A lot has happened in the last couple of years years since we first looked at Phillips’ Hue Connected Bulbs. Philips has greatly expanded its Hue ecosystem with a number of new lighting options that all tie into the company’s core Hue bridge, and in the process, Philips has become a major player in the iOS connected lighting game. Meanwhile, Apple has taken the first major steps to unifying the home automation experience with its new HomeKit technology, opening up the field to new players that no longer need to worry about supporting their own ecosystems. With the introduction of HomeKit, Philips has become one of the first big players to take its existing ecosystem and tie it into Apple’s HomeKit experience, introducing a new HomeKit-enabled Hue Bridge that replaces the prior puck-shaped Hue Bridge with a new square “version 2.0” unit that can be purchased by itself for $60, as an upgrade for existing Hue owners, or bundled with one of Philips’ Hue Starter Kits, such as the Hue White Starter Kit ($80), which includes two white LED smart bulbs, or the traditional White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit ($200), which provides three multi-colored LED bulbs.
Other than the new square version of the Hue Bridge, the contents of the Starter Kits remain basically the same as before, with either three A19 Hue multi-colored light bulbs or two A19 white light bulbs, along with a power adapter and Ethernet cable for the Hue Bridge. Existing Hue users should be able to drop the new Hue Bridge directly in place of the older unit — the Hue iOS app provides an option for migrating settings to the new bridge, making the transition process a snap. If this is your first time deploying a Hue bridge, the setup process is still relatively straightforward — you’ll need to place the bridge near your Internet router, since it must be physically connected using the included Ethernet cable, and once you plug it, opening up the Hue iOS app will take you through the standard setup process. As an added bonus, Hue ships the Starter Kit with the included bulbs pre-paired with the bridge, so you won’t need to worry about adding those separately once you’ve setup the bridge itself; simply screw them into whatever standard light fixtures you want to use them in, and you’ll be ready to go.
Unlike the other HomeKit accessories we’ve looked at, which were developed specifically for Apple’s new technology, Philips already has an established ecosystem of lighting accessories with its own features and apps. As a result, HomeKit support has been added here as more of an ancillary set of features rather than as something in the core Hue app itself, which otherwise works in much the same way as it did with the old bridge. Unlike apps from Elgato, iDevices, and ConnectSense, the Hue app doesn’t provide any direct HomeKit features — it remains limited to controlling Hue devices only — but instead syncs your lighting and scene configuration to HomeKit so that your Hue devices can be controlled via Siri or other HomeKit-compatible apps. In other words, the Hue app can still be used to control your Hue lights, but not any other HomeKit accessories.
The new HomeKit-enabled Hue Bridge comes with the standard HomeKit accessory code sticker on the bottom, and the process of adding it to HomeKit is similar to other HomeKit devices we’ve looked at; the Hue app will take you through the now-standard procedure of connecting your new Hue Bridge to the same Wi-Fi network as your iOS device, and then asking you to either scan or type in the HomeKit activation code. After this, however, Hue departs from the usual HomeKit process in that you’ll be prompted to export your lights and scenes to HomeKit, rather than setting them up into rooms. As noted earlier, the Hue app doesn’t provide any other HomeKit features beyond exporting lights and scenes, so if you’re using a Philips Hue system exclusively, you’ll be limited to controlling your lighting with Siri via scenes. Since Apple doesn’t yet provide its own HomeKit app, if you want to group your Hue lights into rooms, zones, or service groups, you’ll need to use a HomeKit app from another manufacturer, such as Elgato’s Eve app or iDevices’ Connected app. While Hue’s scenes may be sufficient for most users, some will prefer the ability to issue Siri commands to lights based on rooms or zones in their home — it’s the difference between a Siri command like “Set the bedroom lights scene” as opposed to “turn on the lights in the bedroom.”
That said, the Hue app does provide support for features that don’t yet have an established HomeKit equivalent, such as geofencing, fade-in and fade-out timers, and configuring Philips’ Hue Dimmer and Hue Tap switches. These features will only be available within the Hue app and can only be used with Hue devices. In that sense, Hue still retains its proprietary nature, although it’s reasonable to grant that Philips shouldn’t be required to step down to the lowest common denominator of what HomeKit is able to provide, and in all fairness even the accessories we’ve seen that were designed with HomeKit in mind include smaller features such as power and air quality monitoring that can only be accessed through those vendors’ own apps.
As an aside, it’s also worth noting that the availability of Dimmer and Tap switches in the Hue ecosystem is a nice bonus over other smart bulbs we’ve looked at, since the key problem common to all smart bulbs is that you have to leave the associated light switch turned on to be able to access them via HomeKit or an iOS app, forcing you to choose between either the convenience of switching the lights on and off in the traditional way when entering or leaving a room versus ignoring the switch and reaching for your iPhone or Apple Watch to control your lights. While the Hue Starter Kits don’t include a Dimmer or Tap switch, the ability to add them is definitely a plus to using a Hue system.
