Just under a year since we posted our review of the Mi smart Gateway, we now get the opportunity to review a device that at the time of its initial discovery (leak…), was seen as quite similar to the aforementioned Mi branded hub – namely the Aqara Hub M2. Whilst both surfaced around the same time, the Mijia variant was able to get somewhat of a headstart on the Aqara M2, being released in China around 10 months earlier. Still, it’s not always the first past the post that could be considered the winner, and in this review, we’ll see why the M2 is in many ways, a more worthy gateway. Let dive in…
At the time of purchasing this from China, with the help of fellow reviewer Eric Yao, the M2 was hard to find, even on the Mainland, but looking at the packaging, it would appear that it had possibly been sitting around, waiting for release, for a while. The reason I suggest this is that even though Aqara has updated its packaging design somewhat, with the use of a blue circle to highlight the products, which in this case is missing, the older Aqara logo is also being used on the packaging. Not that it matters of course, but something to note if you see the newer packaging when you buy the newly released EU/International variant. Still, the container is fine and protects the internals adequately enough.
The box features all the basic info you might need (in Chinese in this case), along with the official ‘Zigbee Certified Product’ logo, which we’ve seen pop up more and more on both Aqara and Mijia branded devices. Products with this badge are using Zigbee 3.0 in almost all cases. Aside from this, you get the usual flurry of features and specs, as listed below;
- Model: ZHWG12LM
- Dimensions: 100 x 100 x 30.75mm
- Network connection: WiFi IEEE 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz
- Device connectivity: Zigbee 3.0 IEEE 802.15.4, Bluetooth LE 5.0
- Operating temperature: -5ºC ~ +50ºC
- Operating humidity: 0 ~ 95% RH
- Capable of connecting 32 child devices, or up to 128 with the use of signal repeaters
- Dual WiFi antennae
- Micro USB power supply
- RJ45 Ethernet port for wired internet connection
- Zigbee 3.0
- Siri voice control
- built-in Infrared (IR) transceiver
- Control both Zigbee and IR devices via automations, scenes etc
As you can see, the M2 is a very capable device, although there are a few caveats that should be noted with regards to a couple of points listed above; first of all, even though the M2 can act as a Bluetooth hub, currently there are no Aqara-branded Bluetooth devices available – not that many people would be interested when compared to the speed of the Zigbee devices. Additionally, the Bluetooth functionality is not of the Bluetooth Mesh variety, unlike the Mi Smart Gateway, so it’s unclear as to what use cases the Bluetooth functionality would be used for at this point.
The other point to note is that the M2 is being touted as having the ability to support up to 128 devices, and while this is true, the only way to achieve support for this number, is by using repeater/relay devices within your setup that act as sort of ‘mini hubs’ by themselves. It basically works like this; you have your M2 as the main hub, and you can connect various Zigbee devices directly to it. If you add a permanently powered device to the hub, like a smart plug, or a wall switch (with neutral only), then these act as relays for devices that are subsequently added to the M2, if the relay device is nearer to the newest child device you add. Each repeater/relay device can support up to 16 child devices. This then essentially increases the number to a theoretically possible 128 devices, although whether you’d reach that amount in practice is going to be uncommon I suspect.
Aside from a small manual, that contains one of three instances of the HomeKit code, you get a USB type power supply, a USB > Micro USB cable, and the M2 itself. There’s also a HomeKit code on the base of the M2, as well as on one of the inner flaps of the box.
The M2 looks very modern and slick on first viewing, although it really is a big dust and fingerprint magnet. The sides, being that they use very glossy plastic, are particularly prone to this. The top, which incidentally has the new Aqara logo (unlike the box), has a textured feel to it. It might have been better to use this texture all around, but I believe the sides are actually translucent, to allow the infrared transceiver to emit signals, so a textured surface may not have worked. Thankfully, everything is in matching black.
