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Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit review: Philips Hue covers the white-light spectrum with White Ambiance LEDs

Hue's new White Ambiance LEDs can change from a warm, candle-like glow to bluish-white daylight tones -- and they'll work with Siri, too.

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Ry Crist
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Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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On one end of the smart bulb spectrum, you've got relatively inexpensive lights that don't change colors. On the other end, you've got fancy lights that do. Philips Hue makes both, but for what seems like ages, they've been ignoring the middle ground: reasonably priced "color tunable" bulbs that don't change colors, but instead, offer a full array of natural, white-light tones. In the meantime, competitors like Lifx, GE, Osram, and Stack have all beaten Philips to the punch.

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Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit

The Good

The Hue White Ambiance LEDs are reliable and fairly easy to set up and use. Hue's wide compatibility with third-parties means that you'll be able to use them with a variety of different platforms, including Nest, SmartThings, Alexa and Apple HomeKit.

The Bad

Siri doesn't recognize the white light spectrum yet, so you can't ask her to change the tone of your lights without pre-programming a scene first. Also, the bulbs aren't as bright as advertised.

The Bottom Line

The White Ambiance LEDs fill in a gap in the Philips Hue family of smart bulbs, but they didn't outperform color-tunable LEDs from Lifx and Stack. They're really only worth it if you're already committed to Hue, or to HomeKit.

The Philips Hue White Ambiance LEDs aim to change all of that. They won't put out light in pink, purple, or green like other Hue bulbs, but they will shift color temperatures within that white-light spectrum: warm, candle-like tones at one end and cool, bluish-white daylight tones at the other. The cost per bulb? $30, with a two-bulb starter kit available for $130 (the White Ambiance LEDs aren't available outside of the US just yet, but other Hue products are -- those prices convert to roughly £20/AU$40 per bulb, or £90/AU$180 for the kit).

Philips Hue's White Ambiance bulbs let you set the tone (pictures)

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For the extra cash, the starter kit comes with a handy wireless remote as well as the second-gen Hue Bridge, which brings Apple HomeKit support into the picture. That means you'll be able to control the bulbs with Siri commands alongside other HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets. And, if HomeKit isn't your platform of choice, you've got a number of other Hue-compatible third parties to work with, including IFTTT, Wink, SmartThings, Nest, and Amazon's Alexa.

That broad compatibility has always been one of Hue's best selling points, but keep in mind that the competition has done a lot of catching up in the last year or so. And, as for brightness, almost all of them have flat-out passed Philips by. Specifically, I'd point to the sensor-powered Stack LED downlights and the Lifx White 800 LED as strong alternatives -- and arguably better ones if you aren't married to HomeKit.

What's new with Hue?

Oh, you know, not too much. The new bulbs look like the old ones, and the new white light spectrum controls have actually been a feature of the full-color Hue bulbs since the very beginning. At $30 a piece, they're essentially taking the place of the soft-white-only Philips Hue Lux bulbs, which were phased out last year.

There is a new Philips Hue app, available for both Android and iOS devices. It adds in new lighting scene presets for your bulbs, including white-spectrum-specific presets like "Concentrate" and "Relax." It also borrows a page from the HomeKit playbook and lets you group bulbs by room. Aside from that, a lot of the differences are purely cosmetic -- though to its credit, it is a better-looking app than before.

More than anything, the new app seems to be optimized around Hue's integration with HomeKit. There's an expanded section in the settings that'll hand control of your bulbs and scenes over to Siri, complete with instructions on how to help Siri understand your lighting commands. When you want to add a new room in the app, it asks if you'd like to import a room from your HomeKit setup. You can run HomeKit-esque lighting "routines" for things like waking up and heading to bed. If last year's debut of the second-gen Hue Bridge represented a marriage of sorts for Apple and Philips, then the new app reaffirms the vows.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Control your tone

You can change the color temperature of the Philips Hue White Ambiance LEDs with just a few taps in the app. Like in the old app, you'll drag a little cursor to the specific tone that you want, though the new app omits the full RGB color spectrum with these white-light-only bulbs, and gives you a full-screen white-light spectrum, instead. Nice touch.

But a good smart lighting setup shouldn't be too reliant on an app -- ideally, you'll be able to automate lighting changes that anticipate your needs, saving you the trouble of pulling your phone out of your pocket. To this end, Hue's new timed routines are a good step in the right direction, especially the location-aware routines that track your phone to run automatically as you leave and come home.

