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Smart Home

Philips Hue Tap: The best smart-home gadget you're not using

What's not to like about this thing?

Today's smart home is dominated by ever-evolving voice controls, privacy anxieties, a confusing mish-mash of wireless protocols and constant jockeying between the platforms competing to rule it all.

Man. Sometimes, it's just nice to press a button.

Better yet, how about four buttons? The four I'm thinking of belong to the Philips Hue Tap, a wireless remote for Philips Hue smart lights that predates the Amazon Echo and the rise of smart-home voice controls that came with it. First out in 2014, it's ancient in smart-home years, but it's always been a favorite of mine -- and it's only gotten better since it first came out. In fact, at $50, I'd go so far as to call it one of the most underrated smart home gadgets you can currently buy. Let me explain.

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The Hue Tap needs no batteries -- it's self-powering, and generates its own kinetic energy each time you press a button.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It comes with infinite battery life

The first thing you need to know about the Hue Tap is that you'll never need to worry about changing the battery. In fact, it doesn't have any batteries at all. It's a kinetic, self-powering device that generates its own energy from your button-presses. Seriously.

Case in point: the CNET Smart Apartment, where we control the bedroom lights using the very same Hue Tap that I first reviewed four years ago. It's never failed us, and it always toggles the lights without any lag at all.

One reason for the speedy performance: The Hue Tap transmits your button-based input directly to the Hue Bridge using a low-power Zigbee signal. From there, the Bridge relays the lighting change to your Hue bulbs with another Zigbee transmission. The whole process is completely separate from your Wi-Fi network, which makes for terrific performance on a platform as stable as Hue's.

And again, the thing is literally finger-powered. If only my TV remote worked the same way.

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It's versatile

The puckish Hue Tap works well as a handheld remote, but you can also stick the base plate that comes with it to the wall, then dock the thing as a makeshift light switch when you aren't carrying it around. Doing so makes for a really good, kid-friendly smart lighting hack: The face of the Tap, which is a button itself, can toggle the lights on and off, while the three smaller buttons can each trigger a favorite preset. 

That's much better than using the normal switch, which will leave your smart bulbs unpowered and unreachable whenever it's switched off. Plus, you can stick the Tap a little lower on the wall where your kid can reach it. If your kid hits a growth spurt, the sticky tabs on the back are fairly easy to remove.

In the Smart Apartment bedroom, we keep a reading lamp by each side of the bed. The left and right buttons on the Hue Tap turn the respective lamp on, while the middle button turns them both on. The large face of the button turns the lights in the living room and kitchen off, which would come in handy if you curled into bed only to realize you'd left a few lights around the house on.

Having a button handy in the bedroom is also a nice alternative to voice controls. If you're up late reading a book, and sharing a bed, a voice command might wake up your sleeping partner. And while pulling out your phone and using the Hue app to turn the lights off is always an option, I will always prefer a simple, dedicated device like the Tap that lets me leave my phone plugged in on the nightstand. The less I have to look at a screen late at night, the better.

It works with Apple HomeKit

The Hue Tap also received a nice upgrade last year when Philips started letting users pair the thing with Apple HomeKit smart home setups. Once you do, you can start using it to control other smart home gadgets that work with HomeKit: lights, locks, shades, you name it.

Things get really interesting when you start using the Tap to trigger HomeKit scenes that affect the status of multiple devices at once. For instance, you could create a "Goodnight" scene in Apple's Home app that turns off all of your smart lights, sets the smart thermostat to your preferred sleeping temperature and locks the front door's smart lock -- then trigger it all with a single tap.

Just remember that you'll still need a Hue Bridge plugged into your router to receive the Tap's Zigbee signal. You can't, for instance, pair it directly with an Apple TV or a HomePod for direct HomeKit control.

A setup like the one in the CNET Smart apartment bedroom with two smart lights, a Hue Tap remote, and a Hue Bridge to control everything would cost you $120 at full price, and would make a great foundation to expand upon, bulb by bulb. Philips Hue products are also frequently on sale.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It doesn't cost a fortune

The Hue Tap cost $60 when it first came out, but Philips has since lowered the price to $50. That's still a little expensive, but it's not unreasonable for a device you could conceivably use every day. And it isn't hard to catch Philips Hue gadgets on sale.

You'll find some very handy tricks on the Hue Labs website, including one that lets you use the Tap as a dimmer.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

As for the lights themselves, a color-changing Hue starter kit won't come cheap at $200. I say the smarter play is to go is with the non-color-changing Hue White starter kit that includes two white-light bulbs and the essential Hue Bridge for $70 (again, keep your eyes peeled for sales). Pair that starter kit with the Tap for a total of $120, and you're looking at a very solid and functional start to your smart lighting setup, and one that you can expand upon whenever Hue's running a discount on extra bulbs and accessories.

The Hue team tells me that it will continue to offer the Hue Tap for the foreseeable future, especially since support for Apple HomeKit was introduced less than a year ago.

"Customer feedback on the Tap is positive," a Hue spokesperson tells me, though they also add that the more standard-shaped Hue Wireless Dimming Switch tends to be selected more often because of the familiar-looking design.

I like that dimmer switch, but folks have it backward (and I'd point out that an easy-to-use Hue Labs hack lets you use the Hue Tap as a dimmer, too). With great customizability, terrific ease of use and no need for batteries ever, the Hue Tap is the superior smart lighting controller -- and one of the most underrated little smart home gadgets available today.

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