[Update! As of early January 2014, I have added a follow up review here]
[Update! If you just want to buy the best Hue controller app for iOS, get iConnectHue and don’t look back. I wouldn’t use my Hue system without it.]
This is an account of my experience with the Philips Hue. It is my review, or my re-Hue, if you will. There are so many puns I could’ve used to title this article, but I think the one I ultimately chose sums up my nightmarish experience. There may be some occasional swears in here, too. Also, I will endeavour to create a Hue pun pretty much at every opportunity.
Caveat: I don’t really know how the Bridge and Bulbs work, I’m just guessing based on a little bit of knowledge and my experience with Sonos. Feel free to correct me in the comments, or share your own experiences!
I realised after I posted this that I never really introduced the Hue. Philips Hue is a system of wirelessly connected LED bulbs, all linked to your local network using a small round white disk called a Bridge. The Bridge finds the bulbs, links them all together, and exposes them to your local network, where you can control the individual bulbs using software on your phone, tablet or computer, or even through web services such as IFTTT. Each bulb contains its own firmware, as does the Bridge itself.
The idea is that you can fill your home with these wirelessly connected LED bulbs, and remotely control their colour and brightness, or even set them to flicker, cycle, or change colours depending on your music or ambient noise.]
For anyone wanting to know whether they should buy into the Hue ecosystem or not, I have created two complex flowcharts which should save you a lot of hassle. Yes, this is intended to be a little sarcastic so don’t take it too seriously:
Should I buy a Hue?
For anyone still reading, this article collates all the Stuff They Won’t Tell You from all the forums and all my google searches and all my experimentation, as well as the harrowing tale of my experience setting up Hue, as well as a proper review.
TL;DR: The hardware is fantastic, the software is appalling.
If you are happy to use this article as a troubleshooting reference, and want to minimise any problems you might have, but still love the idea of Hue, my recommendation is:
- Bookmark this article
- Buy a starter kit
- Put all 3 bulbs into the same room
- Never upgrade the Bridge.
- Never buy additional bulbs.
- Enjoy! Hue is fucking amazing!
If you are happy to jump into Hue despite my problems, because controlling your lights from your phone and the ability to manage mood lighting is super cool, and you aren’t scared of fiddling with your network, then my recommendation is:
- Bookmark this article
- Buy a starter kit
- Buy a fourth bulb
- Buy one of the apps I recommend below so you can group bulbs by room
- Cautiously upgrade the Bridge (I have not done so at the time of writing!)
- Enjoy! Hue is fucking amazing!
Hue the Day.
This is the funny thing about writing a review like this, because I have a week of pain and discoveries in my head; there are too many things I have to say, too many elements of rage and frustration flying around my head.
But first I will share with you the information I have gleaned in my week of wrestling with the Hue system. Mind you, this system now seems to be under control. As long as I don’t update the firmware I should be safe.
Because ‘for now’ is the caveat that should be printed in giant Comic Sans text on the front of every one of these Hue starter packs.
Stuff They Won’t Tell Hue
- The Bridge is not a smart bridge, it is a dumb bridge. It doesn’t really remember much of what’s going on, and each application you use to control the Hue lights runs independently. It’s like a postal worker passing messages from an app to the bulbs. It is not like a postal office taking in messages and keeping them in the right order, sorting them by priority, or storing them in PO Boxes or notifying people of anything. It’s a very dumb piece of technology.
- Each bulb knows which Bridge it belongs to, and each Bridge has a list of bulbs it knows about, separate from the list of bulbs it is connected to. You as the consumer cannot see the first list, nor query bulbs about which Bridge they belong to for troubleshooting purposes. There may be some JSON you can send to the Hue API.
- A new bulb from the shop will be ownerless, and can be added to any Bridge, but once it’s added, if you swap out a Bridge to a new Bridge, that bulb will NEVER be visible to your new Bridge. The native software has NO capacity to remove light bulbs from your Bridge, not even broken ones.
- The above sounds ridiculous but it’s an important and essential feature: if my neighbour switches his bulbs off for a day or so, they shouldn’t come up available for my Bridge to connect to. That’s all great: having a set of allowed bulbs and a set of connected bulbs is a great idea! However, there is no way to manage this list, and no way to find out that this list even exists. You have to spend a week fucking around online to even become aware of this. Like me! I AM NOW INSANE!
- The starter kit bulbs are automatically added to the list of bulbs the included Bridge knows about, and they belong to the Bridge. You have to discover and connect to these bulbs, but unlike new bulbs from the shop they are never ownerless. NOTE: This means that you cannot add them to another Bridge using any official methods.
