Philips Hue Bluetooth + Zigbee smart bulbs review: The best smart lighting just got better (but no less expensive)

You don't need the Hue Bridge with these new smart bulbs, but you'll want one anyway.

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At a Glance
  • Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 (Bluetooth + Zigbee)

  • Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance BR30 (Bluetooth + Zigbee)

  • Philips Hue White Ambiance BR30 (Bluetooth + Zigbee)

  • Philips Hue White BR30 (Bluetooth + Zigbee)

Yes, you can control the latest Philips Hue smart bulbs with just your smartphone or smart speaker via Bluetooth, saving you the cost of buying the Hue Bridge. But not having the Bridge very much limits your options.

Being a dyed-in-the-wool smart home enthusiast with smart lighting in every room of my home, I sometimes forget that not everyone is interested in diving straight into the deep end of the pool. So I have two distinct recommendations regarding the latest generation of Philips Hue smart bulbs: For enthusiasts like me, I say go for it! For folks who just want to dabble in smart lighting, I say there are less-expensive alternatives if you’re convinced you don’t want to wade deeper into the smart home waters.

The quality of light these new Hue bulbs produce is every bit as good as the bulbs that came before, and they have one new feature the others didn’t: support for Bluetooth in addition to the more robust mesh network protocol Zigbee. That change means you can control these new bulbs with your smart device (or smart speaker) without needing to also buy the Philips Hue Zigbee-to-Wi-Fi-bridge.

hue br30 bluetooth Michael Brown / IDG

Signify is currently shipping its next-generation Philips Hue bulbs in BR30 (shown here) and A19 form factors, but the entire line will eventually support Bluetooth in addition to Zigbee.

On the one hand, that’s great for dabblers because it will save them at least $50 (MSRP for the Bridge is $59.99, but it’s often on sale, and it costs even less when it’s purchased in a bundle with the bulbs). On the other hand, you can buy a full-color smart bulb like the TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi bulb (model KL130) for about the same price ($29.99 for the A19 style) as Philips expects to fetch for its tunable-white-only bulbs (you can change the color temperature of Hue White Ambiance bulbs from warm white to cool white, but you don’t get the colors of the rainbow). If you don’t care about tuning the bulbs’ color temperature, dimmable Philips Hue White bulbs cost $14.99 each—which is about $5 less than what TP-Link expects to fetch for its dimmable white bulbs.

Wi-Fi bulbs like the TP-Link KL130 (and the LIFX smart lighting lineup) offer another benefit, too. If you’re not using the Bridge, the Philips Hue bulbs’ reliance on the relatively short range of Bluetooth means you and your smartphone need to be in the same room as the bulb you wish to control. The same goes for an Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker. A Wi-Fi bulb, in contrast, will be limited only by the range of your router. And if you have a good mesh router, that should be anywhere in your home.

Are smart bulbs really all you’ll ever want?

But before you conclude that Wi-Fi smart bulbs are the way to go, ask yourself if you think you’ll ever want to go farther in the pursuit of a smart home. The Philips Hue ecosystem is bigger and broader than any other smart lighting family on the market; it includes not just the A19 bulbs you’ll install in lamps and pendants, but also the BR30 (bulged reflector) downlights you’ll install in ceiling cans, PAR (parabolic reflector) bulbs, GU (glass reflector with a U-shaped, dual-pin base) bulbs, and a host of other specialty shapes and sizes, including lights designed to complement your TV-viewing experience. TP-Link has LED strip lights and BR30 downlights—and that’s it.

Philips also offers Hue-based lighting fixtures for both indoor and outdoor installations, including landscape and path lighting. There’s also a whole collection of accessories, ranging from indoor and outdoor motion sensors to portable switches—and that’s just the Philips Hue-branded product collection. (One accessory you can use without needing the Hue Bridge is the Hue Dimmer Switch.) Explore the Friends of Hue program and you’ll find dozens more third-party products. No competitor comes close.

philips hue with bluetooth Michael Brown / IDG

The A19 version of the Philips Hue smart bulb looks no different than the previous generations. The only difference is the addition of a Bluetooth radio.

None of these options are inexpensive, but every device we’ve reviewed to date has been of very high quality. (I should also note here that while the entire Philips Hue line will eventually have Bluetooth capabilities, only the A19 and BR30 form factors have it today.)

One of the characteristics that ties many of these first- and third-party products together is a reliance on the Philips Hue Bridge. If you don’t have one, you’re limited to deploying about 10 of the new-generation bulbs, you can’t mix new and old bulbs together, and you’re barred from integrating most of the cool and otherwise-Hue-compatible products with them. But if you just want to deploy one or a few smart bulbs without making a major commitment, these bulbs will do that for you. And if you decide to add the Bridge down the road, Philips has you covered there, too.

philips hue bridge Signify

Trust me, you will want the Philips Hue Bridge sooner rather than later.

