Ambitions are running high for the smart home. Over the years we’ve been promised that eventually our smartphones are going to talk to our fridges, which can talk to our toasters with a little help from a friendly neighborhood internet-connected toilet.
By comparison, the ambition of Philips Hue’s internet-connected light bulbs seem much more limited in scope. However, with its attention laser-focussed on lighting alone, Philips has created one of the most complete smart lighting systems out there, and it’s one that easily beats much of the smart home competition in terms of its robustness and completeness.
However, while Philips Hue is definitely one of the better smart lighting systems out there, we’re still not entirely convinced that they’re decisively better than the traditional ‘dumb’ light bulbs that we’ve been using to light our households for decades.
[Update: At the end of 2017 Philips Hue is still the most comprehensive smart lighting system around. There are different bulbs to fit almost every light socket, and Philips is also eager to integrate the bulbs with third-party ecosystems such as HomeKit, Alexa, and IFTTT.
Stay tuned for the released of Apple's HomePod speaker which will bring big benefits to Hue's HomeKit integration, allowing you to have Siri control your lighting without having to carry your iOS device around with you.]
Where to start?
It’s tough to know where to start with Philips Hue since, after its initial release in 2012, the range has grown to encompass an almost frighteningly large array of colored light bulbs, lamps and lighting strips.
At a minimum, you’ll need at least one connected light and the Philips Hue bridge, which connects to your router and allows you to communicate with your smart bulbs. This makes the two bulb and bridge-equipped starter kit ($69.99 / £59.99 / AU$144.95) the cheapest entry point into the range, but you’re forgoing more advanced features such as smart light switches and color-changing bulbs.
For our tests we used the next step up, a three bulb starter kit that included the company’s color-changing bulbs. Despite the fact that this is still a fairly basic kit, this retails for a much more substantial $199.95 (£149.95 / AU$289.95).
Once you’ve bought this starter kit things get a lot cheaper however, as you only need one bridge to control your whole setup. Additional lights and switches can all be synced with this same bridge as you build up your home system.
If you’re looking to jump into Philips Hue then this color-changing starter kit is probably the best way to do it, since it will allow you to play around with Hue’s more advanced features without investing to heavily in your initial setup.
Outside of this starter kit, you have a huge number of options for how to proceed. You’ve got additional bulbs that are available in a wide variety of different form factors from candle bulbs through to spotlights, lamps and lighting strips.
Philips also sells a couple of different switches, which allow you to control your lighting without getting your phone out of your pocket (although yes, we appreciate this is something you can already do with your existing lights - we’ll get to that later).
Installation will vary with the complexity of your setup, but we found it to be about as painless a process as it could be.
Once you’ve got the bulbs seated in their fixtures you’ll need to make sure they’re powered on in order for them to be discoverable.
Next, you simply plug the Hue bridge into both power and your router, download the Hue app (available for and devices), and wait for it to discover the bulbs in your home. Our setup discovered the bulbs quickly and easily.
Once your bulbs are discovered you’ll need to assign them to rooms, which allows you to control groups of them much more easily.
With your bulbs assigned to rooms, the setup process is complete and you’ll be able to get stuck in configuring them to your heart’s delight.
The one sticking point here, and it’s a big one, is that you’ll need to leave your bulbs turned on at the wall if you want to be able to control them remotely. Turn them off using your standard light switches, and the bulbs won’t have any power to be able to receive wireless signals.
This proved to be a big problem, as you’ll see from the performance section to come.
Philips Hue app
Philips has worked hard to develop its app, which has seen a great deal of improvement in the years since the smart bulb’s initial release.
The default home screen shows you your available rooms, allowing you to control all their bulbs as a group. You can tap on the switch to the right of the screen to turn them on to their last setting.
But if you’re using the default settings you’re nowhere near using the Philips Hue bulbs to their potential. The real fun starts when you tap the room’s icon on the left of the screen, which allows you to customize the exact bulb color.
