While it certainly can’t be called the cheapest smart home lighting solution available today, the Philips Hue range of Zigbee-enabled bulbs and lamps is one of the best. Debuting back in 2012, the former skunkworks project at Philips is now one of the best known smart home brands around, with partners queuing up to integrate their devices and services with the white and colour bulbs.
Unlike Wi-Fi enabled bulbs (such as LIFX or TP-Link’s range of smart bulbs) which work directly with your router, Philips Hue requires a Zigbee hub to sit between the bulbs and your home network. Unfortunately, that adds to the price of the Starter Kit you’ll need to get going with the platform – a two bulb soft white pack with the hub costs $69.99, while a three bulb colour starter pack is priced at $199.
Of course, you can offset that investment against reduced running costs. Operating at just 8.5 watts, an LED light bulb will certainly consume less electricity than a traditional, 100 watt incandescent bulb. Philips Hue also offers a much warmer ambience than a compact flourescent bulb too.
Another advantage of using the Zigbee Light Link protocol and hub, rather than a Wi-Fi connection, is security. Anyone (or rather, any device or service) wishing to connect to your Philips Hue lights requires not just a network connection to the hub, but the user must accept that connection with a physical tap of a button on the hub itself. Without that button press to register the new device, commands from it will be ignored. It’s not bulletproof, for sure – nothing ever is – but to date, Hue’s security has appeared to be robust.
So far, Philips has released three major versions of their kit. The first generation – recognisable by its hockey puck shaped hub – debuted back in 2012, but was updated last year with a square hub design. Unlike the first generation hub, this hub supports Apple’s HomeKit smart home protocol, allowing you to control your Hue lights with Apple’s Home app, Siri and other HomeKit-integrated devices. The second generation bulbs are also a little brighter, specified at 800 lumens vs the first generation’s 600 lumens.
Philips has recently updated their Hue bulbs to a third generation (there are no additional changes to the hub) with enhanced colour rendering of greens and blues. They’re still rated at 800 lumens.
At this point, you’ll struggle to find a new first generation Starter Kit out there but the good news is that if you don’t need Apple HomeKit support (say, you’re an Android user) then you could pick one up from eBay or elsewhere at a discount. You can use any generation of Hue bulb with any hub – later generations of bulb will simply offer enhanced colour reproduction and brightness.
Getting Up and Running
The first step in hooking up your Philips Hue Starter Kit is connecting the hub. You’ll need a spare power outlet and an Ethernet port on your router, but if you’re struggling for free ports, you can also connect the Hue hub to a network switch. At home, I try to keep my smart home devices and other tech as invisible as possible. With the router positioned in the master bedroom, I simply connected a NETGEAR Gigabit Ethernet switch to the router and tucked both it and the Philips Hue hub under the bed – there’s no need for any line of sight to your lights.
That said, be sure that the hub is in some way accessible – whenever you connect a bulb or a third-party device or service to your Hue network, you’ll need to activate the connection by pressing a button on the hub itself. Power up the hub and wait for the four status lights to illuminate, signalling that the hub is ready to receive connections.
Now, screw in the bulbs that you’ll find in the box and power them on. They’ll light up immediately, ready for connection to the hub.
Download the free Philips Hue mobile app (available for iOS and Android devices) and start it up. The app will immediately begin searching your network for the hub and, once found, will invite you to press the central button on the hub itself (see, I told you it needed to be accessible!).
If you’re an iOS user with a compatible hub, you’ll be invited to set up Philips Hue’s Apple HomeKit support. You’ll be asked to pair the hub with your iOS device, provide a name for your home and then scan the accessory setup code that’s on the back of the hub. With that job completed, you can begin adding your bulbs.
Searching for your lights may take a few minutes, but in my experience, multiple bulbs can be found in a matter of seconds. The app will show you the number of bulbs found on the network and will list them for you. Should a bulb not be found, you can rescan the network or alternatively, add the bulb manually using its serial number (however, I’ve yet to encounter that issue).
Setting Up Your Rooms
Once the bulbs are located, you’ll see that they’re all listed as Hue white lamp 1, 2, 3 or Hue color lamp 1, 2, 3 and so on, which makes differentiating them a challenge. So, you’ll be invited to first set up one or more rooms in the Hue app – for example, Family Room, Attic, Kitchen and so on.
Tap on the room you’ve created and then select the type of room it is – you’ll find a host of preconfigured options available with associated icons. Also, you can opt to add default “scenes” (preconfigured colour palettes) to your room during setup, which allows you to switch the ambience quickly.
