The Philips Hue smart light bulbs are a truly quintessential smart home gadgets. And light bulbs are actually one of the simplest examples of how a smart home really does come in handy. However, the Hue bulbs have, until now, relied on a stand-alone hub—a piece of hardware that connects to your network and relays commands out to the connected lights. The hub was a middle man, and if it glitched or lost its connection, all your light bulbs went back to their dumb old, switch-flipping days.
The new Hue bulbs, however, don’t require a hub. There are three new options, including a $15 white model, a $25 bulb that lets you choose different kinds of white light, and a $50 flagship that can recreate all kinds of colors. They will connect to a hub if you want to use them the traditional way, but you can skip it completely and rely on a new built-in Bluetooth connection.
While the Bluetooth feature saves you from adding additional hardware to your home, it also subtracts some functionality from the bulbs compared to their typical setup. You can only sync 10 bulbs instead of the 50 that will work with a hub. And, because you’re not using the WiFi connection, you give up some more advanced options like hooking them up with IFTTT (a service that allows users to create complex smart home actions) or controlling them with Siri.
The Hue Bluetooth app is completely separate from the typical Hue app. So, the new app leaves out the functions that aren’t available via Bluetooth to make it less confusing. If you upgrade and add a hub later, the Bluetooth bulbs switch over to their traditional connectivity function and you can switch over to the full-featured app.
To make things even more complex, the Hue bulbs have a unique relationship with Amazon’s Alexa devices. The Hue bulbs use a wireless protocol called ZigBee to talk to the bridge or hub that controls them. The bulbs can pair directly to some Amazon Echo and Google Assistant-powered devices. In fact, according to Cnet, if you order the bulbs from Amazon using the email tied to your Alexa account, the digital assistant should immediately see the bulbs once you install them in your home.
While the Bluetooth addition is nice, Hue’s reliance on a hardware bridge to translate ZigBee signals still provides a slight barrier to entry into one of the best smart lighting platforms around. Competitors like Lifx work completely without a hub and GE’s C line previously integrated Bluetooth for setup and connectivity. Some also use more versatile hubs like the Samsung SmartThings hub, which loops in a wide variety of connected gadgets rather than restricting itself to light bulbs.
For now, however, you’re probably still best served biting the bullet and committing to the Hue smart lighting platform.