A slightly smarter universal remote
Some say a tablet is just a big ass phone. I think they might be right.
I’ve personally tested the following:
|Fire HD10 (2017)
Fire HD8 (2017)
Fire HD7 (2017)
|iPad 9.7” 6th Generation
iPad Mini 4
|G Pad 7 (2015)|
What you need to know
When I first started planning for a smart home, I knew I needed tablets—to put on the wall, a stand, my body—wherever it made sense. A smart home without tablets was blasphemy, I thought. Even though I didn’t have a good use for a tablet before, I thought having a dedicated tablet would be useful, or at least be a nice way to show off the smart home. With that in mind, I bought a bunch of tablets during Black Friday to see how useful they would be.
I started off with many tablets, but have since downgraded to two: one Apple iPad 9.7” for my room and one Amazon Fire HD8 for the media center. I also use cheap Android phones (the LG Rebel 4 is an amazing value at $15) around the house as music and TV remotes.
I decided against mounting tablets on the wall because of the cost and the fact that the tablet would be too far away to use. That and living in a rental prevents me from mounting anything to a wall. Instead, I decided to use tablet stands, which ended up being more convenient to access a tablet on the couch than the wall.
Tablets appear versatile in nature, so I tried using the tablets in every way possible—as a voice assistant, server, security camera, and replacement laptop, but eventually settled on using the tablet in three ways:
- Home Assistant dashboard to view weather, traffic, upcoming events, and media.
- Media center dashboard and remote control to view the music and TV currently playing.
- Watch videos through streaming apps and cast to the TV.
An expensive tablet can do all three tasks, but a cheap tablet can have some difficulties performing just one of those tasks. For that reason, I have tablet recommendations for two categories: budget and premium. You can probably guess what the premium recommendation will be.
There is a risk of keeping tablets or phone always plugged into a power source as the battery can swell and potentially explode. Keep a close eye of bulging batteries and unplug the tablet once every few weeks to let the battery discharge.
Considerations before buying a tablet
- If you have an old tablet lying around, repurpose it as a Home Assistant dashboard.
- If you want to use the tablet to watch videos, it's better to use an iPad as it does all tasks very well.
What you get with a tablet
- A dedicated home automation dashboard.
- A portable streaming media device.
- Affiliate link: Purchase the iPad 6th Gen and the Amazon Fire HD8 on Amazon
- Enable your iPad as a Home Hub in the iPad's settings
- Amazon Fire Toolbox can install the Google Play Store, an ad-free Youtube client, and remove lock screen ads, and everything Amazon-related
Apple iPad 9.7” (6th Generation)
The latest Apple iPad (6th Generation) is the best tablet for both smart home and general use — if you can afford it. Despite my recommendations for nearly every Google product so far, there is no Android tablet that beats the performance and price of an iPad. The Wirecutter also recommends it for similar reasons—overall performance is blazingly fast, which is crucial for navigating the Home Assistant UI or using video apps. The screen is gorgeous, if not overkill for my needs but worth paying for. You can get a similar high-end Android tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4, but it will be more expensive ($640) and not worth the price if using solely as a dashboard. The cheapest price I’ve seen for a new entry-level iPad is $250, though used iPads could be found on Craigslist for cheaper.
The iPad also makes for a great multipurpose device. Switching between apps is lightning fast and makes all the difference when jumping from Home Assistant UI to Hulu or Netflix. I find that saving a few seconds of waiting was worth the price I paid.
Installation and Smart Home Integration
There a native iOS app called the
Home Assistant Companion, which displays the Home Assistant UI in full screen, complete with custom modules and Lovelace cards intact. It looks beautiful and makes me glad I purchased an iPad. Custom Lovelace cards are an issue with Amazon Fire tablets and require many workarounds to get it functional, but not so with the iPad. The only downside to this app is that there is still a screen border when using it.
Google Assistant is not and will never be integrated into iOS, but you can use Home Assistant’s
Homekit component to connect with Siri and Homekit to control your devices. The Chromecast function is supported on iPad, so casting videos and music to Chromecast speakers is possible from every app I tested. Google Home, Roku, and the SmartThings iOS apps are present and function just as well as the Android equivalents.
If you are an Apple household, then you can use the iPad as a Homekit hub, which will allow you Homekit access to your devices, even when you are away from home. You just need to enable the feature in your iPad settings.
Amazon Fire HD8 Tablet w/ Special Offers
If you don’t mind a slightly sluggish experience, the Amazon Fire HD8 with Special Offers ($50) is the cheapest tablet you can get with some compromises, though not everyone will find it acceptable. The Fire HD8 is the perfect size and resolution as a Home Assistant dashboard—it’s not too big and not too small at 1280x800 resolution. The physical size of the tablet is larger than I expected. There is the smaller Fire HD7 ($30) with an even lower resolution screen, and the larger but still sluggish Fire HD10 ($100) — but having tried all three sizes, I think the HD8 remains the best value of the three and is the perfect size for a tablet.
