Illumra Self-Powered Dual-Rocker Friends of Hue Zigbee Light Switch review: Finger-powered switch is a must-have Hue accessory
Smart bulbs, dumb light switches. Add the two together, and you get one of the most common headaches in today's connected home. Someone leaves the switch off, your bulbs lose power -- and suddenly your fancy automations and wireless controls won't work.
Utah-based lighting manufacturer Illumra thinks it has a solution -- at least for folks who use Philips Hue smart bulbs. It's a wireless smart switch that pairs with those Hue bulbs for easy controls at the wall. And when I say wireless, that's exactly what I mean -- each switch powers itself whenever you press a button. That means no wiring it in, and no batteries to worry about.
It's the same basic pitch and approach as the excellent Philips Hue Tap wireless remote (and it uses the same energy harvesting tech from EnOcean, a name worth keeping an eye on). What the Illumra adds in is the ability to fit into the same spot as any dumb light switch you'd like it to replace.
The asking price for each Illumra switch is $50, which isn't cheap, given what you probably already spent on your bulbs. You should also know that more switches like it are almost certainly in the works. Still, as easy as these things are to install, setup and use, Hue users sick of worrying about their dumb light switches really ought to consider buying in. That's doubly true if you use Apple HomeKit to automate your smart home , because -- as long as you've got that HomeKit-compatible Hue Bridge plugged into your router -- Illumra's switches can control your HomeKit gadgets, too.
All of that adds up to an intriguing option for smart lighting nerds like myself. In fact, Illumra's switch might just be my favorite smart home product of the year.
Design and installation
Aside from the split, dual-rocker design that gives you four buttons to work with on each switch, Illumra didn't get too "gadgety" with these things. Currently available in white or black, they're fairly inconspicuous -- no indicator lights, no touch controls or built-in sensors sticking out, no artsy flourishes. And, if you really want as traditional a design as possible, you can replace that dual-rocker with a single, paddle-style switch.
They aren't just designed to blend in, but to fit in, as well -- specifically into your light switch's existing gang box. To install one, you'll shut the power off at the breaker, remove your old light switch with a screwdriver, join the wires that were connected to it with a wire nut to close the circuit, then pop the new switch over top and screw it into place. Snapping the screwless base plate that comes with the switch over top completes the look. Each switch also comes with a separate mounting base that you can screw or stick to the wall wherever you like, no gang box needed.
Want to see a play-by-play of that install process, complete with pictures and videos? Check my tweets.
Once you've got your Illumra switch where you want it, you'll need to pair it with the Philips Hue Bridge that's plugged into your router. Doing so is a cinch. Just go to the accessory settings in the Philips Hue app, tell it you want to add a "Friends of Hue" switch, then follow the on-screen instructions.
Hue or HomeKit, it's up to you
Once you've got the switch paired with Hue, the app lets you select what each button does. One limitation: Hue won't let you control individual lights with each button. Instead, you'll control entire rooms of lights that you've grouped together. You can get around that by assigning any individual lights you want to control to their own, separate room, but that's obviously not ideal.
By default, the left half of the switch will turn whatever room you pair it with on and off. You can also hold the buttons down to dim the lights up or down. The right half of the switch can be mapped to a second room, or you can use it to trigger additional scenes for the room you're already controlling.
At the CNET Smart Apartment, where I tested the switch out, I set the left half of the switch to turn the bedroom lamps on and off, then mapped two additional, color-changing scenes for those lamps to the buttons on the right.
With the buttons mapped, you're all set. In my tests, the switch never missed a beat, and showed virtually no lag. Everything just worked. The buttons are a little "clickier" than you might expect due to the mechanism inside that produces the 125 microwatt seconds of power needed to send a low-power Zigbee signal each time you press one, but they're not difficult or uncomfortable to use.
If you want, you can also control the Illumra switch via Apple HomeKit. To do so, you'll just need to open the Hue app and go to the settings for your switch, then tap "Configure in Apple Home App." Once you do so, the switch will show up in the Home app for you to configure, and any controls you've programmed in the Hue app will be erased.
The Home app controls are similar to what you get with Hue, but with a few key differences. Apple doesn't currently support hold-to-dim for these switches, so you lose that feature -- but you gain the ability to map individual lights to each button, which, again, you currently can't do in the Hue app.
The Home app also lets the switch control other HomeKit-compatible devices that aren't made by Philips. For instance, I was able to map the Illumra switch to a set of Nanoleaf Canvas LED wall panels, with each button triggering a different scene. With four buttons on each switch, you've got plenty of room to put the thing to good use -- and again, turning things off at the switch won't cut the power to anything, so your automations, app controls and voice commands will all continue to work.
I like products that solve problems, and Illumra's smart switch solves a big one. You won't need to worry about teaching your kids and houseguests to leave the light switches switched on -- just let them use the Illumra switch like they normally would, and your bulbs will still work the way you've programmed them to. They make for a more harmonious smart home.
That alone makes these switches worth considering at $50 each -- and that's before you factor in the nifty, self-powering design, the ease of installation, the HomeKit compatibility or the fact that they were a reliable performer in our tests at the CNET Smart Apartment. As a user-friendly upgrade for Philips Hue households, they're pretty close to a must-have accessory.