Lauren Goode

Control Your Home Lighting With Smartphone-Friendly Hue

You’ve seen this scene before, probably in movies: A bon vivant arrives home with someone he’s trying to impress and, at the tap of a button, the lighting in his enviable dwelling fades to a perfect, mood-setting hue.

Lighting systems like these used to be unrealistic — or too expensive — for normal folks. Now Philips Electronics is making adjustable lighting a little more accessible, with Hue.

Hue is a $200, ZigBee-connected lighting system. It works with energy-saving LED bulbs, and the bulbs are controlled over Wi-Fi with an iOS or Android app.

Philips isn’t the only company offering “smart” lights. A company called Insteon recently introduced remote-controlled dimmable LEDs, and GreenWave Reality just launched a smart-home platform with connected LED bulbs, though these are distributed through utility companies and not at retail stores.

But Hue stands out in that it lets you create “scenes” with color-changing LED bulbs that cast vibrant colors throughout your home. Hue is sold exclusively through the Apple Store and Apple.com.

Over the past week, I’ve cast colors throughout my apartment that might remind you of a disco dance floor, or a sunset-filled room. My bedroom became a more relaxing reading environment. (I was very lucky, in that my neighborhood maintained power as Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City.)

The Hue lights are pure fun, and the app is easy to use. I really liked the ability to pull photos from my smartphone’s camera roll to create scenes that mimic places I’ve actually been, like “Sunset in Florida” or “San Francisco Sky,” or even “Grand Central Terminal.” If you get tired of the colors, these LEDs will also give off adjustable white light.

The bulbs, however, are expensive. The Hue starter pack includes three LED bulbs, but each individual bulb after that — and you can install up to 50 — costs $60.

And the Android app is still in beta and has limited functionality. After signing up and logging in to Hue’s Web portal, I noticed that my Android phone didn’t even show up in my list of Hue-connected devices, even after I had connected the phone to the system.

Homeowners obsessed with managing their energy output might be disappointed. The Hue LED bulbs at maximum brightness are said to offer 80 percent power savings over incandescent 50-watt bulbs. But Philips, to keep things simple in the launch version of the product, isn’t offering energy management or data analysis with Hue, the way a device like the Wi-Fi-controlled Nest thermostat does.

Lastly, I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when it was a lot easier to just flick the lights on and off manually — the old-fashioned way — instead of fiddling with an app.

But these colorful lightbulbs are fun. (Did I mention that they’re fun?)

Setting up Hue is easy. First, and most importantly, you screw in the lightbulbs.

Hue comes with a bridge, which is a round device that reminds me of a smoke detector. The bridge has to be connected to your wireless router with an Ethernet cord, included in the pack.

After connecting your mobile device to your Wi-Fi network, you download the free Hue app. The app tells you to press the center button on the bridge for a few seconds while it connects, and that’s it — the system is ready to go.

If you want to control your Hue lights when you’re outside of your Wi-Fi network, you do this through an online portal, MeetHue.com, which you can log in to from a desktop computer or the mobile app.

The Hue mobile app is intuitive, though there are a few functions that aren’t immediately obvious. To edit a scene, for example, you have to press and hold your finger on the scene icon the same way you would close or delete an app on your iPhone or iPad.

The app comes with 17 preinstalled scenes, some of which don’t have crazy colors but adjust the lighting nonetheless, like “Energize” or “Concentrate.” Philips says its long-term research on how lighting impacts moods and behavior helped the company concoct these light recipes. “Relax,” which casts a warm yellow hue throughout the room, was my preferred recipe — because what New Yorker couldn’t use a little more relaxation?

You can create up to 90 colorful scenes in Hue. For each scene, there’s a color palette and a brightness control. Three little bulb icons appeared on each of my scenes. I could easily move those bulbs with my finger to dictate which color I wanted them to beam. Then the three physical LED bulbs in my apartment would correspondingly change colors within seconds.

In addition to adding a little color to your life, Hue allows you to remotely turn the lights on and off. So, if you get to the office and realize you forgot to turn the lights off at home, you can command it through Hue. And you can turn your lights on as you’re approaching your front door.

Doing this requires logging in to the Web portal through the app, since in these instances you won’t be connected to your home Wi-Fi network. When I was turning the lights on from outside of the Wi-Fi network, there sometimes was a lag time of up to half a minute. When the Hue lights were already turned on in my apartment, and I stood outside the door adjusting the lights through the app, people inside in the apartment told me the lights did in fact change colors, and quickly.

Another use case for Hue is turning your lights on and off from bed. I happen to have lamps in my bedroom that aren’t within reaching distance when I’m in bed, so being able to turn off the lights from my smartphone was helpful.

One thing that bugged me is that I couldn’t get my scenes to seamlessly sync across devices.

I created the majority of my scenes on the iPhone, and just a few on the iPad. When I logged in to my Hue account through each of these apps, the apps asked me if I wanted to share scenes or sync them across devices. I did. But sometimes the iPhone-made scenes still didn’t appear on my iPad. I would have to log in and out of the apps and my MeetHue.com account a couple times before they would appear.

And one of my lamps just wouldn’t turn on with Hue bulbs. The lamp works fine with standard incandescent bulbs. Philips suggested that perhaps the lamp was plugged into a dimmer-controlled socket or fixture, which often won’t work with the Hue system. But it was not a dimmer light.

This is definitely a first version of a product. Philips says that in the future, Hue will have more compatibility with Android, and the company may integrate Hue with entertainment systems, so that colors change based on what movie you’re watching or music you’re listening to — not unlike the company’s current Ambilight TVs. Philips also said it’s looking to add energy-management features to Hue.

Despite this, if you’ve got extra cash lying around and you’ve been looking for an iPhone-controlled lighting system, Philips Hue might do it for you.


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