Gadgets & Smart Home Reviews

Philips Friends Of Hue Smart Lights: Australian Review

As imperfect as they might still be for the average, everyday, regular user, Wi-Fi enabled lightbulbs are still a thing that won’t quit. The Philips Hue range is one of the best out there at the moment, with a high quality globe backed by a solid open-source wireless standard and a useful and versatile mobile app. There’s more than just a standard globe available, though — Philips’ two Friends Of Hue devices are two add-on variants that don’t exactly change the entire philosophy of your Hue devices, but that add a little more versatility in where you might want to place them around your house or office.

This month, Gizmodo Australia will be hopping in our domestic DeLorean to bring you what the future will have in store for the way we live. The Home Of The Future series focuses on smart tech for your home life and beyond. We’ve got a great month planned full of news, reviews and features.
Welcome to the future.

What Is It?

  • Light Type: RGB LED
  • Colours: 16 Million
  • Light Output: 120 Lumens
  • Wireless: Yes
  • Wi-Fi Type: ZigBee
  • Bridge Required: Yes
  • Bloom Dimensions: 130x126x101mm
  • LightStrips Dimensions: 2000x1x3mm
  • Warranty: 2 Years

The Philips Hue family has always been centred around the Hue lightbulbs, which replace the globes in your lamps and ceiling lights and give you a Wi-Fi-connected, 16 million-colour LED-lit fantasy dreamland in your living room or bedroom or wherever you choose to put them. The Hue globe, and the necessary Bridge that connects to your router and meshes all the Hue devices together on their own private wireless network, are still the most important part of the product lineup, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be buying a Friends Of Hue kit if you don’t already have Hue globes.

If you do, though, you might be looking to add even more colour to your high-tech home. That’s where Friends Of Hue comes in — at the moment, that moniker refers to two distinct but similar products, the Friends Of Hue LightStrips and the Friends Of Hue LivingColors Bloom. They both follow the same general idea as the Hue bulb, but in different form factors.

The Bloom is, essentially, a desk or coffee table lamp. It’s a single-piece white metal shell, with a small integrated stand that points the Bloom’s spotlight globe at a roughly 45-degree angle. It looks like a squat white mushroom, basically; the centre of the Bloom lamp is a bright frosted white until you select one of the Hue colour options, and the ribbed outer circles of the glass front reflect that change as well. There’s a single power cable, but everything else is taken care of via the Bloom’s ZigBee wireless mesh networking. The LivingColours Bloom is actually an upgrade of the existing Bloom that Philips has sold for quite a while already, adding the aforementioned Wi-Fi and Hue integration.

The LightStrips is arguably a little more interesting, purely because you can do a little more with it. As you might have surmised thanks to its not terribly inventive name, the Friends Of Hue LightStrips is one (but not more) two-metre strip of light, one centimetre across and a mere three millimetres thick. It’s basically one long soft plastic tendril, of the same design as the LightPack — a series of surface-mount multicolour LEDs, the necessary resistors and circuitry, all on a homogenous strip two metres in length with an equally long power cord and AC wall wart plug permanently attached.

What Is It Good At?

As a system, the two Friends Of Hue devices offer the same basic functionality as the Philips Hue bulbs themselves. It’s largely software-driven, but requires consistency and solid hardware to reach its full potential — and that’s what the Bloom and LightStrips both offer. LED colour across the two products is identical, as you’d expect; when you’re trying to change colours on multiple devices it’s nice to get consistent tones from room to room, or at least segment to segment within one room.

The LightStrips especially is a versatile little piece of kit; you can actually trim it from its two-metre maximum to almost any length that you need. There are ‘cut here’ tabs at predetermined lengths along the length of the 3M adhesive-backed strip, so within a certain range you’re able to size each LightStrip up to suit your requirements. The strip is surprisingly flexible, too, so you can bend and trail it across especially twisty surfaces and around corners.

They’re both bright, too — brighter than you’d expect — and that brightness is nearly infinitely adjustable over an extremely wide range. You can choose from almost-switched-off dim to 120 lumens worth of brightness, and you get roughly the same brightness whether you’re at fully blue, red or green. White is, of course, the brightest, because you get the power of all three LEDs instead of just one or two.

