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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • Removes the colour options

If you don't want Hue bulbs to offer the full colour spectrum, then Hue Lux provides a more affordable white-only solution. They still work with the Hue app, but will only let you adjust from warm white to cool white. Individual Lux bulbs cost £30, or the starter kit, complete with the Bridge and two bulbs, costs £90.

Philips says 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 Lux is the best match.

Philips Hue Bloom

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 LivingColors Bloom.

READ: Philips Hue LivingColors Bloom review

The portable spotlight model 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.

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Bloom delivers a maximum of 120 Lumens of light, which is the equivalent of 8W. It's not designed to light up an entire room, but add a subtle dash of colour and mood, or as we've found over the last year it's a good option if you are looking to use the light as a notification light (see IFTTT further down the page).

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 a socket you will need, and disguising the cable might be a challenge.

Philips LightStrips

LightStrips, described as a "wall light" but Philips, is a bendable strip of LED lights that you can place around the home for dramatic mood lighting. They're available in white or as one of 16 primary colours and come in three available lengths: 2m, 1.6m, and 1m. However, we found the actual length of lights will be slightly less in reality.

READ: Philips Friends of Hue LightStrips review

Three LED lights span 10cms, after which there's a "cut point" so you can chop the strip down to the right length if the full piece is too long for your desired location. The two metre strip provides 60 LED lights. However, cut it in the wrong place and you'll be stuck with a redundant plastic strip on the non-wired side.

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The LightStrips 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.

Philips Hue Disney StoryLight

In a break from the other more conventional lighting options available, Philips teamed up with Disney in 2013 to create the Disney StoryLight. It's essentially a Bloom but with Mickey ears and works in conjunction with an interactive Disney eBook (on an iPad or iPhone, not Android) that sees page-by-page colour shifts as you tell the story.

READ: Philips Disney Friends Of Hue StoryLight Starter Kit review

If you're already a Hue customer then you'll have the Bridge, and then the StoryLight will cost £100. If you've never touched Hue before then newcomers can get the StoryLight starter kit (including the Bridge) for £140. Either way, it's not a budget device and there's more expense to come.

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The Disney app is free and includes three books to start with: Always Time for a Laugh from Monsters Inc, Repunzel's Story from Tangled, and Starry Night from Toy Story. However you're encouraged to buy more books at additional cost - and to make things worse, the in-app design seems to encourage the kids to click on their favourite Disney character only for you to have to explain that you haven't got that book.

Other stories include tales from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Finding Nemo and more from Disney's classic archive. There are currently 30 titles to choose from with more promised. When buying additional books the credits get cheaper the more you purchase at a time. Prices range from £2.49 for two through to £13.99 for the full 27. You can't buy just one credit at a time though - which is sneaky.

Once you are happy with the story selected you can either offer to have it read to you by the app's narrator or to read it aloud yourself. Parents always late home can also record their own voice into the app so at least your estranged child knows what you sound like.

Philips LivingColors Iris

There are a two key options here: Iris and Aura. These are the potential exception to the Hue rule as they can come with a battery-powered physical controller, so you don't have to use the Hue app.

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We have the Iris, which in our case came with the Bridge included in the box and no physical controller, meaning usual app-based control. It's fairly similar to the Bloom, but is 20cm high and has a transparent angled base available in black or white finishes. It's slightly brighter than the Bloom thanks to a 210 Lumen (10W) output.

Iris costs £80 with the controller or £125 with the Bridge and we think it's is a great option to dip into the Hue world without having to pay the full £180 to start.

Philips Hue Tap

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 that aren't connected to the system. It doesn't cut out the need for a smartphone, though, as you'll need that to setup presets.

READ: Philips Hue Tap review

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.

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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.

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

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. It is currently not available for Windows Phone. 

Beyond the thousands of light "recipes" available, there are four key settings: relax, reading, concentration and energise. These settings are based on a number of studies about how we work, and relax, according to the light we are subjected to.

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The real fun starts when you look at changing the lights to one of 16 million colours available via the built-in colour chart, or there a variety of photos included to get your imagination flowing. Either simply move the marker around on the chosen picture in question to select a colour, or you can import pictures into the system and pick colours from those. The app remembers your settings across devices and platforms too - so once you've created it you've got it everywhere.

If scenes like "sunset" (three types of orange) or "deep sea" (two red, one blue) don't get you the right look straight away, you can go more random and shake the phone to select for you.

These so-called recipes can be created for specific lights within the system, all lights, or a combination of both. Because the system isn't based on a room zoning approach, but a bulb by bulb approach, you can have recipes that go multi-room too.

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Beyond the basics of the app, Philips has added a number of features since the initial launch in 2012 including better access to alarms and timers, as well as Geofencing.

Geofencing allows you to set light recipes based on your location and means that you will never come home to a dark house again. You can set the system to automatically turn lights on or off based on where you are and whether you are about to walk through the door. In extreme cases you could also use the system to tell those at home that you've got to work okay or you are leaving for home, as you can set the location to anywhere in the world.

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, pronounced like "gift" without the "g") is a website that allows you to create rules that generate actions. With Hue and IFTTT you can trigger rule-based recipes that let you do a whole host of things, varying from then fun to more niche.

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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. You can even go as far as getting the lights to tell you you've met your Nike Fuel goal for the day. The possibilities are pretty endless.

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.

Developers use APIs (application programming interfaces) to allow other developers to have access to core and key features of a system to create other apps or features themselves. Hue is open, so developers can dig in and make the world a brighter place. And that opens to door to more choice. In the future we might see settings that could change the lights automatically based on the time of day, or attempts to create a more natural light that changes in the same way real light actually does.

Philips has told Pocket-lint in a previous interview that IFTTT allows it to offer a really broad experience to lots of people that it wouldn't be able to do itself as just one company. Ultimately it is still really focused on people with a particular itch they want to scratch, but IFTTT is fantastic for power users and a must explore if you get the system.

Like the Disney StoryLight experience, Philips has also teamed up with Syfy in the US as part of the Sharknado 2 movie launch. Hue will change colour based on what is happening live in the movie on screen for a more immersive experience.

Creating a visual soundtrack, you get lighting effects such as changing colours and flashing lightning as the storm approaches, or gory red when the sharks attack.

If you don't fancy Sharknado - and who wouldn't? - there are other third-party apps, like Huey or Ambilight, that will let you use the camera on your phone to monitor the picture and try to create a visual soundtrack based on that. Other apps will randomly change the colour of the lights based on the music you are playing.

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Philips Ambilight TVs have either two, three or four-sided strips of LED lights on their rear edges that respond in real-time to the image displayed. And now you can integrate Hue into this to widen the experience; it allows you to light up your entire room with light that matches what's on the screen.

This integration is just another example of what you can do with Hue when you connect it to other systems. All Philips TVs from 2013 support the new feature via an accompanying app, while the latest 2014 TV have the feature built in as standard. You can set the amount of immersion you want to get with a quick slide of the immersion slider, so no need to panic that your house will look like a firework display.

Verdict

When Philips Hue first launched competition wasn't really a factor. Two years on - and although there are contenders in the guise of Belkin's WeMo offering, Honeywell's current lighting system, and other Kickstarter campaigns - 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 an 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 light Lux system or Iris table lamp are cheaper routes 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 to be a major part of our Hue experience.

If Philips can keep the innovation going at same pace as it has over the last two years we suspect Hue will be an even greater product in the future, and the beauty of the system is that for the most part getting the new features is merely just about updating the app you've already downloaded.

A big question is whether we could go back to a standard lighting setup again. And after two years using Hue, we would really miss it. There's no going back for us now.

First published on 5 August 2014.