Over the holidays, I’ve been testing and using HOOBS, a pre-built smart home server that runs the open-source Homebridge software. HOOBS, which stands for Homebridge out of the box, is $169 and is comprised of a RaspberryPi with an included SD card and the Homebridge software pre-installed.
The intent of the Homebridge software is to bring non-HomeKit devices and automations into HomeKit. So if you want to use non-HomeKit smart devices such as a Nest Thermostat, Ring Doorbell, or Samsung SmartThings sensors, you can. You can then control all of your devices within the Apple Home application. In theory, Homebridge brings the promise of a unified smart home system regardless of the device ecosystem.
Yes, you can “create” a HOOBS device yourself with your own Pi and the downloadable HOOBS software for less. Still, I wanted to try the HOOBS box because it’s one of the scant few DIY-type smart home hubs that you can buy in a ready-made package.
The HOOBS box is nice and well designed. Essentially, it’s just a case around the Pi computing board. Also included are a micro-USB power supply and ethernet cable. HOOBS can run over your LAN or a wireless network. The device has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE radios inside but can also connect to a Zigbee bridge to support Zigbee devices.
Initial setup is easy, taking just a few minutes. You plug the HOOBS box into an outlet, connect it to your network (I did this over ethernet), and navigate a browser to hoobs.local. Once the box boots up, you’re welcomed to a nice web-based interface. Set up a user account and you’re ready to get started.
That includes setting up HOOBS as a HomeKit bridge on an iOS device. I did this with my iPad Pro, scanning the HomeKit QR code provided by the HOOBS interface.
All in all, the initial experience doesn’t feel DIY at all. It feels polished and intuitive. After that, however, things get complicated with HOOBS.
That’s because although HOOBS claims support for more than 2,000 devices, this is not quite a plug-and-play hub such as a Hubitat Elevation, Samsung SmartThings, or similar device. Why? Because device support is found through a myriad of installable plugins. Some are HOOBS-certified and I had more luck with those. Many are not and there are similar but slightly different plug-ins available for various devices.
A search for Zigbee plug-ins, for example, returned 9 different choices. Several of those haven’t been updated in two years, so I was able to weed those out. Even so, just about any plug-in requires some type of manual setup configuration. Once you find a plug-in to use, you click the Install button in the HOOBS interface to download the software for the supported device.
Some of these settings are easy to get at. To integrate my Sonos speakers using a plug-in, all I had to input was the IP address of my speaker. I found that in my mesh router software, entered it and HOOBS was able to find it.
Others are not so easy. In fact, there’s one that I still haven’t been able to get working because it’s a real challenge to get the necessary information. I found a plug-in for the Mi Led Desk Lamp so that I could add the light that Stacey reviewed for our gift guide. It works perfectly fine over Wi-Fi and Google Home.
With HOOBS? It’s nearly impossible to get the authorization token needed to allow HOOBS to access the lamp. If you think I’m kidding, the developer provides two links for finding the token and literally says “Good Luck!!!”. There are no less than five methods to try and nearly all of them require some packet sniffing or using a SQLite browser to view the app’s database. No thanks.
Even with fairly well-supported plug-ins, I ran into challenges. I added one for Wyze Connected Home devices, which supports bulbs and plugs. There’s another one for Wyze cameras but you have to flash the camera firmware, so I didn’t try that one. The Connected Home plug-in found and connected to my Wyze bulbs. But my Wyze Plug never appeared. I’m thrilled that I can see the Wyze bulbs in the Apple Home app thanks to HOOBS, but I’m disappointed that the plug is a no-show.
I also had issues with HOOBS finding my Philips Hue Bridge and some other devices as well. The Hue Bridge is natively supported by HomeKit but I don’t think that’s why HOOBS couldn’t find it. I could see in the system log that HOOBS kept searching for it, saying I had to press the link button on the Hue bridge. Every time I did that, the plug-in showed an error message. I even made sure in the configuration to show devices that may already appear in HomeKit, but no dice.
One bright spot that worked perfectly fine was the Google Home voice control integration. After adding the proper plug-in and connecting the Homebridge service in my Google Home mobile app, I was able to control the “HomeKit” devices with either Google or Siri. When HOOBS works with well-supported plug-ins, it does feel magical: It can integrate your smart home across multiple digital assistant services simultaneously.
Of course, getting device integrations working with a smart home hub and adding voice control is only half of the equation. The other half to take full advantage of your smart home is with automations.
HOOBS itself doesn’t offer an automation system. Instead, the main way to create a smarter home is through Scenes and device Automations directly in the Apple Home app. I personally don’t find the Apple Home automations as robust as other systems I’ve used, but the basics are there. You can have devices turn on or off when people come to or go from the house, when a sensor detects motion, etc… Again, it’s fairly basic when compared to some other smart home hubs, but Apple has created Home and HomeKit to be a simple system.
Automations do happen very quickly which impressed me. There’s very little latency between a trigger event (or voice command, for that matter) and a device action.
Overall, I’ve spent far more time learning about and configuring HOOBS than actually letting it run my smart home. One time, the web interface wouldn’t appear at all, and rebooting did nothing. I eventually SSH’d into the HOOBS box and ran some commands to download and reinstall the software.
That’s not something your average mainstream smarthome user would know how to do. Luckily, the HOOBS community is active and helpful; that’s how I found the reinstallation “fix” and command, for example.
Clearly, HOOBS has much potential. And if you have devices with well-supported plug-ins, you’ll likely be happy with the product. HomeKit users can choose from a broader array of devices with HOOBS and add support for digital assistants not named Siri.
If I were starting up my smart home from scratch, I’d probably stick with HOOBS and buy devices known to work well with Homebridge or simply use native HomeKit devices without HOOBS. With my existing devices though, HOOBS will be a part-time, ongoing research project for me, just to see how well it matures.