Philips Hue and the smart lightbulb conundrum

Flipping the switch

Patrick O'Rourke

February 1, 2016 4:01pm

Smart lightbulbs have a big usability hurdle: the light switch.

It’s difficult to improve the inherent act of flipping a switch and turning on a light. No “intelligent” product, however fascinating and impressive it sometimes can be, can improve on this basic action.

This is why, despite how much fun I’ve had tinkering with Philips Hue smart lightbulbs and its first-generation hub, I find them difficult to recommend to anyone outside of the so-called early adopter crowd. I do think that Philips’ Hue products offer an interesting glimpse at the world of Internet of Things, especially for those unfamiliar with the concept of Wi-Fi-enabled smart devices, but their utility isn’t quite assured at this point.

Hue’s starter kit, the package I tested for this article, includes three lightbulbs and a Hub. For the most part, the setup process is simple. Unscrew those standard bulbs, replace them with Hue bulbs, and plug in the Philips Hue Hub, which supports universal Zigbee Light Link technology, a plus if you use any other kind of smart lightbulb in your home. Once the Hub is ready to go and connected to a router (unfortunately it doesn’t feature Wi-Fi connectivity), download Philips Hue’s Android or iOS app and sync the lightbulbs with the Hub.

While the syncing process is relatively simple, I ran into initial difficulties getting the Hub and Hue’s lightbulbs to communicate consistently. Though it’s unclear if this is Hue’s fault, or an issue related to the fact that the starter kit I set up had previously been used in another home, I was eventually forced to add the bulbs manually from their individual serial numbers.

Each bulb draws 8.5 watts at its peak power, which releases 600 lumens (roughly the same amount of light as a 50-watt incandescent lightbulb), and is rated for 15,000 hours continuous use (eight hours a day for five years).


Every bulb can also be controlled individually from Hue’s smartphone app. If you feel like making your kitchen red, your bedroom green, and your living room a cool, sunset orange, this is possible through Hue’s easy-to-navigate app. The number of colours Hue can be set to is also varied. As long as the shade you want appears in the app’s colour wheel, Hue can shift to that tint.

Different scenes, such as Sunset, which changes Hue’s bulbs to a warm, yellowy-orange colour; Pencils, which selects a few vibrant colours; and my personal favourite, Reading, a balance between warmer orange shades and the blue colour often emitted from fluorescent bulbs, round out Hue’s feature set.

Timers allow Hue’s various bulbs to turn on and off at a specific time (my cat enjoys this feature since I can flip the lights on when it gets dark in the evening), and as someone who lives in a condo with pre-installed light switches, the ability to dim my lights is welcome.

Hue is also compatible with IFTTT (If This Then That), a platform that lets you set recipes that link different Internet services together, as well as variety of third-party apps that do cool things like sync with music.

Philips Hue does a lot of things right, and unlike other smart lightbulb products on the market, actually works consistently. But the issues I alluded to earlier start to arise when more than one Hue user enters the picture. Since controlling Hue’s bulbs through Philips’ app is necessary to turn lights on and off, as well as to alter their colour, every person in your home needs the application installed on their device.


Also, if someone happens to use the regular light switch and turn off a light, just as they would with a normal bulb, Hue loses its connected utility. Remembering not to do this when in a hurry takes a conscious effort, and many times I accidentally switched off the Hue’s bulbs without thinking.

Moreover, while I enjoy the colour-switching and dimming functionality Hue provides, sometimes I just want my lights to switch on immediately, and the act of taking out my smartphone, launching an app, and sliding the specific lightbulb to the on position takes longer than simply flicking a standard light switch. While I think this extra effort is worth the added ability to control my lights from anywhere I have wireless connectivity, even when I’m not home thanks to Philips’ easy-to-use online portal, my partner doesn’t agree. This is likely a problem anyone with a family or roommates will likely encounter as well.

A second generation of Philips’ Hue Bridge is now available, allowing users to control up to 50 lights, as well as Apple HomeKit capabilities enables Siri voice control functionality. While voice control makes turning light bulbs on and off considerably easier, that particular HomeKit-enabled feature is only compatible with iOS 8.0 devices and above, leaving Android users to rely on the app.

Another product, the round Hue Go, which I also tested out, can be unplugged from its AC adapter and moved to any room in your house that has a consistent wireless signal.

Philips’ Hue lightbulbs are undeniably fun to play around with, especially when wowing guests with their colour changing capabilities, but as far as the internet connected home goes, I’m not convinced lightbulbs need that functionality.

Flipping a switch and turning lights on is just so much easier.

  • silver_arrow

    Serious question but couldn’t they just have it turn on with a light switch and turn off the same way just like a colored light bulb works?

    • pegger1

      It does work that way as well. But then you have no control with the app. It just becomes an expensive colored bulb.

    • rick

      why not build the intelligence into the switch. On off and controlling voltage to the lite would dim and brighten. You’d lose color capability……..but who cares really. Colors seem gimmicky.

    • Omiddy

      Then some electrical work would be required which an average consumer wouldn’t want to or know how to do. Changing a light bulb is a lot easier

    • rick

      Not if you lose functionality. Lots of people don’t know many things but they still buy products and get them installed.

    • Raj Singh

      You can with a 24 dollar light switch and dimmer…

  • Would have loved to hear more about the Hue Go and the other switch that Philip’s offers, especially since the light switch aspect forms the crux of your critique.

    I’ve been thinking about using those switches extensively, if they work well.

