(Pocket-lint) - When British Gas called us in to the launch of Hive Active Heating, it was clear that this was the starting point for something bigger. Focusing initially where you would expect a heating company to focus, Active Heating was an easy first step.
Thanks to a household name in British Gas, Hive has always had the advantage of being familiar and safe in a rapidly expanding universe of connected smarthome devices.
We originally reviewed Hive Active Heating at launch and updated it following the release of a much more attractive second-gen design. But Hive has continued to expand, fleshing out its offering, making any home smarter.
Here's how the whole system plays together.
Hive review: A modular system
As the name suggests, Hive was originally conceived as a modular system. The app changes in recent times moved to open up more slots in the Hive dashboard where an expanding range of products will fit in.
The entire Hive system relies on several things. The first is the Hive Hub. This is the part that connects to your internet router, giving it an online connection for access through your smartphone or laptop, wherever you happen to be in the world.
The second thing that Hive needs is an app or browser to control it. With Android and iOS apps your smartphone is covered, but Hive is also fully accessible through a browser dashboard, where you can do everything from adding new components to changing your heating schedule.
Hive review: Hive Active Heating
For many of us, Hive Active Heating is going to be the big piece of the puzzle. This is the starting point, the place where the internet of things has really found some traction and the area where you probably have to spend the most money.
Ditching the old thermostat and moving to a modern controller with smartphone controls makes a lot of sense. We won't repeat all aspects of our review here, but jump across the highlights.
Hive's latest controller offers a modern design so it looks great on your wall, offering a range of coloured frames so you can dress it up. You can opt for British Gas installation, at £259, or get the kit only at £179. There is multi-zone support (at additional cost), as well as control over your heating and hot water.
It's been designed for British homes, so works with the types of boilers and systems in most homes - and you don't have to be a British Gas customer.
Active Heating offers convenience features like geolocation (you've left the house, your heating doesn't need to be on), holiday mode (you're in Spain, you don't need your heating on), as well as things like boost modes, so you can give the heating a blast if you're feeling a bit chilly.
We've found Hive Active Heating to be getting progressively more stable, following the initial offering which was prone to disconnecting. A new hub and a new thermostat have made for a great system. That said, when Active Heating does disconnect, there's little information: you probably won't know until either the heating doesn't turn on, or it doesn't turn off.
An update we'd really like to see is some sort of self-diagnosis and alert through the app, because we've been lying in bed at night with the heating on full blast, wondering why it hasn't turned off. Often, it's because the thermostat has lost connection, but you're unlikely to know that. Those sorts of incidents aren't the norm, however, and generally speaking it works exactly as we'd expect it to.
It's perhaps less sexy than Nest's Learning Thermostat, but the reassurance of the British Gas name should bring some confidence.
Hive review: Hive Active Lights
The second area where smarthomes have made an impact is in lighting. Thanks to brands like Philips Hue, we're all aware that lighting can now be a lot more high-tech than it once was.
For Hive, the journey into lighting has only just begun, with an offering that only covers a few products. You get the option of screw or bayonet fitting (important for the UK market), but it's all conventional bulb design at the moment: there's no GU10 spotlight bulb, for example, which is a limitation.
Hive Active Lights work on a simple plug and connect system, so long as you have a Hive Hub of course. You install the bulb, add it via your Hive app and then you have control. There are three options: dimmable, cool to warm light, and colour.
The slight downside at the moment is that there are no switches to support the system. That means that once you've installed a bulb, you either have to turn it on and off with your regular switch (pointless), or you have to leave it on all the time and control it with your app (a faff).
That's limiting for a number of reasons. Generally speaking, you don't walk into a room in the dark and get your phone out to turn the lights on. So that makes Hive Active Lights currently better for routine lighting, rather than your main bedroom light, for example.
You can have the standing lamp or side lamps in a room on all the time and controlled via a timing schedule, which is an attractive option. But for your main ceiling lights it's currently not as attractive as the range of solutions that Hue offers with the tap and dimmer switches.
What you can do, however, is setup your lights to turn themselves on and off while you're away on holiday so the house looks occupied, as well as tying in with Hive's other devices, like the motion sensor or door/window sensors.
At £19 the standard white 9W LED Hive bulb at is pretty cheap. The cool to white bulb is £29 and the colour bulb is £44. Compare that to Hue, priced at £14, £24 and £49 for comparable products, and it's all closely price - just the Hue currently has a lot more on offer in its ecosystem.
