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

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The Good Philips' Hue Connected Bulb lets you change the color of your lightbulbs and control them from your phones. It's easy to use, and -- most importantly -- nails the basics.

The Bad Three-bulbs-and-a-hub is expensive at $199, the novelty factor will wear off for many users quickly, and Android users apparently come in second on Philips' app development priority list.

The Bottom Line You might not have an obvious need for an Internet-connected, color-changing light bulb, but the Philips Hue Connected Bulb kit offers enough potential to justify its high price tag.

8.1 Overall
  • Features 8
  • Usability 7
  • Design 9
  • Performance 9

Like many of the new breed of user-installable, smartphone-controlled home tech products, the WiFi-connected Philips Hue lighting kit has high geek/novelty appeal. After all, it's a color-changing, LED light bulb package you can program from a smartphone. But beyond its remote on/off and scheduling functions you'll need to get really into the extended features--like geofencing and IFTTT support--to make this kit worth $199 (AU$249 for those in Australia).

Those features won't appeal universally, but they will have their niche fans. What house party DJ or dorm room Lothario wouldn't love an automated, multihued mood-setter? For the hyper-connected, setting the lights to blink with every retweet could also be a draw. By smartly allowing the public to make its own apps for the Hue, Philips has also left the doors of possibility wide open.

Even if you don't appreciate the Hue's advanced features now, someone might one day write an app for it that perfectly fills some unrealized need. I wouldn't recommend the Philips Hue Connected Bulb kit if all you want is basic remote lighting controls, but it's a reliable, mostly easy-to-use choice if you want to inject some intelligence into your home lighting scheme.

The Philips Hue Connected Bulb Starter Kit includes three LED light bulbs and the Hue Bridge. The Bridge is a hub that plugs directly into your wireless router and translates signals between your Wi-Fi-connected smartphone and the ZigBee-based bulbs.

You might wish Philips had found a way to eliminate the Bridge, like the purely Wi-Fi-based Lifx bulbs or Bluetooth-based iLumi. Those bulbs cost $89 and $79 a piece, respectively, which means that Philips' ZigBee-based solution, ($59 per when you buy them individually), seems to impart some cost savings. You can always pick up an extra-long Ethernet cable and hide the Bridge in a closet somewhere if you find it unsightly. If you think you'll expand into other connected home products like a Sonos system, or a smart lock or two, keep an eye on the forthcoming multidevice controller hubs that support Hue, like the one included with the Logitech Harmony Ultimate universal remote, or the Revolv Smart Home Solution Wi-Fi Hub due out later this year.

Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

Once you've connected the Bridge and installed a few bulbs, you simply download and install the free Philips iOS or Android app, which will then prompt you to hit the Bridge's sync button. The app, Bridge, and bulbs should all find each other a few seconds later. Since the Hue kit has been on the market since fall 2012, you might receive a Bridge with outdated firmware. You can use the app to check, but you might also need to cycle the power once or twice before you get an accurate reading.

The official Hue app is not the most intuitive piece of software. Its primary screen displays a grid of preset lighting schemes ("recipes," per Philips) designed for all three light bulbs. Some recipes, like Reading, or Concentration, trigger familiar, utilitarian shades of white and yellow light. Others -- Sunset, Deep Sea, Kathy (?) -- dip into the spectrum of 16 million colors available to the Hue.

Select any of those presets and your bulbs will change almost instantly. Selecting also launches an onscreen brightness slider, framed by buttons to edit the preset, and to turn it off. Philips will let you monitor lights, adjust their brightness, and turn them on or off remotely once you've signed up and logged into the Web-based client. To make new presets or edit existing ones, you have to be on your home network.

Editing and creating new presets is where the Philips app experience can become cumbersome. Philips has spread the various customization functions across different sections of the app. The settings icon presents you with a simple, per-bulb color selection tool. But when you go to make a preset lighting scheme, Philips only lets you assign colors by choosing them from a reference image file. You can pull images from your photo library, or capture them in the app directly, or even download them from Philips' Web site, but without that source image, you have no way obvious way to assign a particular shade to a preset.

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.