[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.]
In part 1 I revealed the Secrets They Won’t Tell Hue and some of the things that I like about Hue. Here I show my personal unboxing journey, some applications I’m using, and my stunning conclusion.
My Huenique Story
I purchased a starter kit and screwed the bulbs into my two bedside lamps and into the living room. This proved immediately that the native app’s inability to deal with multiple rooms in any simple manner was…absent. I have a Sonos system, too, with 4 rooms configured with multiple speakers per room. This had predisposed me to expect a certain base quality of bulb management that was curiously absent in Hue.
Within a few hours I received the ‘you should upgrade your firmware’ message while in the Hue app. I dutifully updated the Bridge firmware. Afterwards, I saw a new connectivity info tag next to my bulbs. This dreaded warning exclamation point told me the bulbs were not reachable by the Bridge. This means I couldn’t connect or control to them. I could switch them all ‘off’, of course, which is the only command it seemed to be able to send to bulbs regardless of whether they were ‘connected’ or not. Because it’s not possible to disable the lamps remotely unless they are ‘connected’, this was a case of Lying Lightbulbs.
Unable to have the lights work, I performed a factory reset of the Bridge, and proceeded to discover I could not re-add any of the 3 starter kit bulbs. I browsed the internet repeatedly only to discover the aforementioned LampStealer, which is treated by Philips as some sort of official unofficial solution. It even has its own page. This really is unacceptable but whatever.
LampStealer played ‘Can’t Touch This’ several times as I unsuccessfully tried to add my bulbs back to the Bridge.
I packed everything back into its original packaging (thankfully I don’t throw packaging out for a year or so) and prepared to ask for a replacement at the Apple store.
In the morning I thought I’d reconnect the Bridge and bulbs just in case. I thought perhaps the bulbs, having been powered off overnight, might have relinquished their IP addresses, or something. There’s precious little information available to you about the bulbs, you see.
The bulbs were detected fine and everything started working again.
I went out for the day and bought a fourth bulb. This bulb had the latest firmware, unlike my starter bulbs.
Yes. I know. Hue screwed me around yet I threw another $70 AUD at a fourth bulb? Really?
Yes, really. It’s that cool. When it works.
I came home and added the fourth bulb to the Bridge without any problems. All my lights, including the new bulb, continued to respond only intermittently, because I DON’T KNOW WHY.
All advice online related to connectivity warnings said I should make sure there was enough wireless coverage between the bulbs. My house is not big enough for this to be a problem.
I performed another factory reset. Now I couldn’t find ANY of the light bulbs. After a while I could find two of the starter kit bulbs. I waited. I gave up and repackaged the gear for return to the shop.
I went online to Philips Hue support and filled out a long online form describing my problem. A day later I received a message that my request had been received and I’d be contacted in the next 48 hours.
I returned the Starter Kit (not the fourth bulb) and picked up a replacement. The Apple staff were very kind about it, letting me know they did 2 week return policies. I’m pretty sure Australian law gives me a much longer reasonable period, but not to worry.
All lamps worked immediately (as with the first starter kit). I could not add the fourth bulb. I left it powered off for two hours, and again could not add the bulb.
I used LampStealer, which couldn’t find my Bridge, even though it was on the same network with the same WiFi and had internet access.
I moved my Bridge into the living room, directly plugged into my router instead of via (an admittedly low bandwidth) ethernet-over-power connection. Now LampStealer could find my Bridge. I placed the fourth bulb next to my Bridge and used LampStealer to successfully link it to my Bridge (if you’ve been reading, you would have realised as I finally did, that my fourth bulb still ‘owned’ the previous Bridge!).
I used the Bridge to discover the fourth bulb and add it. EVERYTHING WORKED AGAIN.
The Hue app prompted me to update the Bridge’s firmware.
I laughed, clicked ‘no’, and started writing this article.
This entire process, initial purchase to writing this article, took about 5 days of scouring the internet. I assure you this was not any fun at all.
However, now that I have a functioning, four bulb Hue system, I am super super happy. It really is great.
Just this morning (Nov 27) I received an email from Philips support with a link to my case. I guess I can open it up and start to engage support now. Since I solved my problems on my own, I’m going to ask them all about what will fuck up when I do a firmware update.
Hue Talkin’ To Me?
(Note: If none of the following section makes sense to you, Option 2 may not be for you.)
