TECH
17/10/2013 11:19 BST | Updated 17/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Philips Hue Review: Paint With Light With These WiFi-Enabled Bulbs (PICTURES)

In these days of Sonos and Spotify, everyone is familiar with the idea of streaming their music around their house based on their mood and location. Netflix and Lovefilm have done the same for movies, while iPlayer and a dozen other services have got there for TV.

In fact it seems everything is streamable, customisable, and controllable through an app interface.

So why not light?

Philips Hue is the answer to that question.

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Hue is a suite of WiFi-connected lightbulbs that can be controlled through an app, and used to customise everything about the lighting in your home. You can use the system to change your lights' brightness, their colour (any of 16 million shades) and even more complex behaviours from blinking when you get an email to turning on when your favourite sports team wins (in team colours, naturally).

It sounds complicated, but like the best streaming media solutions it's actually incredibly intuitive - and more powerful than you'd imagine.

The basic 'Connected Bulb Starter Pack' is pricey at £179.95, but for that you'll get three very-long-life LED bulbs and the inevitable 'bridge' which plugs into your router, and runs the whole system along with the free iPad, iPhone and Android apps.

To extend your system you can also pick up single bulbs for £49.95, a strip of LED lights (LightStrips) for £79.95 and a 'Living Colours Bloom' LED Lamp, also for £79.95.

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Just as with WiFi speaker systems, these elements are easy to connect wirelessly to the whole system. Just plug them in - either screwed into your existing fixtures, in the case of the bulbs, or into the wall for the Bloom and LightStrips - and follow the easy instructions in the official Hue app to build a network of lights.

The LightStrips have an adhesive back and are designed to run underneath tables, sofas and worktops, or along the top of your walls. They can be cut to size, but the offcuts are useless - so be careful. The Bloom is more of an accent feature - a low-powered lamp best placed facing a corner or nook, or lighting a single detail in your room.

From there it's simple to start painting with light. That sounds cheesy, but that's exactly what it feels like. The first time you're able to play with bursts of colour like they're giant crayons at your command is a magical experience. Whether you're tapping on one of several presets (which take colours automatically from various photos or images) or dragging each light's pointer around a map of colours, watching your rooms change in tone and appearance at your command is quite stunning.

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And while the system might sound geeky, the appeal is broad. Kids love it, and so do those in your home who might usually roll their eyes at the idea of WiFi-enabling yet another element of your lives. Designing scenes for different moments - from a house party, to Sunday breakfast - is fun and intuitive. And used in conjunction with the included alarms and timers feature they're even more powerful. Wake up slowly to a warm orange glow in the corner of your bedroom. Set your lights to dim automatically when your favourite programme comes on. It's all possible - and delightful.

Philips has also cleverly opened up the Hue API to external apps and services. Some of these are novelties in their own right - an iOS app that makes your lights flash like a disco is one example. But others are more powerful and interesting.

Take 'If This Then That', the rules-based scheduler and hacking platform which connects your different services and lets them interact. Hue has a dedicated platform on the service, and that opens up a world of possibilities. You can flash your lights when you get a tweet or a phone call, change the colours for birthdays or when you take a picture on your phone, paint your flat in your sports team's colours when they're on the field, and even turn your lights off automatically when you leave your house. It's admittedly an expert-level feature, and it's down to you to imagine what's possible. But the potential and fun involved in experimenting with the service is objectively cool.

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There are several downsides though, chief among which is the cost. Added up over time - and with the money-saving benefits of LED bulbs in mind - it's not an absurd expense. But just to relight one medium-to-large room could cost £200. And while the lights are generally bright and high quality (8.5-watt, 600 lumen), with a 15,000 hours lifespan, they aren't perfect. The Bloom lamp in particular is a bit dim, while the LightStrips come across a bit 'studenty' if placed badly.

The Hue app is also a bit unintuitive at times. The idea of building scenes based on pictures is okay, as far as it goes. But not being able to save your efforts after painstakingly choosing from the available 16 million colours is irritating. It often means that your trial and error-honed creations often go to waste.

Similarly, while the app gives you the ability to choose from millions of shades, it doesn't do a good job in highlighting recommended shades, complementary colours or giving you granular options in mixing new designs. You'll also have to decide whether turning your lights off through an app is just easier than flicking a switch. The Android app also lacks some features of the iOS equivalent, so it's best if you have an iPad or iPhone handy.

It's also worth noting that Hue is not the only WiFi light solution on the market. There are many others, each with pros and cons, which you should look into before you make your purchase.

Despite those issues - some of which can be mollified through third-party apps - we fell in love with the Hue system. At its best it's an easy to use, delightful product which can bring your home to life in interesting and surprising ways. It's not necessarily for everyone, but it's not just for geeks either. If you have the money, it makes for a perfect gift - and, for the right person, it will make you smile more than a wireless music mega-network ever will.

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