Supremely easy installation

Since you can’t access all the Philips Hue features without the Bridge, Signify developed a second version of its app that’s tailored to the Bluetooth SKU (it’s called Hue Bluetooth, and it’s available for Android and iOS). Once you’ve installed the app on your smartphone or tablet, the Philips Hue Bluetooth bulbs are a breeze to install. That goes double if you buy them from Amazon: Use them with an Echo smart speaker, and if the email address associated with your Amazon account is the same as the one you use for your Philips Hue account, the bulb will automatically pair with the Echo that’s in the same room (within 30 feet) less than a minute after the bulb is powered on.

In my experience, Alexa announced that she’d given the new bulb a name (“First Light”) and added it to her repertoire before I’d even finished enrolling it in the Hue Bluetooth app. The name Alexa gives the bulb won’t necessarily be the same as what you’ll see in the Hue app, but you can easily change it in either or both places, so they match.

philips hue bt app Michael Brown / IDG

You can control all the Philips Hue bulbs at once—turn them on and off or dim them—or you can control them individually. But you can’t assign them to rooms unless you have the Bridge.

That type of direct compatibility, however, is initially limited to the 3rd-generation Echo Dot, the 2nd-generation Echo Show, and the 1st- and 2nd-generation Echo Plus. Once it’s set up, you can talk to any Echo or the Alexa app on your smart device to control the light (although it will be the Echo that’s in the room with the bulb that ultimately controls it). Google Assistant and Google Home smart speakers are supported, too, but you’ll need to enroll the bulb through the Google Home app in the usual way. If you want to use Apple’s Siri to control the bulb, you’ll need the Hue Bridge.

You can use voice commands to turn the bulb on and off, change its color temperature (in my case, “set First Light to a warm white” or “set First Light to a cool white”), change its absolute color (“set First Light to green,” for example), and change its brightness (“dim First Light to 45 percent”). When you turn the bulb off, it will retain the same setting when you turn it back on again.

Limitations

One thing you can’t do with voice commands is set the bulbs to lighting scenes. You’ll need to launch the app if you want to set lights to “Frosty Dawn,” “Midsummer Sun,” or any of the other preset lighting scenes that are available in either of the Hue apps. You can also use the app to create and save your own lighting scenes. The effect these scenes have on the different types of light will, of course, vary with their capabilities. Choosing the “Honolulu” scene will set the White and Color Ambiance bulb to a reddish orange glow at roughly 40-percent brightness, but the White Ambiance bulb will just tune to a very warm white at 40-percent brightness and the White bulb will just dim to that value.

Remember that you’ll need to be in Bluetooth range to control the bulbs with your smartphone. Philips says you’ll need to be within 30 feet and in the same room as the bulb, but I experienced longer range using my Google Pixel 2 XL and was able to control the lights from an adjacent room. Your mileage may vary.

Transferring the bulbs to the Hue Bridge

transfer hue bulbs from bt to bridge 0 Michael Brown / IDG

It is push-button easy to transfer control of the Bluetooth/Zigbee bulbs from your smart device to the Philips Hue Bridge.

Once you get a taste for what smart lighting can do for your home, you’ll want to add more of it, at which point you’ll quickly bump up against the 10-bulb limit that Bluetooth imposes (you can control up to 50 Hue bulbs with the bridge, and you can add additional Bridges to your network if you have more than 50 bulbs). Fortunately, Signify makes it very easy to transfer previously installed bulbs from Bluetooth control to the Philips Hue Bridge. Once you have the Bridge hardwired to your router, simply open the Hue BT app, click the Transfer to Hue Bridge button, and then click the I Have a Bridge button on the next screen. Press the physical button on the Bridge itself, and the app will transfer the Bluetooth bulbs you select (any or all) to the Bridge. The whole process took less than five minutes to transfer the four bulbs I tested.

One of the many advantages of using the Hue Bridge is the ability to assign Hue bulbs to rooms, so that you can control all the lights in one room simultaneously—turning them all on or off with one button press, dimming them all with a single slider, or setting a lighting scene in the app. Having the Bridge also allows you to establish room-based routines (including a geofencing setting that will set your lights to one scene when you leave and to a different scene when you return home); set your lights to operate on a schedule or a timer; control your lights while you’re away from home; and lots more.

A worthy successor in the Philips Hue line

Signify’s Philips Hue bulbs are by far the most expensive smart bulbs you can buy, but they are also the most capable and no bulb we’ve tested produces higher-quality light. And it bears repeating that the Hue ecosystem is bigger and more complete than any other smart lighting system you’ll encounter.

Adding Bluetooth makes it easier and cheaper to get started with Hue lighting, because it saves you the cost of the Bridge, and you can still control them with Alexa or Google Assistant voice commands (using compatible smart speakers). But the bulbs themselves are no less expensive than the previous generation. And most people will want the Bridge eventually anyway—it just adds too many attractive benefits. Fortunately, Philips makes that transfer almost easier than setting up the bulbs on Bluetooth in the first place. So is the new generation worthy? Absolutely.

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