Review: Philips Hue White Ambience Starter Kit
Philips has continued to expand its Hue ecosystem with new offerings, and with last fall's introduction of HomeKit compatibility, the Hue system provides a great lighting solution for users who are looking for LED bulbs. This spring, the company has introduced a significantly updated iOS app along with a new Hue White Ambiance Bulb. Users can purchase these individually as Hue White Ambiance Extension Bulbs ($30) which can be added to an existing Hue Bridge, or purchased in the form of the Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit ($130), which provides two bulbs, a second-generation HomeKit-compatible Hue Bridge, and a Hue Dimmer Switch ($25) all in a single kit. The system is similar in concept to the Hue White Starter Kit, switching out the basic Hue White bulbs for the new Hue White Ambiance bulbs, and adding in the Hue Dimmer Switch for the first time.
The Hue Bridge included in this starter kit is the same as the one released last fall — the new square, second-generation bridge that adds HomeKit support to the Hue ecosystem. It’s a drop-in replacement for the older round bridge, and users of the older Hue system still looking to add HomeKit support may find the bundled price of the Starter Kit to be appealing. The Starter Kit includes two of the new Hue White Ambiance Bulbs, the power adapter and Ethernet cable for the Hue Bridge, and the Hue Dimmer — a new addition to Philips’ Hue kits.
The new Hue White Ambiance bulbs add a nice middle ground for users who want more flexibility than simply dimmable white bulbs but don’t have the need — or a desire to pay the higher price — for the Hue White and Color Ambiance Bulbs. At half the price of the color option, the Hue White Ambiance bulbs promise to deliver “every shade of white light” with a color temperature range running from a 6500k cool daylight to a 2200k warm white light setting. The A19 bulbs otherwise look similar to their White and White and Color Ambiance siblings, screwing into any standard light socket and having a small enough profile to replace a standard incandescent bulb in just about any light fixture.
As with the other Starter Kits, users purchasing the kit will find the bulbs and the dimmer switch already factory-paired with the Hue Bridge, so you’re ready to go at a basic level out of the box. Although Philips has updated the Hue app, the setup and pairing process for the Hue Bridge remains basically the same as before; we’ve already covered it in our earlier review so we won’t repeat ourselves here other than to say it’s still pretty straightforward to get it up and running out of the box, and because the bulbs are prepared, you’ll be ready to go as soon as you’ve configured the Bridge. If you already have a Hue Bridge, pairing a new White Ambiance Bulb is the same as for any other bulb, and it will appear in the Hue app and can be controlled like the White and Color Ambiance bulbs, minus the color options, of course.
The Hue Dimmer adds an interesting new component to the mix, however. While users could purchase the Dimmer previously by itself or in a kit paired with a single Hue White bulb, the inclusion of the Dimmer in this Starter Kit provides users with an extra bit of value and another control option. Like the bulbs, the Dimmer is automatically paired with the Bridge and ready to go out of the box for simply controlling both Hue White Ambiance Bulbs together, although settings can further be customized in the new Hue iOS app.
Philips’ new Hue app deserves a mention here as well, as the company has taken some nice steps to simplify the app, provide a bit more unification with HomeKit by adding support for “Rooms,” and increase the capabilities of the Hue Dimmer. In the prior app, the Hue Dimmer could only be programmed to turn a light or scene on or off, or dim the associated lights; in version 2.0, the Dimmer’s “on” button can be configured to trigger a different scene with each of up to five presses — by default the first press will simply turn the associated lights on to the previous state they were in, with subsequent presses activating a series of light recipes, and each press can be configured to trigger a different light recipe or scene. The update also brings a few other nice new features, such as the ability to extract a color palette from a photo to automatically build a scene with the five best colors, new widgets for the iOS home screen and Apple Watch, and expanded Routines automation.
Despite the updated app, Philips continues to treat HomeKit support as an adjunct, rather than a core integration. In other words, as before, Hue remains its own ecosystem that syncs with HomeKit, rather than tying in directly. You’ll be able to synchronize your lights, scenes, and now rooms up to HomeKit, but this is still a one-way process. If you add non-Hue accessories to a scene using another HomeKit app, they won’t be triggered by any of Hue’s automation routines, and the Hue Dimmer can only be configured to control Hue lights specifically — it doesn’t sync as a HomeKit device of any kind and is invisible outside of the Hue app. That said, the Hue Dimmer is still a great way to add manual switch control to Hue bulbs in a ceiling fixture or table lamp, and in fact, HomeKit triggers can be used to create rules based on the state of the Hue bulbs that are controlled by the switch, providing an indirect way to have a switch control over other HomeKit devices.
In our opinion, unless a user is primarily invested in the Hue ecosystem for their lighting, we generally recommend using the Hue app for configuring your system, and then using a more general HomeKit app to actually control your devices and setup automation rules. Although, as with the prior version, the Hue app does offer a few unique features that might justify creating a few very specific rules, such as a wake-up or sleep rule that fades lights in or out gradually — something that HomeKit can’t (yet) easily do.
For anybody who is serious about HomeKit and home automation, Hue is one of the best home automation platforms for lighting control, competing only with Lutron’s Caséta Wireless System. Both systems serve very different purposes, however, and with HomeKit integration can actually be used side-by-side; We still feel that Lutron’s Caséta is the ultimate solution for users who want to work with existing switches, light fixtures, and don’t mind replacing wall switches, while Hue provides a variety of other lighting solutions and is ideal for those who don’t want to pull out a screwdriver, want to work with bulb-based lamps, or appreciate the color and ambiance options that Philips offers.
Philips has also provided a nice update of the iOS Hue app, but as with the prior version, we remain a bit disappointed that the company hasn’t offered tighter HomeKit integration; it’s still not a deal-breaker with the number of other HomeKit apps available — not to mention Apple’s own Home app coming in iOS 10 — but it would at least be nice if some of Hue’s richer support for routines and accessories like the Hue Dimmer could more effectively tie into the rest of the HomeKit ecosystem.
Hue White Ambiance doesn’t change the game for Philips so much as it enhances it by offering a very nice mid-range option for users who want more white light options than the simple dimmable Hue White bulbs can offer, but aren’t willing to pay $60 per bulb for color options they may never use. The inclusion of the Hue Dimmer also provides a nice slightly added value in this particular Starter Kit, although we’re forced to question whether this was done simply to differentiate the price point a bit farther from the $80 basic white kit — if you don’t have any need for the dimmer, you can get four bulbs instead for $140 by starting with the White Kit and adding two White Ambiance Extension Bulbs separately. Still, there’s no question in our minds that the price is definitely more affordable than the full $200 Color and White Ambiance Starter Kit for users looking primarily for standard white lighting options.