Philips Hue is worth the investment to spruce up an apartment

In Home, Technology by Heidi Bada0 Comments

My ordinary apartment became awesome when I added smart bulbs

After a year of living with Philips Hue in my home, I already can’t live without it. I’m glad I decided on this brand of smart bulbs.

Let me tell you about them in case you don’t know. They are LED bulbs that install into your regular light fixtures, like your usual bulbs (including E26, PAR16, GU10, and BR30) except that these ones talk to a Wi-Fi hub. Philips Hue and other smart bulb brands usually begin as a kit that includes a few bulbs and a hub. It is indeed a system that you invest in. The hub attaches to your router, and you control the bulbs with smart phone apps.

The point of smart bulbs is to have more control over the quality of light coming from your lamps. Apps that work with the Philips Hue system allow you to change colours, turn the bulbs on and off, dim them, and apply special effects such as blending through a rainbow of colours, or changing colours and brightness in time with music.

Music-related effects generally rely on the microphone in the smart phone to pick up sound coming from the TV or stereo. I haven’t tried much of this myself because I live in an apartment building and don’t play my tunes loud enough to impress anyone.

The cost factor is a bummer

As soon as you go shopping for smart bulbs, you’ll notice they are expensive. LED bulbs are already expensive, and these are quite a bit more than that. For example, one full-colour bulb for my system costs about $50 dollars CAD.

On the other hand, I’m using $10-$20 basic lamps from IKEA and Canadian tire. They become a lot more fancy when awesome colours shoot out of them. Before I bought my Philips Hue system, I looked for nightclub-style fixtures (ADJ Hex Bar example – try the video tab) and other funky lighting. Everything cool was well over $200 so I abandoned that idea.

Philips Hue can produce vibrant colours

Eventually I took the plunge, and wish I’d done it sooner

I was almost trembling, when I decided to just do it. I had compared the features and prices of several smart bulb systems available in my town. There were just a few choices worth considering after checking out lots of reviews online. One problem I quickly discovered was availability. Many of the best-rated systems weren’t available at my local Best Buy or Home Depot. Philips Hue was consistently available though.

I decided that a starter kit with two bulbs and hub were affordable, and still cheaper than one high-quality-but-overkill fixture from nightclub lighting suppliers.

I also wanted to start small, just two bulbs, and add bulbs over time, whenever I could spare the money. Philips Hue fit that situation fine. At least one store in my little city seemed to have each of the pieces I planned to add in the next year. FYI, Philips Hue offers light strips for about $90 that go behind a headboard, under a tabletop, and under a sofa, etc. to make the item glow like the $350 Hex Bar example above can do.

How far disco can you go?

After price and availability, the one remaining big purchase factor for me was availability of apps that produce cool lighting effects. The features of many bulbs, on paper at least, didn’t satisfy my disco/nightclub desires. Some had apps that did strobe effects but no sequence effects, and some had really cumbersome colour selectors, based on screenshots on the packaging and online.

The big problem was that I needed party effects NOT based on music input. I don’t listen to music through speakers. I just wanted smoothly-changing patterns and sometimes party strobe effects not set to music or television audio. I want to program them like an lighting artist. I listen to a lot of music and TV through headphones, so bulbs that listen for ambient audio beats don’t help me at all.

Since I knew deep down that the expense and complexity of night club lights were ridiculous for my purposes, the Philips Hue was the only bulb system that fit. It appeared to reliably work with apps made by independent producers. You are not limited to the app produced by Philips Hue. It gets the job done for basic colour selections. Then I found Lightbow, a lighting design app and OnSwitch, which offers sunrise and sunset effects on a timer and effects including fireworks, fireplace (my favourite), and lots of pre-designed colour-shifting patterns. Both of these apps are about $5 to start, and offer in-app purchases for more features.

I haven’t tried Lightbow but I do enjoy OnSwitch everyday, and use the sunset timer when I go to bed. I love the orange phase near the end of the sequence but usually I’m asleep before it happens. I set it for 10 minutes – and I’ve been falling asleep before it ends. I used to lie awake for up to an hour, and I think a big reason is the habit and of course the dimming light in my room. In any case, I quite enjoy this part of the system.

Practical purposes I’ve discovered

Another reason I can’t live without Philips Hue bulbs is that I have one in a very simple lamp clamped to a shelf above my desk. When I’m using the desk, I set the bulb to ‘standard bulb’ at about 70% intensity, and adjust if light is coming through the nearby window. It lights up my entire workspace. I can dim it or brighten it or even change it to a warmer or cooler hue, to suit my book or task. I use the OnSwitch app for this, very easily.

Tips for buying Philips Hue

Be careful when you buy bulbs. The 3rd generation bulbs came out a year or so ago, just in time for my purchase. I saw some 2nd generation bulbs still on store shelves that were slightly cheaper. I personally decided to get 3rd gen only, because they are quite a bit brighter and more capable of producing subtle colours in a wider range. One comment I saw repeatedly was that older generation bulbs had lower range of colours, less lumens, and poor-quality pastels. Check out reviews yourself online, and the specs on the Philips Hue website.

As mentioned, Philips bulbs of all sorts were often in stock in local big-box stores like Best Buy and Home Depot. Note that store clerks probably don’t have knowledge or energy to share specific details about the various bulbs and systems on the market. Do the research yourself. I don’t have the box anymore, but I recall there was a “3rd generation” or “16 million colours” slogan found only on the third generation bulbs.

While you’re planning a smart bulb setup, plan for the fixtures to be turned on continually. The hub and lamps, at least in the Philips Hue system ought to be left on 24 hours a day. Otherwise you may have difficulty switching it on and having it find the bulbs each time. You can use the app to turn the bulbs off, but the lamps themselves will still be turned on. It draws a tiny bit of power, I’m sure, but worth the effort in my opinion. I’m open to suggestions about that. I also have a wifi security camera so my system needs to be on for that anyhow, on the same power bar.

The hub needs to plug directly into your wifi router, so plan for that. The wifi router also needs to be on all night if you’re relying on sunrise and sunset features. As soon as you turn off your router, like I used to do, the bulbs shut off and it takes a bit of time to have the hub and app(s) find them again so it’s not practical to turn off these electronics when you’re asleep or away for short periods of time.

My Philips Hue system today

After living with Philips Hue for about a year, chosen after careful research, I’m still happy and can easily recommend this brand and this type of smart home device, for several reasons I’ve shared.

Philips Hue bulb in tissue lamp and controller app running on iPad on music stand

My system now contains three bulbs, in two tall ’tissue’ lamps and one ordinary fixture pointing down at my work desk. I haven’t tried LightStrips but I’d love to. I currently have $1 IKEA string lights taped up and they oddly work just fine – but I can’t change their colour or make them blink!


A few final words about smart bulbs:

  • Why I like my Philips Hue bulbs: they are easy to use if you have suitable fixtures already
  • Why I wanted to try smart bulbs: affordable night club and soft ambient lighting to spruce up my simple apartment

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