One of the unique selling points of the Philips Ambilight TV experience has been the ability for an Ambilight-equipped TV set to project colour in motion beyond the screen. Using LEDs around the TV's edge, the idea is to make the picture feel even bigger and the experience even more immersive.

The catch is that it has only ever been available to Philips TV owners. But now, thanks to the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box - which can plug into any TV, not just Philips sets - it's possible to use your existing smart Hue lights and supposedly replicate the Ambilight experience. But does it really work?

What is the Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box?

  • Features 4x HDMI ports 
  • Works with all Philips Hue lights
  • Requires Hue Bridge and Hue colour lights

First thing's first: you'll need (up to 10) Philips Hue bulbs and/or dedicated products, including the Hue Bridge, to get any use from the Hue Play. Don't have those and you'll have no multi-colour lights to illuminate.

The purpose of the Hue Play HDMI Box is to analyse incoming signals - it has four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output - to then send colour instructions to connected Philips Hue bulbs, replicating the predominant colours on the screen at those additional bulb points.

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The box doesn't come with lights included, so there's no sticky strip to add to your telly, so you'll have to think about how to position your existing Hue products, or which might be worth investing in.

If the content on the screen mostly features, say, a green football pitch, the lights you connect will shine green. If it's blue skies then you'll get a blue sheen, and so on. And because the box reads the signal before it is output on the TV, the colours replicated on your lights match that of the screen at the same time with zero delay. That's important, otherwise the whole experience would be disorientating.

App setup: From subtle to intense

  • Sync lights with your home TV setup in up to 99 zones
  • Separate dedicated app to control everything

For our experience we connected the Sync Box to four Hue lights, including two standard bulbs, one light strip (which we placed behind the TV), and the Hue White and colour ambience light.

You control everything via a dedicated Philips Hue app rather than the app that you are already using to control your lights. The app, available for Android and Apple devices, offers four levels of intensity, ranging from subtle to intense, and this determines how quickly the lights change and with what degree of brightness.

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These settings can make a really difference to the experience. The intense level is bright and comes with lots of quick changes, while subtle is probably more suited to watching movies and TV shows. It doesn't take into effect every colour change on screen, but focuses on the main colour shifts in the picture, to give you more subtle transitions.

Philips allows you to setup 'entertainment zones' and tell it exactly what lights you want in the zone and where they are exactly placed. The placement is important as it allows the app to work out how to deal with the light in your setup, and more importantly whether it is in front of or behind your sofa. You can set a light to be on outside of the room, which is handy if you want to see when the kids have snuck into the lounge and turned on the TV. You can create up to 99 zones for those that really want to push the system to the limits.

Anything with a HDMI cable is supported

  • Works with all HDMI sources, audio and video

Philips Hue and third-party developers have offered similar systems before that either encouraged you to point your phone's camera at the screen to try and read what was going on, or ran through a Mac or a PC. Both are limited, clumsy and certainly not consumer friendly. The Sync Box approach is a lot easier, although it does come with a higher price tag and isn't prone to a couple of annoyances.

Philips Hue told Pocket-lint that it worked hard to be compatible with all the relevant HDMI licensees. As a result any signal can be read and processed. We've tested the Sync Box with Sky Q, Apple TV, an Xbox One, and PS4, but in theory the box will work with anything that offers a HDMI connection and therefore any set-top box on the market, be it Roku, Amazon Fire Stick 4K, or a Blu-ray player.

And if you're wondering whether the content is restricted on those devices, it isn't. It will work with all services and content on those devices, and we've enjoyed all the accessible content on the device we have.

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The box can even read 8K content, however the lighting effects only work on content up to 4K, so perhaps this will be a future update for those extra-super-ultra resolute tellies.

The system can even work with audio inputs, via HDMI, allowing you to interpret music via Spotify, for example, into a light show. Ideal for a party.

The only thing it can't read is when you run an online service, like Netflix, directly from the TV, as you aren't able to pass that signal through the box itself. That's frustrating if you've ditched your set-top box experience because your TV offers it via an app.

Where one problem does occur is the TV understanding the inputs and processing them. The confusion is that the box needs to be on for it to work, and the app selected to the right input. If you've not got your phone running the app, then the system can get confused, leaving other members of your house to find they can't watch television. It's happened to us on a number of occasions - and is a pain. The solution in ensuring it works every time, for us, was to only have it setup for one feed, which then kind of defeats the point of having all the ports.

How is it different to Philips Ambilight?

  • Works without Ambilight
  • Uses different algorithms to determine colours 

Although the Sync Box sounds like the same bit of tech that Philips offers in its TV range, it's not. This system uses a different algorithm to read the information and colours on the screen. Philips' Ambilight TVs read just the outside edge to allow the TV set to extend the colours beyond the set, while the Play system reads the entire picture with a focus on the centre of the picture - because it wants to replicate the colour for the whole room.

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The two systems can be used to complement each other, if you have a 2019 Philips TV model or later. If you have an older Philips Ambilight TV then you have to decide which system you want to opt for and turn the other one off, as currently the 2018 range and before don't yet have the required software.

Watching TV, movies and playing games

  • Movie, music, and gaming modes
  • Avoid films with fast cut edits 

Living with the box at home it certainly immerses you into the picture in a way that you just don't get sitting in front of the TV with a lamp on in the corner of the room. Watching films like Bladerunner 2049 finds you bathed in light from start to finish, but unlike the Ambilight technology on Philips TVs the experience here isn't about extending the screen's picture, but about covering your room in that colour of light. Anything higher than the 'subtle' setting we found way too distracting, though, especially if you are watching something with fast-paced cuts.

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Colourful games like Sayonara Wild Hearts on Apple Arcade are taken to a whole new level with the Hue Play box. But it isn't effective for everything: playing Forza Horizon 4 where the colours in the scenery don't really change that much delivers a rather boring experience, while first-person shooters like Call of Duty can be rather muddled due to their colour palette.

Verdict

We've always loved the concept of the Philips Ambilight system and how it projects an image beyond the screen. The Hue Play HDMI Sync Box takes that idea and allows you to enjoy it on any other TV, if you have relevant Hue lights to sync.

However, we just don't find the Sync Box as intelligent or really as good as a Philips Ambilight TV proper. Sure, the experience is certainly immersive, but the 'intense' setting will be too much for many, while we've had problems with the box handling more than one source. For us, that's a bit of a deal-breaker.

This article was originally published 23 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status