The Philips Hue lighting system has been around for over a year. First introduced in late 2012, the lighting option were A19 light bulbs, the standard size you’d find in most lamps and fixtures. They have since expanded their product offering, offering customers an option as to their preferred ‘starter pack’, an option for those looking to either get started or expand their home automation. The Philips Hue BR30 starter pack targets consumers looking for energy efficient, wireless lighting to replace their BR30 incandescant bulbs, typically used in recessed lighting.
The Philips Hue BR 30 starter system comes with everything you need to get started. It includes a Hue bridge, power supply and three Hue BR30 light bulbs. For good measure, they also throw in a Cat5e cable. Customers can still opt for the B19 package, which is identical, save for the difference in bulb size. Existing Hue customers needn’t purchase the starter kit if they want the new recessed lighting bulbs. Philips makes them available for $59 per bulb. The starter kits are priced at $199, so your initial investment breaks out to roughly $64 per bulb. Bulbs from the starter kit must be used with the associated hub. This a significant amount more than if you opted for a non-smart LED equivilent, which costs around $21 per bulb and standard incandescent which are even cheaper at $5 per bulb. Depending upon the size of your home, costs for implementing this sort of technology can get expensive rather quickly. So is it worth it?
Setting Up Your Wireless Lighting System
The Hue light bulbs take seconds to install. You simply unscrew your old bulbs and screw in the new bulbs. The manufacturer recommends that you install these in a socket where you have a simple on/off switch. If you have a dimmer switch, you can get by with keeping it a full power, but there have been reports of the bulbs emitting a ‘whine’ sound. You cannot dim these from the wall switch and for some, that’s a pretty big concession. If you have dimmer switches, you’ll probably want to consider swapping them out for On/Off switches. I’ll delve more into how you work around this later in the review.
The brains of the operation is the Hue bridge. Setting it up is as simple as plugging it in and using the supplied cat5e to your router or in my case a switch. The hub will display a series of lights, three in all.
Finally, the glue to your wireless lighting system is the Philips Hue app, available as a free download from the App Store. You can install these on any of your iOS devices. The first time you launch the app, you’ll see a short tutorial, followed by directions on pairing the app to your bridge. It’s as simple as pressing the center button and within seconds, you’ll have complete control over Hue.
Re-thinking How You Control Your Lights
When you live with Hue, you need to make adjustments to how you manage your lighting. Traditionally, flicking the on/off switch is how most use their lights. Using these lights, the wall switch remains on at all times. You are basically give up using the old method of light control. Everything is now controlled via the app on your iPhone, iPad or Android device. If you power-cycle the switch, a light will come on, set to its default white light. Relatives, friends, the babysitter or anyone who hasn’t been given a tutorial might find your lights to be confusing. They were on, but off. I switched them off, now on and they are on. I have home automation hubs from Vera and SmartThings in my home, so moving to iPhone controlled lighting isn’t vastly different. They both handle the process of gaining control differently, with the hubs primarily focused on Z-Wave devices that require the somewhat difficult task of replacing wall switches. Both Vera and SmartThings can interface with your Hue hub, so a combination of different technologies can form your ideal connected home. The other hubs allow control both at the switch and inside the app.
The Many Colors of Hue
The application provides two pages of scenes that can help you get started with adding a mix of white or colorful lighting. Philips calls them ‘light recipes’, combining a variety of colors that work in unison with your group of lights to set the perfect mood. In some cases, there are visual images that were the inspiration. Ski for example, merges a deep blue sky and white-topped mountains. ‘Beach’ tries to replicate sandy beaches with brightly colored flowers and blue water. You can use your own photos to create your own light recipes.
There are four icons that stand apart from the rest, likely because they’ll be used more often. Relax provides a subtle orange tint that provides warm lighting. Concentrate reminds me of the bright, white glow from the Apple logo on my MacBook Pro. Energize provides a tinge of blue element to a bright white and finally reading looks more like standard soft-white will look familiar.
The Light Control section of the app makes it easy to create your own array of lights. You can drag individual lights across the color spectrum. The top section of lighting control provides for typical white lighting from blue-ish to warmer colors. Dropping the pins on top of each other will group your lights. The slider at the bottom adjusts your dimming. Tap on save and you’ve created your very own light recipe. You can sign up at Philips community website to share recipes with other users.
