Although I chose Apple HomeKit to run my smart home in 2021, I've tried most of the major smart home platforms. And in 2020, Home Assistant was one of them, the free, open-source software that integrates with thousands of devices and services. Considering my recent mini-rants about app-centric homes and Apple HomeKit not working properly lately, I thought this would be a good time to take another look at Home Assistant. So I dusted off the same Raspberry Pi I used with Home Assistant three years ago and got to work. I immediately discovered that the current installation process is a little easier than it was. That's important because Home Assistant is generally not a turnkey solution. You can buy Home Assistant hardware with the software pre-installed, but most people install the software themselves on an inexpensive Raspberry Pi. That's what I did three years ago and I wanted to repeat the process today. In 2021, I had to manually download the Home Assistant software and then use another piece of software called Balena Etcher to create a bootable microSD card. Now Balena Etcher is still used, but I didn't have to manually download Home Assistant. Instead, there is a way to point Balena Etcher to a URL so that the Home Assistant software can be retrieved. That's a small change, but it makes for a seamless and simple process. Armed with my microSD card containing the Home Assistant platform, I connected my Raspberry Pi to a portable monitor. With the microSD card in the Pi, I turned on the mini computer and let it do its thing. Setting up Home Assistant on a Raspberry Pi. Image courtesy of K. Tofel It turns out I didn't even need a monitor this time. I didn't have to configure anything: the Pi went through the Home Assistant startup in a few minutes and was operational as a smart home server. This was also a better experience than my previous one. I just connected the Pi to one of my creepy routers with an ethernet cable and I was able to connect to it remotely in my browser. Additionally, I see that I can set up Wi-Fi access for the Pi directly in Home Assistant. In 2021, I had to adjust some text files in the software for this feature. Once the Home Assistant hub was up and running and I could access it through the browser, there was some additional setup time behind the scenes. It didn't require any input from me and the system does say this part could take up to 20 minutes. And that's about how long it took. After that, minimal user input is required to name your home, create a local administrator account and your location. The latter is not required, but useful because the Home Assistant dashboard can provide local weather information. It is also good for the system to know your time zone for sunrise or sunset information. Then I was greeted by all the detected devices that Home Assistant had found itself. The ones with green check marks are configured completely automatically, while the others require a little manual intervention. This is no different from other smart home platforms. Typically, you'll need to link a device brand account or provide some credentials or access rights to fully integrate such devices. I immediately noticed that many more of my devices were automatically discovered by Home Assistant. This is a huge improvement and a time saver. I also noticed that my Thread network appeared here, which is excellent. Even though Home Assistant recognized the Thread radios in my Eero routers and my Apple products, it still can't communicate with them. When I looked at the Thread settings I discovered that I can currently add an Open Thread router. I can't use the Thread radios in the Eero or HomePod mini yet. However, I know Home Assistant is working on full Thread integration, so that won't be an issue in the future. After some additional device configuration and the addition of a Home Assistant HomeKit Controller tool, I had a basic dashboard to control several of my smart home devices. The HomeKit controller brings in existing HomeKit devices. Please note that I have not yet fully configured all my devices; I just wanted to get started and then decide what I want or can integrate into Home Assistant for my testing. Above you can see my first dashboard. On the left side I have two boards for my Lutron lights and a Lutron fan switch. Although Home Assistant found my Lutron products automatically, I did not configure them at the time. Instead, these were simply pulled in when I integrated HomeKit with Home Assistant, since these switches are connected to my Apple Home. As a test scenario, I'm impressed that the HomeKit integration took care of this for me. I can also access both a Google Nest Hub speaker and my Sonos here, which is the top card. My wife thought I was crazy when both speakers played different tunes in the same room during my testing. She's not wrong, but hey: it's my job! Although I haven't integrated every device in my home, I have to say that the response time when controlling devices from Home Assistant is lightning fast. I would expect that, since all devices communicate via Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth. The only current exception is my Lutron switches, as they communicate via the Lutron bridge. That bridge receives commands via Home Assistant over Wi-Fi and 'translates' them to use Lutron's own network protocol. The same will happen with my Philips Hue lights and bridge if I integrate them into Home Assistant. However, there is simply no lag whatsoever, no matter which devices I control in Home Assistant. Overall, the installation process has improved and the software is as fast as ever when it comes to Home Assistant. The dashboard is still fully customizable and accessible via a browser if you prefer that interface over a mobile app. And it's clear that the Home Assistant software has learned new tricks, like the HomeKit Controller solution. In the future I will add more devices to see which ones work well and which ones don't. I'm also going to try the HomeKit integration, which is different than the Controller. This integration adds non-HomeKit devices added in Home Assistant to the Apple Home app, which is a similar but different approach than what Homebridge offers. More to follow!
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