Looking back, I would rather buy another iPad instead of the Fire HD8. The tablet works with Home Assistant using the Google Chrome browser, but I have to pull-to-refresh the browser screen frequently, and that is unacceptable to me. An official Home Assistant app for Android was announced in April 2019, but it is unlikely to fix the problems I have with the Amazon Fire tablets. The only potential fix is if Amazon updates their OS and web browser components to the latest Android version.
If you plan on using the Fire tablet as a media consumption device, there is some good news for Youtube lovers: Amazon and Google agreed to end their years-long feud and bring Youtube and Youtube TV back to Amazon Fire devices, among other things, sometime in 2019. This was one of the drawbacks I had with Fire tablets and I’m glad to see it resolved.
There are some problems using the Fire HD8 and Home Assistant, but the biggest problem is that the tablet uses an outdated version of Android Webview, which prevents most browsers and apps from displaying custom elements in the Home Assistant UI properly. Apps like the very useful Fully Kiosk Browser fail to display properly, and any Home Assistant Android apps utilizing Webview fail as well.
One workaround is using the Google Chrome browser to display the Home Assistant UI. This works for custom Lovelace elements, but there are a few issues with this approach.
First, the UI becomes unresponsive after a few hours and needs to be periodically refreshed. If you don’t refresh the browser window, then the interface stops responding. The Chrome browser doesn’t support periodic refresh (but Fully Kiosk does) and I haven’t found a workaround for this issue.
Second, while it’s possible to install the Google Play store and services on the tablet without rooting, it doesn’t fix the Webview issue. But at least we can download Google Chrome and display the Home Assistant UI properly, with a few new problems.
Third, there are large borders taken up by the Chrome browser tab and status bars. There is a workaround by selecting the
Add to Home Screen in the Chrome browser to create a web app on your tablet’s home screen (works with Nova Launcher only). The web app displays the Home Assistant UI without browser tabs, but the status bar remains.. Another app, called GMD Full Screen Immersive Mode, can get rid of the status bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The pull-to-refresh screen problem still remains and this app seems to exacerbate that issue.
Fourth, the tablet can become very slow or unresponsive after a day or two of running. Rebooting the tablet helps, which you can automate using an app like Automate. In the end, it’s another workaround we have to do to use a cheap tablet.
There is a helpful new Windows app called Amazon Fire Toolbox, that can get rid of everything Amazon-related (including locks creen ads) and noticeably speed up your tablet. There are unwanted side effects, like the Settings app no longer works to configure Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or anything else for that matter, and a nagging notification about parental controls that appears whenever pressing the Home button.
As you can see, there are several compromises made to reach the Fire tablet’s $50 price point. Web browser performance on the Home Assistant UI can range from acceptable to just plain bad after a few days of running without a reboot. Chromecast does not work on some apps like Netflix, even if downloaded from the Google Play store. I still haven’t figured out how to login to the SmartThings app yet, as the Fire HD8’s default Amazon Silk browser cannot load the login page. The terribleness of the Fire OS shows itself in the most unexpected ways, as you can see.
Installation and Smart Home Integration
I was planning to write a guide on how to clean up the Fire HD tablet, but an automated tool called Amazon Fire Toolbox was recently released that does the same job, but much easier. These are the steps to installing the necessary apps on a Fire tablet:
- Download and use the Amazon Fire Toolbox on your tablet. It is complicated to set up (requires Windows PC, ADB drivers installed, ADB enabled in Developer Options, anti-virus disabled, ADB checks disabled, authorize PC), but it automates nearly every task you need to perform to debloat the tablet, disable auto-updates, remove lock screen ads, install Nova Launcher, Google Keyboard and Google Play Store and services.
- Use Google Chrome app to create a borderless web app by accessing the Home Assistant web server, then select the option
Add to Homescreen. This creates a browser view that removes the browser tabs normally found on Google Chrome.
OptionalUse the GMD Full Screen Immersive Mode app to remove borders and provide a full-screen view of Home Assistant. There is a problem though: the screen becomes unresponsive after a few hours and requires you to refresh the page often.
OptionalFlash your Amazon Fire tablet to another OS. In March 2019, a method was discovered on XDA-Developers forum to do so. It requires physically opening the tablet and shorting two points on the circuit board. There isn’t a custom Android ROM, so this technique is not useful yet.
OptionalUse Fully Kiosk Browser app would be the ideal app for Home Assistant, but due to using an outdated version of Android Web View, custom Lovelace cards do not load in this browser. One day it will be fixed!
OptionalAn official Android Home Assistant client was announced in 2019 and will be coming very shortly. Maybe this app can fix my problems!
For the few times I actually used a smart thermostat, I couldn't imagine living without one.
Useful as a Z-Wave or Zigbee network extender, but not much more.