How to control your home with your iPhone or iPad
23rd May 2013 | 10:00
Control your lighting, television, heating and much more with your iOS device.
Control your heating and lighting with iOS
Most iOS users will already be used to using their iPhone or iPad in just about any situation - to kill a bit of time with some games; to check the train schedule; to write a shopping list; to watch a video - you can do a huge amount with these tiny computers.
But what you can do with the device isn't just limited to things contained within its screen - you can control your home from it as well. Instead of getting up to hit the light switch, you can just grab your iPhone. To see what's on and change the channel, grab your iPad. Everything from the temperature to the curtains can be controlled with the right apps and accessories.
It's not just about giving commands, though. With wireless audio and video, and remote access to the files on your PC, you can use your iOS device to conduct your digital life like an orchestra. You can even monitor the security of your home when away (or just keep an eye on the baby).
If you think you use an iPhone for everything now, just wait until you're changing the colour of your mood lighting with it. Soon, you'll never have to leave your sofa again (with the exception of basic human needs).
The automated home
The idea of home automation has been around for years, with systems that let you control the level of lighting in your home, the temperature, what time the doors lock; systems that can open and close the curtains, turn appliances on and off and much more. In the past, these were only available through expensive installations, and controlling them was awkward, requiring elaborate remote controls or wall-mounted panels.
While the comprehensive home installation is still an option (and is still expensive) for giving you the most complete control, there are also now easier accessories that can give you many of the same options, but just need to be plugged in.
The crucial thing these days is that they're just about all app-connected - with the right download from the App Store, you can take total control of your house from your iPhone or iPad.
When it comes to lighting, one of the more outlandish options is the Philips Hue set. These LED lightbulbs just plug into regular light sockets, but are wirelessly controlled by a base station that connects to your iPhone or iPad, so you can make lighting changes from the accompanying app.
What makes the Hue different to other light-dimming systems is that you can change not just the brightness of the bulb, but also its colour. The app lets you customise colours, and if you have multiple Hue bulbs, they can be different colours - you can even tell them to match the various colours in a photograph, to set a scene.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hue bulbs are quite expensive, so if you want a similar system for less, have a look at LightwaveRF's dimmable CFL bulbs. Like the Hue, they work in normal lighting fixtures and you control them from an iOS app. They don't change colour, but you can control their brightness (or turn them off) without having to install custom light switches.
If you don't want to buy expensive smart lightbulbs, installing custom light switches can be a great option. You basically replace your current light switch with one that can communicate wirelessly to a compatible base station, and you'll gain dimmable and remote control of any light that switch connects to. LightwaveRF sells switches that work with its base station, as do many other companies, including Control4 and the X10 range (uk-automation.co.uk).
I love lamp
If you use a lot of lamps in the home, you can use plug-based systems to control them. LightwaveRF makes plug sockets that can be controlled by your iOS device. Alternatively, the same company makes plug adapters for wireless control - plug your lamp into the adapter, which then plugs into the wall socket.
Belkin's WeMo range also offers this kind of adapter. They're more expensive than LightwaveRF for each unit, but don't require a base station to function (they connect directly to your iPhone), so might cost less up front. In either case, you can then control multiple lamps either independently, or together.
With most of these controller apps, it's then possible to group sets of lights together, so you can set 'scenes' or 'moods'; a 'movie' mood might have your main light off and some side lamps on dimly, for example. The Control4 system includes a Goodnight option, which will turn off all lights in the house in one tap.
Of course, these iOS-controlled plugs and plug adapters can be used for more than just lights. You could control a fan remotely, or turn off your computer or TV at the wall to save power. There's also a safety aspect - LightwaveRF touts the ability to immediately disable all the power sockets in a room if you're worried about a child playing with them, for example.
Controlling the heating is something else that's really useful to be able to do from your device - especially if you want to turn the heating on before you get home.
The Nest thermostat is a smart system that learns about how your home is heated and when you tend to feel cold, and adapts automatically, but it can also be controlled remotely from your iPhone (if you have more than one, you can control them independently too). Control4 also offers a wireless thermostat system, where multiple thermostats can be controlled independently if you have zoned heating.
If you want that kind of granular control without installing separated heating systems, though, there is a simpler option. LightwaveRF offers wirelessly controlled radiator valves that just replace the normal valves on your radiators. Each can be controlled individually, letting you create 'zoned' heating without having to have a full installation with multiple thermostats. You can then control the valves with your iPhone as well as the compatible wall-mounted control.
You can even use your iPhone to keep your house secure. This is at its most direct with Control4's lock system - its smart deadbolt and handles can be installed instead of a regular lock, and can be controlled either by using a good old-fashioned key, by entering a code on the buttons above the lock, or by using your iPhone. Just before bed you could make sure all the locks on your doors are set just by grabbing your iPhone and hitting the button in the app. Z-Wave also offers this type of lock.
