Something must have infiltrated the air in early 2012, because out of nowhere, Internet-connected multicolor LED light bulbs became all the rage. There were multiple versions all over Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and a slew of other small startups that it became hard to separate one noise from the rest. That is, until Apple selected the Philips Hue to star in its Apple Store for both online and physical retailers. The rest dimmed into history.
… There’s nothing like it out there (for now), and we have to admit the thing’s just plain fun and addictive.
In case you’re not familiar, the Philips Hue is a Wi-Fi-enabled LED lighting system that allows you to control power, brightness, and color straight from your mobile device. You can also set alarms for the lights to start illuminating gradually to wake you up in the morning or dim as it draws closer to bedtime. It can even change colors to display various notifications, such as weather warnings, important e-mails, or winning/losing scores from your favorite sports team.
Of course, all that capabilities come with a price. A starter pack of three lightbulbs and a base station costs $200, and additional bulbs are $60 apiece. But is the Hue worth the value, or just pure novelty?
Out of the box, you’ll find three 600 lumens, 8.5 watts Hue lightbulbs ready to be installed with any standard lamp or ceiling light. They are about the same size as your average florescent or incandescent bulb, except with a flatter head. Philips say the LED technology allows the Hue to be powered for up to 15,000 hours and uses 80 percent less power than traditional bulbs despite the Wi-Fi connection. Light accounts to pretty minimal electrical usage (compared to appliances, chargers, TVs, and computers), so we’re not particularly concerned with how much a couple of bulbs gobbles. Still, it’s nice to know that adding Internet connection to small products doesn’t make them less environmentally friendly.
To get started, replace your bulbs with the Hue and connect the bridge base station to your home’s router via ethernet. Follow the instructions on the Hue’s iOS or Android app. As long as both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network, you should be able to sync the devices in under a minute. After the confirmation, you can find the bulbs and rename each one. When you select the specific bulb to rename, it will flash to indicate its location. One bridge can pair with up to 50 bulbs, although the original three in the starter kit will only be able to sync with the base station it came with. Just keep that in mind if you plan to buy multiple starter kits.
In Living Color
Now that the system is linked, you can use the app to change the color settings or brightness. This function is good for more than just starting impromptu disco parties in your living room: Different wavelengths of light affect your brain chemistry in different ways, and the right lighting can have a profound effect on your state of mind. We won’t bore you with lecture on how melatonin is regulated in your brains – but feel free to give it an extra read if you’re curious.
The Hue app comes with several preset “scenes,” such as dark red and blues for “Deep Sea” and reds and beige for “Beach.” For each scene, you can adjust the brightness and specific shade for each of three bulbs to match whatever “scene” you desire. There are also “Light Recipes” that are supposed to cater to particular moods and activities, like “Relax,” “Concentrate,” and “Reading.” These settings are more natural, such as soft yellow tones to calm the mind, or a blueish-white hue to make you feel more energized.
If none of these color scenes inspire you, the Hue app also allows you to take a picture and draw colors from the photo to complement the room. This is helpful if you want to match the lights to your room’s walls and furniture, letting the bulbs accent the space. You can also set the alarm for specific scenes to turn on or off, and how long you want the bulbs to begin gradually lighting or dimming.
Although the Hue bulbs and bridge need to initially be on the same Wi-Fi network as your mobile device, if you register the system on MeetHue.com, you can control the lights from any remote location. This means resetting the alarms while you’re at work or on vacation, or messing with light colors from afar to prank the kids at home. It’s important to note that you can only change the light color and brightness if you have the light switch(es) turned on and adjust the settings via the app. Otherwise, flicking the switch will still turn the lights on or off, you just won’t be able to edit the colors.
Alarms, notifications, and geofencing
Here’s where the Hue gets smarter than your average disco-colored bulbs. Although you probably already use your smartphone for reminder alarms, light-based alarms have greater advantages. For example, you can set a weekly alarm that turns your lights green to remind you to take the recycling bin out to the curb every Tuesday night at 8:00. Unlike notifications and alerts on your phone, which you can swipe away and forget, the light will stay green until you manually change it back. This can be helpful for those who are so used to routine phone alarms that a small buzz is easily dismissed and forgotten. A light alarm is harder to overlook since the bulbs are staring you in the face.
Another nifty feature included in Hue’s iOS 1.1 update is geofencing. This function allows the Hue to recognize your mobile device’s presence, allowing the lights to switch on or off based on specific locations. The most obvious use of this is configuring your lights to switch off when you leave the house and vice versa, but with a bit of creativity this function can be used for much more.
