HomeKit makes Philips Hue smartbulbs even cooler

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The new Philips Hue starter set might be the first must-have gear for people interested in HomeKit.
Photo: Evan Killham

If you’re even slightly interested in having smart lighting for your house, the new Philips Hue bridge, which supports Apple’s HomeKit automated-home framework, should be in your shopping cart right now.

Controlling your lights from your phone is one level of crazy future-stuff, but doing it with your voice drops you into an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And you definitely want your home to feel like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The HomeKit-compatible Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit sells for $199.99, and that’s a lot, but you’ll get a ton of use out of it. It just takes a minute to hook up the new, square-ish bridge and link it to your home network through Philips’ companion iOS app. It might take a little longer to get the app working with Siri for the really cool features, but we’ve figured out how to get it up and running quickly — just make sure you’ve synced your Wallet and everything important to iCloud before you do this.

Once you’re up and running, you can use the app to name your bulbs and start creating “scenes.” Think of them as the presets on a car stereo; you can tune in different colors and configurations, adjusting each bulb separately or individually, and then save them for instant callback later. After you’ve set up a few scenes, you can ditch the app and start using Siri to run everything.

You have a lot of cool options here, and the voice commands make using the system as simple as talking into your iPhone (or Apple Watch, thanks to watchOS 2). You can say “Set work” to switch to your Work scene, or whichever more creative names you choose. But controlling individual lights by voice is where the system really won me over.

I discovered that I can not only control color, but brightness with some simple requests like, “Make the lamp blue” or “Dim the bedroom to 25 percent.” Siri gets a little confused when you use words like “white” (it mistakes it for “light,” so it will ask you what you’re on about), but you can always go into the app if you want to fine-tune things.

One major-ish issue I’ve noticed is that the app doesn’t seem to support zones in your house like some other smart devices do, and that’s surprising. I have one bulb in my bedroom and two in my living room, and it would be nice to control the latter simultaneously with single voice commands. As it is, I went ahead and named one of the bulbs “Lamp” and the other one “The Other Lamp,” which I like to think would convince people that my lights and I are magical if I actually got that many guests at my house.

I’ve figured out some workarounds that involve designing scenes in which the two living-room lamps are switched off, but not being able to say, “Turn on/off the lights in the living room” is a noticeable hole in the system.

Still, I’m getting a lot of use out of the updated Philips Hue. While the current line of smart appliances feel mostly like novelties, Hue’s “party trick” is actually deeply engrained in its functionality. Lighting serves a purpose — to keep you from bumping into things — but Hue lets you not bump into things with a flair and versatility that’s impossible not to love.

The reviewer purchased his own Starter Kit for this review.


Update (11:10 a.m.): Some HTML Gremlins made the original post give the incorrect price of $9.99. That would be amazing, but the Starter Kit in fact costs $199.99. We have updated the cruel, cruel mistake and apologize for the error.