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Philips Hue Outdoor Sensor review: Trigger Hue lights and HomeKit gadgets with this $50 sensor

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An outdoor motion sensor from Philips Hue seemed all but inevitable last year after the smart lighting mainstay introduced a new lineup of lights for the exterior of your house -- none of which feature built-in motion sensors of their own. Then, at CES in January, there it was -- a weatherized, battery-powered outdoor sensor from Philips Hue, and one that doesn't just track motion, but also temperature and ambient light.

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Philips Hue Outdoor Sensor

The Good

Hue's Outdoor Sensor works with Apple HomeKit, and it's actually three sensors in one -- motion, temperature and ambient light. The app's sensitivity controls are the best I've seen for a device like this, with accurate real-time feedback that makes it easy to calibrate.

The Bad

The Hue app doesn't currently do anything with those temperature readings, and it forces you to go into the settings to see any information about the sensor at all. Also, our lights didn't always jump to the correct scene when motion was detected.

The Bottom Line

This accessory is a decent and reasonably priced add-on for existing Philips Hue households -- especially if you're interested in Hue's new lineup of outdoor lights.

Available now, the Philips Hue Outdoor Sensor costs $50. Like everything else in the Hue catalog, it uses a wireless Zigbee radio signal to connect to the Hue Bridge, which you'll need to keep plugged into your router. Mount the sensor outside your home and its all-seeing eye can trigger your lights whenever something passes by. It worked well when I tested it out, and adds enough to the existing Hue experience to make it a worthy pickup for folks who've already bought into the ecosystem -- especially if you're interested in what Hue is up to with outdoor lighting (and if you aren't, remember that there's an indoor Philips Hue motion sensor that costs a little less).

Hue's sensitive side

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You can trigger up to three groups of lights at once with Hue's Outdoor Sensor, complete with separate settings for how the lights should behave during daytime and nighttime hours.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Motion-activated lights are nothing new, mind you -- and if that's all you want for your porch, you'll find plenty of non-smart options at your local hardware store that cost a lot less. Upcoming outdoor smart lights from Ring look like they'll be better bargain picks, too, with a variety of low-cost lights that feature built-in motion sensors of their own.

What Hue adds to the equation is the ability to trigger up to 3 groups of lights at once, complete with in-app controls for how the lights should behave. Doing so is easy enough -- just tell the app what scene you'd like your lights to jump to whenever motion is detected, what scene they should return to once motion is stopped, and how long after motion stops before that happens.

There may still be some quirks with those scene controls, though -- during one batch of tests at the CNET Smart Home, I set the front yard lights to turn on to an icy blue, "arctic aurora" scene whenever motion was detected. Instead, they turned on to the default soft white, even after multiple attempts. I tried switching the automation to a different scene -- the hot white "Energize" setting -- but still, the lights would turn on to a yellowy soft white.

Interestingly, during those Energize tests, the lights would initially turn on at the correct bluish-white setting -- but only for a split second before switching to soft white. You can see what I mean in that Twitter video I embedded above of an otherwise successful test.

Aside from that, the sensor worked really well in my tests. Setup was easy (just press a button on the back of the device, then add it in the Hue app), and mounting only involved drilling a single screw into place. I didn't notice any odd false positives, and most importantly, it always turned the lights on when it was supposed to.

Also nice: I could notice the difference as I adjusted the motion sensitivity up and down, but even at the lowest setting, it would still catch me creeping past. That's a good thing -- you want to be able to dial it down to minimize false positives without compromising its ability to spot people.

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Hue's app gives you easy-to-understand, real-time feedback as you calibrate the sensor's sensitivity to your liking.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

A night and day difference

Thanks to the Outdoor Sensor's built-in ambient light sensor, you can also set your lights to react differently during daytime and nighttime hours. You can also adjust that light sensor's sensitivity just like you can with the motion sensor. 

I was especially impressed here, because the app gives you real-time feedback about how the sensor will behave as you move the sensitivity slider up and down, all of which is based on the actual lighting conditions the sensor is seeing at the time. 

That's a helpful feature, and one that matters because light levels will vary from home to home. If you want your lights to come on with motion during the day, dial the sensitivity up until the slider turns green. It's an easy way to find the right setting -- and it was completely accurate when I tested it out, too. That's the sort of thing that helps an app-enabled upgrade justify its place in the market.

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You can use the Hue Outdoor Sensor to trigger your HomeKit gadgets whenever motion is detected.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The HomeKit connection

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Apple's Home app reads Hue's multi-sensor as three separate devices -- not really a bad thing at all, since it lets you see real-time readings from all three sensors at once.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Hue's sensor also works with Apple HomeKit via the Home app. That app's software doesn't currently support multi-sensors, so instead, it reads the Hue Outdoor Sensor as three separate devices: motion, temperature and ambient light (or lux, as the Home app lists it. Admittedly not the most useful metric for your day-to-day, but better than nothing).
I actually don't mind this one bit, because it lets you save any one of those three readings as a favorite, locking it into the Home app's home screen. That's a big step up from the Hue app -- it buries all information from the sensor in the settings section, and doesn't let you see the current temperature reading at all, either.

Adding the Hue Outdoor Sensor to your HomeKit setup will let you use the motion sensor to trigger any other HomeKit gadget that's capable of being triggered. That includes smart lights from other brands as well as things like HomeKit-compatible smart switches. Setting those automations up in Apple's Home app was a cinch, but I'd love it if you could set up automations using the temperature and light sensors, too. Right now, you can see those readings, but you can't do much with them.

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This combo -- a Hue Outdoor Sensor and a Hue Inara porch light -- would cost you a total of $100. Worth it?

Ry Crist/CNET

The verdict

The Hue Outdoor Sensor worked reliably well in my tests, and the price feels right at $50, especially given the HomeKit connection and the strength of the in-app sensitivity settings. Hue lights aren't cheap, but you could get the Hue Outdoor Sensor and a Hue Inara porch light for a total of $100 -- still significantly more than a simple motion-activated porch light from the hardware store, but not unreasonable for what you're getting.

Still, I wonder if Hue plans on packing that same multi-sensor into a light like that for more of an all-in-one approach. I think I'd prefer that -- though you can make a case that separating the motion sensor out gives you greater flexibility over how you aim and use it. At any rate, the standalone Outdoor Sensor is a good product, and a good pickup for Hue users with an interest in extending their lighting setup to the outside of their home.

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Philips Hue Outdoor Sensor

Score Breakdown

Features 8.5Usability 8Design 8Performance 7.5