- In order to move a bulb from the ownership list of one Bridge to another, you have to download and install a piece of community software called LampStealer, which plays a snippet of MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch This’ whenever it fails to detect a bulb. This is hugely entertaining the first time. After the seventieth time it becomes utterly obnoxious. And It is never an acceptably classy and professional solution to the very common problem of not being able to connect a light bulb. This also seems to be Philips’s official go-to application for resolving problems with THEIR crummy software.
- If you add a Bridge to the online portal it is not possible to remove that Bridge from your settings page even though the email you receive after signing up to the Hue portal says you can. The easiest thing to do is delete your existing account, which will clear all your configurations and beautifully crafted scenes, and recreate an account with the same email details.
- Within 24 hours of starting up your Bridge your Hue app will tell you there is a firmware update. If you apply this, be prepared for everything in your system to break and your bulbs to become unreachable and unresponsive. This story happened to me too, thankfully only with a few bulbs. I returned the entire starter kit and had the Apple store replace it with a new one to fix this problem. I have NOT dared to update my Bridge firmware again, despite being prompted by the Hue app.
- The starter kit bulbs (at time of writing) are generally running an older firmware version. At this time there is no way for a bulb’s firmware to be updated, although Philips claims they are working on a solution. Philips’s technical support for Hue is…well, archaic is a polite way to describe it. Do not expect any update to bulb firmware in the near future.
- Newly purchased bulbs (at time of writing) are generally running a newer firmware version. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is that new bulbs will immediately switch on when powered on, whereas older bulbs will switch on a second or two after being powered on. The delay is significant enough that you will probably have switched the power back OFF before it has a chance to light up. I really, really hope they update light bulb firmware soon. Having said that, I don’t ever switch my Hue bulbs off at the wall, I just set them to ‘off’ in an app. This means they are still connected to the network, but their brightness is 0.
- The native Hue management app is appalling. It’s designed to be used with about 3 bulbs (coincidentally the number that come in a starter kit) and I expect it to become utterly useless after about 5 bulbs. It’s not possible to edit a scene, for example, without immediately affecting the lights you are editing. One would expect that the ‘scene’ is unaffected until you hit SAVE, for fuck’s sake.
- A ‘scene’ is the Hue default configuration for a group of lights, but instead of intelligently grouping lights into rooms and then having scenes act on a number of rooms, the scenes themselves are the ‘group’ of lights. This means that in order to do anything like managing rooms of Hue lights, you’d have to create a scene for each room, and then copy that scene for every colour variation you possibly wanted in that room. One would think it would be trivial to have scenes work only with groups of lights, instead of individual lights, but no. Imagine having 10 or even 20 Hue bulbs in your system. The mind boggles.
- For all practical purposes you will need to download third party Hue apps if you intend to use Hue in more than one room.
Why Would Hue Do This to Yourself?
Well, the thing is…when Hue works (mine is working now), it is super cool. There really is no other way to describe it. I’d like my entire house to be filled with Hue bulbs. Some people have complained about the max brightness being too low, but I find them bright enough. I will continue to buy more bulbs and keep looking for better third party apps. I will probably buy a few bulbs just for status indicators of things that I want to be notified of, such as alarms or internet information, powered by IFTTT recipes.
The software will only improve, and because it’s built on open communication standards, I expect someone to create an actual Smart Bridge, running perhaps Linux on a Raspberry Pi tech core. This will replace the existing Bridge and make that company a lot of money, because the existing Bridge is a dumb piece of crap. The only piece of hardware I’ve heard of that seems to be tackling this at the moment is the rather expensive Revolv, which sounds like it has all the beta-level software problems that Hue has.
Some of the basic automation is great, and the glimpse of what is possible is enough for me to stick with the system. Once Hue natively supports groups of bulbs, like it should have from the very day it launched, it will be freaking awesome, even with the shitty default app. Even the generally useless ability to remotely enable or disable your lights while out and about is kind of nifty (though mostly useful when combined with external services like If This Then That, which I linked to earlier.
I now notice when I flick light switches. I never realised how often I did it, because it’s just one of those unavoidable things. Now I only flick light switches for things like bathrooms and the garage (although our garage doubles as a gym/studio and so multiple hued lights would work well in there).
A major drawback of having lights managed through apps of course is that visitors are now locked out of your house lighting unless they cycle the lights at the wall and every standalone lamp (this will set them all ‘on’ to a default max warm yellow brightness).
If you like gadgets and home automation, and are not scared of technical problems, and have the spare cash, I recommend you buy into this system and choose Option 2 above.
If you are not technically inclined, and you expect to have difficulty troubleshooting the technology, I strongly urge you to stay away from this beta product UNLESS you choose Option 1 above and treat it like a toy or gimmick.
Colour fidelity isn’t great. Particularly blues are tinged with red. If you are a colour-Nazi, and likely to be annoyed by noticeable differences between the selected colour and the final colour, Hue may not be for you.