Review: Philips Hue - Even lightbulbs can be smart

By Pat Pilcher

10 comments
Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

The humble lightbulb doesn't get a lot of love. Since its invention way back in 1800 by Humphry Davy, and its subsequent refinement by Thomas Edison, the humble light bulb has been a widely used yet ignored part of our lives.

About the only time most of us ever really notice a light bulb is when it needs replacing. Philips want to change this and have reinvented the bulb, adding a distinctive 21st century twist, remaking it into something far smarter than Davy or Edison could ever have envisioned.

Called the Hue, the bulbs are sold in starter packs of 3 bulbs ($279) and a wireless controller hub. The wireless bit is only the beginning of where things get really clever.

Aside from the obvious - that is being able to turn every light in your home on or off wirelessly from a smartphone, Philips also added in the ability to totally customise your lighting.

After downloading and installing the Hue app for Android and iPhones, you can create custom colour combinations, and even schedule what colour combo is displayed at what time.

This is possible because the Hue bulbs use a combination of ultra-bright red, green and blue LEDs, allowing you to create any colour combination you can imagine at varying levels of brightness.

The utility of such a capability is beyond doubt - airlines have long adopted similar technologies in their business class cabins to simulate dusk, dawn, night and day to help ward off the effects of jet lag. I couldn't wait to try it out at home.

The starter kit arrived and I was understandably excited. Unfortunately my excitement died pretty darned quickly when I realised that the hue bulbs only come with screw fittings and my house, like most kiwi homes, uses bayonet light fittings. This is a big gotcha, as there is a high probability that the cost of screw-in light sockets and a sparky to wire them in will also need to be factored into any budget. This is especially irritating given the already steep sticker-price of a hue starter kit.

The Hue bulbs physically resemble a bog-standard incandescent light bulb, in that they have a glass bulb and a standard screw in fitting. Being LED based with baked-in wireless smarts accounts for their cost, but over time, they'll almost certainly pay for themselves. LED lights use a fraction of the electricity of their incandescent ancestors (or for that matter even energy efficient bulbs) and LED bulbs should in theory outlast traditional lightbulbs by a massive margin (a quick bit of research reveals that the lifespan of each hue bulb is up to 15,000 hours, and even though they also feature wireless connectivity and other smarts, each bulb uses an astonishing 80 per cent less power than a traditional bulb).

How many tech journalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

The bundled wireless hub can control up to 50 bulbs which is more than plenty for an average house and Setup is pretty simple. Simply screw in the bulbs and (you can then turn them on the old fashioned way using a lightswitch and they'll work with no wireless connection just like a normal bulb). Next hook up the wireless hub to a spare Ethernet port on your broadband router using the bundled cable. Last but by no means least, download the free app on your android or iPhone and pair up the Hue bulbs and hub with your phone. Total set up time about 15 minutes.

Controlling the Hue bulbs with an iPad, iPhone or android phone/tablet requires that the lightswitch remain switched turned on. You can still turn Hue bulbs on or off using your regular light switch if you don't have a smartphone to hand, but you just won't be able to adjust their colour or brightness.

With the Hue app, you can customise the colour and brightness of each individual light bulb to create custom lighting scenes on a room by room basis. Lighting Scenes can be manually created or pulled from photos and saved for later use as lighting presets.

The Hue app already has a bunch of readymade colour/intensity presets. Choosing which colour to use out of a photo involves first choosing a photo and then dragging icons (each icon represents an individual hue bulb) over the photo to have the hue bulb mimic the colour and brightness level in the photo. Because this happens in real time you can customise the look and feel of a room until you get the look and feel you were wanting and then save the settings as your own preset.

With the Hue app you get to control each bulb individually, and you can label each bulb, and link specific lighting scenes to each bulb.

Aside from changing colour and intensities for each Hue bulb, there is also a timer function that lets you set timers for individual bulbs. bedroom lights can turn on gradually before a morning alarm goes off.

The hue invention is still very much in its early days but there is an undeniable wow factor in seeing the Hue in action.

The Hue app does needs some refining - grouping bulbs and applying lighting scenes could be a lot more intuitive (the Sonos app for music is my benchmark for this). Presets need to also need to be able to be shared between the smartphones and tablets of different household members. Additionally the scheduling feature could also do with recurring alarms or calendar features like we've become used to in outlook or Google calendar.

Perhaps the coolest thing with the hue system is the degree with which it has been embraced by developers. There's a rich ecosystem of homegrown Hue apps springing up that greatly expands the Hue's functionality. (My favourite in the Apple App Store, was Hue Disco which can sync lights to music).

Verdict

The Hue system is probably the most exciting and innovative tech Philips has launched locally for some time. Shame about the screw fittings though, here's hoping a bayonet light bulb version hits the streets soon.

- NZ Herald

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