The whole device is quite minimalist, so on the front, you only get a small pairing/reset button and an even smaller LED. For anyone who has problems sleeping from glaring LEDs, I’ve found that this LED – which in normal operation is blue – didn’t bother me at all. We’ll come back to the LED in a minute, but the button, as mentioned, is for pairing mode and resetting the M2, just like you’d find with Aqara’s other hubs, of which there’s a growing number!
the rear of the hub is where it all gets a little more interesting, with an RJ45 ethernet port, a Micro-USB port for power, and an as-yet unused USB-A port. Whilst the M2 has decent WiFi capabilities, if like me, you prefer a wired connection where possible, this is a big plus, and I’ve had mine plugged into my router from day one, which is how it’ll stay. The other big plus is the use of a separate USB power supply, which really puts paid to the issue of having to use an adaptor if you’ve either bought a hub in the past, with a different built-in plug, or there wasn’t a variant that comes with your type of plug. Now, even if you get the Chinese version, and want to use it in the EU, you just have to use a regionally suitable USB plug that in most cases you’ll have lying around spare. There’s a constant complaint as to why companies are still using Micro USB instead of USB-C, and yes it’s mildly frustrating, but in all honesty, it’s not as though you’re ever going to be unplugging it once a month, let alone daily, so it’s not a problem for me. Finally onto the USB-A port, and at present, it seems it’s only for diagnosis purposes and is of no use to the end-user. Maybe they’ll expand its use down the road later though.
Finally onto the base of the hub, which is where the audio speaker resides, along with the third instance of the HomeKit code. The base has a couple of rubber strips that act as feet. If you already own, or at least aware of the original Aqara hub (Aqara M1 as it’s being described these days), you’ll know it comes with a speaker and a night light. The M2 has dispensed with the light, but retains the speaker, although it’s not as loud as the M1’s speaker, which isn’t massively loud anyway. With this in mind, I’d say that although it’s loud enough to easily wake you up in the event of an alarm, like the M1, it’s never going to match the volume of a pro alarm system’s siren, even compared to the Abode gateways, which I’ve found to be decent in this regard. Still, the M2’s speaker can still be used as a doorbell chime, an alarm clock etc. The night light is always of use to me in automations, but I can see why it wasn’t included here, which I’m going to posit is once again for the unimpeded functionality of the infrared transceiver.
In HomeKit and the Home app, the M2 initially shows up with its own tile, representing the security system, or alarm. As it ha no other function besides being a hub, it’s also listed with the Hubs & Bridges section of the Home app in the settings for your HomeKit home. The great news is the all four possible alarm modes available in HomeKit are exposed with the M2 (Off, Night/Sleep, Away, Home). Even better, these modes also sync between the Aqara and Home apps, so selecting a mode in either app, will activate that mode in the other app. Whilst the current Aqara hub only has Away and Off options, the new M1s, and the P3 also have all four modes exposed like the M2. The hub portion of the Aqara G2H camera is the odd one out, as its alarm functionality is not exposed to HomeKit. As previously mentioned, the speaker in the M2 isn’t too loud, but it’s more than enough to notify you.
Another seemingly useful benefit of the M2 is the built-in IR transceiver, which essentially allows the M2 to control any of characteristics available for devices that use an IR-based remote control, be that TVs, fans, AC units, set-top boxes etc. The reason I say ‘seemingly’ is that in my case, there aren’t too many devices in the home that use IR remotes these days, and even if they do, they tend to also have wifi access too, meaning I can control them in other ways. Indeed, my ageing Samsung TV is only ever used in conjunction with my Apple TV, which automatically turns on the TV, when it is turned on, so in the case of the TV, it’s not of massive use. That’s just me though. Similarly, with the AC unit in the bedroom, until I got my Tado Smart AC controller (read the review HERE), this would have been quite useful, but the fact the Tado has a physical control panel makes it generally a much more ‘hands-on’ devices for most users in the home, than via the app.
When I first started getting into HomeKit, I was already on the way to working out ways of controlling IR-based devices, with the help of the LifeSmart Spot (which was originally – but unofficially – exposed to Homekit), and later on, the Mi Universal Controller, both of which use the same IR transceiver technology. So in one sense, the Aqara M2’s option isn’t anything new to me. What it does allow for, is the ability to add these IR devices into scenes and automations in the Aqara app, as though they were regular devices. That itself is not quite HomeKit integration of course, but it’s close. If you then take into account that smart switches and buttons that can be added to both Aqara and HomeKit can also control these IR devices, then you get something very close. It just all depends on what you think is useful for controlling specific aspects of an IR-based device.
