Better than Hue? These multicolor LED backlights work with everything on your screen, but they don't come cheap.
Here's the DreamScreen pitch: Color-changing TV accent lighting that syncs with whatever's playing on screen in real time. Sound familiar? It should -- from "Ambilight" to "Hue Entertainment," Philips has been trying to bring color to the walls behind people's TVs for well over a decade.
A little company located in Florida, DreamScreen thinks it has Philips beat -- and it might be onto something. The solution: smart, color-changing light strips that run the perimeter of your TV, plus an HDMI pass-through box. Plug all of your streaming devices, cable boxes and gaming consoles into it, then plug the box into your TV. DreamScreen reads the incoming audio/video signal of whatever you're watching and matches the lights accordingly, with basically no perceptible lag and full controls on your phone via the DreamScreen app. Starter kits come in a variety of sizes, and start at around $250.
The system worked as promised when I tested it out at the CNET Smart Home, but the colors were surprisingly subtle during video sync, and much less vivid than when I ran the lights in ambient or audio sync mode. Blue and green tones also seemed to overpower everything else, with reds, oranges, yellows and purples often getting almost totally drowned out. In addition, the sticky backing on the LED strips didn't adhere well to the textured back of our TV, forcing us to tape them up in place when they started falling off after a few days. None of those issues are deal-breakers, but all are notable flaws when you're spending hundreds.
I remain intrigued by DreamScreen's approach, and I love that you can use the lights with your Xbox or PlayStation -- something you still can't do with Philips Hue's video sync feature. I also love that DreamScreen's lights cover each side of the TV, with positional lighting changes that you won't get from Hue. But unless you're dying to get real-time color changes behind your TV (and you're willing to tolerate an imperfect experience), I say wait for improvements -- or wait for a sale.
The "DreamScreen 4K" kit that we tested comes with the HDMI pass-through box and a spooled strip of color-changing LED lights. Your first step is to stick those up around the back of your TV, which might be a bit difficult if you've already got your TV mounted to the wall. They'll also have a hard time staying in place if the back of your TV is textured, like the TV in the CNET Smart Home is (we found our lights dangling beneath the TV after just a few days and had to tape them back in place). In fairness, I've experienced the same issue with light strips from Philips and Lifx, and I wonder if something stronger, like a Velcro-based adhesive, would be a better choice.
One other request: I'd love it if the DreamScreen app would let you set the specific diodes that sit at each corner of your TV to help fine-tune the position-matching lighting effects. As it is, the app just ballparks it based on the size of your setup. Seems like there's room for more precision.
With the lights in place, you connect them to the pass-through box, then plug it into one of your TV's HDMI inputs. Then, you plug your streaming devices, cable boxes and gaming consoles into the three HDMI inputs on the pass-through box. The pass-through box will act as an automatic switcher between those three HDMI inputs, and you can also switch between them in the DreamScreen app. Just open it up on your Android or iOS device and scan your local Wi-Fi network to connect and you'll be good to go.
Using the app is simple enough. From the homescreen, you can adjust the brightness, switch the HDMI input, or jump between four modes for the lights. Tapping "Video" will instantly start syncing them up with whatever's on screen. "Audio" will sync them instead with the sound coming from that HDMI input, or the sound from an audio device plugged into the pass-through box's 3.5mm input. "Ambient" mode offers a number of different preset scenes, including animated ones that mimic twinkling lights or a crackling fireplace (you can also just pick your favorite color). And, lastly, the "Sleep" button shuts the lights off altogether.
Tap the little gear icon, and you'll find a decent number of different settings to play with, including CEC settings for the pass-through box, saturation controls and a color boost mode that can help you fine-tune the way your lights look.
I found myself leaving that color boost setting on "high," and I also dialed the saturation of the blue tones down to see if that'd help make room for more reds. It didn't -- the desaturated blues continued to overpower everything else.
To my eye, the problem is two-fold. First, the DreamScreen software seems to default to bluish light whenever the screen is white, and the app doesn't let you adjust that white-point setting. Second, I suspect that those red diodes in the LEDs aren't terribly powerful, and that the software is leaning on the blue diodes to help keep things bright.
Then again, the reds looked much bolder and more vivid using audio mode, which takes advantage of the low latency provided by the pass-through box to produce a really nice effect. If you use a streaming device to listen to Spotify or Pandora playlists on your TV, then DreamScreen might have some extra appeal, particularly at your next party.
One last note -- with no physical remote, DreamScreen forces you to keep your phone handy in order to switch inputs or adjust settings. To that end, integrations with popular smart home control platforms and voice assistants would be a nice, necessary value add. DreamScreen tells me that integrations like those -- including IFTTT, Alexa, the Google Assistant and even support for lights from Lifx and Philips Hue -- are all in the works. The company says it isn't ready to share a timetable on any of that just yet, though, so stay tuned.
Here's the thing about DreamScreen: As much as it left me underwhelmed -- and as much as I don't think I'd spend more than $150 at max to add it to my own home entertainment setup -- I still like it a lot better than what Philips is doing with Hue Entertainment. To wit:
Given all of that, I really, really wanted to like this product. And I do -- just not enough to recommend that you buy it at full price. That might change with some key software improvements, and I'll also note that DreamScreen offers DIY kits that let you connect the pass-through box with your own lights of choice. DreamScreen is on the right track, and it gets us as close as anything to the dream of smart, color-matched TV backlighting that works with everything. But the reality is that the dream isn't worth the $250 asking price -- at least, not yet.