Lighting is a powerful thing. Lighting can set a mood consciously, and perhaps subconsciously too. Does anyone like the green, cold bluish look of a florescent-lit cubeland office? How about a candle-lit dinner? By a fireplace? What about a cool winter morning, or a hot summer sunset?
The color of light plays a significant role in our lives, and most of the time, we barely notice. The comely nature of incandescent light bulbs has been disappearing for years, replaced by CFLs that despite a similar color temperature, offer little of their predecessor’s warmth (literally).
Enter LEDs: Energy efficient sure, but more importantly, with red, green, and blue diodes, able to generate any color imaginable. If only someone would hook one up to an app. Oh wait!
The Philips Hue, available only via the iTunes store, is everything you need for remote-controlled multi-colored lighting in a single box. For $199 you get three LED light bulbs, each with a wireless transceiver built in, plus a wireless bridge unit you plug into your home’s router. The app you download for free via iTunes.
Setup is easy. The bulbs are normal size, fitting anywhere a standard light bulb would. They can go all in the same room, or in different rooms. The base unit connects to your router via Ethernet, and comes with a small A/C wall wart for power.
The bulbs are bright, brighter than many CFL lamps I’ve had. In the “default” mode (i.e. if you just turn them on), they’re a warm white, perhaps slightly cooler color temp than the warmest CFLs (which in turn are cooler than incandescent).
If you want to go wacky, you can dial in all manners of color, and the smooth transitions from one color to another is really slick. Green for a wacky party, blue for a crazy movie night, deep red to freak out the neighbors, all are possible. Once you get over that, you can dial in more moderate tones to set a mood, including various temperatures of white. Presets (called “Light Recipes”) in the app labeled “Concentration,” “Relax,” “Reading” and so seem to be reasonably named.
Ah yes, the app. The interface, at first, seems decent. It’s attractive, and has lots of other presets like “Sunset,” and “Energize” that offer vastly different ambiances. Dragging up the screen reveals a second menu that gives you sliders to adjust the brightness, plus a color palette to choose specific colors or color temperatures (accessed by turning your iPhone/touch sideways). Honestly, this is less intuitive than it sounds. I’m sure the app’s designers were trying to make the app easy to use for everyone, but they dove right past that and made it clumsy. Once you get past the novelty of switching from “Deep Sea” to “Beach” presets, actually getting the app to do what you want is needlessly difficult. There are always multiple steps between what you want to do and how you’re able to do it. You can’t, for example, just turn on a “white” light. You’d need to choose a preset first, then adjust it.
It gets worse. You can’t just make a Light Recipe preset for funky colors from scratch. You either have to load an image, take a photo with the camera, or stick with four white base-presets with different color temps. You can’t just make a “red” preset. It’s clunky, to put it nicely.
And really, would a color wheel, a color palette, or even an image with buckets of paint be too hard for someone to understand? For example,check out the LIFX app mock-up. Simple, easy to understand. Not forcing you to use the bulb/app in the convoluted way some Philips designer thinks is the best for you. Then there's all the features that should have been there, like syncing the lights to music, like AmbiLight used to do? Or a slow rotation through colors. Cool for a party, right? Nope. None of that.
Other aspects, like timers, randomly stop working for some users. This is a pretty big deal, as one of the coolest uses for these would be to make it seem like you’re at home when you’re not, turning the lights on and off, even having a blue color temp like someone’s watching TV. Even if it does work, there’s no scheduling function. So whatever you set, it’s like that every day. No weekend/weekday options, so be wary if you’re considering these for a bedroom. Sure a slow fade-in of light is a great way to wake up, but not on your day off. I wasn’t able to test it, but apparently syncing the preset/light recipes across different devices is a nightmare.
The current ranking of the app, with 139 reviews on iTunes, is 2/5 stars. The majority are 1 or 2 star rankings. It’s clear I’m not the only one disappointed at what could have been. What's interesting reading the reviews (and you should, just so you have a heads up at how crappy the app is), is that everyone loves the bulbs. It's the app that's the problem. And since it's been nearly 2 months since the last update, I'm concerned Philips has given up.
Lastly, and it’s not a huge deal, but the blue LEDs on the wireless bridge are exceptionally bright, and can’t be dimmed. Sure you can tuck it away anywhere, but it seems an odd oversight.
I like the Hue. Or I should say, I want to like the Hue. The bulbs bring a warmth to the room, and the color possibilities make certain you have the right light for the right mood. However, it narrowly misses being a “great” product with lazy app design, and a real lack of exploiting the potential of this is product. With the pieces Philips has created, this could have easily been a revolutionary lighting product. Instead, it’s some neat colored LEDs you control with an app. Cool, that, but not amazing. So close...
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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