Philips Hue Review: Light ’em up

Philips Hue Pack

If you have a passing familiarity with the Philips Hue lights, you might be saying, what’s the big deal with these things? I can switch my expensive lights off with my phone. Whoop-de-freakin’-do. I am officially a wanker.

Well, exactly that’s what I thought too in the first week of using them. But, I gave them a couple of weeks, and I discovered some neat tricks. Stuff that made me go back and re-think that assumption. Some neat uses that actually made my life easier in some small, measurable way.

It even got me started thinking about how other connected appliances could impact on our lives. About how one day, my washing machine could chat to my phone about what clothes were available for tomorrow. Where my WiFi-enabled jaffle maker could cook me a sympathetic afternoon snack after a particularly brutal work session.

Oh crap. I’ve wandered back into wanker territory again.

Firstly, what are they? The Philips Hue is a set of WiFi-connected LED light bulbs. The Hue starter pack (sold exclusively through Apple Stores for $249.95) contains 3 bulbs, along with a white hockey puck-esque bridging unit you connect to your router. The bridge acts as a gateway between your home network and the bulbs. Once it’s set up, you can to talk to the bulbs via a universal iOS or Android app.

Philips Hue Bulbs

The bulbs themselves are 8.5W Edison screw-type LED bulbs. That’s around the equivalent of an incandescent 50W bulb, or 600 lumens. In practice, I found them plenty bright for the living room, bedroom or standard lamps.

Update from @tweethue: the bulb dimensions are 110mm in length & 62mm in diameter.

They also feel substantially heavier than a regular bulb, because of the all the extra components built into the base including power & networking boards, as well as a Zigbee controller (the home automation networking protocol that Hue bulbs run off).

Any colour, any brightness, any time

Therein lies the voodoo powers of these Hue bulbs; you can dynamically change 3 characteristics of any Hue bulb in your house: the brightness, the colour, & when they switch on or off. You can also program them to respond to other events, or serve as a notification for something else. More on this later.

Important to know is that you can still use your standard light switches to control them. So if you’ve turned them off with an app, but the light switch is still ‘on’, that’s fine; you can toggle the switch to off, then back on again and they will light up. So you don’t have to dick around with your phone all the time to get your lights to work. Cool.

Here’s a quick video run down of what the bulbs look like once you’re set up & running.

Let’s get real here; lights are a background function of a house. They’re at their best when they’re silently doing their job. This is where the Hue differ to both strength & flaw; they’re a little more complex than your standard light, but you can smartly tie them into useful services & times with a little imagination.Philips Hue iOS app

Time for Hue

You might be thinking—what’s a good typical example of the Hue in action? Well, in the video I set a timer for the lights at night for reading. Tap the ‘Reading’ icon in the Hue app, and the two bedroom lights instantly switch off, but the bedside lamp stays on for 5 minutes as a nice warm yellow light, then gradually dims away after another 3 minutes.

Another neat bedtime trick I discovered? You can have the lights gradually fade on in the morning to coincide with your alarm with a cooler blue/white light; great for summoning the courage to rise in those dark winter awakenings.

There’s also some geo-fencing trickery that can be employed; when you’re in the vicinity of your house, lights can spring to life via GPS. This can be a great way to flick on entry lights, or even the reverse; automatically switch off lights when you leave.

You can also use the Hue lights to act as a security deterrent, switching the lights on or off within a randomised window of time to create the appearance of a shut-in home dweller while you’re off living it up in Copacabana.

Lights can even be changed over 3G, which sounds great in theory, but in practice I found it simply a great way to mess with the girlfriend when I was away travelling for work.

There are even a few apps in the App Store which (via the publicly-available Hue API) are doing some really cool things. I have to point out Ambify, which takes music tracks into a player, and generates real-time light FX to accompany the tunes.

Very rad.


Of special note is the tricks Hue can pull with integration with popular web-combining service IFTTT.

IFFFT has a stack of pre-baked recipes suggested for Hue, including integrations with weather services, sport, Instagram, email, and even more esoteric services like Jawbone Up or Belkin WeMo. Stuff like:

  • Change the colour of your lights depending on what the weather is like
  • Blink lights if someone important emails you
  • Remind you you have an appointment by colour-looping the lights

You can now even control these via the newly-released IFTTT app on iOS.

Hue can integrate with the new IFTTT app

Sounds great in practice, but I found a lot of these flaky. In particular, I remember all the lights in my bedroom merrily switching themselves on as nice shade of blue, because the rainy weather report had come in from IFTTT.

At 3:30am.

So yeah, that recipe got switched off pretty fast.

The email recipe was also disappointing. I thought it would be incredibly cool, but IFTTT simply receives the notification far too late, and the lights-flashing is a belated afterword to an email that arrived minutes earlier and has long since been actioned.

Disappointingly this was a general theme throughout my time with the Hue. I found that whenever I leaned on it to flex some intellectual muscle, something would inevitably go wrong.

Lights would not come on at the correct time, or would simply fail to work. The wake-up alarms worked pretty consistently (not 100%, but close), but the timer on the bedtime alarms constantly bugged out. Sometimes it was straight-up user error; like I unthinkingly flipped lights ‘off’ before I went to bed, but sometimes it just plain didn’t work.

I would stare at my bedside light, thinking, “is this turning itself off, or what?”

 The promise is good, but the implementation still seems to need ironing out. I will certainly commend Philips for the work to the API that has been done to open up the service to hackers and wannabes like me, but I’d prefer a handful of rock-solid functions over a plethora that simply aren’t reliable enough to depend upon.

That’s a lot of cash

I also have to mention the price, because frankly two hundred and fifty bucks is a fat stack of bills for lightbulbs. If you want to extend beyond the starter kit, single bulbs run at an eye-watering $69.95 each. Comparable non-Hue Philips LED bulbs (which admittedly can’t change colour) are only around $16 a bulb, so you’re certainly paying for the privilege of connectedness.

Still, the system would certainly be a better experience the more bulbs you had, and a single bridge can support up to 50 bulbs; more than enough for a regular sized home. Slowly replacing standard bulbs with Hue bulbs over time could be a viable option.

According to Philips, the Hue bulbs will last 15,000 hours, which is around 5 years at 8 hours a day of use. They’ll also run at 1/5th the power usage of regular incandescents, even with the WiFi power usage factored in.

Connected promise

I know there’s a lot of bullshit around ‘smart’ appliances & their questionable abilities. I mean, Samsung built a fridge with Evernote for fuck’s sake, which is awful, and a totem of that companies’ tone-deaf approach to advancing appliance functionality.

But what Philips have hit upon with Hue is a different kind of smart; it’s not a typical ‘smart’ appliance. Instead, it’s the delivery of a smart platform where they’ve conceded up-front that we’re all much better at coming up with ideas for these bulbs than them. Instead, they’ve focused their efforts on the interconnectedness of the appliance, and making sure that it can tap into as many services and protocols as possible.

That’s a really refreshing angle for smart appliances and a lesson for everyone else; build it with an API. One that tinkerers can tap into, that they can leverage for their own idea. From that springs a whole world of unexpected uses. I personally feel that I only scratched the surface in my few weeks with my loaned starter kit.

If Philips can iron out the bugs from the Hue, and get that price just a tad lower, I could absolutely see them becoming an indispensable appliance for any true geek’s home.