You can now associate individual lights with specific rooms – however, at this point, the app doesn’t actually allow you to rename the bulbs themselves, nor in any other way identify each bulb other than the generic label. Poor design. Don’t worry, we can fix that shortly. Feel free to have a guess (if you wish) and then continue setting up any additional rooms you need to.
Associating Hue Bulbs With Rooms
With your Rooms set up, tap the Settings icon (the gear) at the top left of the app and select Light setup. The list of Hue bulbs will once again be presented, but now, if you tap a bulb in the list, you’ll find that it flashes, allowing you to identify each bulb on the network. A quick tap of the adjacent info icon allows you to relabel each bulb to something less generic.
Now that each bulb is clearly labelled, you can ensure they’re assigned to the correct rooms. Back in the Settings menu, tap Room setup, then check the boxes next to the lights located in each room.
With your rooms and lights correctly identified, named and grouped, you’re ready to put on your light show! Or at least, learn how to control your Hue lights.
Controlling Your Philips Hue Lights
Your Hue app’s main screen will now be split into tabs. At the top, you’ll see headings for Rooms – allowing access to the lights in each room as a group, or individually and Routines which allows you to configure preset actions and scenes for specific times of the day.
Toggle the switch next to a room to power all of your Hue lights allocated to that location. The room label will switch to a color that represents the hue of the bulb, while conveniently, a brightness slider appears that provides an easy way to dim the lights in that room.
Tap once on a room to drill down into a list of lights allocated to that room and tap on a light to view colour and white temperature options. Use your finder to slide around the palette until you find a hue that suits or select a shade of white from the Recipes button.
Pre-configured scenes are also available which will spread a range of colours across multiple bulbs. Tap on the accompanying image to switch a bulb to that hue or alternatively, you can configure your own scene using the palette or an image of your own choosing. It’s a great way of mixing colour and light to create new kinds of ambience around the home.
While a smart lighting system like Philips Hue can really boost the ambience of your home, you’ll find that it really comes into its own with convenient features like Routines. Routines allow you to configure a range of actions that are triggered at predetermined times of the day, by location or other events. Philips include options for times that you arrive home or leave the house, when you wake up or go to sleep.
Actions can be set to trigger at times on specific days of the week and target whole rooms or specific lights with a simple power on/off and fade in or out (with durations lasting 10 minutes to 30 minutes). As you’d expect, you can configure lights to come on with a specific colour, colour temperature or scene.
Routines are perfect for automating lights to come on in the early evening and switch off at bedtime, to dim the lights in the kids’ bedrooms for reading before switching to a night-light mode and then fading back in to a bright light when it’s time to wake up. You can also configure lights to come on around the house when you’re away from home, giving the impression that someone’s using the house and of course, ensure the porch and hallway are illuminated when you return.
Spend some time configuring preset routines and you’ll see how easy home lighting automation can be. Knowing the lights will automatically power down gives you one less thing to think about when you hit the sack in the evening or leave for work the following day.
Of course, when you’ve mastered the basics of home automation with the Philips Hue app, you can progress to integrating your lights with other smart home apps and services.
Integrating Philips Hue With Other Smart Home Devices
I mentioned at the start of this article that a real advantage of adopting Philips Hue at home is the variety of third-party device and service integrations it supports. Hue works well with smart home hubs, like Wink or SmartThings, voice activated controllers such as Amazon Echo or Google Home and other smart home devices including the Nest Learning Thermostat, Logitech Harmony, home security systems like SwannOne and more. These (actually quite simple) integrations allow you to trigger lights based on motion detection, a door or window sensor activating, temperatures rising (or plummeting), a smoke alarm activating and more. Or, for retro space-age kudos, just tell Google or Alexa to switch on your lights.
Best of all, there’s support for the IFTTT (If This, Then That) platform, allowing your lights to be triggered by a host of services. Want to flash your lights when you receive an email? Simple! Turn your lights blue when the temperature drops below freezing outside? Switch lighting to your teams colours when they score? It’s all possible and while not all of those integrations are strictly necessary (or, you know, sane) you can have a lot of fun trying out the wealth of applets available.
I’ll be discussing some smart home integrations with Philips Hue and other Smart Home devices in future posts, so stay tuned for those. In the meantime, if you’ve been on the fence about trying out a smart home lighting system, now’s a great time to upgrade your home – and your life – with added convenience, improved ambience and a whole lot of fun.