Technology

Philips Hue uses ZigBee (more specifically ZigBee Light Link) to control the Connected Bulbs. Of course, smartphones and tablets don’t have ZigBee built into them, nor for that matter do PCs and Macs (yes, you could get a ZigBee USB dongle if you wanted), and hence the need for the Hue Bridge. It basically acts as a link between the devices running Apps that use the home network/WiFi and the ZigBee link to the bulbs. The App sends the command to the Bridge, the Bridge converts it to the ZigBee protocol, and vice versa. ZigBee operates in the 900-928MHz band in North America and Australia, 868MHz in Europe, and 900-924MHz plus 2.4GHz worldwide.

You might think that the bridge is simply an additional device; why not make the bulbs WiFi? It’s a valid question and it could be done, but imagine trying to get each bulb connected to the network. Technically savvy users could likely figure it out, but for everyone else it would be a nightmare. I’ve tried helping friends and family with basic WiFi configuration issues over the phone, using PCs where all they need to do is enter the network password, and it can still be a pain. Trying to deal with IP addresses and potential conflicts on a per-bulb basis isn’t something most people would be interested in doing.

There are additional factors as well, such as cost, power consumption of WiFi vs. ZigBee, and range requirements. ZigBee range is typically lower than 2.4GHz WiFi range; however, ZigBee is a mesh network so each device added can function as a repeater to extend the coverage area. That means as long as there are some devices closer to the Bridge coverage should be sufficient. ZigBee also consumes less power than WiFi and usually costs less as well, which is important when you’re looking at integrating the functionality into devices like bulbs.

Ultimately, though, I think managing the setup and being able to control the bulbs effectively are the primary reasons why ZigBee is the right choice. Having the Bridge also makes it far easier to use multiple devices to communicate with the network, and it makes the creation and use of an app a lot simpler as well.

Teardown and Design The Philips Hue Experience
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  • nathanddrews - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    The difference being, of course, that LIFX uses a master 802.11n bulb to control all the 802.15.4 slave bulbs instead of an extra controller box plugged in elsewhere. Also, unlike the Philips system, you have to not just have the app but also must be on the network in order to control the bulbs as each of the LIFX slave bulbs will only work with the master bulb which is behind your network password. The Philips system has no such security, which immediately removes it from the running, IMO. Reply
  • xdpfddai - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    This is incorrect. The Phillips controller hub is behind your wireless network, so whatever security you have on that applies. They are both secure. 802.15.4 also applies to ZigBee. Reply
  • nathanddrews - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    The controller hub/bulb isn't in question, it's the slave bulbs that I'm concerned about. The article probably needs to flesh out this comment better:

    "Given the use of the ZigBee controller along with the fact that there is no configuration on a per device level to connect it to the network (e.g. you just buy additional bulbs and they apparently broadcast and communicate with any and all Hue devices), we would assume that 50 lights and a single Bridge is about as far as you'll be able to go within a single area. Conceivably, there could also be problems if your immediate neighbor also picked up a Hue—how would the lights know to talk to your Hue network and not his? This is both the blessing and curse of going with an easy to configure technology."

    If your neighbor can buy a Hue Hub and just start controlling your bulbs, then it is certainly NOT secure. LIFX appears to have locked out this capability simply by using the built in 802.15.4 encryption, so perhaps this is a case of LIFX applying the encryption and Philip not.

    "We have considered security. The WiFi connection will use the standard security set-up that you are currently using. Mesh networks based on 802.15.4 will encrypt packets using AES-128. Higher network stack layers will need to handle exchange of security keys and deal with problems like "replay attacks". In short, your lights will be as secure as your home wifi network."
    Reply
  • xdpfddai - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    Just RTFM on ZigBee and 802.15.4. In short, they both use 128bit crypto. You don't have to worry about it as the end user either. If anyone is going to do their due diligence, it's going to be Phillips. You need to realize that both LIFX and the Phillips implementation are 802.15.4. Reply
  • This Guy - Saturday, March 2, 2013 - link

    Last time I checked zigbee uses a four digit, numerical key to identify mesh networks. Not exactly secure. Reply
  • iamezza - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - link

    So someone could hack into your light system and screw with your lights? Not really a big deal TBH. Reply
  • SodaAnt - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    I think that the technology is almost there, but the price isn't. For this to be a reality for normal users, each bulb would need to be in the $10-$20 range, and would only really gain widespread acceptance if each bulb was below $10. To me, these really only make sense if you have a small apartment or something and can easily light it with 3-5 bulbs total, and even then its a significant expenditure. Reply
  • This Guy - Saturday, March 2, 2013 - link

    The zigbee radio's and high output RGB LED's are a significant additional cost (compared to the $10 RGB IR controlled globes you can but for $5 - $10). Neither item is mass produced on the scale that truely reduces their price. Reply
  • Ualdayan - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - link

    There are cheaper Zigbee bulbs. I saw on another site somebody mentioned Limitless LED that are only $57 for 2 bulbs+wireless bridge for phone/tablet, and $19 per additional bulb. Now - they only offer a 3 year warranty (Hue is 5 years I believe), and from what I've read their software isn't as 'fun' as Hue's. Eg nothing like Hue's ability to set a 'beach' mode, 'reading' mode, or 'sunset' mode. Let's face it - nobody needs these - they're just for fun. With that in mind I think personally even at double the price I'd go for the ones that have software that is more 'fun'.

    I just have too many other things I know I should replace before having fun with lightbulbs.
    Reply
  • Rick83 - Friday, March 1, 2013 - link

    Except, not really, because at that price it's going to have an exclusive audience.

    Something that I did't quickly find in the review is the quality of the actual bulbs. (Considering that this is the business end of the product, I should be able to?)

    The controller itself certainly is interesting, but then it's "merely" Zigbee in a box.

    A comparison to similarly specced non-smart LED lights would have given a better price differential for the smartness.

    Also, I can't really come up with a use case. For me, the light in a room is always tailored to the room. The only reason to use this kind of semi-smart light, is if you have limited rooms, and need to multipurpose them, by varying the lighting. Then of course, you don't need nearly 50 lights.
    To me this looks like the answer to a question nobody asked.
    Reply

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