HomeKit support is enabled via the “Siri voice control” option in the Hue app’s Settings menu, a name that emphasizes what Philips is primarily trying to offer with the integration. It’s fair to say that for many Hue users, the ability to control lights and scenes by voice will likely be the most useful feature, at least for now. The Hue app’s HomeKit settings provide separate tabs for “lights” and “scenes” — all lights will sync to HomeKit by default, however users can choose which of Hue’s scenes they wish to have available via HomeKit. It’s also worth nothing that this synchronization is one-way only — Hue scenes can be pushed out to HomeKit, but any scenes already configured via HomeKit will not appear in the Hue app. An iOS “Share” icon in the top-right corner also provides a shortcut to the HomeKit sharing screen, where other friends and family members can be invited to have “guest” access for controlling your HomeKit accessories.
The names given to your scenes and Hue bulbs in the Hue app will be transferred over to HomeKit for use with Siri, and the voice control works much the same as with the other HomeKit accessories we’ve looked at, although if you’re using the multi-colored Hue bulbs, you get additional commands for setting colors. This is similar to the night light on the iDevices Switch, although you’ll probably want to play with color variations on the Hue bulbs more widely, and we were fascinated to discover that Siri supports a wide variety of interesting color names — a command to set a light to “bright white” told us “direct sunlight” was the closest Siri could get, and eventually we realized that in many cases the best choice was to use the Hue app to set our preferred color, and then simply ask Siri to tell us what that color was in its own words. For example, it turns out that Hue’s natural default lighting mode is “topaz” and if you ask for “bright white” or “direct sunlight” and then ask Siri what color you’re getting, you’ll be told it’s either “high noon sun” or “lavender blush.” Experimentation between the Hue app and Siri revealed a myriad of other interesting colour names, ranging from “warm fluorescent” to “banana mania.” We couldn’t find any of these documented anywhere, so we suspect that Siri’s range of color names is yet another “easter egg” hidden in Siri.
Scenes created in the Hue app and synced to HomeKit will be available in other HomeKit apps, and from there you can also mix other devices into those same scenes. Hue lights can also be added to any HomeKit-created scene in the same way as any other HomeKit device, and support the standard HomeKit APIs for brightness and color, so setting basic colors shouldn’t really be a problem. If you want to get creative, however, you’ll still be better off creating your scenes in the Hue app and then expanding them from there, as Hue provides the best color mixing options among the HomeKit apps we’ve looked at. Again, though, if you’re adding non-Hue devices to scenes, you’ll be limited to enabling these scenes using Siri or another app that is fully HomeKit-compatible, since the Hue app only directly controls Hue devices.
Philips has come a long way with its Hue lineup since we first looked at it two years ago, and as proprietary iOS-controlled lighting systems go, Hue has evolved into one of the best options available, even before HomeKit came along — assuming you were willing to invest in a single vendor’s ecosystem. The variety of lighting options — particularly the reasonably-priced $15 white bulbs and dimmer switches — along with expansive third-party app support for things like syncing lighting to music and videos has made Hue one of the more popular choices among proprietary iOS-controlled lighting solutions.
HomeKit support has only made the Hue system more attractive and practical, allowing existing Hue owners to take advantage of tying their lighting into other HomeKit-enabled products such as outlets, switches, thermostats, sensors, and door locks, so that everything works together, giving those that may have been hesitant to invest in the Hue system more of an incentive to do so. While we’d like to see the Hue app provide more native HomeKit support, we don’t consider that a serious issue considering the number of free HomeKit apps from other vendors that can be used with the Hue lighting — another major benefit of Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem. The variation in the Hue lineup means that many users will find different ways to approach it, and if you’re an existing Hue user, spending $60 on the new Bridge to get HomeKit support seems like an easy choice. On the other end of the spectrum, however, the $200 Hue Starter Kit remains on the pricey side if you’re just looking for basic home automation. Hue’s color bulbs remain about $10 more expensive per bulb than Bluetooth-only smart bulbs we’ve looked at, and you’re getting a lot more for your money in terms of range, remote control, and HomeKit support.
For many users getting started with Hue, the basic White Starter Kit seems like the best option, with two white bulbs and a Hue HomeKit Bridge all bundled together for $80. Once you’ve got the Hue Bridge, adding additional white bulbs will cost you only $15 per bulb — half the price of Belkin’s and Sylvania’s WeMo-enabled bulbs — and you’ll gain HomeKit compatibility and a wider range of accessory options even within Hue’s own product family.
Philips Hue HomeKit Bridge, Philips Hue White Starter Kit
Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit
Company and Price
Price: $60 – $200
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPod touch models running iOS 8.0 or later; HomeKit support requires iOS 9.0 or later.