  • G33ktalk

    The Fact that the hue system doesnt return the bulb back to its last “known state” for what Philips calls “safety reasons” is really frustrating considering that means you have to use Philips own switches or the app to really utilize these bulbs. Oh and the fact of doing this in ontario where we pay some of the highest hydro rates is a real draw back becasue the bulbs in an “off state” still draw power thus off setting the LED power savings My gen 2 kit that i recently got as a gift has now been moved to my home thearter and i wont be implementing them in the rest of my home until it changes ill stick with a standard on/off LED bulb

  • Graison Swaan

    I use Hue with an amazon echo. That way my roommate can turn of the lights when he goes to bed later than i do. You can control each bulb individually or make groups. You can’t set scenes from the hue app, but you can use ifttt to do different things.
    All my lights are in a group called “lights”, so “Alexa turn on lights” turns them on to their last state.

    • I’ve been thinking about picking up an Echo, they’re just not that easy to purchase in Canada (the low Canadian dollar value is a big deterrent right now as well).

    • Graison Swaan

      I got mine for $99 when they offered it to Amazon prime members. Just lucky.

  • Mike

    Well, I agree that sometimes it’s a bit of a nuisance to use the app, I find that HomeKit works really well with it. I can just call out to Siri to turn on the lights in a particular room, and he’ll do it. Also, I can ask him to dim or change the colour of the bulbs. You can also get Hue switches for the wall, or if all else fails, all you have to do is turn the switch off and back on again, and the lights will come on. I really love Hue, and most of the light fixtures in my house have Hue bulbs in them. Highly recommend.

  • Graham Fluet

    So the solution is to replace the switches with ones that work with the Hue system.

    • I feel you, but I don’t think that’s really an adequate solution (to me it seems more of a stopgap measure). With that said though, I’m taking a look at both the Philips Hue Hub 2.0 as well as the Hue Switch over the next few weeks.

    • norsem4n

      Lol. I’ve been an early adopter Patrick. Like anything, give it a chance. They’re not perfect but if you want to have a neat little feature for your home, it’s really cool. For people that only live out of their house, it probably isn’t so useful. For those that entertain at home, it is brilliant.

    • Graham Fluet

      Still, it would be nice to replace the physical switches with little control panels that let you use all the Hue features without the “off” overriding all other control.

  • Dennis Deveaux

    What drives me crazy about Hue is that, unlike traditional LED bulbs, the price has stayed the same on these since they were introduced. $199 for the starter kit with 3 bulbs and the bridge is absolutely ridiculous!

    Yes, I’m aware that sometimes the individual bulbs have gone on clearance, but that’s the exception.

  • bigshynepo

    The CREE connected bulbs aren’t colored but they sure do work well. Just don’t turn then on before you’re ready to set them up for the first time or they become fussy.

  • Vito R.

    You can buy wireless Hue switches for $19.99 that will turn a light(s) on/off and dim them. It solves the problem of killing the power to the lights from the hard switch.

    I use them with a table lamp in the family room and my bedroom lights – you can even stick the plate to the wall and detach the remote from it when needed. At night I turn on the bedroom lights from the regular switch and turn them off from the Hue remote. In the morning they’re programmed to slowly glow to full brightness.

  • Christian Ovalle

    I use the Phillips Hue bulbs with my Smartthings hub, one great thing about Smartthings is that it works with almost any smart device so I can also control my Belkin lightbulbs and plug-ins, Chamberlain garage door opener, Amazon Echo and Echobee thermostat all with one app. I can program my lights to turn on when it gets dark, my garage door to open when I’m close to the house or turn off my lights by saying it to Alexa. Once u get used to not using a switch to turn a light on or off there’s no turning back.

  • norsem4n

    Umm, we have 23 HUE bulbs in our house, we use IFTT for everything from sports scores, weather to when we come home and connect to the WiFi network, teh bulbs come on. Mood lighting for relaxing, dinner, baby’s room, loving, etc… you can do a lot of fun things with them as well as have the lights change colour based on the music which is being picked up by the microphone on your cell phone. If you want to see some nice light shows, see our townhouse at King and Shaw! 🙂

    P.S. If you use Android or iOS, Hue Pro is the app to use, great great great control of your lights!

  • I’ve got my office wired with 5 different Phillips Hue colour bulbs and 1 colour strip plus. I bought the 2nd gen hub and the 800 lumen lights.

    I bought it thinking that it would be a gimmicky add-on to my office but after 2 months, I have to say that it is my favourite thing in my office now. I occasionally worked in a purple/blue lighting atmosphere or even set the lava lamp mode on while I’m coding but the part I love the most is that i can fine tune the temperature of the light and make it as bright or as dim as I want.

    I cannot say enough good things about this product. The only thing I have to say is that it wasn’t cheap but the effect is pretty sweet. Fwiw, I use my phone only to turn the light on and off and I like how I can do it no matter where I am in the world.

    As for IFTTT, setup a trigger with Gmail so that when an email with a specific subject came into my inbox, the lights would turn a different colour but I had two issues with it.

    1) It was too slow. The email was triggered by motion from one of my outside cameras (I wanted to be notified when someone was coming up the driveway as I like to play my music loud). It took upwards of 8 seconds for all the system to talk to each other. I have since gone to a local LAN based solution (Smart things 2.0) that works quite well.

    2) With IFTTT, I could get the light to flash 3 times and then revert to the original colour. I guess I could have setup multiple recipes but that seemed like a bit too much for something simple.

    The wireless switch is something I’ve thought about but I’m not there yet. Thanks for the review Pat.

  • Shoe Lettuce

    Phillips Hue already solved this problem: Hue Tap.

    It’s a cordless, battery-less tap with 3 modes you can preset, and an off switch. It’s unbelievably simple and fixes every negative you mentioned about this product!

  • Dan

    Honestly I don’t see this being a HUGE issue. I have over 10 hue lights at this point and love then. Just turn the switch back on and its fine. As a safety measure, switching the light off and on puts the light to full brightness and default whiteish colour. Philips could make a replacement wired switch that can be controlled via the app as well, they just haven’t…yet.