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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Philips Hue motion sensor: nice hardware, frustrating software

Hue Motion Sensor

As good as the smart light setup in my house is, one thing I’ve found somewhat limiting is the lack of input. You can have automation make decisions on things like time or location, but not environmental factors. For example, I have a floor lamp in my office that’s on a timer: it comes on in the evening and turns off when I go to bed. But sometimes—especially in the dead of winter—it gets a bit dark and grim in my office, and it’d be nice if it could automatically turn on during the day if it wasn’t very sunny.

When Philips announced earlier this year that it would be adding a $40 motion sensor to the Hue family, I was interested—but it wasn’t until I noted that it had a built-in daylight sensor that I decided I needed to test it out.

The sensor arrived late last week, so I had a little time to set it up and play around with the configuration. The hardware itself is very nice; it’s a small, solid-feeling little device with a wide-angle sensor and an optional mounting kit1. Setup was simple: just pull the plastic battery tab out of the back of the sensor, which activates it, and then find it using the Hue app. Choose which of your existing rooms you want to place it in, and you’re basically all set. Because it doesn’t require a plug, you can put it basically anywhere.

You can tweak the motion sensor’s behavior in a few ways—for example, you can define different actions for Day and Night, which themselves are determined based on hours that you set. You can also set a daylight threshold—if that threshold is met, the actions won’t trigger.2 And you can adjust the sensitivity of the motion detection, from low to high. Finally, you can choose to have the lights turn off after a certain amount of time if no motion is detected.

hue-motionsensor-app

Here’s where I ran into some problems. One thing I found frustrating is that the Day/Night periods are inextricably linked. You can decide when the day starts and when the nights starts, but it automatically adjusts the other’s end point. So you can’t have, say, daylight run from 8am to 5pm and night from 7pm to 5am. So, if you want different actions triggered in the evening hours versus overnight, that’s not really possible. (And given that daylight hours change over the course of the year, this may require some tweaking in different seasons—it’d be handy if they let you base it on local sunrise/sunset times.) I’ve played around with a few different settings for these two periods, but haven’t yet found one that really accommodates my setup.

Similarly, the trigger for what happens after no motion is detected is equally limited. While you can choose from a variety of intervals between 1 and 60 minutes, there are only two options: turn off the lights or do nothing. If you choose to have the lights turn off, they dim around 30 seconds beforehand. However, this setting applies to both Day and Night—you can’t choose separate options depending on the time of day.

For me, that interferes with the timer on my office light. Because after, for example, 20 minutes without detecting motion, the office light will turn off—even if it’s during the hours when I’d usually have it on. But if I try the other tack and tell the timer to do nothing after no motion is detected, it might end up staying on all day, which isn’t ideal either.

I also ran into some issues with the daylight sensitivity setting: even when the app itself told me that there was sufficient daylight and it wouldn’t turn on the lights if motion was detected, it would sometimes turn them on anyway. Adjusting the slider to require more daylight seemed to help somewhat, but it’s possible there’s a bug in the software.

So far, the motion sensor seems to require using the Hue app; there’s currently no support for other smart home protocols, such as HomeKit (the Home app couldn’t find it when I searched for new accessories). The motion sensor requires the Hue Bridge in order to work, so hopefully that means the motion sensor uses the same API as the smart bulbs. I’m hopeful that at least some third parties will add support for using the sensor.

Overall, the Hue motion sensor is a mixed bag—but fortunately, most of the things that frustrate me appear to be software issues, which are certainly easier to fix than hardware. Given that the device has only just come out, I’m hopeful that even if it isn’t just what I need right now, it might become that in time.


  1. I really dig the mounting kit: it’s essentially a little magnet that you screw into the wall and then just pop the sensor on.  ↩

  2. The control for that is a slider based on the current light level when you’re setting it; the app tells you whether or not current conditions would trigger the motion sensor, given what level of sensitivity you’ve set it at.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]