The real utility of the Friends Of Hue, of course, comes when you embrace the Philips Hue app and actually set up some specific recipes — whether you select them manually on your iPhone or Android phone or whether you use a service like IFTTT to create a macro (light colours change depending on the tones of album art in Spotify, for example). This is the kind of thing that requires a few hours of serious sit-down-and-plan time, and at the moment it feels like it’s not exactly ready for prime time, but the utility is there if you have the time and effort to devote to it.

What Is It Not Good At?

Philips’ claims about the length of the LightStrips kit are a little inflated; when you’re told to expect two metres it’s worth being a little pessimistic and actually expect 1.8 metres. That extra length is the unlit end, where the LightStrips 3M strip connects to its integrated power cable. If you were really planning on that two metres of light, then the LightStrips might not be spot-on for your needs.

At this point in the life of the product ecosystem, Philips’ Hue app is perfectly usable, but in my experience with it it is a little barebones. You can set individual colours and brightnesses for each of the Hue bulbs and Friends Of Hue offshoots in your system, and you can set timers for a slow fade-out as you fall asleep or fade-in as you wake up, but the Hue app as it stands just seems like it lacks a bit of that special something that makes the Hue actually fun to use. There were times during the initial setup process that it seemed like a bit of a chore, and I wished for a simple physical switch like the upcoming Hue Tap.

At the core of it, though, I was disappointed not to find more adjustability in the setup of both the Bloom and LightStrips devices. I wanted to be able to switch on and off different segments of the strip, in alternating sections, or to have rolling lighting effects along its length. I wanted to be able to have different parts of the face of the Bloom display different colours. Like the Hue bulbs, you have to think of the Friends Of Hue products as single, individual globes rather than a more multifaceted and versatile configurable devices.

Both the LivingColours Bloom and the LightStrips, too, are expensive in Australia. Unreasonably so, almost. $124.95 for a two-metre surface-mount RGB LED strip is a lot of money, and considering you can buy a broadly similar one-metre strip from IKEA (sans Wi-Fi connectivity and the Hue ecosystem, of course) for $79, you have to carefully justify that extra expense and be properly committed to the Hue infrastructure. The $99.95 Bloom feels like good value by comparison, but that’s probably just because it’s a more physically there device and you get more of a sense of this-is-what-I-purchased with it.

Should You Buy It?

Philips Friends Of Hue

Price: from $99.95

  • Versatile light/brightness settings.
  • Useful LightStrips design.
  • Hue recipes genuinely fun to play with.
Don’t Like
  • Expensive.
  • Hue app needs some streamlining.
  • Lightstrips is actually 1.8-metre.

If you have an existing Philips Hue setup in your house, with Bridge and bulbs set up and the Hue app already configured with recipes, then the Friends Of Hue (and the LightStrips especially) is an easy purchase. If you were looking for some more versatile placement on your multicoloured wireless lighting devices, the desk-lamp-sized Bloom or the stick-on-strip LightStrips means you can install Hue lighting in places where previously it would have been impossible — whether it’s a good idea or not. (I installed the LightStrips behind my bedhead, for example, and got responses both positive and negative from members of the opposite sex.)

The Hue app still needs work. We’ve seen lighting systems that have so much potential — both from LIFX and Philips, for example — but that are let down by the breadth of customisation, even if it’s something as simple as setting a timer for lights to switch off or dim — offered in software, and when you’re talking about a light bulb with infinitely and minutely adjustable colour and luminance then having that adjustment is crucial. At the moment, it’s certainly possible, but it could be a lot easier and a lot more powerful.

And, of course, at the end of the day, the Friends Of Hue lamp and lightstrip are still quite expensive. They’re great fun, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not exactly impulse purchases. You can’t go out and drop $124.95 on a single two-metre strip of plastic. The $99.95 LivingColours Bloom is definitely the more justifiable purchase of the two, and it’s also more physical and tactile and look-at-me — more of a statement piece in your living room. The LightStrips is probably more versatile, but the Bloom is more interesting.

This month, Gizmodo Australia will be hopping in our domestic DeLorean to bring you what the future will have in store for the way we live. The Home Of The Future series focuses on smart tech for your home life and beyond. We’ve got a great month planned full of news, reviews and features.
Welcome to the future.

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