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Smart Home

Philips Hue's new Bluetooth light bulbs mean you don't need a hub

The smart light bulbs to connect directly with your phone and are with compatible Google Nest and Alexa devices. But, they're still the same price.

philips-hue-white-and-color-ambiance-led-lamp

The newest Philips Hue LED can connect with your phone or with your Alexa and Google Assistant devices via Bluetooth, no Hue Bridge needed.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Chalk one up for the rumor mill: Bluetooth Philips Hue bulbs are officially a thing -- and they're available wherever Hue products are sold starting today.

For years, Philips Hue's smart lights have used the Zigbee wireless protocol to communicate with each other, and with the Hue Bridge that controls them and acts like a Zigbee translator for your router. 

Earlier this month, rumors began to swirl that Philips Hue parent company Signify was working on new Hue bulbs that added Bluetooth support -- bulbs like those would let you skip the Hue Bridge altogether and pair directly with your phone, instead. Those rumors now appear to have been confirmed.

"With our Philips Hue Bluetooth smart lighting, we're making it easy to experiment and have fun with light at home," says Jasper Vervoort, Business Leader, Home Systems & Luminaires for Signify's Philips Hue team. "All it requires is the smartphone you already have."

Signify is starting with its three main smart lights in both a traditional A-shaped design and as BR30-shaped floodlights -- a total of six new Bluetooth Hue bulbs. Prices are the same regardless of which shape you need. Standard, plain white bulbs cost $15 each, "White Ambiance" bulbs that let you adjust the white light color temperature cost $25 each and the fully color-changing versions cost $50 each. Those are the same prices as the old versions that only included Zigbee radios, so you aren't paying any extra for the addition of Bluetooth.

Notably, this is the first time that Signify has offered a floodlight version of the standard, $15 Hue White LED. That bulb is already one of our favorite values among A-shaped smart lights, so the new $15 floodlight version should make for a welcome (and overdue) addition to the lineup. Previously, your cheapest Philips Hue floodlight option was the White Ambiance BR30 LED, which sells in a 2-pack for $45. The new Bluetooth versions will continue to sell in that same, $45 2-pack, as well.

Read more: The best color-changing smart lights that cost less than Philips Hue

The addition of Bluetooth does, in fact, mean that you can control these bulbs from your phone right of the box, no Hue Bridge needed -- but you won't control them using the usual Hue app. Instead, you'll use a new, stripped-down, Bluetooth-specific Hue app. It allows for basic control of the lights, like turning things on and off, adjusting color and brightness and saving and triggering scenes. 

You'll still need the Hue Bridge and the original, full-featured Hue app if you want to try out advanced features or connect with Apple HomeKit.

Ry Crist/CNET

The new app doesn't support higher-end features such as Hue Entertainment lighting zones that sync with your TV, Google Assistant wake-up fades or the ability to control the lights via IFTTT or with Siri commands via Apple HomeKit. If you want to try any of that, you'll need to pick up a Hue Bridge.

"We're confident that once you start, you'll want to keep exploring what else Hue can do," Vervoort says.

Adding the Hue Bridge will also allow users to control the bulbs from beyond the limitations of Bluetooth range (roughly 30 feet or so). The Hue Bridge isn't your only option, though. Signify says that the new Bluetooth Hue bulbs can all pair directly with Google Home smart speakers and with the Google Nest Hub, and also with select Amazon Alexa devices -- specifically the third-gen Echo Dot, the second-gen Echo Show and the first- and second-gen Echo Plus. Direct connect support will come to other Echo devices later on down the line, Signify adds.

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Signify also says that pairing the Bluetooth bulbs with Alexa will be especially easy if you purchase them on Amazon from the same account that's tied to your Echo speakers. Just screw the bulbs in and turn them on and Alexa should automatically detect them. Otherwise, you'll need to ask her to "discover new devices," which takes about a minute. A pretty trivial convenience, all things considered, but still a noteworthy one at a time when smart lights are scrambling to play as nicely as possible with the most popular voice assistants.

The Philips Hue team tells me that other Bluetooth Hue bulbs are in the works for later in 2019 and in 2020. That lines up with reports of new, vintage-style Philips Hue filament LEDs and an updated version of the portable Philips Hue Go fixture rumored to be in the works for this fall. The Hue team still isn't confirming any of that, but IFA, the European tech expo where Signify typically likes to debut new products, is about two months away -- I imagine we'll know a lot more soon.