We are well into the era of a wireless world, in which every task or whim is attached to an app counterpart. But it's only with the widespread availability of LED bulb technology that we've started to see home lighting evolve beyond the days of mostly static illumination, and into the next generation where you'll soon ask yourself, "What type of light am I in the mood for?"
Philips Hue is advertised as an evolutionary home lighting system, combining LED lighting with smart device customization and giving users the ability to change color and brightness at home or from afar. The system connects to a home network using a free Hue app (available for iOS and Android), with anywhere between 1 or 50 wireless network-enabled light bulbs connected to any one Hue network, conceivably converting the entire home into one large mood lighting stage.
All that said, I approached the Philips Hue system with indifference, believing this was just a fancier and slightly smarter version of holiday string lights hung throughout the year. And at $199 for three light bulbs, this system is quite the luxury solution for a need that can be solved by cheaper CFL or even standard LED bulbs.
The System: The LED bulbs are sleek and hefty*, with the brushed metal shaft making up three-quarters of the form factor, topped with a bulbous white flashlight-like top where lighting is uniformly directed. It's inside the metal section where all the magic happens between light bulbs and user app controls, with a bridge base station being the connecting link (using Zigbee protocol).
*Note: installing Hue onto delicate hanging lights should be avoided due to weight concerns.
Once the bulbs are installed and turned on (I replaced two table lamps and a floor lamp in the living room for testing), the bridge needs to be plugged into a wireless router (network cables are thankfully provided). Blue indicator lights then turn on one by one, and once all four are illuminated, the system is ready for use with the free Philips Hue app.
The App: The Hue app offers 17 pre-programmed color scenes, some named after places (e.g., Taj, Greece, Beach), while others evoke an activity (Reading, Relax, Concentrate). Tapping on any of these will immediately change the lighting across the multi-bulb system with only the slightest delay, concocting a color cocktail using all three lights. Each light recipe can also be adjusted for brightness and color to fine tune each scene.
Lighting quality across the whole color spectrum rates "fair" to "great," with an impressive black light effect at the deeper end, a pure bright white light available at the other end, a rainbow of options in between. With a little experimentation I was able to closely match the comforting warmth of my last batch of incandescent bulbs, or wake myself up with all three bulbs blasting the purest white light.
The Hue began to shake off the tar and feathers of being just an "expensive toy" when I delved into the system's cloud control and customization features. The stock color lighting combinations are fun at first, but quick feel limiting. Fortunately, users are not only given the opportunity to adjust scenes to their liking, but more interestingly, can create their very own custom scenes using photos as a color matching source.
A photo I snapped of a backyard pool became the inspiration for a summer themed "pool party" scene using the Hue app.
Want to recreate the unforgettable sunset during a past summer vacation? Simply assign each light bulb a color section from an uploaded image, and the Hue will do its best to match the color by lighting. Same goes for a favorite outfit, last night's dessert, a beloved movie scene, etc. Admittedly, the significance of matching your lighting to the candlelit scene in Barry Lyndon is novel at best, but it's still quite an achievement beyond the previous generations of switch and dimmers.
Additional lighting formulas are available to use and try at Philips's Hue Community Scenes page. With over 1,000 favorite images to sample, instant gratification is afforded by connecting a user's account to the Hue site, expanding the lighting color palette and controls beyond mobile devices and onto the desktop browser. My only gripe with the community page is the omission of an option to push favorite formulas from the website to the mobile app.
The Hue system further enhances user options by integrating IFTTT (If This Then That) support, an extremely simplified task behavior language connecting device to programmed actions. Lights can be programmed to illuminate a certain color when an email arrives, or change according to the weather report, or even flash a specific color when a favorite sports team scores. The user-created recipes range from useful to trivial, but they show how the Hue system's capabilities are unique. If you want to get even geekier, Philips created the system with an open API and designates the Hue hub as its own HTTP server, which means those who know what JSON scripting is can mess around with a library of options.
The Hue takes on a more festive character when partnered with the $2.99 Ambify app, which converts an iTunes playlist into a visual experience in real time. Whether you find the effect entertaining and invigorating or an eyesore probably depends upon your taste in music and affinity for nightclubs. But it's yet another example illustrating how the Hue is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to home lighting's evolution from a mechanical switch-based technology to one reactive to our lifestyles.
Like any newer technology, the Hue is expensive. It's all too easy to dismiss the system as a "toy" because of the price. But considering homes are increasingly becoming "smarter" in relation to their occupants' behaviors, there's no doubt the Philips Hue is amongst the first of many upcoming cloud-enabled and geo-tracking based automation systems capable of entertaining, elevating mood, relaxing the body, and providing security without ever even touching a switch or launching an app. At $199 the Hue is currently a novel experiment aimed at well-heeled first adopters and home decor lighting aficionados. But what it already does, it does well with pleasing effect and a growing community of users expanding its utility by the day. Drop the price in half, and I suspect those blinded by the price will realize all light isn't created equal, and we'll all soon forget the days when we had to flip on or off a switch to see the light.
Pros: Quick and easy setup; limitless color matching formula potential; programmed scheduling and geo-tracking behaviors make system a useful home security measure; open source and vibrant user community expands options and utility well beyond lighting alone.
Cons: Expensive; community-created light formulas only accessible via Hue website; Android app currently lacks same full features as iOS version.
(Images: Gregory Han; Philips)
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.