The easiest way to do this is with Philips’ pre-configured scenes, which range from ‘Spring Blossom’ (a cool, white light) through to ‘Savanna Sunset’ (a much richer yellow hue). We found ourselves relying mostly on the activity-specific defaults. ‘Energise’ was perfect for the mornings when the harsh white light worked well to blow away the cobwebs, while ‘Relax’ worked better in the evenings where we wanted our brains to wind down.
If you want to get really granular you can adjust specific settings to create your own scenes, or even have the Hue app create a light scheme based on an imported picture.
This additional functionality is appreciated, but in practice we didn’t feel the need to use it much. After all, there are only so many different shades of yellow to experiment with before the novelty wears off.
The exception was using the lights to play around with bright, primary colors. We can’t ever see ourselves using these in our everyday lives, but they’d make a perfect accessory for a party atmosphere.
Of much great importance is the routines section of the app. From here you’ll be able to set the lights to automatically turn on and off when you arrive at, and subsequently leave the house, as well as allowing you to have the lights turn on and off automatically at different times.
By way of an example, we had the lights turn on to help us wake up in the morning, before automatically turning off when we left the house for work. In the evening we then had the lights turn back on when we arrived back at the house. You could also have the lights turn off automatically at a certain time, but we found it easier to do this manually.
Philips smart switches
There are a couple of switches that Phillips has created to use with its Hue bulbs. As we mentioned earlier, these enable you to control the bulbs without using the app. This not only saves you from having to reach for your smartphone, but it means guests who do not have the app can still control the lights.
The first switch is the Philps Hue Tap Switch, which sells for $49.99 (£49.99, AU$79.95), and comes with four buttons. These buttons can be assigned to the scenes you’ve previously created, allowing you to quickly switch between light settings. You can also assign a button to turn off and on the lights. These settings are configured via a separate app.
The design of the Hue Tap switch is quite pleasant, with three reasonable sized buttons in the lower half of the device’s body. The fourth button is actually the entire face of the switch, which can be pressed in. However, while the design is nice, it does not look like a traditional light switch, which has a tendency to confuse visitors who don’t know what the device is for.
The Philps Hue Tap Switch is easily installed, as it comes with adhesives on the back that allow you to stick it to walls and other surfaces. It does not require batteries either - instead it uses the kinetic energy created when you push the buttons for power, which is pretty nifty.
The second switch is the Philips Hue Dimmer Switch, which has a more simple - and identifiable - design. It doesn’t have the complexity of the Tap Switch, and simply dims or brightens connected lights, or turns them on or off. It’s also more affordable, selling for $24.99 (£19.99, AU$34).
Of course, the Philips app and accessories are only the start of the Philips Hue ecosystem thanks to the fact that the company has been at pains to integrate its products into a number of other third-party services including Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s HomeKit, Google Home and IFTTT (aka If This, Then That).
These integrations mean that you can use a dizzying number of devices to control your lights, meaning that if you ask ten different Philips Hue owners how they control their smart lights you’ll probably get ten different answers depending on which accessories they have connected and which phone operating system they use.
Our primary reviewer was using an as their primary means of controlling their lighting setup. This meant that they had the option of jumping into the app to turn on their lights, or else control them from the phone’s control center menu via their HomeKit integration.
Doing so was a simple matter of logging into a Hue account from within the Alexa app, after which point controlling the lights was as simple as asking Alexa to turn certain rooms on or off.
A quick word of warning that you need to be sure to give each of your rooms a name that’s distinct and easy to pronounce. It might be convenient to simply name your bedroom ‘Bedroom’, but this will quickly become confusing as soon as you equip other bedrooms in your house with Hue lights.
Meanwhile, another of our reviewers used the Nuimo - Smart Home Controller to control some Hue lightbulbs. This is a nicely designed (and pricey) controller, that worked well in some senses. However, it requires a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone with the Hue app installed, which makes things a little convoluted. So, if that phone is not in range, the controller doesn’t work. There is also a delay when using the Nuimo controller to control Hue, due to the controller having to communicated with the smartphone and then the app. It should be noted that this is a design flaw with Nuimo, rather than Hue. However, we’d suggest Philip’s own switches for quick control of Hue. They are easier to install and cheaper.