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Product Review

What happens when smart bulbs meet dumb software?

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The official Philips Hue app sucks.

You’d think that, being the oldest name in the smart lighting world, Philips would have the best app on the market. More than a decade of iterative improvements and a mature hardware world would see the app rise proudly above its competitors. Sadly for me, and every other Hue user, the company seems to have fallen asleep behind the wheel.

(Yes: I know that Philips Lighting rebranded itself as Signify, but let’s not confuse matters here.)

I picked up a Hue starter kit and some additional Lux bulbs back in 2013, and was very impressed with the setup for at least ten minutes. It very quickly became one of those gadgets that only really got used to show the power of your smart home to visitors. And they rather quickly tired of my ability to change my living room lights from white to purple, and back again. In fact, I mostly used the bulbs as glorified dimmer switches, which wasn’t enough to justify the high cost of the initial investment.

At some point, the app started insisting I replace the v1 (round) Bridge for the v2 (square) model. And I bristled, already feeling aggrieved that Hue was all mouth and no trousers, I resented having to pay when the existing system worked perfectly well. Especially since I could have used that money to buy more Hue bulbs and further lock myself into Philips’ ecosystem.

No tears were shed when the Bridge eventually got smashed by one (or both) of my kids when I was out of the room. I decided, in a tiny flurry of COVID-19 lockdown-induced Marie Kondo-ing, that I’d toss the box into the trash and be done with it. After all, it was broken, and changing the color of my bulbs did not spark the joy I was expecting, not to mention the fact that Philips loves to charge a lot of cash to sync your lighting to a movie playing on your TV.

Last month, my wife asked me why we weren’t able to use Hue any more, and I explained the situation. She asked how much it would cost to fix it, and found a sealed, unused, second generation Bridge available on Facebook Marketplace for half the price at retail. So we snapped it up, obviously making the usual security checks about buying second hand IoT gear before plugging it into our network.

That was, however, when the troubles began, since you can’t just sign in to your existing Hue account, hook it up to the new Bridge, and be done. Nobody at Philips seems to have imagined that it might be worthwhile building out the ability to revive an account tied to a dead bridge. In fact, there’s no way to connect anything without a fresh login, and the bulbs themselves are tied to the old one. The app also doesn’t provide any way to hard reset a bulb, or in fact do anything beyond leave you staring at a splash screen.

For about half an hour, I did wonder if I’d just wasted some cash on a new Bridge but never to get things working again. I felt a frustration, a powerlessness, the sort that comes when you’re locked and bolted out of a building at 2am in an unfamiliar city and your phone’s out of charge. My login wouldn’t work, because my bridge wasn’t connected to the internet. A new login won’t even acknowledge the presence of the expensive hardware all over my house. My hands got very itchy.

This is the kicker: I’m not the first person to learn how bad Philips’ software development is, because there’s a whole army of third-party Hue apps out there. Much in the same way that charity is an indictment on behalf of the state, the depth and breadth of Hue apps available is a massive critique on Philips’ lackluster app development. You’re paid to do this, and there’s no available function in the app to be able to fix what could be a fairly common problem.

I opted to use Hue Lights, one of many independent apps that offered the ability to hard reset a bulb. All I had to do was bring each bulb close to the bridge (you’ll need a lamp handy), turn it on, and hard reset each unit individually. Then I could reconnect them to the new bridge and, as if by magic, could then start using them with the official Hue app. Not that, I’ll be honest, I really want to. Because this third-party, very simple app has more power than the official Philips app and it’s easier to use. If you haven’t tried it, I heartily recommend that you do. At least until Philips gets its act together.

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