Most of these systems will also let you set timers for many things, such as the lights, so you can set them to come on and turn off at certain times, perhaps to give the impression that you're in. This doesn't require any further hardware than what we've already described – you can just set this in the app. Some systems, such as Z-Wave, even let you open and close the curtains from your iPhone – and that can also be scheduled, so it appears that someone is in your home when you're on holiday.
Read on to discover how to control your home entertainment with your iOS device.
Control your home entertainment with iOS
There's no doubt that the iPhone and iPad make excellent media machines, playing music, films and TV shows from your device, or streamed in from elsewhere, but it's rare that you'd want to do all your TV watching from there. If you're like us, though, you'll still have your iPhone to hand, so why not make it useful by turning it into a remote control?
To make it a traditional remote, you'll need an accessory such as the Griffin Beacon or the VooMote Zapper. The Beacon is a little box that sits on your coffee table (or similar surface in front of your TV, set-top box, DVD player and so on) that acts as an infrared transmitter, just like a normal remote, but also connects to your Wi-Fi network. It's controlled by an accompanying app on your iPhone or iPad, which it communicates with wirelessly.
The VooMote Zapper is a little more direct, plugging into the 30-pin dock connector of your iOS device and acting directly as an infrared transmitter, with the touchscreen turning into a universal controller. This option has no setup to go through, but it also lacks the convenience of using the Beacon, which doesn't require that you plug anything into your device.
In both cases, a large library of controller settings for TVs, satellite and Freeview boxes, DVD and Blu-ray players and so on is built in, so you can generally just tell it what kind of TV you have and it'll start working.
Increasingly though, new set-top boxes and TV add-ons are designed to be plugged into your home network, giving a second option for how to control them. For many things, you don't even need to replicate the traditional remote, but can instead just control them directly over Wi-Fi.
The most obvious of these is the Apple TV, which can be controlled by Apple's Remote app for iPhone and iPad. It lets you navigate the menus with swipes, and also use a full keyboard when searching for titles. Apple's remote app is fairly simple in the grand scheme, though - many others give you a whole new interface on your device to interact with, while still controlling your entertainment centre.
The Xbox SmartGlass app, for example, gives you a kind of recreation of the Xbox interface on your device, letting you browse games options, films and videos, and more.
The likes of the Sky+, YouView, Virgin Media TV and View21 apps also give you a custom interface to get involved with. These apps will all show you a guide to what's on, letting you scroll around as you wish. If a show you want is on now, you can switch to that channel on your TV; if it's in the future you can choose to record, or perform other actions that you would on the remote. Some let you browse recorded shows to choose something to watch.
And it's not just about TV entertainment - the Griffin Beacon and VooMote Zapper could be used to control a hi-fi setup. There's also a Sonos app, which lets you control Sonos multi-room audio setups from the comfort of your iPad.
One of the pleasingly lazy little things about everything becoming wirelessly connected is that you no longer have to get out of your comfy seat to put a video on your TV. Instead of visiting the DVD player, you can just stream what you want to watch instead. And, of course, you can use your iOS device to do the streaming.
If you have an Apple TV, you can use AirPlay to send images from your iOS device to your TV from a multitude of video apps, as well as to show photo slideshows. This means you can sit back and send videos from Vimeo or YouTube to your big TV, watch inspiring TED talks, find something great on on-demand apps such as BBC iPlayer or HBO Go, watch your own home films, or watch films and TV shows you've bought from iTunes.
You can start streaming to your Apple TV by tapping on the AirPlay icon either next to the play controls in the video app, or by double-pressing the Home button, swiping left to right, and tapping the AirPlay icon there. (Not all video apps support AirPlay, so some might just display an error message on your TV, but those that do support will start playing on the TV.)
Most video apps will also take advantage of the extra space a widescreen TV offers over an iPad, so shows can play without black bars. Many apps will list AirPlay support in their app descriptions, so you'll know whether they'll work before you download them.
It's not just about streaming from your iPad though - you can also stream to it. You can do this from the internet with services such as Netflix and LOVEFiLM, but also from your computer.
If you have a lot of video stored on your PC or Mac, you can stream it to your iPhone or iPad using an app called Air Video. This not only lets you browse and play videos that are in formats supported by iOS, but it also lets you watch other video types, such as MKV, that the iPhone and iPad couldn't normally play. It does this by using your PC's powerful processor to convert them on the fly, meaning that it's great if you don't want to get involved in the complex world of video formats.
The icing on the big, chocolatey Air Video cake, though, is that it's also AirPlay-compatible, so you can use it to find a video on your computer and then stream to your big TV. The Apple TV can also mirror what your iPad's screen shows at almost any time, so you can use it to view websites on your TV, or even to play games on the big screen.
Some games are even designed for this, and will change their resolution to get the best out of a widescreen TV, or will show the main game on the TV while giving you a different view on the controller.
It's not just your TV that you can stream to using AirPlay. Reflector is an app for Macs and Windows PCs that lets you use your computer as an AirPlay target, just as you would your Apple TV. This means you can use your monitor to watch things in the same way you would on your TV, or you can play games on it.
