As one of first wireless LED lighting systems, Philips Hue has been at the forefront of elevating residential illumination technology from the mundane to the sophisticated. For example, their Hue White Ambience LEDs offer thousands of variable cool to warm hues and smooth dimming, controllable through Philips-provided Hue controls—including a smartphone app, website, and wireless wall switches, plus automation through schedules, Routines as you come and go, and Scenes for lifestyle-specific use cases by varying colors, hues, and intensity levels.
Certainly, while homeowners can do much with these native Hue controls and lamps, deep integrations with preeminent smart-home systems and technologies can greatly expand options for smart lighting functionality and connected living. Under the guise of the Friends of Hue collaboration program, connections with many of the popular systems—including Amazon Echo and Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Siri, Google OnHub, Nest Labs, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, and others—can be configured with just a handful of taps and authentications through the smartphone app. And a cottage industry of independent software developers have embraced Hue, with myriad standalone app alternatives available in the respective app stores for mobile devices running either the Apple iOS or Android operating systems.
Fundamentals of Philips Hue lighting
Philips Hue can be considered an elder statesmen among smart-home accessory providers, after having launched their wireless lighting system in 2012. The minimal point of entry today begins with a single Hue White E26 LED bulb and the wireless Hue dimmer switch (which can be wall-mounted or used as a handheld remote), and can be purchased for $34.95 USD on the Philips Hue store. This setup—though something of a lighting island—entails no installation beyond screwing the bulb into an existing lamp socket, and requires zero software. The simple on-off and smooth dimming controls of the provided dimmer switch offer convenience, elegance, and energy savings over standard bulbs.
As this basic non-networked kit does not include the Hue Bridge, the lights can’t be controlled with the smartphone app or integrated with other smart-home systems, though a single dimmer switch can control up to 10 Hue lamps. Those additional lamps, however, are generally at a cost premium above standard, non-networkable LEDs, beginning at $14.95 USD for a basic white E26-base bulb. This version of the bulb is dimmable of course, but has a fixed soft-white color temperature of 2700K.
For those homeowners wanting to go beyond the basics, Philips offers a number of boxed starter kits that include the Hue Bridge and one or more bulbs. Going this route offers a greatly increased set of functionality, and facilitates creation of an out-of-the-box on-ramp for connecting to other smart-home systems. And, of course, any existing Hue bulbs in the home instantly get smarter as they are discovered by the Hue Bridge.
For example, the $69.95 USD Philips Hue White E26 starter kit includes 2 LED bulbs and the bridge, and can be controlled by the smartphone app—or, for example, instantly connected to the Apple HomeKit system to enable control via Siri voice commands. That’s a reasonable point of entry to your very own smart-home ecosystem.
While the basic white bulbs offering smooth dimming, stepping up to the White Ambience LEDs offer a full range white color temperature capability, ranging from a warm 2,000K to a cool 6,500K. When purchased individually, these bulbs sell for $29.95 USD. Hue White and Color Ambience LEDs, at $49.95 USD, build upon that specification to offer a rainbow of 17 million colors beyond white. Many other variations in bulb shapes and sizes are also available, including BR30 bulbs for downlights, GU10 and PAR16 bulbs for spotlights, LED light strips, and other forms of LED lighting.
All communications between the Hue Bridge, lights, and accessories is securely accomplished through the ZigBee Light Link protocol—a low-power lighting control standard—while common Wi-Fi connections are used for communicating between the bridge and mobile devices running the Hue app. Out-of-home access and additional automations for a given Hue setup can be established through creating an account on the My Hue website.
Setting up for smooth lighting control
For the Philips Hue White Ambience starter kit we purchased off the shelf from a Best Buy store in Austin, Texas, we paid $129.95 USD. That package included a pair of the White Ambience A19 LED bulbs, a Hue Bridge, and a Dimmer Switch. We also purchased a Hue Color and Ambience bulb, at a cost of $49.95 USD.
