Whether you’re a bit of an old hand with Apple HomeKit, or new to the game, you’ve probably entertained the fanciful notion of getting your favourite piece of smart home tech into HomeKit – only it’s not compatible! Well of course not. If it doesn’t have ‘Works with HomeKit’ on the box (with a few exceptions), then you’re dreaming – or are you? In case you’re not aware, there’s something called HomeBridge that can get many non-HomeKit smart devices to talk with HomeKit. Here’s a description of HomeBridge taken from GitHub.com;
Homebridge is a lightweight NodeJS server you can run on your home network that emulates the iOS HomeKit API. It supports Plugins, which are community-contributed modules that provide a basic bridge from HomeKit to various 3rd-party APIs provided by manufacturers of “smart home” devices.
So, in a nutshell, with the right hardware – either a Raspberry Pi or a standard home computer, along with this software, you essentially have a software/virtual bridge or gateway for many of these incompatible devices that get them exposed to HomeKit, with the relevant plugin for each device. Sounds great right? Well, it is, if you’re willing to put in a little work too. I won’t go into the specifics right now, but there is a learning curve, especially if you’ve never done much in the area of computer code, but it’s also not as scary as it might sound, due to the prolific amount of information available online, on how to get HomeBridge up and running.
Note: In this review, I refer to both the company and the software as HOOBS
To take things a step further, there’s a company called HOOBS (an acronym of HomeBridge Out Of the Box) that takes HomeBridge and adds a user-friendly UI, making things a little easier to navigate, set devices up, or maintaining these devices that connect to HomeKit via the interface. What makes HOOBS slightly different yet again, is that not only do they offer the software, but they also sell an SD Card with HOOBS already pre-installed, so you can simply add it to a stock Raspberry Pi. They even offer a complete ‘Out of the Box’ solution – a custom mini server (a Raspberry Pi inside), with HOOBS installed, along with all the relevant cables etc. In the case of today’s review, we’re looking at this latter solution.
As you can imagine, shipping most types of products around the world require a reasonable amount of protection, and happily, this packaging does exactly that, with a very solid box holding all the parts in place. HOOBS has a great ‘sunflower yellow’ colour scheme in place, which is reflected in the theme of the packaging. The front simply states ‘all your smart home accessories in one place’, which I guess is accurate to a large degree. The rear of the box simply states what’s in the box – the smart home server, a power adaptor with the relevant plug for your region, a micro-USB to USB cable, an ethernet cable, and an instruction manual.
The manual itself is barely that, to be honest, and more reflects the list of parts, some contact and media details, as well as acting as a warranty card. incidentally, the company offer a 2-year warranty on this product. In the case of the power adaptor, it’s a regular USB type, and in my case, I requested the Type A plug with the two flat pins, that works in North America, Japan, China, the Philippines, and also Taiwan of course, although they also offer one with an EU type plug, or an option with just the USB cable, so you can use your own USB adaptor plug if you prefer.
THE HOOBS BOX
First impressions on having the ‘box’ in my hands is that it feels pretty well made. In a house full of all types of plastic switches and sensors, one tends to get used to the same feel and type of material, and in many ways, this is no different, although the plastic, in this case, has a slight matt feel to it. I like the understated design, and once again you can see the deployment of the company’s chosen shade of yellow for the logo printed on the top. the holes that make up the heat vent at the top is nicely thought out in terms of design too. In terms of the overall shape, it could maybe have had a regular plane on each edge, but they instead went for one edge slightly ‘indented’ halfway along, which is incidentally, where the ethernet cable plugs into – so a method to the madness, you might say. The rear of the box contains a large printed square with some basic specs and company info, along with the HomeKit code. If you’ve ever set up HomeBridge in the past, as I have, you’ll know that this is the default code that is generated once you’re up and running, so every HOOBS box will come with the same code.
The HOOBS box connects to your network via the aforementioned ethernet cable that plugs into the port on the device. The box is powered using the micro-USB to USB cable. Other than these two ports, and the little rubber feet on the base, there’s not a lot to see, as this is meant to be kept out of the way in many instances. Still, it would look fine on a shelf in my opinion.
