The Philips Hue lights, when they first debuted in October 2012, seemed like the next big thing in lighting. First, they’re LED lights, which means they’re crazily energy efficient. They’re color-adjustable so you can make them glow nearly any shade from bright white to blood red. Finally, they’re wireless and operated easily by a mobile app (that works well on both Android and iOS).
This seemed like a perfect addition to the DIYer’s assortment of home automation gadgets. Then a few months later, Extra Vegetables, a company that develops drivers for home control systems, came out with software to allow Control4 systems to integrate Hue lights. A similar solution from Savant also makes Hue play nicely with that system.
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Having toyed with other easy lighting solutions, I decided to give this one a try.
So, why would you want this? The two main appealing factors are design and convenience.
Lighting has a huge impact on the look and tone of a room. Lights aren’t just for brighten up a room so we can read at night. They highlight a room’s features, bring out a room’s colors and textures, and influence the emotional feel of the room. Lighting designers make great use of dimmers to create drama. The ability to change the color and brightness of the light through Hue’s app means that you’re not stuck with just one lighting design look. You can change the light’s impact anytime you feel like it.
Next—convenience. Because the Hue lights are wireless and app controlled, you don’t have to get out of your chair and hit a light switch or pull a cord to turn a light on or off. You don’t even have to be in the same room. You can turn on the lights before you enter the room, and after you leave. You can be lying in bed and turn off the downstairs lights with your iPhone.
In the $200 starter kit you get three Hue bulbs and a gateway, which is a small hub that connects to your router or network switch by a Cat5 Ethernet cable. Of course you also get the app, which you download for free to your smartphone or tablet.
The bulbs fit standard screw-type sockets, which is nice because that’s what most of our lamps still use, but you can’t use them for most chandeliers or sconces. I put them in can-style accent lamps and placed them strategically in my media room to add some drama and to highlight my creepy horror movie posters.
The many shades of Hue, and my Les Paul.
Setting up the system takes about a minute. You screw in the bulbs, connect the hub to your router or network switch, and press the connect button on the hub. Use the Hue app (which you’ve already downloaded at this point, right?) to name each bulb and start playing with colors.
I gave the bulbs creative names: front, back left, back right.
The bulbs communicate with the hub via Zigbee, which is a mesh network, so theoretically the more bulbs you add, the stronger your network.
Once the lights were all logged into the system, it was time to play. The only way to operate the lights is with the app ( I installed Hue on both my iPhone and Samsung Android tablet). There’s no separate remote like the one that comes with TCP or GreenWave Reality wireless lights, but those don’t do any fancy colors either. (Read my review of the TCP system here.)
The app comes with about a dozen light scenes already installed. A light scene is a color and brightness combination, usually with a goofy name like “Deep Sea”, “Sunset,” and “Jump.” Each scene can be adjusted, though the app isn’t exactly intuitive. You have to make an up swipe motion then turn the phone or tablet on its side before the app switches to a the color adjustment mode. You can change how the whole scene looks or adjust individual bulbs. The preset scenes assume that all three bulbs are in the same room, but the way you set them up may differ.
You can save any of the changes in the pre-set scenes, change their names, or make completely new ones. The easiest way to make a new scene is to base it off a photo—either one in your phone’s existing library, or take a new one within the app. Hue will then attempt to match the colors shown in the photo. I took a photo of my red guitar to use as the basis for a deep red scene, then I adjusted each bulb’s brightness to my liking and saved it, calling the new scene Red Gibson. You don’t have to include every bulb in your scenes. I created another scene I called Blue Movie, which was designed to be a nice subtle amount of light for when watching movies on my projection screen. Blue light from the rear bulbs shines in the back corners of the room while the one bulb in the front of the room stays off. I also created a slightly brighter scene for when my daughter invites her boyfriend over to watch a movie—I don’t like leaving them alone in the dark.
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The colors the Hue bulbs produce are really quite stunning, though they’re not particularly bright about the same as a 50 watt incandescent bulb in white mode, but much dimmer in colors. In my dark media room, much of the brightness is absorbed by the flat-paint of the walls, which is the look I was going for, but in a white room you can easily wash the whole room in colors.
In addition to the light scenes, there are also four built-in light recipes (I still don’t exactly get the difference) which are variations of white or white/yellow colors designed and named for specific activities: Reading, Energize, Concentrate and Relax.
You can further customize your lights within the recipe menu with timers (so the light gently fades off when you go to bed), schedules (to wake you up with a green glow in the morning) or physical location (so the lights turn off when your—or your phone—leave the house).
One note about creating scenes: you can’t easily share them between phones or tablets. If you create a new light scene with your iPhone, that scene is saved in the phone app, so when you launch the app on a different phone or tablet, your new scene isn’t available. You have to make it again. One way around this is to create an account with www.meethue.com and load your scenes to share with other users, then download your own scenes back to your other devices.
Overall, the Philips Hue lights are pretty awesome. It’s quite a revelation to no longer be restricted to the yellowish-white light you’ve lived your whole indoor life with. The company has recently added an accent lamp (with the bulb built in) and a light strip (neat for placing under a counter, shelf or coffee table).
On one hand the Hue system provides functionality beyond what most professionally-installed lighting control systems offer. It’s not cheap though—while $200 doesn’t sound bad for the starter kit, that’s only three bulbs, which might not even cover all the lights in one room. Additional bulbs are $60. Which is why you probably don’t want to replace all the lights in your house with Hue lights. In fact, you probably can’t since they only come in one bulb style. You also need to keep the light switches (lamp or wall switch) in the on position at all times or the app won’t be able to communicate with the bulb. If you don’t have your phone handy, you can’t turn the light on or off. For those reasons, Hue isn’t quite a replacement for a true lighting control system, but it’s a nice option for a room or two.
Some of those issues can be resolved if you integrate Hue with a professionally installed control system, which should give you the best of both worlds.
Philips Hue Wireless LED Bulbs
Starter Kit: $200
Additional Bulbs: $59
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