Let’s say you want to know when your kids get to school every day, or get notified when your spouse arrives at the airport. As long as the person in question has a smartphone, you can have them set up a location-based trigger that’ll change the color of your lights when they get to the destination. No need to fiddle with check-ins or type out text messages – Hue’s got you covered just by showing up with a preset device. That’s more trustworthy than a Foursquare check-in that could easily be faked since it requires the physical phone to sync with the GPS location.
Using IFTTT effectively
There are literally hundreds of different ways to use Hue with IFTTT, but one of our favorite uses for it typically involve some kind of passive information gathering. This way, you can proceed to do whatever it is you’re doing and still get updates without diverting your attention.
For example, you can set IFTTT to command Hue to change light colors when the temperature hits below freezing point, or blink when you’re tagged in a Facebook post. If there’s a sports game on but you can’t constantly check the scores, a combination of recipes allows the Hue to blink each time your team scores or change colors depending on the final score.
With the addition of IFTTT, Hue’s notifications feature is greatly expanded. Alerts no longer have to come from just your phone, but from just about any online service. We’ve got one that’ll turn our lights red if the CDC ever reports a zombie outbreak, and another that turns orange when friends post new songs on Soundcloud.
And this is just the beginning. There are so many IFTTT recipes that you can customize to fit your specific needs. Check them out for yourself on IFTTT‘s official recipe book.
Although the Hue comes with great variaties, the scenes are still extremely subjective. I personally find the “Reading” profile to be the most usable, everyday shade while some of my housemates claimed it looked too “warm.” We also found that orange tends to appear more red than, well, orange, so the “Sunset” setting doesn’t quite resemble what one would traditionally envision the golden hour. The “Ski” setting did a great job setting an icy, cold ambience with the bright, light blue colors. It’s a fun novelty for sure, but you can only change scenes several times before this all gets old.
Although version 1.1 update to Hue’s iOS app allows the bulbs coordinate geofencing settings, one thing that’s still missing is the ability to sync with music or TV. If the bulbs could perform a light show and automatically change with the sound of music or movies, it could take the color customization factor to a new level. You could theoretically remedy this by downloading a third-party app like Hue Disco, but it’d be nicer to have this option native within the app. If you want to unlock more features, however, apps like Hue Go add functions you couldn’t have even dreamed of, like its “God’s Voice” setting that increases the brightness of your bulbs based on how loud you talk.
Another thing to note about the Hue is that you cannot group individual bulbs into separate settings. For example, if you wanted to change the colors for just bulbs 1-3 in the living room and not bulbs 4-6, you’d have to adjust the bulbs separately. This seems like a simple enough issue that the Hue may be able to add on in the future, and with 15,000 hours of use ahead, we’ve got a lot of time for Philips to do something about it.
Philips Hue versus competitors
Now that we know how the Hue works, we want to know: What makes the Hue different than the rest? Well, for one, the only other bulb we’ve got to review so far as the Insteon, and that bulb doesn’t do fancy LED colors. The LIFX would be its next major competitor, but as a Kickstarter project, it’s just beginning to ship its first batch to earlybird backers. For those on a budget, the Torchstar also lets you control bulb color settings – provided you’re okay without the Wi-Fi capabilities, alarm settings, and scene customizations.
These factors alone make the Philips Hue a leader in its market, just for getting into people’s homes before anyone else with similar bright ideas got there. But aside from its quirky features, the Hue also functions with other smart devices like the Belkin WeMo and IFTTT logic. Together, the combination makes this product a front-runner in the smart LED bulb market – even if it’s the priciest.
Should you buy it?
If you have some extra cash on hand, absolutely. It’s hard to recommend you spend $200 on what’s just three color lightbulbs, especially with the LED bulb market is growing and prices are consistently lowering. Still, there’s nothing like it out there (for now), and we have to admit the thing’s just plain fun and addictive. It’s the kind of accessory that could also vamp up your home in a functional and stylistic way, and we anticipate more features in the upcoming months.
However, if the price is still too steep for your liking, Cree makes quality LED bulbs that could help you save energy and provide longer lasting power than incandescents. It won’t turn your home into a disco hall, but it will help lower carbon footprint and save a couple bucks on your monthly electrical bills.
The Philips Hue is available today for $200 at the Apple store or online.
Originally written by Natt Garun with additional reporting by Drew Prindle