A quick search of the App Store will reveal a number of apps that will work with Hue. You can use an app like Hue Disco to turn your living room into a dance floor, complete with lights that change with the beats or you can opt for strobe lighting. Some apps act as an advanced replacement for the default app.
Also supported is the popular IFTTT service which stands for ‘if this, than that’. You enable services to interact. For example, you can set up your lights to turn on at sunrise or sunset. There are other IFTTT combinations, like having it turn lights blue if it starts raining. Using the ESPN ‘app’, lights can be set to flash if your favorite team scores. During my testing, this didn’t work so well. Lights that simulate sun at sunrise greeted me each morning with wake-up light.
Hue vs Incandscent Lighting
Philips rates the BR30 bulbs as offering 600 lumens. They feel solid, light and their design looks to be a modern spin on the older bulbs. The incandscent bulbs they replaced were rated at 650 lumens. I didn’t much of a difference in the amount of light produced. The standard LED bulb referenced above offers 730 lumens, so if you are looking for more light, those are a better option.
When you consider coverting to LED, be it wireless or standard lighting, I’ve found a big issue to be the difference in warmth when using LED bulbs. The few brands of bulbs I’ve tested prior to Hue, at full power, did a fair job of replicating soft white light. The major issue I’ve found is when you dim LED lights. They can produce harsh, cold lighting at lower power levels. While this sort of light might work for a commercial institution, people want their homes to feel inviting and comfortable. Having pulled and returned a number of LED bulbs after they failed the all important ‘wife test’, I was curious if the color rendering capabilities of Hue would be sufficient to jettison our reliance on incandescent bulbs.
The first test was acheiving a match of the orange-white of incandescents. (LEDs are on left in above photo) I found that by using Light Control and dragging the lights to the far left, it produced a soft, warm and inviting light. The second test and perhaps the harder of the two was dimming. When you dim the Hue lights, they were able to retain that same warm lighting familiar to incandscents. The range I was able to dim was less than with a traditional bulb, which I found to be at roughly 85 percent. Incandescents can dim to near off. When you get to lower dimming levels with LEDs, they just power-off.
The up front costs of LED bulbs will eventually pay off after a few years. At the same time, these bulbs continue to come down in price. The Hue system has retained its premium pricing, making it tougher to recoup your investment. The BR30 bulbs use 80 percent less energy than a traditonal bulb. That works out to 13 watts as opposed to 65 watts per bulb. If you run a light 6 hours per day, it’s a savings of $13 per bulb, per year. That makes your break even around 5 years. The bulbs have a lifespan of 15,000 hours. Using our 6 hour per day example, after 5 years, the bulbs would still have a third remaining of their expected lifespan. Energy costs vary and so will your savings.
The bulbs did not get hot, at all. During summer months, the cool running bulbs should have a slight impact on your cooling bills.
Controlling Lights With Your Remote Control
Beyond your smartphone, the Hue Lighting System can be controlled using the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. If you have plans on using these in a home theater setup, you can control your AV equipment and lighting with just one remote. You can dim the lights and change the color temperature, all without getting up from the couch.
- Easy to setup
- Doesn’t require an electrician or any electrical work
- Vast color spectrum of lighting
- Energy efficient, long lasting
- Works with IFTTT
- Expandable up to 50 bulbs using A19 or BR30 options
- Can be integrated with Vera, SmartThings
- Do not work with dimmer switch
- Starter bulbs are married to hub
Here in the U.S., you can no longer purchase 100 watt, 60 watt or 40 watt bulbs. There have been reports of people stockpiling them. It’s not that these folks don’t have an aversion to saving money. Some of the new LED bulbs are just not delivering upon the promise to deliver warm light of the cheap bulbs. Over time, I suspect technology will improve and costs will come down. If you are drawing comparisons to incandescent lighting, the Philips Hue lights are the best LED lights I’ve tested (non-scientific), but they are also very expensive. Not only do they provide for a viable replacement, they go well beyond offering smartphone controlled light recipes that can immediately change the entire look and feel of a room. Studies show that light therapy can have a positive affect on our mood. You’re also paying for the added benefit of being able to turn your family room into a movie theater setting with a touch of a button.
The Philips Hue BR30 Starter Kit is a great option for those considering energy efficient, smartphone controlled lighting that adds a fun factor with its broad spectrum of color options. At the current price of additional bulbs, it is cost prohibitive for whole house lighting, but is certainly worthy of consideration for one or two rooms in your home. It also makes for an easy way to get into home automation, without any electrical work.