Philips Hue 2.0 Starter Kit review: New Siri controls, same old system

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The Good Philips Hue 2.0 adds Apple HomeKit to a long, impressive list of compatible smart home platforms. Sync your bulbs up with your iOS device, and you'll be able to trigger lighting changes by asking Siri.

The Bad The second-gen bulbs aren't noticeably better than the old ones, and suffer from many of the same flaws with brightness and color accuracy. The app would have also benefited from an ease-of-use upgrade -- it didn't get one.

The Bottom Line Philips Hue's LEDs are still the color-changing bulbs to beat, but they're still awfully expensive -- and the competition is catching up quickly. Apple HomeKit integration is a big step forward for the software, but it's disappointing that the hardware didn't get more of an upgrade, as well.

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7.2 Overall
  • Features 9
  • Usability 7
  • Design 7
  • Performance 5

Today's smart home is a veritable mish-mash of products and platforms, and sorting out what works with what isn't easy. Unless, of course, we're talking about Philips Hue's color-changing smart bulbs, which work with just about everything -- Google's Nest Thermostat, Samsung SmartThings , IFTTT , Amazon Echo, Wink , you name it.

Now, thanks to a new version of the Hue Bridge , they'll work with Apple HomeKit, too. A set of smart-home protocols built into iPhone and iPad operating systems, HomeKit brings voice-activated Siri controls into play -- and keeps Philips Hue firmly ahead of the curve in terms of compatibility with key third parties.

In addition to the new bridge, Philips Hue's $200 starter kits now come packaged with updated bulbs, too (the new kits aren't available outside of the US just yet, but the existing ones sell for £150/AU$290). Unlike the original bulbs, which won't shine any brighter than 600 lumens, the second-gen versions go up to 800 lumens, finally hitting 60-watt equivalence. The rub is that you only get that extra brightness at certain color temperatures -- and not at the default, 2,700K setting. The colors also aren't any better than the original bulbs, and suffer from the same weak spots, like yellowy green tones and purplish blues. If you were hoping that generation two would bring you noticeably better bulbs (or noticeably less expensive ones), then you'll be disappointed.

Still, supporting HomeKit is a logical next step for the brand, and it's one worth getting excited about if you're an iOS user who's long dreamed of the day when Siri could control your lights. That, coupled with its wide compatibility with other third-party smart-home systems, keeps Philips Hue on top for now, but less expensive competitors like Lifx are starting to close the gap.

Hue again

Philips didn't make any drastic changes to its smart lighting kit for generation two. In fact, I hesitate to call this a second generation product at all. You still get three Hue bulbs and a bridge, and you'll still control them using the same Philips Hue app on your Android or iOS device. Aside from the compatibility with HomeKit, there isn't any new functionality here, nothing you can do with this kit that you couldn't do with the old one.

Of course, the corollary is true, as well. Philips didn't take a step backwards, either. We've seen other products sacrifice some of the tricks up their sleeve in order to fall in line with Apple -- an Insteon HomeKit Hub that only controls certain Insteon products, for instance. There's nothing like that here. Philips managed to get all of the benefits of HomeKit without compromising the core strengths of the Hue platform.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Among those strengths: Hue's open approach to software, which allows third party developers to make their own control apps for the lights, and potentially bring new functionality into play. That's brought about a wealth of apps that work with Hue, and plenty of ways to play with the lights and keep things fresh.

The counterpoint to that approach is that it might have made Hue's team a little bit lazy. Features that have become more or less standard with the competition, like a music sync mode or customizable color cycles, are still conspicuously absent from the Hue app. Instead, you'll have to find a third-party app that gets the job done. That was a forgivable way of doing things with generation one, but for generation two, it would have been nice to see the app get a refresh.

It didn't. It's the same old Hue app you've always used, and you'll still change the color of your bulbs using the same tedious drag-and-drop display that forces you to cover the part of the spectrum you're trying to land on with your finger as you try and land on it. Call it Hue-bris, maybe, but Philips didn't seem to think that the app merited improvement for generation two. I think it did, and I was disappointed not to get it.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Siri gets colorful

All that said, it would be a mistake to brush off the new generation's addition of HomeKit support. With open standards for how smart-home devices should communicate within iOS, HomeKit compatibility makes it easy for other products to integrate Hue controls into their own control apps. That means that you'll be able to program lighting changes that are tied directly to those other products -- lights that come on when you lock your door, for instance.

And sure, you could already do a lot of that by syncing your lights with a master hub like SmartThings' or an automation system like IFTTT -- but HomeKit brings Siri into the picture. Voice-activated, on-demand lighting changes are a natural fit for the system, and a great step forward -- especially given how hard it is to pick out a particular color using the Hue app's color selector. Asking Siri to turn the lights fuchsia is a lot easier.

At the launch of Philips Hue 2.0, Siri could only understand the most basic of colors, but Apple's already given her a vocabulary upgrade. Aside from red, blue, and orange, you can request crimson, teal, and gold, among a score of others. Siri can also understand some modifiers -- "light blue" works, for instance. She can't yet understand anything on the white light spectrum, though: ask for "soft white," "daylight," or "2,700K," and Siri just looks at you funny. My guess is that Apple updates that before long -- Siri doesn't require a full iOS update in order to learn new words.

You'll also be able to use Siri to control your Hue scenes, which let you trigger multiple bulbs at once. Hue scenes aren't programmed in the same way as HomeKit scenes, so they won't work at first. The fix is simple, though -- just go to your Hue's app's settings and select "Siri voice control." You'll see a list of your scenes; just tap the ones that you want to control using Siri, and Hue will translate them into something Siri can work with.

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