You'd be forgiven if you've never heard of Aqara's collection of smart home sensors and switches, but you're probably familiar with Xiaomi (they of the fantastic Roborock vacuum fame). A Chinese electronics manufacturer known for its cheap but good hardware, Xiaomi makes a lot of stuff, including smartphones and an impressive lineup of smart home devices, which are sold in China and elsewhere under its Mi brand.
Aqara is a spin off of the Mi brand for the US market. Self-owned, but under the Xiaomi company Lumi Technology, Aqara recently started selling its excellent collection of smart home sensors and gadgets through Gearbest. Brilliant news for those of us looking for inexpensive, reliable ways to expand our Apple HomeKit, Alexa and Google powered smart homes.
We spent a month living with Aqara's Smart Home Starter Kit, a DIY home security / smart home system. Read on for our full review.
A Zigbee-based system, Aqara relies on a central hub that works with Alexa, HomeKit and Google Assistant, and can expose all of Aqara's battery-powered sensors and smart gadgets (up to 32 per hub) to your voice-controlled smart home system of choice.
Aqara also works as a stand-alone smart home system managed through its app, but we're going to start out by saying don't do this.
The app is Aqara's weak point. It's confusing, fiddly, has a steep learning curve and doesn't give you access to any devices outside of the Aqara system. Plus, the developers need to spend a bit more time with an English dictionary.
The hardware on the other hand is top notch and follows Xiaomi's ethos of selling devices with top-of-the-line specs and hardware for rock bottom prices. Simple and sturdy, all white and nicely made, Aqara's sensors and switches aren't showy devices, they're designed to blend in while still being functional, and by and large they are simple to set up and install.
Most importantly however, they're cheap. Starting at just $16.99 for a contact sensor and going up to $129.99 for the whole starter kit, these are good prices for good hardware. At least $5 to $10 below most of the comparable competition, and significantly less than HomeKit offerings from Eve and Fibaro.
We tested the smart home starter kit, which comes with a hub (that includes a built in color-changing LED light and speaker), contact sensor, motion sensor, smart switch/button and a smart plug.
We also tried out the other devices currently available in the U.S. - the temp/humidity sensor, vibration/tilt sensor and leak sensor.
Setup was easy, all the devices in the starter kit were already pre-paired to the hub, so once we plugged it in (it goes directly into an outlet and doesn't need to be hardwired to your router, but it does cover two outlets) and walked through the setup process in the Aqara Home app, they all just showed up.
Adding the other devices was also straightforward. Using the app you select Add Accessory, press the device's reset button and the Hub announces that it's paring and when it's connected, or if it failed.
A nice touch, the app comes with pre-set automations, such as single press the switch/button to turn on/off the smart plug, or double press the switch/button to arm the Hub (Aqara fancies itself as a home security system, it's not - more on that later). You can also create your own.
Installing the devices themselves was also a breeze thanks to pre-applied adhesive as well as spare pieces of pre-cut tape (there are no hardware mounting options).
The only hiccups we encountered were with pairing devices, one contact sensor would pair but refused to show any status change in the app. We ended up getting a new one, which worked fine. The leak sensor refused to pair four times, but then on the fifth try it did.
We are also not fans of the app. While it provides a lot of access to each device - including a timeline of activity and settings to tinker with, the whole setup process was disjointed and slightly confusing. A fair amount of broken English and warnings such as don't use dual band routers (we did), as it won't work (it did), didn't instill confidence.
Also, setting up the native Automations and Scenes was not intuitive, even though it employs a simple If This Then That-type setup - although they did work once we figured it all out.
Overall, the best way to use the Aqara Home app is to get the devices set up then hide it away to call on solely for firmware updates while you use one of the other smart home apps it works with for daily control (read on for more on this).
Here's how we configured our Aqara Smart Home:
Hub: The hub has a built-in, color-changing LED light and a speaker that can produce a loud-ish siren. We plugged it into an outlet in an upstairs hallway to act as a nightlight.
Smart Plug: A large, standard looking smart plug with an on-device switch, this was installed in the kitchen attached to a button-press kettle.
Smart Switch/Button: Placed by a bedside table - this diminutive smart button was set up so that one press would turn on the aforementioned kettle before we got out of bed. It could also be mounted to a wall and used as a switch to operate connected smart lights.