I don’t know how much of the failure rate after the update was related to the very poor network connectivity between my Bridge and my local network (I had this and a few other devices connected to my network via rather lousy ethernet-over-power).
I checked my local wireless network (you can do this in your WiFi router admin screen) to confirm that each of the now working bulbs is allocated an IP on the wireless network. That does mean that the Bridge was only connected to the bulbs through a poor network connection, but it doesn’t explain why it worked before I did the update. Perhaps the new firmware required more frequent status requests or connections to the bulbs. Who fucking knows, really! This shit is managed with beta-quality software.
The thing is…my Sonos has a Bridge, and although the Sonos Bridge is connected to my network via the same poor connection (and via that to the internet), it communicates with the 6 wirelessly connected Sonos speakers just fine, and tells them where to get the music I’m playing, and keeps them all synched nicely. So it’s conceivable that the poor connection my Bridge had to my wireless network could have caused the problems of my bulbs being unreachable. However…
It seems highly improbable that the Hue Bridge needs more bandwidth to four lightbulbs than my FUCKING MUSIC SYSTEM DOES TO SIX SEPARATE SPEAKERS.
These are for iOS only, as I have an iPhone and iPad. Sadly, as with most application choices, I expect a subset of subpar applications to be available for Android OS, and none (perhaps one) for Windows Phone. Amusingly, Windows Phone is probably best suited to a Hue app, with its tile-based UI. Hell, I might even write one myself when I’m free.
Please note that this section comes with a language warning, because Hue software is fucking awful.
Also note that there are only three paid apps in here. After I realised how generally bad Hue software controllers were, I was cautious throwing my money at them.
Yes, yes, the full Hue starter kit and extra bulb cost $320, what’s your point?
SWEAR WORDS LIKE ‘FUCK’ AND ‘FUCKING’ AND ‘UNFUCKINGBELIEVABLE’ LIE AHEAD!
Hue App (Free)
This is the basic app for Hue. It allows you to build ‘scenes’ which will include a set of lights. The scenes are either based on an image (your own or from a supplied list) and the lights in that scene are assigned a specific colour. Scenes can be triggered by schedule or through geofencing, which is pretty cool but I haven’t really been able to test.
Editing a scene will enable that scene, which is a ridiculous thing considering that you may want to edit your ‘Bedroom – Relaxing’ scene while someone is SLEEPING, which, by selecting it to edit, will actually switch all its lights on. Un-fucking-believable.
Fade in and out timers are cool though, as well as geofencing. I’ve not tried to interact via IFTTT yet, mostly because IFTTT triggers run on a 15 minute cycle, which isn’t really that useful to me in terms of lighting.
Hue Party (Free)
This is a great little app that allows you to grab a few of your Hue bulbs and set them to strobe, or flicker like candles, or gently cycle. It’s free, so a decent addition to your controller collection, but it can’t save rooms or do anything like that. Like most Hue apps, more than 4 or 5 bulbs would make this absolutely unmanageable.
Again like most Hue apps, because the Bridge is so fundamentally fucking stupid, it needs to run in the background of your iPhone or iPad so that it can continue to control your bulb animations.
Yeah, this is how dumb the Hue Bridge is: light animations aren’t sent to the Bridge and executed/managed by the Bridge; no, they are executed by the application on your fucking phone. I don’t even.
Quick Hue ($1)
I only just started using this and it’s pretty cool, but clunky and unintuitive. Normally these adjectives wouldn’t fit into a single sentence, but of course we are talking Hue software here, which is universally shite. The app looks like an iOS 7 app, but behaves like an iOS 6 app. This is most noticeable when you elect to rearrange the lights but they won’t move in rearrange mode, because there is a difficult to see iOS 6 style ‘rearrange’ target icon that appears list items which look like iOS 7 list items.
Eventually you will be able to figure out how to group bulbs into ‘sections’ for control. Quick Hue does allow brightness changes and switching lights on and off, which is great. Colour changes are a little clunkier, but acceptable.
Quick Hue also shows you in the App icon how many lights are on, using the iOS App badges indicator. It only shows you how many lights it thinks are on, though. It doesn’t update in the background, so if you change the light settings with a different Hue controller the badges actually lie to you until you open up the app again. Yay!
Although it’s not very pretty, and feels like a beta product, Quick Hue is probably the best app to get your Hue experience started, and it’s the cheapest of the paid apps here.
