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Monday, June 2, 2014

Philips Hue review: iPhone-controlled coloured lightbulbs are no gimmick

Sometimes a piece of technology appears that has the power to truly light up your life. It doesn't have to be another iPhone kicking off a smartphone revolution but it can be something that simply makes your life more comfortable.

When it comes to inspiration, Philips had its last light-bulb moment designing... a new light bulb. The Philips Hue is hardly new, launched a little over a year ago, but as a sign of enduring merit it has picked up a grassroots following of satisfied users, and curious hackers too.

That's hackers in the original sense of technology tinkerers, those who like to modify, customise and re-engineer, although there's always potential for the hooded hacker of the popular press to introduce some mayhem too.

The Philips Hue is a remote-controlled lighting system for the home, using standard screw-fit lightbulbs that can be adjusted from a smartphone app.

That control extends to brightness, colour, and timing – you can set your lights to come on at preset times, or when you approach or leave the home, and even entirely remotely over the internet when you're miles away.

In the Philips Hue light kit are three LED bulbs, and a control hub that connects by ethernet cable to your home router. Each bulb is quite conventional looking, with an E27 screw-fit end; that's the larger screw type of the two types in common household circulation.

The bulbs communicate with the bridge unit using a wireless protocol called ZigBee, using the same 2.4 GHz radio band as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Each bulb can talk to others without the hub; they can create a mesh network whereby distant bulbs communicate and relay with a closer one, rather than necessarily to a bridge unit which may be out of range.

With the system set up, you can have three bulbs in the same room or set in different rooms, although many of the preset lighting schemes use complementary colours so work best with the three bulbs in view together.

From the Hue smartphone app for iOS or Android, you simply tap on one of the preconfigured light scenes. 'Concentrate' gives a vivid pure white that we found close to natural daylight, and serves well to reinforce light levels in dim daytime rooms. 'Energize' takes this even further with a colder blue-white that's said to boost your energy levels.

Moving into the yellower end of the spectrum, there's the Reading scene which we found has a good blend for most evening's neutral lighting. And further again in the warm direction is Relax, for even more of the old tungsten filament effect, although to our taste it was perhaps even too soporific.

You can also blend your own choice of white light from an on-screen palette that stretches from chilled blue-white to warm yellow-white.

But the attraction for many users will be the rainbow of colours with which you can paint your room. Each bulb actually comprises three coloured LEDs, roughly corresponding to red, blue and green, from which you can mix just about any colour the human eye can discern.

Blue shades are perhaps the least impressive as light output seems to drop off with cobalt type shades. But make no mistake, the gamut of coverage is still incredibly vibrant.

Used thus you can even match the room lighting to colours already in use, thanks to a colour dropper on the iPhone app. Use this to collect exact colours from photographs of paintings, furnishing or decor in your room.

Perhaps the biggest drawback we found for effortless use at home was the inevitable reliance on your phone or iPad. Compared to the real hands-on experience of toggling a switch in a known location on the wall, you must now hunt around for your mobile device, unlock its screen, open the Hue app, tap through to the required page for adjustment.

You can still just turn the bulb off by its normal switch in a table lamp, for example. But when you then switch it back on it will revert to a default brilliant white at full brightness.

Regarding light fittings, we found one almost fated for use with the Philips Hue, the Ikea Fado. This moon-like opaque globe can allow a smooth ball of colour to be seen clearly from anywhere in the room.

The timer function lets you set the bulbs to light at preset times – for example as a wake-up aid in the morning. To make this more comfortable, the lights will gradually ramp up to the preset brightness rather than abruptly switch on. It's a very neat and useful asset, although even the initial lowest start point (5 % output) could be lower.

Taking the customisation potential further, you can set up Hue so that certain events trigger your own presets, with the help of If This Then That ( Examples we've heard about include flashing bulbs in the team colours when your football team scores a goal, linked by RSS or news feeds that log sports results.

To use the geofencing facilities, you'll need to set up an account with Philips and remain logged in with your smartphone at all times. We asked Philips about the potential for running down the phone's battery if the app is constantly polling for your location.

'Philips hue's geofencing feature mitigates against significant battery consumption by not relying on energy-hungry GPS technology,' we were informed.

'Instead, hue's smartphone platforms using geofencing rely on cell phone tower and WiFi network triangulation. Communicating and scanning for these is something the phone is doing anyway in order to receive phone calls and automatically connect to known WiFi hotspots; therefore the extra power consumption of geofencing is negligible.'

Philips has also assured us that it does not track your location; once a geofence event has been configured, such as 'switch on lights when I'm near home', a dialogue only occurs between your phone and your home bridge unit.

Three bulbs are included with the starter kit, and more bulbs can be added, priced at £50 each. The bridge unit is specified to control up to 50 bulbs, and beside the standard E27 type there are now E26, GU10 and BR30 formats also available.

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