Motion Sensor: Tiny and with a handy adjustable mount, we installed the sensor at bottom of the main stairway, so when it senses motion it triggers the Hub light to come on. When the system is in the Alert Mode (see Aqara As A Home Security System) it will trigger the hub's siren.
Contact Sensor: Another small component, we attached this two part door/window sensor to an interior bedroom door, set to send an alert when opened and to trigger the hub's siren when the system is in Alert Mode.
Vibration Sensor: Placed on interior side of the front door we set this up to send an alert when someone knocks on the door or the door's opened. Or, when the system is in Alert Mode, it will trigger the hub's siren. This is also a tilt sensor so could work as a garage door sensor.
Leak Sensor: Placed under the dishwasher in the kitchen we set this to trigger the hub to sound a siren when water is detected.
Temp/Humidity Sensor: We installed this in the bedroom to monitor comfort levels.
Aqara has a decent and growing ecosystem of products - and while only eight devices are available here now, the US website lists a light bulb, a curtain controller, a wireless rocker light switch, an AC controller and an indoor camera as coming soon.
Head over to the Xiaomi Mi site and you'll find a smart home smorgasbord, with hundreds of devices from robot vacs to plant monitors, IAQ detectors and GPS tracking devices - this is definitely a company innovating quickly in the smart home space.
With all this tech you could easily create a pretty comprehensive Aqara smart home, but for most users it's the fact that all Aqara's devices work with Apple's HomeKit, Alexa and Google Home that makes them really interesting.
Read on for the skinny on how to use Aqara in your current smart home set up.
In our opinion, the real reason to invest in Aqara gear is its solid integrations with HomeKit, Alexa and to some extent Google Assistant. While you could just use Aqara products, the Aqara Home app doesn't let you integrate other manufacturers' devices.
Pair it with any of the above and you can use these inexpensive gadgets to trigger Homekit Automations and Scenes or Alexa or Google routines to turn on any compatible smart lights, adjust thermostats, plugs, switches - basically anything that works with Alexa, Google or HomeKit.
Due to each ecosystems limitations, not every Aqara device works with every system. But those that do worked really well, triggering any automations we set up quickly and effectively.
One of Aqara's advantages over much of the competition in this space is it uses Zigbee rather than Bluetooth or WiFi. This means each device can act as a repeater so you can place things like contact sensors far way from your HomeKit hub or Alexa and they won't lose connectivity.
Here's what will show up as soon as you pair your Aqara Hub to HomeKit (it has a HomeKit code), Alexa (using a skill) or Google Home:
Setup Tip: When you pair the Aqara Hub to HomeKit make sure to go in to the Home app and choose Show as separate tiles. Then you can move each Aqara component into different rooms and use each device individually.
A selling point of the starter kit is that it acts as a basic DIY home security system. We say basic because there's no option of professional monitoring and it's lacking some features that are key for home security.
But the biggest issue currently is that once you turn on Aqara's Basic Alert Mode, you can't turn it off... for 24 hours! This means every time you walk past your motion sensor your alarm goes off. Not ideal.
If and when they do fix this, if you're looking for an inexpensive, basic security setup that works with HomeKit, Aqara is pretty much your only option. (Abode's more advanced system works with HomeKit, but it's a steeper up front investment).
There are four Alert Modes for the security component: Basic, Away, Home and Night. You can configure each one to react to different devices (i.e. turn off the motion sensor in Home mode), and when any connected device is triggered while the system is armed the Hub will blare a loud sound of your choice (including police sirens or a doorbell ringing) and flash red.
Through HomeKit you can only control the Basic Alert Mode (not the other ones, yet), toggling it on or off in the HomeKit app or by adding it to a HomeKit Automation such as "When the last person leaves the house turn on the alarm." All the alarm setup must be done in the Aqara app and only Aqara devices can trigger the siren.
It's not a great security solution overall, even if it was possible to turn it off. It's a fiddly set-up, there's no professional monitoring and the alarm isn't very loud - your neighbors aren't going to hear it. But it will alert you on your phone as well as audibly and visually through the hub if someones' sneaking around your house.
Aqara Smart Home Starter Kit
Aqara's Zigbee hub and small, but growing, list of compatible sensors that work with Alexa, HomeKit and Google is a must-have for anyone serious about putting their smart home to work. These devices are the glue that will make all your connected devices work together - and they're cheap! The Aqara Smart Home Starter Kit offers a lot of great functionality for not a lot of money. Just look elsewhere if what you really want is a decent security system.