I have been on a bit of a smart lighting journey over the past year. I originally disliked the idea of smart lighting, before buying a couple of smart lights here and there – and really liking them. I now have a range of smart lights, including a homemade ZigBee lightstrip and a Philips Hue Lightstrip Plus.
Whilst I like Hue’s lightstrips overall, I dislike how inflexible they can be: any off-cuts are hard to re-use, even with the latest (V4) generation which market them as being re-usable. Part of the reason for this is how Philips Hue offer the all-important controller.
The Philips Hue controller cannot be purchased separately, meaning that any off-cuts can’t be re-used unless you buy a brand new base kit. There are some options open to you, but none are as practical as Hue simply selling the controller separately.
Philips Hue’s lightstrips – and why the controller is so important
Smart LED lightstrips are a pretty neat invention: they are fairly small, meaning they can be installed in a range of places – including behind TVs, under cabinets and even under couches and beds. You can then change their color, brightness and on/off state in a smart way – using an app, your voice or automated schedules.
Philips Hue’s Lightstrips are one of the most expensive smart lightstrips on the market, rivalling LIFX on price and generally offering a high quality set of colors and brightnesses:
But it’s not just the color and brightness that matters: how well the lightstrip is controlled matters too. In other words, when changing from one color to another, do the colors just ‘snap’ straight from blue to orange (for example)? Or do they provide a nice, seamless transition?
As you can see from my video above, Philips Hue’s color changes are seamless. This is due to having a good quality controller.
What is a lightstrip controller?
Many LED lightstrips are fairly low power: Philips Hue’s runs at 24V and 0.83A, for example, meaning they run at just under 20W. However mains power is much higher than this: anything from 120-240V depending on where you live in the world.
Hence an LED controller’s first – and arguably most important – function is often to act as a transformer, taking mains voltage and dialing it down to an acceptable voltage for the lightstrip.
But with smart lightstrips, the controller must do more than just be a transformer:
- Dial down the voltage further to support dimming (i.e. brightness changes). When you dim your LED lightstrips, this will alter the amount of electricity consumed – and your controller is what drives this.
- Regulate how much power is sent to each ‘pin’ for color changes. Smart lightstrips are RGB, meaning they can be set to loads of different colors. When you chose a light orange color, the pins responsible for red and white will receive more power than some of the other pins.
If you chose a white color, the RGB (red, green, blue) pins may receive no power – and hence not come on. Whereas the pin(s) responsible for the white LEDs will receive more power and come on brightly.
- Speak the correct ‘language‘. Some smart lightstrips work over WiFi, whereas some (including Philips Hue’s lightstrips) work over Zigbee. The controller is responsible for receiving commands over these protocols, understanding them, and then changing the color (or brightness) accordingly.
Is the Philips Hue controller the best?
So clearly the controller in a smart LED lightstrip is really important, which brings me onto my next point: whether it’s worth caring about Philips Hue’s controller. By this I mean – if you have an off-cut of Hue’s lightstrips (or another third party light strip), should you go out and try and get the official Hue controller to use with it?
As it happens, the Philips Hue controller is pretty darn good. The color matching is very high quality, meaning that if you had two lightstrips in a room:
- A Hue Lightstrip off-cut, attached to a third party Zigbee controller.
- A Hue Lightstrip attached to the official Hue controller.
You will notice a difference in the colors produced from both.
The other difference you’ll notice is when changing between colors: the transitions are often a lot smoother with Hue’s own lightstrip and controller.
Why being able to buy just the Hue controller would be awesome
As I’ve touched on so far, if you have a bunch of Hue Lightstrip off-cuts, you’ll probably want to re-use them. The easiest way of doing this would be to go out and buy a Hue controller, and hook the lightstrip up to this – right?
Unfortunately Philips Hue don’t sell the Lightstrip Plus controller separately, meaning that any off-cuts you use can’t be “re-used” – unless you own yet another base kit.
This is annoying because you may have quite a long run of off-cut, and the last thing you’ll want to do is go out and spend $80 on another Hue Lightstrip base kit – especially since this will come with another 2m/78″ run of LED light strips.
If you just wanted to re-use a 50″ off-cut, you’re now stuck with 50+78″ = 128″ of Philips Hue Lightstrips – purely so you can get another Hue controller!
This is why people often look at third party controllers to re-use their Hue lightstrip off-cuts – something which I explore later on – but first a quick word on the V4 Hue Lightstrips…
Doesn’t the V4 Hue Lightstrips allow “cutting and re-using”?
Philips Hue’s fourth generation Lightstrip Plus proudly marketed that they can be extended and re-used:
The leftover piece won’t go to waste: use the included connector clip to attach the strip you’ve cut off to another Lightstrip base unit!Philips Hue Lightstrip Plus V4 marketing
And this is true. The V4 lightstrip comes with the following hippo connector style block:
This allows you to take two Hue Lightstrips and join them together – meaning that you can re-use a Hue off-cut.
However as mentioned above, this requires a brand new base kit to be purchased – you can’t just buy a Hue controller and re-use an off-cut that way.
As a result, if you’re unwilling to buy a new base-kit, you may want to explore using third party controllers.
Can you use a third party controller with Hue’s Lightstrips?
In theory, yes you can buy a third party Zigbee controller and use this with Philips Hue Lightstrip off-cuts. However there are some caveats here:
- Hue’s lightstrips run at 24V, hence you need to ensure that any third party controller also runs at this. Some only run at 12V, for example, which may lead to the Hue Lightstrip frequently cutting out or malfunctioning.
- The color matching and transitions won’t be as good as using the official Hue controller. I mentioned this earlier, but Hue made some specific color choices with their own controller that is hard to replicate with third party controllers.
Having said that, as long as you aren’t running different lightstrip controllers in the same room and grouping them together, this probably won’t matter all that much.
Okay, with that said – the Hue lightstrips end with a 6 pin connector (the one at the top comes from the Hue lightstrip):
This is designed to plug seamlesseley into the Hue controller (the bottom device), but there’s no reason why you can’t buy a compatible Zigbee controller and wire this up.
There’s two key points here though:
- The Zigbee controller must also be 6 pin, also sometimes called RGB+CCT. This means that full control of white colors is available. A 5 pin controller (such as an RGB+WW one) will not be compatible.
- The V1-V3 Hue lightstrips use a standard 6-pin adapter, whereas the latest V4 Hue lightstrip uses a micro 6-pin adapter (shown above). As a result, you need to ensure that you buy the correct connectors to go be able to join your Hue Lightstrip to the controller.
Unfortunately there’s almost infinite possibilities here, so I won’t cover this much further. To be honest, if you’re confident with soldering, you just need to ensure that you have some 6-pin wire and a compatible 6-pin (RGB-CCT) Zigbee controller and you’re good to go:
But if you’re not confident with soldering and you can’t find suitable connectors, you may want to look at alternative lightstrips. I cover a range of Zigbee-based lightstrips in another article, and to be honest all options are easier than trying to re-use a Hue Lightstrip off-cut with a third party controller!