Note: click on the ‘cell rearrange’ icon (up and down arrows) and just move the lights into their respective ‘sections’, like a list item rearrange. This took me far too long to work out. You can also, gloriously, collapse each of the sections so you don’t have to look at every bulb in your system. This is the only basic lighting app I’ve used that makes a large number of bulbs manageable.
A very simple iOS 7 style application that also lets you set proper groups of lights. The interface is fairly unintuitive, though, until you realise that some groups (ie. the individual lightbulbs) can’t be deleted from the home screen.
Notice a trend? Once you have more than 5 bulbs or so this becomes fucking impossible to manage, too. You may have 4 rooms, but 20 bulbs… Your Switches app will now have 24 icons on the home page, 4 of which you want to use. Fucking infuriating.
There is a limited selection of colours, instead of the full gamut available to regular bulbs, and each brightness setting needs its own colour setting. Again, this will fill up your screen very rapidly and is a pain in the butt.
Yes, we have his and hers bedside lamps, wanna make something of it?
One cool feature of Switches is that it allows you to set a room toggle as a link icon on your iOS home screens. This helps you to switch on (or off) a room to a single colour and intensity. Meanwhile, it opens the app on the last screen you were viewing, instead of the room you just toggled. It’s frankly maddening, but it works, sort of.
It’s shocking that an application which is so limited is nonetheless one of the better home/room light management apps for the Hue.
A huge drawback to this app is that it requires a remote account and doesn’t seem to work without an internet connection (I’m too lazy to check right now). It does, however, have the best room creation I’ve encountered (which isn’t hard people, for Christ’s sake, it’s a subset of bulbs grouped into groups and controlled as a group). This group setting seems to be in the Goldee app and not on the Bridge (remember this is the DUMBEST FUCKING SMART BRIDGE that exists).
Goldee allows you to allocate an animated ‘scene’ to one of your rooms, and all the lights in that room cycle through colours for that scene. You can’t create your own scenes, although the app does say it will offers hundreds more (presumably through an in-app purchase scheme).
Another massive drawback to Goldee is that it can’t operate while it isn’t the current ‘open’ application on your iPhone. That’s ok if you aren’t using your phone, but otherwise it’s kind of horrible. The app does warn you with a notification that it needs to be front and centre to maintain the animation. While it is ‘off’, the animation freezes the colours at the last moment.
Sounds like a disaster? Nope, Goldee is pretty good. I use it to transform a room into a relaxing moving scene. My favourite is Green Forest.
It’s only barely usable, but it looks like they are in active development.
Hue Scintillator ($3)
Like the Hue Party app, this application stays in the background while it executes its light recipes. It’s probably the coolest application though, for non-daily atmospheric use. You can create bulb groups (effectively rooms) and then your own fairly complex effects, including timed effects. I’ve not played a lot with it yet but it looks nice and works well. I like a decent candle effect, and Scintillator does take microphone input and use it to inject a bit of randomness into the colour effects.
There is a really cool setting to sync your Hue lights to the Day/Night cycle of a Minecraft game. That’s a bit niche but super cool, so I’ll be giving that a shot at some stage.
You could get a little disco party going, with a slight light delay. This is a bit like Hue Ambify, which I haven’t used but my wife said was, ‘Ok’.
‘Ok’ is pretty much the upper range for most Hue apps, so you might want to check it out.
As I’ve said a few times through this: Hue is awesome hardware. Hue has terrible software and terrible support. If you intend to purchase Hue and don’t have an interest in fiddling with settings, follow Option 1 and don’t expand your set of bulbs until this beta product has been upgraded a few more times (I give it another 12 months or so). Else, choose Option 2.
It’s hard to explain why I would recommend Hue at all given my experiences. Nonetheless, I am really glad I have it, now that it’s working. Just last night I set a timer to start fading out the living room lights over 9 mins. It was really, really cool.
Obviously if you don’t think that’s remotely cool, then this expensive gadget set is not for Hue…
- This Gizmodo article pointed me to some other apps, but I’ve not tried them all.
- The mostly useless Philips Hue support page, which is an FAQ.
- The more useful Philips Hue support page for developers
If Hue Can’t Get Enough
I wrote a thorough list of basic requirements for a functional Hue system, Bridge and Controller. It’s sort of a list to myself, but any developer interested in having a requirement checklist is more than welcome to use it. That list is here.