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Siri doesn't have a vocabulary for the white light spectrum.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

It also helps that Hue's LEDs are about as bullish on voice control as bulbs come. Aside from the integration with Siri, Philips Hue setups enjoy native support from Alexa, Amazon's voice-controlled virtual assistant. Philips is wise to position itself at the front of the curve here -- voice-activated lighting can quickly make app controls feel antiquated.

I've got just one qualm here: Siri doesn't have a vocabulary for the white light spectrum. Ask her to set a bulb to "daylight," or "soft white," or "2,700 K," and nothing will happen. She has no idea what those terms mean.

That's a bit baffling, frankly. Philips Hue was an early and enthusiastic member of the HomeKit bandwagon, and that white light spectrum's been there from the beginning. Maybe teaching Siri to recognize thousands of specific color temperatures is a bit much, but would it have been so hard to let her know what "daylight" means? The color tunability and the Siri compatibility are the two top selling points here -- why is there a wall between them?

Fortunately, there's a workaround: Hue's scenes. Tell Siri to run one of those scenes, and she'll fire it off without incident, even if it includes color temperature changes. This includes those native Hue scenes, like the "Concentrate" mode I mentioned before. Still, that means you have to have a scene ready before the mood strikes to ask Siri to change up your lighting, which obviously isn't ideal.

I asked Philips about this, and a company spokesperson told me that it's something they're working with Apple to fix. On the Apple front, the company declined to comment.

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Compare the Hue White Ambiance LED with Philips' own 60W equivalent LED, which puts out 821 lumens: the Hue bulb is definitely dimmer.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Not the brightest bulbs

As for the hardware itself, the Hue White Ambiance LEDs are 10W bulbs that list the light output at 800 lumens -- roughly what you'd expect from an ordinary 60W bulb.

But scroll down to the specs on the Philips Hue website. You'll see that the brightness level varies by color temperature, and that you only get to 800 lumens at a setting of 4,000 K. At 2,700 K -- the setting the bulb defaults to every time you switch it on -- the lumen count is listed at 570.

It was even lower than that when I tested the bulbs out using our spectrometer and integrating sphere setup. At 2,700 K, the bulbs came in at just 451 lumens, putting them right in line with a 40W incandescent, not a 60W one.

At the warmest setting (roughly 2,200 K), the brightness dipped all the way to 290 -- definitely dim, but forgivable since you're basically emulating candle-light at that point. At the other end of the spectrum, the bulb clocked in at 403 lumens at its hottest color temperature setting (roughly 5,600 K).

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The Hue White Ambiance LEDs put out less light than other color-tunable smart LEDs.

Ry Crist/CNET

With the default color temperature and both extremes sorted out, I set out to see if I could find that 4,000 K setting and the 800 lumens that are supposed to come with it. After several minutes spent scouring the spectrum in the Hue app, the brightest setting I could find manually came in at 616 lumens.

These are pretty bad results across the board -- so much so that I made sure to repeat the tests with each of the two bulbs in my starter kit. I then went back and retested some old bulbs to make sure my equipment was calibrated correctly. It was. Bottom line: the Hue Ambiance LEDs aren't as bright as they probably ought to be given the numbers on the box.

The growing family of Philips Hue


Philips Hue Wireless Dimming KitPhilips Hue White Starter KitPhilips Hue White Ambiance Starter KitPhilips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit
Starter kit cost $40 $80 $130 $200
Bulbs per kit 1223
Individual bulb cost $15 $15 $30 $60
Variable color temperature No (fixed at 2,700 K)No (fixed at 2,700 K)YesYes
RGB color-selection NoNoNoYes
Starter kit includes Apple HomeKit-compatible Philips Hue Bridge NoYesYesYes
Starter kit includes Philips Hue Dimmer Switch YesNoYesNo

Tough being a middle child

The Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit is yet another avenue into the larger Hue ecosystem, and that's probably the point. Philips wants that Hue Bridge in as many homes as possible, and putting out a variety of different starter kits with different feature sets and price points seems like the right strategy.

Still, the White Ambiance kits might be in a tricky spot. If you just want the cheapest kit that comes with a Hue Bridge, then your best bet is to skip the color-tuning ambiance and go with the $80 Hue White kit. And, if you want to splurge on something a little more feature rich, then the full-color, $200 kit that comes with a third bulb is probably worth your while.

And, of course, Hue isn't alone in the category -- not with color-changing bulbs, and not with color tunable ones, either. In fact, it faces some fairly strong competition from the likes of Lifx and Stack, both of which offer comparably-priced color tunable bulbs that outperformed the Hue White Ambiance LEDs in my tests. Neither one will work with HomeKit, but each one has a lot to offer in its own right, and deserves a look before buying in with Hue.

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Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit

Score Breakdown

Features 7Usability 8Design 7Performance 6