In 2012 Philips launched Hue, one of the earliest examples of smart lighting, allowing for colour and brightness control from a smartphone or tablet. At the time it perhaps wasn't realised how significant this system would become: many have followed, but few have ever matched Hue's abilities or diversity.

Five years on and the system has seen numerous updates and an expansion in what the system offers. From that original starter kit through to a range of different light bulbs and devices that all help enhance the lighting in your home.

At the same time a number of competitors have started to make waves by entering the market and others are set to launch in the near future. We've been using Hue since it launched, embracing the changes and growing the system as smart home has emerged. But is Hue still worth investing in?

The Philips Hue system consists of a variety of different bulbs or lights and they are the core element of the experience. You'll need a router in your home to connect the bridge to via an Ethernet cable and an Android or iPhone/iPad app is used to control everything and a compatible device is required for setup and operation. 

The bridge connects to your wireless router and sets up a ZigBee wireless network that the Hue bulbs can connect to, but the bulbs also create a mesh network, where each bulb can talk to each other bulb, meaning that range from the bridge isn't a problem, because any commands you send through can travel from bulb to bulb.

Hue is best known for the ability to instantly change colours, with a choice of 16 million and a variety of methods to choose the perfect colour for your room. But in recent years, the emphasis has changed from colour lighting (which was an evolution of Philips' original LivingColors stand-alone lights) into "ambience" or bulbs without colour.

Pocket-lintPhilips Hue Complete System Review A Shining Light In The Smart Home image 14

The shift in offering has meant that there's many ways to start building your Hue system and many options to expand it. You'll need a bridge whatever method you're choosing, so you're likely to start with a Starter Pack, although you can just buy the Hue Bridge for about £50, remembering that you'll need the new version if you want support for Apple's HomeKit for the ultimate in iPhone or iPad control.

You'll also need the Philips Hue app for iOS or Android.

There is plenty of choice when it comes to choosing the right light bulbs for your room or house. Whether you are looking to replace a downlighter, a standard lamp, or create something moody in the corner, there is a solution for it all within the Hue family. Here's a rundown of what's on offer and how we've found each component to fit into our Hue experience.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 12
  • Everything you need to get started
  • Bayonet or screw fitting
  • Includes bridge
  • Prices from £49.99

Originally, Philips Hue started with a three-bulb starter kit, costing £180 and giving you everything you needed. That's now dropped to about £150 for a three bulb kit (£119 on Amazon for screw fit, or £149 for bayonet) and Philips has expanded the offering to also offer bayonet fittings for those in the UK with older lights, as well as screw fittings which is the mainstay across the rest of Europe. 

The regular colour bulbs give off the equivalent of a 60W standard incandescent bulb (when at full brightness), although they are LED, so only draw 10W. They promise to light up your house for the next 10 years. Each bulb can create over 16 millions colours which is simply controlled via the app.

There's now options for a GU10 spotlight starter kit which will be more applicable for those in new build houses without pendulum ceiling lights, meaning you can have remote controls, automation and colour in your kitchen for bathroom spotlights, for example. Again, this costs around £150 for a three-bulb kit.

The bridge works like a hub as many smart home devices do, creating a mesh network around your house that piggy-backs on your standard internet connection. The bulbs connect to each other and then back to the hub. Adding another bulb means it connects to the nearest bulb rather than having to stretch all the way back to the base hub.

The internet side of things comes into play allowing control out of the home (if you're signed into the app), as well as allowing control by other systems.

Turn on the lights using a light switch and the bulbs will come on full white at maximum brightness regardless of the settings in the app. If you want to change the lighting thereafter you will need the app to change or adapt the settings - there is no other way to control it. But you don't have to use a light switch: the app can fade the bulbs on or off and you don't even need to be in the house to do that.

You're not limited to just three bulbs in the starter pack: you can add up to 50 bulbs to a single setup if you wish.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 4
  • Removes the colour options
  • Originally called Lux, now called White
  • Available as GU10 spotlights and candle bulbs too

If you don't want Hue bulbs to offer the full colour spectrum, then Hue White provides a more affordable white-only solution. These bulbs were launched as Hue Lux, but now go by the name of Hue White, with a range of different styles on offer.

They are often called ambiance as well: Philips say you will want the different whites for different tasks, and that clinical trials have shown that different white light can affect us in different ways; things like improving concentration or your ability to relax. All Hue bulbs can deliver white light, but if it's only white light that you want then Hue White is the best match.

They still work with the Hue app, but will only let you adjust from warm white to cool white. Individual White bulbs cost from about £15, but the spotlights are more expensive, around £30 for a single spot. These white spots are great, however, because they are more compact than the colour versions, so if you have a spotlight bar where the bulbs are exposed, these look better.