Setting up our Hue test-bed lighting system in our smart-home labs was exceedingly straightforward, and the four-step, extremely-minimalistic setup instruction sheet in the box was all we needed to get started:
Power on your light source(s) and turn on your wall light switches
Plug in the Hue Bridge and connect to your Wi-Fi router
Pull off the lid sticking out of the Hue Dimmer Switch
Download the Hue app and follow the instructions for more features.
If you are considering a Hue system, keep in mind that the Hue Bridge requires a hard-wired Ethernet connection to your Wi-Fi router. When considering where to place the bridge in your home, you may appreciate the fact it is designed to either hang on a wall or sit on a shelf, thereby expanding the range of installation options.
We used the latest release of the Philips Hue Gen 2 app, version 2.30, running on iOS 9.3.5 to do our testing (iOS 8.0 or higher is required, and iOS 9.0 or higher for Apple HomeKit integration). The same version of the app is also available for Android devices running Android 2.3 or higher. Based on scanning reviews in the Apple App Store and Google Play store, there has not been universal praise for the Gen 2 app, and Philips continues to make the Gen 1 app available on both Apple iOS and Android customers that prefer to use it. Most of the complaints seem to focus on reduced functionality in the Gen 2 app as compared to Gen 1.
Finalizing our basic Hue setup in the app revealed no setup issues, and the bridge, bulbs, and dimmer were quickly discovered by the app and went live and functional in minutes. While we will not get into the nuances of configuring everything in Hue, we found it most expedient to go through setting up our Rooms first, where adding a room consists of providing a name, selecting the desired room type icon, and then simply ticking the check boxes for the lights desired in the room. Rooms and Lights can be easily renamed as you settle into using your system.
For those homeowners considering using Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa voice commands, they will do well to take time to carefully consider the names of Rooms and Lights, particularly to avoid any conflicts with other devices throughout the home and to enable short phrases that are easily and clearly enunciated.
Usage and enlightenment
The simple Hue app hierarchy of Home, Room, and Lights enables interacting with accessories at any level that is desired, with increasing control granularity as you travel down the hierarchy. For example, tapping the on-off slider at the Home level will at once turn all lights on or off in the home.
But the pièce de résistance of Hue lighting is not entirely evident until one taps down a level into the individual Rooms, where the namesake hue and intensity of the room lighting can be modulated through pre-configured and adjustable Scenes—a universe of color at your fingertips. And, entire rooms can be turned on or off or dimmed with the respective switches.
Toggling within a room to the Lights tab enables lights to be modulated individually by tapping around the screen, or setting a pre-configured Recipe. Keep in mind that the available adjustments at the Room and Lighting levels will vary depending upon the type of Hue bulb, ranging from intensity only for the basic white bulb, to a range of warm to cool whites in the White Ambience bulb, and then a full range of colors for the top-of-the-line White and Color Ambience bulbs.
Apple Watch support is also available out of the box, and does not require the usage of Apple HomeKit to function. Functionality on the watch through the native Hue app is limited to Hue widgets—these are essentially shortcuts to preconfigured scenes, and can be set to control multiple rooms or lights at once. The widgets worked flawlessly and instantly on our Apple watches, which were running watchOS 2.2.2.
Moreover, all of our experience with interactions through the Hue app resulted in nearly instantaneous response from the connected lights, and they smoothly illuminated to their previously set intensity levels, colors, and hues. Given the flexibility and performance of these connected bulbs over standalone LEDs, we consider Hue to be a worthwhile investment for your home.
Moving beyond the Hue app
Philips has continued to advance the Hue wireless lighting system, and recently announced at the 2016 IFA tradeshow in Berlin the forthcoming launch of the Hue Motion Sensor—a wireless motion and daylight sensor that can turn lights on and off based on room occupancy. Smart, granular lighting automation through scenes will also be configurable for the motion sensor through the app.
Moving beyond the Hue system proper, we have connected our testing lab lighting setup with many of systems that are part of the Friends of Hue integration program, including Amazon Echo and Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Siri, Nest Labs, Samsung SmartThings, and Wink. We will delve into the details on how these integrations perform in a future article, as part of our exploration of what we refer to as the emerging meshed smart-home ecosystem.
(Editor’s note: This article was revised on 07 September, 2016)
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.