Philips Hue Connected Bulb starter pack review: Lighting up your connected life

Once you do pick a color set, the app lets you assign specific behaviors easily enough. iOS users currently have more-robust options here than their Android-based counterparts (Philips says it's working on tying app development schedules more closely together.)

On the Android Hue app, you get the per-bulb lighting and brightness options, as well as basic scheduling. With the upgraded version 1.1 iOS app, Philips brings in advanced programming functions like the ability to set timed alarms. It also introduces geofencing, which will work in conjunction with your smartphone GPS to turn your lights off when you leave your home, and turn them back on when you return.

If Philips' app isn't perfect, it exposes enough features to make the Hue Connected Bulb interesting. Search "Hue" in the Apple Store or in Google Play, and you'll find apps that let you do even more.

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Thanks to Philips releasing the Hue API and a software development kit for iOS and Android, you will find all kinds of alternative Hue apps available for download. Many of these are improved versions of the basic control screen. Hue Pro for Android and its intuitive interface is a good example, since it lets you set presets and see how they will affect every bulb right on the home screen. Other apps, like Ambify, Hue Music, and Hue Market, expand the Hue's programming functions to changing colors in time to music, or in response to changes in the stock market.

Like Belkin'sWeMo home automation devices, the Hue also has its own IFTTT channel. IFTTT (If This, Then That) is an Internet-based standard that lets you tie online services to each other. The idea is that through a simple interface, you can create "recipes" that perform simple functions. You can then use your own recipes, or download recipes from others to do things like automatically back up your iPhone contacts to a Google Drive spreadsheet, or have a weather report show up automatically as a text message every morning.

Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

Sign up for the Philips Hue channel on IFTTT's app or Web site, and you will find almost 500 different recipes. Some will seem frivolous ("Upload a photo to Facebook and set the mood in the room"), but many of them offer simple, but still useful notifications, like blinking the lights when you've been tagged in a Facebook photo, or changing colors to those of your favorite team when the game starts.

Along with all that potential, one pitfall is that with so many disparate apps triggering different lighting behaviors, it can be hard to track them all. If you're sick of a particular recipe or program setting, you might have to sort through three or four different apps before you find it to shut it down.

For all of that new-fangled connectedness, it's most important that the Philips Hue bulbs meet our basic expectations for standard home lighting. The good news is that they do.

The white, yellow, and blue-toned lighting (accessible via the Concentrate, Energize, Reading, and Relax presets) all have the familiar warmth and color tone of standard incandescent or utility bulbs. Each 8.5-watt, 600 lumen Hue bulb can shine with the intensity of a 50-watt incandescent. A single, undimmed bulb won't sufficiently light an entire 12x12-foot room, but two Hue bulbs should do the job.

Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

You also don't need to worry about the range of a bulb from the Bridge. With the controller on one end of our appliance testing warehouse, and a bulb at the other, we put about 100 feet and five or six walls between them. We noticed no significant delay in responsiveness. A 1,500-square-foot house might put that many walls and a floor or two between the two pieces, but the longest distance might be more like 50 or 75 feet apart.

At $49 a pop if you purchase them individually, or $199 for the kit, the Philips Hue Connected Bulb has some useful conveniences, but it's also packed with some likely short-lived novelty. It's expensive compared with a CFL or a old school incandescent bulb. It's even pricier than many other LED bulbs, although not all of the Hue's competition is connected, nor as feature-rich. You can buy a $129 home automation hub from Insteon, for example, and one of that company's LED bulbs for $29, but they don't offer as many color options as the Hue. They're also not IFTTT-compatible.

On the higher-end, the Hue will face broader competition from companies like Lifx and its $89 Wi-Fi-based, hub-free light bulb, as well as the Bluetooth-based iLumi . Neither is in wide release yet, but both had successful crowd-funding campaigns, and should be ramping up production shortly. The novelty factor will make any of these bulbs a hard sell for some consumers. If you like the idea, though, the Philips Hue Connected Bulb nails the basics of lighting and ease of use, and also supports a robust set of extend functions. It's the connected LED light bulb to beat, particularly if you're an iOS user.

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    Philips Hue Connected Bulb Starter Pack

    Part Number: 426353
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