Aqara give you a selection of device types to choose from, including stereos, DVD players, smart lights, and even the opportunity to create a custom remote of your own choosing.
A while ago, when light strip options were severely limited and pricey, I bought a cheap light strip from my local DIY store, that came with its own IR remote. With the help of the custom remote option, I can easily create a software-based remote to replace this remote control, and from there, control the low budget strip using the M2.
For my Samsung TV, you can see I’m able to set up a fully functioning remote in the Aqara app, which also includes a ton of features you’re hard-pressed to find with the original remote., which does present some distinct advantages when you consider what can be achieved with automations. Further still, with the fact that the Aqara app can convert scenes and automations into Siri Shortcuts, the possibilities for voice control become very enticing, which I’ve begun to exploit with my recently acquired HomePod Minis (HomePods Mini?).
When the original Aqara Hub came out, it was an easy job knowing what child devices were or weren’t exposed to HomeKit, but with the addition of the G2H, the M1S, the P3, and the M2, thing become a lot more complicated, as what might be exposed to HomeKit via one hub, has yet to be exposed to HomeKit via another hub, and that’s even before you take into account the regional server issues. This isn’t something I can necessarily blame Aqara for, as devices that are exposed to HomeKit via one hub, need to be recertified for each new hub, and this can be a lengthy process if you have a lot of child devices. So far, based on the Chinese M2 I’m using, I can confirm the following devices are exposed to HomeKit, via the Aqara app, set to the Mainland China server;
- Aqara temperature and humidity sensor
- Aqara door and window sensor
- Aqara motion sensor
- Aqara leak sensor
- Aqara vibration sensor
- Aqara wireless mini switch
- Aqara wireless rocker (double & single)
- Opple Wireless switch (2, 4, 6 button)
- Mi door and window sensor
- Mi motion sensor
- Mi temperature and humidity sensor
- Mi smart button
- Mi smart plug (Taiwan)
- Mi light sensor
Undoubtedly, there are going to be more that are exposed to HomeKit, or at least will be when the M2 spreads throughout the EU, where it has just been released, and the US, where it’ll be available at some point in 2021.
THE M2 IN USE
I’ve had the Chinese version of the M2 since late August 2020, so I feel that I’ve had enough time to assess any potential issues. First of all, I didn’t go full steam ahead and move everything over from other hubs, just so I could test it out, as that would potentially be asking for trouble, but I’ve tested devices here and there over the last few months, and I’ve not once had an issue so far. Whether this is down to the wired connection, or because I’ve found all of my Aqara devices pretty robust in this manner, I’m not sure, but it has been solid. The one initial problem I did encounter, which has since been resolved, was that when I added the M2, after the Chinese G2H was already added, I found that the alarm modes in the Aqara app would change for the G2H, but not the M2. This also meant that the alarm modes were not synced between Apple Home and Aqara. I resolved this by removing both the G2H and the M2, and re-adding them again, with the M2 being the latter to be added. It seemed that adding the M2 last, made it the default device for the alarm functionality and modes, although I’ve since added an Aqara M1S hub, which also has the four alarm modes. The situation now is that whether I arm the M2 or the M1S in either the Home app or the Aqara app, they sync between both apps, and with each other, which is great.
So, taking everything there is to say about the M2, I’m finding it difficult to complain about anything with this nifty little device. The speaker isn’t that loud, but then neither was the original, so…
It also marks an improvement over the Mi smart Gateway I mentioned at the start of the review, mostly due to the speaker and the IR blaster. The Mi smart Gateway has both the Bluetooth and Bluetooth Mesh hub functionality, but I’ve tended to steer clear of most Bluetooth devices for a while now, and Bluetooth Mesh devices that are both compatible with the Mi Smart Gateway and HomeKit seem to be scarce, so these plusses are of no consequence to me. While I sort of miss the night light, I do still have a few of the original hubs (2 x Chinese, 1 x Hong Kong, 1 x US) plus the Chinese Aqara M1S, so I’ve still got plenty of choices if I want to make use of a night light if I want. In conclusion, this is all that I hoped it would be, with my expectations not having been dampened by the incredibly long wait.