Philips Hue lights: A great (but pricey) smart lighting system
We trialled smart LED bulbs and a lightstrip in-home to see what it's like to have unlimited control over your lights.
Philips Hue lights ecosystem is widely regarded as one of the most holistic smart lighting systems you can invest in.
And invest is the operative word here as it doesn’t come cheap! We trialled two units – a three-pack Hue white and colour starter kit with bridge (WiFi hub), which retails at a whopping $329.95, supplemented by a Lightstrip at a bargain $149.95. So what’s it like to have a room with a hue?
What is smart lighting?
Basically, it’s a system that uses LED bulbs and lights that have the ability to communicate with an app using either Bluetooth or WiFi connections, and the app then allows you full remote control of brightness and colour. But it doesn’t stop there. The Philips Hue app also allows you to sync to music, games or movies (with the appropriate additional hub once you have sold one of your kidneys). And you can create different types of automations, for timers, dimmers for waking up and going to sleep, and home-and-away automations that turn off your lights when you leave the house and turn them back on when you return.
Set-up was reasonably easy: Install the app, screw in the bulbs and turn them on, connect to the bridge using the app, and then add the lights in the app. You can specify the room the lights are in. Ours were installed in the kitchen as we don’t have ES (Edison Screw or E27) fittings in the lounge, unfortunately. We only installed two bulbs initially.
The bulbs look very much like any other LED bulb on the market, albeit a little less bulbous.
The ‘bridge’ hub is an innocuous, compact white box which you probably want to hide somewhere. But here’s the catch: Even though it communicates with the lights via WiFi, it cannot itself connect to your WiFi network. Instead, it requires being connected to your router via an ethernet cable. So unless you have an extremely long ethernet cable and a way of hiding it, you will need to locate the bridge close to your router.
This was somewhat problematic in our house as we only have four ethernet sockets on our router and they are already occupied. For testing purposes, I removed one of the cables to attach the bridge.
If you don’t want to use the bridge you can opt to connect to the lights just using Bluetooth, but this will limit functionality somewhat. For example, you won’t be able to use automations, and the range within which you can operate the bulbs will be far shorter as Bluetooth doesn’t have the same reach as WiFi. Kind of pointless spending all this money for the significantly reduced functionality.
Using the app
It’s pretty cool to be able to change the colour of the lights on the fly using the colour wheel in the app, and you can also dim them down using the slider. The app is quite intuitive and the bulbs respond almost immediately. The colour wheel has two modes – a multicolour one allowing an unlimited choice of hues, or a yellow to white tone one.
If you have more than one light in the room, they will all be shown on the colour wheel and you can change the colours individually. Or just drag the icons on top of each other to link the colours together (it took me a little while to suss this out, though). There is also an effects button for each bulb. Choose from candle or fireplace effect and it’ll set the lights to flicker in your chosen style.
Philips has also added a Hue scene gallery, with a variety of scene options from sunsets to flowers, and cities to skies. These are more suited for rooms with multiple hue lights (for example, four or five), as they essentially change each light’s colour individually, so the more you have, the more accurate the rendition. Two lights in the kitchen doesn’t really do this justice! There is also an option to design your own scenes, so the possibilities are pretty much endless.
For me, the ability to subtly change the colour or hue of the light and easily dim them was the best feature. A lot of non-smart LED bulbs can either be too white or just not yellow enough, so the Hue system allows you to dial in the perfect white light for your room. You can also connect the bulbs into the Google home app and use your voice to activate them … useful if you forgot to turn off the hallway light and can’t be bothered dragging yourself out of bed at night.
Syncing to music, games or movies.
Looking into the more advanced features of the system, we come to the syncing options. These allow you to sync the lights to music, games or movies, and they’ll flash with the beat or change colour, depending on the colour of the scene in the movie you are watching or game you are playing.
However, we could only try out this syncing via the PC because to sync to your TV requires an extra sync box, which costs $549!
