Just how smart is Philips’ smart lighting and how easy is it to set up? To find out, Jim Hill shared a flat with an Ambilight TV, Hue and Siri too
Philips Hue is a lighting system that enables its owner to control the timings and colour of their lighting via an app on their phone. Lighting can be scheduled for varying times of the day, controlled from the phone, or set to display colour themes or a range of moods at certain points in the day. It’s the most widely known and easily available of the various smart lighting systems, comprising a smart hub, set of bulbs and the recently upgraded Hue app.
For this reason it’s become a popular starting point for those looking to make their homes a bit smarter, especially as it integrates well with a range of UK-available home control products as varied as Samsung SmartThings on one side, and Amazon Echo on the other.
And the range is expanding every day, thanks to HomeKit compatibility amongst others. This ever-growing family of lighting products works around a hub (called a ‘bridge’), that’s in its second generation and complies with Apple’s HomeKit.
It already worked well with iOS devices and Nest thermostats, but HomeKit adds Siri and Apple TV compatibility too. They can even sync with the colours on your TV screen, if it’s a Philips Ambilight set. Those are the ones with pools of colour-changing LED light projected onto wall behind them.
It sounds like the ultimate smart home scenario and the results are certainly dazzling when it all works, but getting to that point isn’t quite so smooth, as I found out when setting up a whole-house system from scratch.
We chose the Hue Starter Kit E27 (£149), which includes Bridge 2.0 and a Hue Go portable LED lamp (£80). Oh, and a 55-inch Philips 55PUS8601 (£1,700) Ambilight TV.
Philips Hue: setting up
How many people does it take to change a smart light bulb? Just one and it took me about fifteen minutes to turn three regular lights into app-controlled smart lights by screwing in three Hue bulbs. That includes the time taken to plug in the bridge, connect it to my router by cable and then connect to the Hue bulbs via Wi-Fi using the Hue companion app on my iPhone 6. The Philips app identified the bulbs around my flat and let me label them “kitchen” or “Anglepoise” etc. within the settings.
The app also recognised the battery-powered Hue Go when I switched it on and labelled it correctly, so all four lights were now in-synch — for a while. An exclamation mark appeared next to one of the lights listed on my phone later on and would only re-joined the group intermittently. A glitch that sorted itself out eventually.
Now all four lights can be switched, or dimmed simultaneously with a single command from my phone. Or I can select a pre-set scene, like “sunset” and have the whole house turn orange, which is enormously satisfying.
You can do the same trick with your Apple Watch because the Philips app includes a WatchOS extension that effectively turns your watch face into a light switch. Use the phone app to select which pre-set scenes you want to appear on your wrist, so you don’t have to scroll through too many options. You can’t hep feeling a little smug when you can turn all of your lights on by casually tapping your watch.
Ambilight + Hue
Combining Philips’ Ambilight TV with Hue was a logical progression for Philips, but it’s only this 2016 generation of TVs that actually has the Ambilight+Hue built into the settings menu. This means you don’t need to download the Ambilight+Hue app that I had previously been trying and failing to connect with the TV. Instead, you can just use the TV remote to call up the Ambilight menu and activate the Ambilight+Hue feature. By doing this and pressing the button on the Hue Bridge, my TV discovered all four lights – well, three of them – and made them blink to confirm connection.
Now the lights all around the house can change colour in time with the colours appearing on the TV screen. Of course, it only makes sense for the ones in the same room to do this, so you can select the lights (that you previously labelled) to follow the TV. You can even input their location in relation to the screen, so the ceiling light might turn blue, while the Hue Go on the floor turns green when there’s blue sky and green grass on screen.
The effect is to make the TV the focus of attention in the room — as if the Aurora Borealis coming from the TV itself wasn’t enough. Some have said it’s distracting, but that only tends to be if you’re not really watching the telly. When everyone is wrapped up in the film, or TV show, the subtle colour changes just draw you further in.
You can also instruct Ambilight and all the Hue lights to pulse and change with the beat when you’re playing music through the system. It’s fun for parties, but quickly irritating for casual listening.
Hue voice control
Setting up Siri to control your Hue lighting was unfortunately far from straight forward, even though HomeKit is now baked into the bridge and there’s a Siri option in the Hue app settings menu.
Turn this Siri switch on you’ll probably be shown the error message “iCloud data synch in progress, try again in a few minutes.” After wasting an hour or so, I realised the only way around it was to go into my iPhone settings menu and sign out of iCloud. It’s a desperate measure that stopped email arriving on my phone, ended Calendar syncs and deleted all the cards associated with Apple Pay. It certainly makes you consider how badly you want to talk to your lighting.
The good news is that this fix enabled it to work and I can now tell my phone to “Turn off all the lights”, or “Dim the Living Room to twenty percent”. When Siri does as you ask it really feels like the future, but as is so often the case with Siri, it only works about half the time and when it doesn’t you feel a complete fool for trying to argue with a light switch.
Living with Philips Hue – a reader’s verdict
We spoke with Tom Singer, a web developer who rents in London and who has just had his second child.
He owns two smart lighting systems, Lightwave RF which was his first foray into smart lighting, and recently, Philips Hue.
He initially installed Hue to help his wife wake up and feed the baby at night because, as he put it, “she is scared of the dark” and it’s easy to schedule and control from the phone. He likes the app on the phone but also likes the fact that the lights work without the app, by simply switching them on and off in the usual way.
He’s recently been using the lights as an educational tool for his two year old, to help teach colours. He would recommend Hue.
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