Hive Review: Hive sensors
Hive currently offers two sensors: a door or window frame sensor; and a motion sensor. These are fairly standard offerings for smarthome systems and you'll get similar from Panasonic or Samsung SmartThings within those systems too.
The sensors can be used as a soft security system, alerting you when your front door is opened, for example. If you're still in Spain and someone opens your front door, you might be concerned about that.
Equally, when you're quaffing sangria on the beach and motion is detected in your garage, that could be a cause for concern. Alerts can be delivered through the app, but you also get the option to create recipes in the IFTTT sense so that actions can result from a detection.
Hive sets up a number of options for you around your system so that, for example, you can open your front door and have the lights turn on, which is pretty smart. Or you can have the motion detector turn on a light or a Hive Active Plug, to switch on a conventional light, for example.
Setup of the sensors is incredibly easy. You just have to slip in the batteries and sync them to the app. The battery power means you can easily place them wherever you like, with sticky pads making for easy mounting. The only thing you need to ensure is that they are within range of the Hub.
We've found both the frame sensors and motion sensor to work well, but they do highlight a current omission from Hive's portfolio: a home camera. However, with IFTTT support there's the potential to expand the remit of Hive outside of the current system that is offered, although we can't profess to have tried it all out.
Hive review: Hive Active Plug
One of the simplest devices in the Hive system is the Active Plug. This is essentially a plug that offers remote on and off controls. That's useful for a number of reasons. Within the Hive system, as we've mentioned, you can set up trigger actions – motion detection turns on a light, for example.
The Active Plug can also be controlled with on and off switching from your smartphone, as well as offering a large push-button on/off switch on the top, so you don't have to use your phone to turn it on.
That makes it ideal for anyone who worries about leaving the house with the hair straighteners left on. Now you can call up the app and cut the power to your GHDs, rather than worrying that you'll burn the house down, or more importantly, burn out your straighteners.
Hive Active Plug connects into the system the same way that everything else does, meaning you can do things like connect something like a coffee machine to come on with a timer – or perhaps when you get out of bed in the morning.
It's perhaps a little chunky, but like devices from Belkin's WeMo, it does exactly what it says on the tin, with the advantage of offering seamless integration with Hive's other devices.
Hive review: The Hive app
There have been a number of changes to the Hive app over the past few years as the system has evolved. The landing view gives you direct access to the different devices around your house, with the option to rename things, which is handy if it's a bigger system.
The recent addition of recipes allows for custom use of the devices you have, but currently isn't freeform. It adapts based on the devices you have, covering notifications, turning on plugs or lights based on detection from the motion or door sensor. You can't, for example, turn on the heating from a door sensor, but then why would you?
The app also lets you manage things like geolocation, letting you ring fence your house, with alerts telling you that you've left the house with the heating set at 25 degrees. Conversely, you get the same option on return.
The app also offers a holiday control mode. This will allow you set dates that you're away so the heating goes into frost protection mode and you're not wasting energy. What holiday mode currently doesn't offer is integration into things like lighting. Having a sensible random lighting routine triggered by holiday mode would be a really handy addition.
Overall the app is stable enough and fairly easy to use. As we said that the start of this review, we've found connectivity to be getting more and more stable as Hive matures and with the expansion into a bigger system, we've had no problems connecting to or controlling more devices.
That said, the app could be a little more intuitive, or a little more user friendly. Sometimes you have to head off into the settings to find something, while changing things like the heating schedule is a bit tedious - although the browser app makes things simpler.
As we said previously, we'd also like to see a little more information. If something isn't going to work, we'd rather know in advance, so that we could do something about it. We'd even go as far as suggesting that there's a soft reboot option added. If your thermostat has lost communication, a restart often fixes it and we'd really like to be able to do that remotely.
Hive is making power moves to position itself as an all-inclusive smarthome system that's primed for the UK market. With the familiarity of the British Gas badge on the box and an expanding collection of devices, it's getting more compelling as an expanding ecosystem.
The question is whether you want to put all your eggs in one basket. Hue currently offers a much wider range of lighting products, Nest offers cameras and smoke detectors in its system which are also very good.
This is the challenge that Hive will face: while we love the expanding options, there will also be independent market leaders, pulled together by services like Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple HomeKit that will allow you do a lot of the same. Amazon Alexa will already allow you control some Hive elements, but also works with Hue, so mixing and matching systems is already becoming easier.
Hive keeps things in the family. It gives you a reliable name and there's something decidedly British about the whole thing. What Hive really needs to do is to continue the aggressive expansion with more variety, to bring the sizzle of systems like Hue and Nest, so it stays ahead of the head of the smarthome curve.