Setting up the device is really pretty straightforward. You have two options when setting up the box for the first time, either using the ethernet connection or via a WiFi connection. I went with ethernet, seeing as it would probably afford a more stable connection. You simply plug the one end of the ethernet cable into the box, with the other end into your router or internet switch, power up the device, by connecting the power supply, and wait for the system to boot up. This typically takes 2-3 minutes.
You then need to launch the HOOBS user interface via a browser. This can be done on an iPhone, iPad or computer, by simply opening a new browser window and typing in the following address; hoobs.local. You’ll need to initially register an account, but once you’re in, you can start adding your plugins, although it’s a really good idea to get your box set up with HomeKit first. With HOOBS running, you simply then need to add it to HomeKit in the same way you’d add any HomeKit device. So in the Home app, click on the ‘+’ icon, select ‘Add Accessory’ and scan or type in the HomeKit code.
Once added to HomeKit, in the Home app you’ll be able to see it listed under ‘bridges’ within the settings for your home (Home Icon > Home Settings…> Select Home > Hubs & Bridges > Bridges). Clicking on the bridge reveals settings for the device, including what room it’s located in, what accessories are connected to the bridge, the serial number, and firmware version. You’ll also see that it tells you the status of HomeKit certification, which, of course, is not certified. If you’ve not figured out by now, any devices that go through HOOB/HomeBridge aren’t actually HomeKit compatible natively, as they rely on HomeBridge to get them into homeKit to begin with, which itself is not certified by Apple. If you’re not ok with that, then HomeBridge or HOOBS is not for you basically. As you can see from the third image above, I’ve already begun to add a few devices to HOOBS. These are;
- Mi Air Purifier 2
- Mi Standing Fan (two instances)
- Ambiclimate 2 AC controller
- Mi Desk Lamp
I’ll go into a bit more detail on these devices a little later.
THE WEB INTERFACE AND INSTALLING DEVICES
Above is the desktop version of the UI (see above) as viewed in Safari on an iMac. You have five tabs on the right-hand side;
along with these tabs, you have a few panels, which can all be moved around, removed or added to, in order to best suit your preferences. You also get a line graph showing CPU and memory stats.
For any tasks involving the use of HOOBS, you need to use the web interface, and I’d suggest that whilst the iPhone version is good for quite a few functions, you can’t really beat the usability of the HOOBS interface via a computer or an iPad. Nevertheless, pretty much anything can be achieved with either platform. In the images above, you can see the installed plugins, viewed on the safari browser on iMac and iPhone, respectively.
When it comes to installing devices, it isn’t complicated, but unlike adding an officially supported HomeKit device, the process can vary wildly, depending on the product, so, unfortunately, there’s no single way to describe how to add a device. This is just the nature of something like HomeBridge, and by extension, HOOBS, which is borne from countless amounts of work by enthusiastic coders, ‘hackers’ and programmers over the years. What HOOBS does in the first instance, is provide a front end interface that helps users from seeing too much in the way of code, unless they do want to see it of course. It also adds a way for you to search for the desired plugin, all within the interface itself, which means you don’t necessarily have to do a Google search each time you need a plugin for a device you want to add to HOOBS.
Whilst many plugins have been created for a multitude of devices, all of which can be found online at places like NPM and GitHub, HOOBS has teamed up with a few providers to give the user access to what are described as ‘HOOBS certified’ plugins. This, as I understand it, means they’ve been tested by the HOOBS team to make sure they work as expected, are regularly updated, and checked to make sure they continue to work. Some of the certified plugins you’ll find are for products from Shelly, Ring, Ikea, Wink, Hue and more. To be clear, most of these plugins aren’t provided by the respective companies, so don’t go expecting support from them if things don’t work as planned. Shelly is one exception to this, and are apparently actively working with HOOBS to get more of their products to work with HomeBridge, via HOOBS. Shelly was particularly easy to add to HOOBS, and I’d suggest this is partly due to this program for HOOBS certified plugins. You can check out our review of the Shelly T&H sensor below, that uses HOOBS to get it exposed to HomeKit.
When it comes to the other devices I have exposed to HomeKit via HOOBS, the process is a little different. First of all, you do need to search for the relevant plugin, using the search facility within the HOOBS interface. Sometimes, the names for these plugins might also not necessarily contain the word you’re looking for, so using other keywords aside from the most obvious product name is something to be aware of. That said, the company have informed me that whilst any search via this interface essentially pulls data from other sites, HOOBS are working on their own database of HomeBridge plugins (plugins.hoobs.org), similar to npm, but solely for HomeBridge related stuff. They’re also working on a section for plugin reviews, so you can see which plugin is getting the most positive results from users. Finally, HOOBS are also planning on creating ‘readme’ files for all of their certified plugins.
