The iPhone is an amazing device. It fits in a pocket, yet it’s an incredibly powerful computer that connects us to the world, entertains us wherever we go, and captures quality photos and videos.
However, some of the iPhone’s tricks are hidden until you connect it to specific accessories. Did you know, for example, that you can save energy on your Christmas lights using your iPhone? Or improve the quality of your sleep with an iPhone-connected sensor? Or turn your car into a giant Siri-controlled entertainment and communications system? These accessories range in price from affordable to expensive, making them perfect gifts for iPhone users who want to unlock new capabilities. Read on to discover these hidden features, as well as the accessories you should grab or put on your wish list to unlock them…
Siri and HomeKit
You may be familiar with Siri, the smart assistant built in to the iPhone, but did you know Siri can dim your lights, control your temperature, and turn off appliances? Using Apple-approved smart home accessories with a feature called HomeKit, you can enable Siri to do all this and more around your house.
One of HomeKit’s coolest early capabilities is wireless light control. Philips Hue White & Color Ambience Starter Kit($192) includes three color-shifting 800 lumen LED bulbs, plus a HomeKit bridge that lets you tell Siri to “dim the lights to 50%,” “turn off the porch light,” or “set lamps to movie mode.” Once you have the Kit, you can add rooms with Hue White & Color Bulbs ($60), or less expensive Hue White Bulbs ($20) without color-changing features. For a bedroom, grab a Hue Dimmer Switch ($25) so you can still flip the lights on and off when you don’t want to bother Siri. And download the free OnSwitch app, which includes a simple iOS virtual light switch widget and Apple Watch app.
Want to tell Siri to turn on and off certain appliances? Connect an iHome Control SmartPlug iSP5 ($40) to add Siri, app control, and automation to any two- or three-prong plugged accessory around the house. This year the lights on my Christmas tree connect to one of these, adding a physical on/off switch to the ordinary Christmas lights. My tree also automatically turns on at 6 am, turns off at 11 pm, and can turn on or off anytime if I ask Siri. SmartPlug is also offered in discounted 2-packs($75), 3-packs($110), and4-packs($150) for placing more plugs in more places.
Ready to turn up the heat with Siri? The ecobee3 Smarter Wi-Fi Thermostat + Sensor ($249) lets you check, change, and control the temperature in your house using Siri. Optionally, you can buy a starter kit with two additional sensors ($325) for more accurate presence and temperature detection. If you just want to be able to ask Siri what the temperature is inside, Elgato Eve Room ($80) is a wireless indoor sensor that lets you do just that plus check humidity and air quality. Elgato Eve Weather ($50) is an outdoor sensor that lets Siri check your hyperlocal outdoor temperature and humidity level.
HomeKit works with Siri across different brands and manufacturers so you can actually create scenes that trigger multiple events. For example, you could tell Siri to “set movie night” to lower the lights, turn down the temperature, and power off the Christmas tree all in one command. See my colleague Benjamin’s HomeKit Gift Guide for more ideas in this area.
Health and HealthKit
Everyone’s iPhone with iOS 8 or later has a built-in app called Health that can show you steps walked and flights of stairs climbed, but there are a few accessories that you can buy to unlock other useful data points in the Health app. Apple’s app and third-party apps can optionally share this information with each other to build a better overall picture of your fitness and health through something called HealthKit.
This may already be on your shopping list: any Apple Watch(from $349) features heart rate tracking and better step tracking, but not sleep tracking. For measuring how well you’re resting, how long you’re in bed and actually asleep, and viewing the data on your iPhone through the Health app, I recommend Beddit Sleep Tracker and Wellness Coach ($99, reg. $150). The sensor lays comfortably beneath your sheet and connects to the iPhone over Bluetooth to measure how well you’re sleeping and offer tips to sleep better.
Health can also track your weight, and adding a smart scale can make the process as easy as remembering to weigh yourself. Easy@Home Bluetooth Body Fat Digital Scale($64, reg. $100) wirelessly connects to the iPhone to catch your weight when you weigh and adds the number to the Health app so you can view your changes over time. Kinsa Smart Ear Thermometer(pictured, $60) is a 1-second accurate temperature reader that provides medical guidance using age, symptoms, and temperature; Kinsa Smart Thermometer($20) is a more affordable and traditional option. Both connect to iPhones and use HealthKit to share the temperature with the Health app and optionally other health-related apps. iHealth BP7 Wireless Blood Pressure Wrist Monitor($57, reg. $80) enables critical blood pressure readings that you can easily reference by hour, day, week, month, and year through Apple’s Health app.
Apps and CarPlay
While it’s never a good idea to fidget with a smartphone when operating a vehicle, iPhones have a special mode called CarPlay that optimizes the user interface for driving. Notifications that aren’t phone calls and text messages are silenced, and Siri voice controls access the iPhone’s UI, so you don’t need to use your eyes. Apps including Music, Maps, and Podcasts also can be displayed on a car’s larger in-dash screen for easy control with fewer distractions.
One way to unlock CarPlay is a new car with one of those giant bows on top. But there’s also a more affordable option: Pioneer AppRadio 4 ($428, reg. $600) is an aftermarket, 6″ touchscreen display that can be installed in most cars to replace existing entertainment systems, adding CarPlay for a fairly reasonable price.Alpine ILX-007($589, reg. $600) lacks Bluetooth and CD playback but still features AM/FM radio and features a larger, 7″ touchscreen display with CarPlay. If you want to gift the top of the line aftermarket solution, Pioneer 8100 NEX($1083, reg. $1400) features a gorgeous 7″ touchscreen capacitive display with Bluetooth, CD/DVD playback, HD radio, GPS, and more. For the full CarPlay story, see my original review and iOS 9 revisit plus a running list of apps that work with it.