The syncing to music effect was quite nice. You have a control for the level of the effect allowing more subtle transitions, or just crank it up for the full-on disco experience. Perfect if you are having a house party, but otherwise you’ll probably not use it much unless you get the sync box for movie and game syncing.
Waking up and leaving/returning home automations
Then we have the more useful, practical automation functions of the Hue system. The timer will either turn the lights up to full brightness, flash them or switch to any of the scenes at the end of a chosen duration, from one minute to 24 hours.
The ‘go to sleep’ automation unfortunately doesn’t tell your children to go to bed as I had hoped. It’s another type of timer that gradually fades down your lights to help you get into a slumber, which could be useful if you have trouble winding down.
Then the feature I was most interested in: the location-based ‘coming home’ and ‘leaving home’ automations that will turn off your lights when you leave, and back on when you return. This uses the GPS location services on your smartphone and a technology called geofencing that determines when you leave and enter a specific zone centred on your home (yep, Big Brother is watching you).
The frustration with this for new users is that it isn’t instantly obvious if it’s working correctly. I was expecting to see the lights turn off after I left but they didn’t, and I realised that the leaving zone must be a bit larger. So I went for a walk down the street in the dark and asked my wife to keep an eye on the lights, while I kept checking the app to see if they went off. They didn’t.
However, the next day a trip to a major DIY store ensued and while I was away, the lights had switched off and my wife couldn’t get them back on! So the system does work, but it also highlighted a major issue with the whole geofencing shenanigans. With multiple adults in a household, you need everyone to have the app installed and set up correctly, and then the system will only turn off the lights once the last adult has vacated. And it relies on the light switches being left on all the time to let the system control them, which is counter-intuitive to our years of manually switching off lights every time we leave. I decided to test the distance you had to leave before the system turned off the lights, so hopped in the car this time, and found that the geofenced zone seems to be around 500 metres. The interesting thing here was that when returning the lights don’t go back on until you are much closer to home – only a few seconds before you get to the door, actually.
This type of automation can also be set up using the Google home app. So if you have other smart devices set up using this app, you can integrate the Philips Hue system. It is a little complicated but there is plenty of info online to help you through the steps.
Philips Hue Lightstrip
We also purchased a Philips Hue Colour Lightstrip for our trial. This is a 2m LED strip that you have to plug into a wall socket. This makes installation interesting as you need to have a socket available and a way to hide the cable, just like you do with the bridge. It lends itself to being a strip you put under your entertainment centre to sync with movies, under furniture to highlight areas of your room, or in hallways or stairs for guidance at night. All the functionality of the app is available for the strip too, and this one has three separate colour-controllable areas. And boy is this strip bright!
We didn’t really have an appropriate spot for the strip. It can be stuck on to surfaces using the double-sided tape on the rear, but I didn’t want to attach it to anything before testing so we just draped it over the mantelpiece and enjoyed the effect from there. It’s pretty flexible despite being quite thick and it certainly feels durable. It can also be cut to a shorter length if need be (just turn it off before doing so!), or it can be attached to other strips with connectors to extend up to 10m.
We’ve only touched on a small portion of the Hue range in this trial. There are many more products available including table lamps, pendant lights, downlights, outdoor lights, floodlights and lighted mirrors. The system also has dimmer switches, smart plugs and motion sensors that can all interact with the bridge and automations.
The Hue app is well refined and easy to use and the whole system has a feel of quality, from the app through to the products themselves. However, it’s a very expensive system, especially if you decide to kit out the whole house. And once you’ve done one room, you’ll probably want to do the rest.
The scope of the system for automations and effects is large so if you like tinkering with tech, this is the system for you. I loved the ability to dim and subtly change the colour of the lights, and the prospect of having lights come on automatically for when I return home was great. But the reality of the set-up with multiple household members made it somewhat unworkable.
Philips Hue lights were loaned to Consumer NZ by Adhesive PR