Between the normal colour bulbs and the newer selection of White bulbs, you can cover most of the standard light fittings of your home and across a range of different rooms. Bedside lights needing a candle bulb, bathroom needing spots, the mock chandelier on the landing, between all these things, the Hue range has you covered, which many smart lighting systems don't.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 3
  • Standalone lamp for Hue
  • Great uplighter
  • Go offers wireless portability

Once you've got the main kit up and running you can start adding other different lights to your home. One of the ways to do that is with an uplighter Philips calls Bloom. The Bloom was launched in 2013, a connected version of the LivingColor lamps that came before and the Go is a wireless evolution of that light.

The Bloom measures 13cm in diameter and is designed to offer a hint of colour and light to the corner of a room. The design is simple and understated - the bulb lives in a white metal shell that sits on the floor, set to an angle rather than pointing upwards like a conventional lamp - and it looks quirky; like a funky mushroom stool. However it only comes in a white finish.

Bloom delivers a maximum of 8W LED illumination. It's not designed to light up an entire room, but add a subtle dash of colour and mood. We've found the Bloom will happily sit in a corner and it works great as part of an automated system, rather than something you regularly turn on and off on its own, so it's best as part of a room setup you have.

The Bloom's accompanying cable is hardwired into the product and, at 1.8m long, it gives plenty of options to find a power socket nearby, but you'll have to try and hide that cable for the best looks. To get around that, there's now the Hue Go (or white and ambiance Go to use the full name). This strips away the hard shell and the cable and expands to about 15cm in diameter, but is very much the same idea as the Bloom.

Bloom is slowly going out of stock, so its availability might be limited although its about £50 on Amazon, but you can get the Go for about £70, but note that it doesn't come with a bridge, so is designed to expand your Hue system.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 5
  • Perfect for under-lighting and detailing
  • LightStrip Plus is expandable
  • Lots of accessories for LightStrip Plus

LightStrip is a bendable strip of LED lights that you can place around the home for dramatic mood lighting. The original LightStrip has been updated with LightStrip Plus, although both are still available, so make sure you know what you're buying.

LightStrip first-gen comes in three lengths, with a powercord and quite a chunky plug on the end, so you do need some space to accommodate the plug close to the area where you'll apply the LED strip. It's easy to see why it was moved to LightStrip Plus, which is much more versatile and flexible when it comes to installation.

LightStrip can be cut to size, but if you're using LightStrip Plus, you'll need to make sure you don't cut off the connector that will let you expand your system. On LightStrip Plus you can have up to 10m of lighting in a string.

The LightStrip has 3M adhesive tape applied to the back to help you stick it into place, which works well given the light weight of the design.

Like the Bloom, the LightStrips' subtle push of colour isn't supposed to illuminate a whole room, it's just to complement the Hue system as an accent light. We've found works really well under a kitchen counter or even under a sofa to give it some glow, which really adds some wow factor to your lighting setup. Again, this is perfect for automation to give you ambient lighting.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 2
  • Remote light switch for Hue
  • Remote dimmer for Hue
  • Avoids the need to always use the app

Tap is a wireless light switch that lets you control Hue presets without needing your phone. Handy if your phone has gone walkies, you're in a call, or when you have guests around who aren't connected to the system. It doesn't cut out the need for a smartphone, though, as you'll still need that to assign your presets.

Tap is around the same size as a standard light switch and has one main button and three smaller ones, all of which can be programmed to your needs via the main Philips Hue smartphone app. That means four available presets: one could be bright lighting, the others mood lighting for different occasions.

The Philips Hue Tap doesn't come with a battery, because it doesn't need one. Instead it uses kinetic energy; that's the motion of you pressing the switch to transfer that power into performing the task you are after. That also means that you can locate the Hue Tap wherever you need it to be. When you switch on the lights using the mains switch, you'll still get them at full brightness, but Hue Tap gives you the option to instantly change things.

The only questionable downsides are the £50 price tag and the "kerplunk" sound when pressing the buttons is a little noisy.

A similar alternative is the Hue Dimmer, which given its £20 price tag, might be a better option for app-free control. The Dimmer will allow you to change the brightness of your lights, as well as turn them on or off - and it's also a remote that you can detach from the wall and take with you wherever you need it. You just have to set it up through the app first.

Pocket-lintPhilips Hue App image 2
  • Android and iOS compatible
  • Enables control out of the home

At the core of the system is the app that controls it all. The Philips Hue app is available on both Android and iOS for iPhone/iPad and is simple in its approach.

