Everything Gadgets

Philips Hue (Review)

I’m a gadget guy – I hope that isn’t a shock to anyone. When I saw that Philips (or Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V. as no one calls them) was releasing iPhone controlled LED lights I knew I had to have them. There was just one non-obvious problem; I live in the middle of nowhere.

You see, Philips has an agreement with Apple which dictates that you can ONLY purchase the Philips Hue in an Apple store. Not online at apple.com – in their physical retail store. I’m not sure what the logic was behind that but I assume that, given the amount of buzz around this product, that Apple paid them a pretty penny for exclusive rights to sell the products. So, I drove from Ithaca, NY to Syracuse, my nearest Apple store, to buy the kit and extra bulb.

At the minimum, you need the Philips Hue kit. This contains the base station and the three bulbs. It retails for $200 and extra bulbs go for $60. Paying $60 for a light bulb seems insane…but stay with me.

The Hue system is based off of the ZigBee mesh network architecture. The system currently supports 50 devices at once and as of right now, only Hue bulbs. However, because this is ZigBee based, I would have to imagine that it is possible for other base stations to work in the near future.

To clarify – the bulbs themselves are NOT IP based. Each one does NOT sync with your router. Instead, the base station does and each bulb connects to the base station using a simple mesh architecture network. Many early reports stated that they were “internet light blubs” which is not exactly accurate.

 

Setup

Setup was simple. Plug in the base station. Go to MeetHue.com and download the iOS app. Once you have all of that done, you need to sync the base station with the bulbs and each controller. This is simpler than WiFi – there aren’t any passwords but you do have to press a button on the base station within a set time period. I found myself doing this several times during my initial setup: once for the kit bulbs, once for the extra bulb, once for my iPhone, once for my iPad, and once for the website controls. It was annoying but not a deal killer.

Operation

The iOS apps sync with the Philips Hue website. You create your preferences on one device and they are sent to all others. Interestingly, you can only create light scenes from a mobile device and NOT the website. You can, however, activate scenes from the web.

Controlling the lights can be done over the internet. If you are on the same subnet as the bridge, clicking on the scene button causes the lights to update in about a second. If you are on another network, the command traverses the internet back to your bridge (via Philips Hue) and takes 2~5 seconds to update. You don’t have to setup any special ports or router configurations for this to work. All of this appears to be done using normal web protocols and don’t require any work right out of the box (once the devices are paired with the base station).

 

Setting the scene

This is a pain in the ass. I’m not kidding. This is, by far, the worst part of the entire system. Now, this is 100% a software issue and can be easily fixed with a software update but the shipping software is terrible. Let me explain:

Light colors and brightness are set via scenes. A scene is generally a photograph where you drag markers representing each bulb to locations representing the color you want that bulb to be. Therefore, a scene is directly tied to specific bulbs. If, like me, you have 4 bulbs, you have to modify each scene to add a 4th bulb.

But wait, it gets worse.

Scenes are directly tied to bulbs. Therefore, scenes are tied to rooms. So, if you wanted to make this a whole house system, you would need to setup scenes for each room. You would need to create dozens of nearly identical profiles for every room in your house.

Second, there is an “all-off” button. While this feature is great when the Hue system is tied to a single room, it breaks when you scale it up. How many times do you want to shut off all of the lights in your office, bedroom, and office all at once? Probably not that many times.

What is missing is the concept of rooms. The commercials online for the product show it working for an entire house but this system is so poorly designed that it would be a pain in the ass to execute. Not only can you accidentally turn all of the lights in your house/apartment office – imagine accidentally turning on all of the lights in the middle of the night and waking everyone up.

Oops.

The software clearly needs work but this is a version 1. It really is limited to a single room and if you evaluate it like that, the system looks much better. It still boggles my mind that there are no concepts of rooms or sharing scenes between them but until this, or some similar feature comes out, I am limiting my use to the office.

One other annoying bug is that the base station seems to freeze once and a while. For example, I will update the color scene or turn off the bulbs in the app and nothing will happen. This is quickly resolved when I power cycle the base station but I’m not sure if the problem is the base station or my router. Either way  – you shouldn’t have to power cycle anything to turn off your office lights.

 

In practice

Imagine waking in to your bedroom and then realizing that you can’t turn on the lights because your WiFi router is a piece of trash. That has happened to me twice. Again, it isn’t a deal killer but it doesn’t fit well with how I expect lights to work. I expect there to be a switch on the wall that I turn on and BAM! Let there be light

Philips tries to address this by having the lights automatically revert to a warm-white light when they are powered up.  That is great because I can flick the switch off and on and the lights will come on. However, that defeats the purpose of the lights being always connected. They need power to work so in practice, I leave my light switch on 100% of the time and only cycle the power when I need light now.  If you’re not someone who caries their phone around constantly, this can be annoying.

A note on output

These bulbs are LEDs. This immediately triggered two concerns: PWM flicker and brightness. In completely unscientific terms, the output, at a neutral white light, is about equivalent to a 40 watt incandescent bulb. There isn’t any warm up period like on CCFLs but in a small 15×15 office like mine, I use 4 bulbs to illuminate the area.

PWM stands for pulse width modulation. You see, it isn’t easy to just turn down the power to an LED to make it dimmer. Instead, you turn the power on and off hundreds/thousands of times per second to make the bulb appear dimmer. This is done to allow for color mixing between the internal R, G and B diodes. This is the killer feature of the bulb – the ability to mix colors is what sold nerds like me on the device. However, if it is done incorrectly, for example if the pulse frequency is too infrequent, the lights flicker. Thankfully, these lights DO NOT SUFFER from this. These are solid little bulbs that do not have any of the flicker problems of cheap eBay LED bulbs.

As far as construction goes, the bulbs are heavy glass tops with a plastic mid section and Edison base. They feel well built and are about the same size as ordinary bulbs.

The light output shape is shockingly uniform. LEDs are notorious for highly directional light output and these bulbs are well diffused. The hardware here is top notch.

Overall

I like these bulbs and I have gotten well more than $260 of entertainment out of them. I have had them for nearly two weeks and I am considering adding bulbs to my system. The only thing stopping me is the poor software support that I expect to be fixed in future releases.

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