There are any number of ways to play music or radio on your iOS device, whether it's playing music stored on there or something streaming over the internet. However, the built-in speakers tend to be a little weedy.
Wireless speakers give a great sense of freedom, and mean you can send music from your little iPhone to a huge speaker, without ever moving from your beloved comfy sofa.
The easiest system to use is AirPlay, which was developed by Apple and works over Wi-Fi. AirPlay speakers in your home connect to your wireless router, and you can choose which should play the music - there's a little button next to the volume control that lets you see all the available options.
Bluetooth is a little less slick, because it requires a pairing process, but is another way to send music to a wireless speaker. For this, you just select Bluetooth speakers the same way you do AirPlay ones, so you could mix and match across your house if you so wish. Bluetooth speakers tend to be the cheaper options, but there are also some excellent high-end AirPlay speakers, as well as some budget versions, too.
AirPlay and Bluetooth are by far the most popular ways to send music wirelessly, but there are some custom options. For example, the Veho Mimi X3 uses a proprietary transmitter that attaches to your device's dock connector to send music to the speaker wirelessly.
Pure's Jongo range of multi-room speakers do it a little bit differently, using their own unique streaming method, accessed through an accompanying app. Like AirPlay, it works over Wi-Fi, so no extra accessories are needed, but it works differently to AirPlay. These options all tend to be more limiting than AirPlay or Bluetooth, but work well if you have the right setup for them.
Monitoring your home
Whether you're worried about the security of your home, or just want to keep an eye on the baby, there are some great gadgets that let you stay on top of what's happening from your iOS device.
Small cameras such as the BabyPing Baby Monitor have clever features such as motion and sound sensors, so they can alert you when the baby starts moving around or crying - you can get a notification on your iPhone or iPad, and can then use the accompanying app to watch a video feed of the baby to see if it's actually awake.
There are other cameras that aren't designed for this specific purpose in mind - the iZon Remote Room Monitor has a base that can be attached to any surface, with a camera unit that fixes to it magnetically, so it can be pointed in any direction. It's all wireless, so footage is recorded to the cloud, and you can watch it live or go back and get video from a previous day.
There are lots of other similar cameras, made by the likes of Philips and other companies, so you can find something that suits you. Though being wireless means they aren't all that cheap, they're still an easy way to monitor multiple parts of your home, if you choose to.
Many of the home automation systems, including LightwaveRF and Belkin WeMo, offer motion sensors as part of their home automation package, which can control lights, as you'd expect, but some of which can also send a notification to your iOS device. If you had a series of them set up around and outside the house, you could know exactly when someone walks past the one in the back garden, say. You may even discover a family of badgers share your garden.
Connecting to your PC
The idea of controlling your home from your iOS device is about making it more convenient to do everything you would do now, and that includes using your desktop or laptop computer - or rather, finding ways not to use it. There are lots of times when you might need to check a file that's stored on your hard drive, but you don't need to make a point of going to the computer to do it.
Apps such as FileBrowser let you look through your computer's storage and open files on your iPhone or iPad (provided they're in a format that iOS natively supports, or in some cases can be opened with a third-party app). Read documents, browse photos, listen to an audio file…
If you don't want to make changes, this can be really handy. (If you want to watch videos stored on your computer, you're often better off with Air Video, though.)
If you need to take control of your PC or Mac, you can do it to different degrees, depending on the app. Apps such as Air Mouse or Remote Mouse let you use your iOS device to navigate around the desktop - replacing the mouse. This can be useful if you have a small PC as part of your home theatre setup, as can Actions for iPad, which lets you create shortcut buttons for just about any PC action. With a bit of configuring, you could turn it effectively into a universal remote for an HTPC. Those both rely on you being able to see your PC's screen, though.
If you're elsewhere, then you can use a remote desktop app to control your PC or Mac, even see its screen. LogMeIn is one of the best, letting you access basic functions for free, but with more advanced options if you pay (including streaming high-res video).
Splashtop is another good option (though you need to pay a subscription to connect to your PC from outside your home network). It's really easy to set up and has a superb interface, including slick support of Multi-Touch gestures on both Macs and Windows 8 PCs.
Of course, if you use cloud storage heavily, you may not need to access your PC's drive. Services such as Dropbox, SugarSync, Box and others will copy your files to the cloud, where they can be accessed from anywhere, including your iPad, with an accompanying app. The Dropbox app, for example, lets you browse these files, save them to you iPad, and read or view any that iOS supports natively. Any files that aren't supported can be opened in a compatible app from the App Store.
Many apps also let you save documents to Dropbox, so you can then pick up those files from your PC. The cloud can also help in other little ways. For example, if you use Google Drive to create documents, you can access your files with the accompanying app, since everything is stored online anyway.
Chrome and Safari (among others) also offer cloud syncing of tabs, so if you left a website open on your PC or Mac, you can bring up on your iPhone.