There are four main sections to the app: home, routines, explore and settings. The home section is where you'll find control of your rooms, so you can turn things on and off, along with a complete power switch that can turn on everything in your house - and turn it all off again. You'll have to head into settings to create these rooms, adding your individual bulbs or Hue devices to it, as well as settings default scenes.

Scenes can be used to create the ambiance you want, either by manually tweaking things, or selecting from some presets (like bright, dimmed or nightlight), through to choosing a scene based on pictures. Philips provides some pictures, like a sunset or beach, but you can also go into the camera roll and select something. Want a Pikachu scene? Just tap on the photo you have of Pikachu and the app will automatically pick out the colours, so you can set your Hue lights to vibrant yellow, with a hint of red.

Pocket-lintPhilips Hue App image 3

Signing into the app will enable you to access your lights when you're not on your Wi-Fi network, so you can turn lights on or off, or change the routines when you're out of the house. Routines is one of the most popular aspects of having Hue lights because you can use this to turn on the lights automatically and fade them out later in the evening. This is great as a home security measure - and there's also a random option too.

The explore tab really doesn't do much, but it's a nod to the biggest change for Hue over recent years and that's compatibility to other systems.

  • Alexa, turn on my lights
  • Loads of IFTTT recipes
  • Lots of third-party apps

Rather than just rely on you using a smartphone or tablet to control the Philips Hue website to change your lighting at home, but that's not where the real power lies.

If This Then That (IFTTT) was one of the first to really embrace Hue and offer a whole range of controls determined by other factors. This is done through recipes and although Hue is natively getting smarter and compatible with newer systems like Amazon's Alexa or Google Home, IFTTT remains a good source of Hue coloured fun.

philips hue complete system review a shining light in the smart home image 8

Great examples include setting it so the lights turns purple if it's going to rain the next day, or for all bulbs to turn red if Liverpool score. We use a number of IFTTT recipes to great effect. Not the ones that highlight when someone important calls, but things like turning the lights on automatically an hour before sunset, turning the lights off at midnight, and even more recently an alarm for when the kids should go to bed.

But this being 2017, it's all about integrated smart home control. Apple HomeKit compatibility was one of the big changes for Hue which came with the new Hue hub, meaning that you'll find Hue controls in the Home app on your iPhone or iPad and use Siri voice control. However, HomeKit hasn't been the breakthrough smart home platform that some expected, with Amazon's Alexa being at the forefront instead. 

Having Alexa integration means that you can control your Hue lights from any Alexa-enabled device using your vice. For many that will mean talking to an Echo or Echo Dot, but it can also be done through any of the new Fire tablets too, or Alexa enabled smartphones. That gives a very modern feel to things, meaning you can tell Alexa to turn lights on or off.

The same applies to Google Home and a range of other services like Nest.

Verdict

When Philips Hue first launched competition wasn't really a factor. Five years on there's a lot more competition - Hive, Osram, Ikea, Elgato, Belkin, Lifx and others all have lighting systems - but no other manufacturer has really managed to gain as much ground or have as expansive an offering as Philips.

Some will argue the colour element is a gimmick, but we've found ourselves using it plenty of times to set the mood or tone of a room. We rarely use the bolder colours, but having a subtle pink light in the corner, or something a little more yellow in another can help set a relaxing mood.

The Philips Hue system isn't cheap either, and while the White system is a cheaper route to dabble in what Hue can offer, you are still having to pay a hefty price for what on the surface are just lights that change colour at your command.

But as the system has grown and expanded it's clear to us that Hue is something that much more; a system that in many cases you might be able to justify the cost given the expanse of possible usage scenarios. Whether that's creating a lighting security system, getting the lights to turn on when you come home or leave the house, or merely notify you about things that you use in other parts of your connected life, we've found IFTTT and Alexa to now be a major part of our Hue experience.

The big question is whether we could go back to a standard lighting setup again. After near 5 years using Hue, there's no going back for us.

Pocket-lintalternatives image 2

Hive added lights to the connected thermostat giving you another string to the Hive home. The selection is a little basic at the moment offering one size of bulb either in white dimmable, white ambiance or coloured. It's the lack of variety that really holds back Hive at the moment, although these lights are also compatible with other smart home systems like Alexa and work through the same app as the rest of Hive, so can be triggered with sensors and so on.

Pocket-lintAlternatives image 1

Coming from one of the biggest names in lighting is Lightify. Aiming to undercut Hue, there's a gateway that doesn't need to be connected to your router, along with a wide selection of bulbs, from colour changing to candle to light strips. In terms of variety of products, Lightify is Hue's biggest competitor, although Hue's reach into other products is a little stronger. Lightify does work with Alexa, however.

First published on 5 August 2014.