You will find that some devices will have more than one plugin, so it’s really a case of working out which works best for you, either by going with the latest version (by date) or by reading more details. Each search returns plugins, with ‘Details’ and ‘install’ buttons, which are fairly self-explanatory.
For example, when searching for a plugin that works with the AmbiClimate 2, a few entries are returned. Clicking on Details shows you more information on the plugin, along with what details are exposed to HomeKit with the aid of the plugin. These might typically be things like Humidity or temperature, in addition to a tile that gives the AmbiClimate device a Thermostat tile, along with temperature and mode adjustment controls.
However, as already stated, many plugins require different bits of information to get them to be seen by HomeKit before they can work. The AmbliClimate plugin requires s few details that can only be found via Ambilabs website, within the settings for the account you would have set up when first installing the device. These include your account username and password, along with a couple of what could be described as ‘keys’, which are typically a long line of letters and numbers. For devices that are part of the Xiaomi smart home ecosystem, you need the IP address of the device (assuming it’s a wifi device), along with a ‘Token’ which is the same as the ‘keys’ I mention in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, these tokens aren’t as easy to get to compared to other devices, but it is possible. This is the essence of HomeBridge and is the same for HOOBS, which requires a bit of perseverance in this case! I should state, so far it’s only Xiaomi family devices that I’ve found a little more troublesome, but only due to the convoluted way in getting to these ‘tokens’, so not every device is as problematic.
When it comes to adding the devices, much of the time it’s simply a case of clicking ‘Install’, followed by copying the configuration code, adding in your own details inside the code, and finally clicking Save. At this point, I imagine some people will be put off by this, and that’s understandable. Many would prefer to stick with certified products, and that’s also understandable. Still, if you’ve got devices sitting around that work really well, but aren’t exposed to HomeKit, it isn’t a lot of work to get them into HOOBS if you take your time and read the setup instructions. It’s also great for when there simply are very few options for certain device type in HomeKit, like Air Purifiers for example.
HOOBS DEVICES IN THE HOME APP
- MI DESK LAMP
I’ll show the four non-HomeKit devices I’ve managed to get exposed to HomeKit, so you can see roughly what you might expect with similar devices. First off, is the original version of the Mi Desk Lamp. Ironically enough, the latest version of this lamp – The Mi Desk Lamp 1S – is now officially HomeKit compatible. As this lamp is capable of cool to warm whites, you get both the brightness slider and access to different colour temperatures. Nothing more, but that’s all the lamp does anyway.
- AMBICLIMATE 2
The AmbiClimate 2 is an AC Controller at its core, controlling your AC unit with a built-in IR blaster. There’s a lot more to this device, which you can read about in our review of this product with the link below;
In this instance, the plugin allows the controller to act as a thermostat for the AC unit it controls, with a dial for the temperature, as well as settings for heat, cool, auto, and off. With some plugins, you’re given the option to turn certain extras on or off in terms of what is exposed to HomeKit. The AmbiClimate 2 has temperature, humidity and ambient light sensors built into it. This plugin doesn’t expose those as separate tiles, but another plugin for the AmbiClimate 2 does give you the option to have these sensors show up in HomeKit as individual sensors. I didn’t go for this as I already have too many sensors to report back on these parameters, so there seemed little point. It’s good to have the option though.
