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Motion-activated lighting isn’t a new idea. Whether you’re using it to illuminate a dark stairwell or ward off intruders, the technology has become a staple of even the simplest of home environments.
But smart motion-activated lighting is another idea. Traditional motion sensors offer only rudimentary configurability at best, perhaps featuring an analog knob controlling sensitivity or a switch that sets how long the attached light stays activated, if that. By linking the sensor to your smart phone and your smart lighting environment, smart motion sensors promise to greatly increase the utility of those pricey smart bulbs.
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Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Bulb Starter Kit (Hub and 4 bulbs)
Operationally, smart motion sensors are built to work with a certain vendor’s bulbs. Configuration and control is integrated into the lighting app you already use, so you don’t need to switch between multiple apps to configure lights and sensors. We tested two new sensors, one from Philips and one from Ledvance, both designed as unobtrusive cubes that measure an inch or two on each side and which are ready to drop directly into your smart home.
Philips Hue Motion Sensor
This might sound like hyperbole since we’re talking about a lighting accessory, but Philips’ motion sensor for the Hue ecosystem is one of the most capable and well-designed smart home devices I’ve ever used.
From a design standpoint, the miniature bricklet has been built to blend in—but also to look good should anyone happen to see it. It’s a sleek brick broken only by the bulbous motion/light sensor, which juts out a bit from the center. An LED in front indicates whether the system has been tripped. Otherwise, there’s no other interface or indicators on the unit itself. It’s powered by two AAA batteries which come preinstalled; to replace them (Philips says they’ll last for two to three years, depending on use), you unscrew the rear panel and pop in fresh ones.
The system for mounting the Hue sensor on the wall is incredibly clever. A small disk is included, which you can screw into a wall or ceiling with the included hardware. The disc contains a powerful magnet that adheres to a dome on the back of the sensor. This makes mounting super simple, but it also makes it quite flexible. That dome means you can easily tweak the sensor’s aim by adjusting where you attach it to the mounting disc—there’s no need to punch multiple holes in the wall. You can also just drop the sensor on a shelf if you don’t want it permanently mounted. Promised detection range is about 5 meters (about 16 feet), with a 100-degree field of view, which was accurate based on my testing.
The sensor itself works like a dream. Configuration can be found in the Settings menu of the Hue app, under Accessory setup. Here you can get incredibly granular with the sensor control. Once you choose the bulb or bulbs it controls, by default when motion is detected it will activate a bright light during waking hours, and turn on a dim nightlight at nighttime, though these can of course be changed. You decide if the unit should keep checking for motion in the area (call this the budget hotel room setting), and how long the light should stay on if no movement is detected (from one minute to one hour).
Other settings let you control whether the unit should be disabled if the room is already bright enough, as well as setting the overall motion sensitivity level. If I have any complaint about the Hue sensor—and it’s a minor one—it’s that the three motion-sensitivity options just don’t vary that much.
That’s a truly minimal complaint for a system that looks good, is easy to work with, and works perfectly at detecting movement and controlling the lights exactly as it’s supposed to.
On the surface, Ledvance Sylvania’s Lightify Motion Sensor works about the same way as the one from Philips. It just looks like a slightly homelier cousin.
Aesthetically, the unit has the appearance of something a bit like a device that would fit in well in a budget motel. It’s an oddly shaped, weirdly angled plastic cube with a translucent nubbin jutting out from the center. It’s strangely at odds with the rest of the products in the Lightify lineup, which are generally quite sleek and sophisticated. Even the mounting system, which involves driving a screw directly through the plastic on the back of the device, is comparatively crude.
Looks are one thing, of course, but the Lightify sensor also does comparatively little for the same price as the Philips product.
As with Philips, you add the motion sensor directly in the same app you use to control your Lightify light bulbs. Configuration is quick and simple, after which you gain access to a limited menu of functions. Through the app you’re able to set the days of the week and the time of the day you want the sensor to be active, the length of time a light should stay on until it shuts off, and which light or lighting group you want the sensor to control.
And that’s it. The Lightify sensor has no ambient light sensor and no way to set its motion sensitivity level. That said, it otherwise works as claimed, and though it promises a 100-degree sensing angle and a 15-foot range, the unit overachieved on this front regardless of ambient lighting conditions. Like the Philips, the unit is also designed only for indoor use.
Its pre-installed, replaceable Lithium cell, promises two years of battery life. Replacing the battery (or mounting the device), however, requires using a flathead screwdriver to shimmy open the rear panel, which is likely to scratch the device. Given the unit’s overall design, that’s hardly going to be a detraction.
Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication. The Ledvance motion sensor can trigger a Sylvania smart bulb to turn on at a dimmed level by creating a scene with the smart bulb’s software and then triggering that scene. But that relies on using the smart bulb’s app.