extent that you could argue it’s much more than a night-light, and easily useful as a mood light if you had it in a corner or behind plant or chair. In the Home app, you of course get to choose the hue and brightness of the LED band in the same way you would any colour bulb or strip.
If you tend to use the Home app as your ‘daily driver’, then these options for adjusting colour and brightness will be familiar to you, but I will give credit to the Aqara app for making their colour wheel quickly accessible as an all-in-one panel; You simply long-press on the Hub icon, and the colour wheel along with a brightness slider at the side appear as a drop down option, while you’re still on the main screen. I can’t see myself ever really using the Aqara app like I would the Home app, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.
Finally, I’d like to address the question of whether the Aqara hub allows for non-Aqara (meaning Xiaomi/Mijia) devices to be added to the hub. Since the aforementioned firmware update I’ve mentioned in this updated post, I have been successful in being able to add a non-Aqara device to the Aqara app, namely my Mijia Door sensor. The sequence of events for adding such a device was thus; I add the Xiaomi door sensor as a device by clicking on the plus sign in the top right corner of the main screen in the Aqara app, but seeing as you have to choose from their list of Aqara devices, I chose the nearest product, which of course would be the Aqara door sensor. Once selected, the app told me to press the button for a few seconds until an internal blue LED flashed three times. As the Xiaomi door sensor doesn’t have a button, I had to use a pin to press through the hole on the device, which is essentially the same as pressing a button if there was one. Once I did that, the voice prompt on the hub said the device was successfully added, but of course it failed to be added according to the on-screen/in app information. The device will not be listed in the Aqara app’s list of devices but it will appear as an option when choosing a device as a trigger. I created couple of quick tests and can confirm that the Mijia hub successfully worked in the two different automations that I created.
So what’s the initial verdict? Slightly disappointed in all honesty, but only because it would seem that the app is really not ready for ‘Primetime’, if one assumes that the issues I’ve encountered are all due to the app itself. At the end of the day, it’s really just a hub with some sensors that work through it, and appear in HomeKit, so why the fuss? Well you have to think firstly that this is a big step for Aqara, to walk into Apple’s smart home domain, and as such it’s intriguing as to where this may take us, given all the additional devices that Xiaomi (the parent company) make – smart kettles, universal remotes, air purifiers, plant monitors, fans etc. Add to this the low, low prices, and Aqara could really be onto a winner when you compare the price of these sensors to the ones that are currently for sale – I bought the Aqara water leak sensor for less than £10, whereas the Fibaro equivalent* is more than five times the price.
So if Aqara could iron out these issues, things could get decidedly competitive for the big boys in the West.
* the Fibaro does also have tamper and temperature sensors, which the Aqara sensor does not have.