- MI STANDING FAN
The Mi Standing fan, of which I have two, is an excellent product from one of Xiaomi’s ecosystem partners, and it’s great to be able to get it into HomeKit. In the main control panel, you can adjust the fan speed with the standard slider. The small button below allows you to turn a special function within the fan on or off – this is described in HomeKit as ‘Rotation direction’ but it actually seems to control a function that the Mi Home app refers to as ‘natural wind’ mode. This allows the speed of the fan to subtly change speed so as to simulate the gentle ebb and flow of a soft breeze. Activating this disables the speed control for the fan, which is the same for the Mi Home app. In the settings panel, you can lock the fan, so it can’t be accidentally turned on or off, as well as control the oscillation. For this last particular function, in the Mi Home app, you’re able to control the degrees to which the fan moves from left to right – off, 30º, 60º, 90º, and 120º. You don’t get access to this much control in the Home app, unfortunately. Check out our review of this product via the link below;
- MI AIR PURIFIER 2
The Mi Air Purifier I have is quite an old model now, and there are many later versions available. However, none are HomeKit compatible, and the options for HomeKit compatible air purifiers are really quite poor at present, at least until the Vocolinc VAP1 is released. As with the Mi Standing Fans I have, this is a really great product for the price. I think I paid around the equivalent of US$100 for it in Taiwan. I don’t really trust the built-in PM2.5 sensor, and there’s plenty of evidence online to show that the sensor is, in fact, pretty useless, so I tend to rely on external sensors, like the Kaiterra Laser Egg, for more accurate PM2.5 measurements. Still, it cleans the air well enough, and that’s the main thing. In the Home app control panel, you have a toggle switch to turn it on and off, and a slider to control the fan speed. In the settings screen, you can view both the air quality and PM2.5 density, although as already stated, there’s little point in taking these measurements as very accurate. You have both ‘Manual’ and ‘Auto’ options, as well as a child lock, in addition to measurements for the filter condition and filter life. The air purifier also has humidity and temperature sensors, both of which can be activated within the plugin’s code, so as to appear as separate sensors in the Home app, although I once again chose not to, as I’m already well covered for these kinds of measurements.
PERFORMANCE AND WRAPPING UP
All of the above is great in theory, but does it work as intended and does it work well? Yes, it does! I can’t speak for anyone else, but there’s something quite pleasing about ‘shoehorning’ a device into HomeKit, where under normal circumstances it doesn’t belong. Having briefly dabbled with HomeBridge before, by installing it on my ageing iMac, I can honestly say that as a bit of a novice, going down the HOOBS route has made things markedly easier than I remember with my first HomeBridge experience. That’s not to say there’s not a bit of work to do, to get certain devices added and exposed, but the interface makes a lot of things way more intuitive. If you’re a slightly more experienced user of HomeBridge and are using a Raspberry Pi, then it’s also not a bad idea to at least install the HOOBS software to make things a bit slicker. Having had this since the start of the year, I’ve only had a couple of occasions when the devices that are being fed through it went into ‘no response’ mode. On these rare occasions, it was simply a case of going into the HOOBS UI, selecting ‘restart service’ (which is effectively restarting HomeBridge), and within a minute or so, everything was working as it was. This is effectively the same as me unplugging and plugging in any HomeKit device, so it’s sort of an accepted part of HomeKit for me, which thankfully is a none too common occurrence these days.
There are people who will say that the HOOBS box is simply a Raspberry Pi that you can buy for a lot less, and I can’t disagree with that, as it’s a fact (I think…). the only difference is that this comes with HOOBS baked in from the outset, so if you just want to get stuff plugged in and running with as little effort as possible, then why not? I went down this route partially due to not really knowing which Raspberry Pi I needed, as there seemed to be so many options and variations available, not to mention the task of getting it all set up and running. I knew that by buying this (and yes I did buy it with my own money), I would have exactly what I needed without any questions or confusion, and so far this has been my experience. Would I recommend the most expensive of the three solutions offered, if I only had one or two devices I wanted to add to HomeKit? Almost certainly not, but then I have five devices in total that I wanted in HomeKit, with potentially a lot more to come, so to me, it’s an investment, and a bit of a timesaver, which is something I seem to have less and less of right now.
HOOBS do have their own subReddit, which is a bit of a bonus if you have any issues or questions, along with the fact that there’s a community of people there that may be able to help to answer questions, which isn’t always the case with many larger companies.
You can check out the company and what they offer over at hoobs.org. As mentioned at the start, the company currently offer three options; the software for free, although they do ask for a suggested minimum donation of US$7.00, the software on an SD card for US$19.90+VAT (free worldwide shipping), or the ‘deluxe’ setup of the HOOBS box, with everything mentioned in this review for US$169.00+VAT (free worldwide shipping).
Full disclosure: When clicking on any of the above links to the HOOBS website, we may get a small amount of commission from any sales generated, at no extra cost to the customer.