Philips has managed to create a compelling selection of smart lighting products with its Hue lineup. But the Hue Sync is perhaps one of the most dynamic offerings the company has launched to date.
Changing the colour of your lights in any given room is one way to add ambience. And for that reason, I've always liked the concept and execution of Hue lights. Yet I find myself surprised that it's third-party companies, not Philips itself, that make Hue lights even more dynamic. You can create Routines or Scenes in Amazon Alexa, or through mobile apps like Ambee and OnSwitch. But there has been a need to see more from Philips.
Enter Sync, a desktop application for Windows and macOS, that can sync Hue lights with the audio or video currently playing on a computer or TV screen. When playing a video game or watching a movie, for example, the lights can react to what's happening on screen, changing colours and intensities in real-time.
It's a fascinating prospect that's supposed to add a more immersive experience to desktop gaming and certain home theatre situations. It falls under Philips' Hue Entertainment umbrella. But while Sync launched earlier last year, it feels like there's a lot of room to improve.
Part of that is because of the intricacies involved in how it works. Sync only runs through a computer, which will be disconcerting to anyone who doesn't use one, including the growing list of households that rely solely on tablets at home and leave the laptops and desktops at the office.
The desktop running Sync is the source device in this scenario. The TV needs to pull in a signal from the computer, which can be a direct wired setup via HDMI or wireless through devices like the Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Nvidia Shield. This type of setup requires some workarounds, depending on what you're playing.
Then, there's the fact that you need at least two Hue lights to make this worth trying. Ideally, these would be positioned near the TV, either right below or behind it, reflecting off a wall. It's even better if you have rear lights, too, but that's not a requirement.
In my case, I had two floor lamps (with Hue bulbs) behind my couch, a Hue Play bar behind the TV, and Hue Go portable lamp facing the wall below the TV. I first had to set them up as a unified area in the Hue mobile app on iOS (or Android) so the desktop Sync app could see them. The Hue mobile app and Sync are mutually exclusive.
The only way for Sync to work is to communicate with lights set up together as a specific area - it's not random. Making changes to an area has to go through the mobile app first for Sync to recognize them on the desktop. Moreover, Sync is specific to the device it's installed on, meaning it will work alongside content playing on the computer it's running on. You could theoretically sync it with content playing on a TV screen...but only if the content is being streamed from the computer, or the screen is physically connected to the computer.
For gaming as well, you'd have to either be playing a computer game, or streaming gaming to a PC or Mac. The setup would be far more interesting if it applied to the living room in a wider variety of ways, which I'll touch on later.
Once set up, I could choose between scenes, games, music, and video, along with the effect's intensity, be it subtle, moderate, high, or intense. The scenes are different from those offered in the mobile app, reflecting more light movement and dynamism, but the real purpose with games, music, and movies is to match what's happening onscreen. When Sync works, it is pretty engrossing, even if it takes some tinkering to find the right mix of intensity and timing. When I got it working by mirroring my Chrome browser, I got an idea of how good it could be. I found it much better when using my desktop computer alone, except the lights weren't in the same room. I just observed the lights reacting to things happening onscreen during testing.
Unfortunately, under its current iteration, Sync requires too much tinkering to see the effect on the bigger screen. This is ironic since it's in these such cases where it might be more compelling, especially for gamers, or those looking for a fun and immersive experience while watching movies and shows with a lot of action or interesting colours, like fire, underwater and greenery scenes, for instance.
Certain methods are handcuffed from the start, like how Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Crave, and similar services work best when the computer screen is mirrored to the TV. For example, when I launched any one of those services and casted over to the TV, I had to mirror the browser over to the Chromecast, not push the content over to only play on the TV.
Doing that comes with a resolution drop because that setup doesn't always assure a 1080p HD stream. Moreover, if you have an older computer and you're doing this with a 4K TV, the content won't fill the latter's screen, either. Using an Apple TV, especially with a newer iMac (like the 5K model, for instance), you may get better results. For those gaming on the Nvidia Shield on top of all the other entertainment content on there, the lack of gaming integration with GeForce Now and Hue Sync is disappointing.
Protected content won't work unless there's an agreement in place, which explains why pushing the streaming content over from a browser or mobile app won't work. Using Plex, a robust media streaming platform for locally stored media files (though networked storage also works), there is the option to do the same mirroring setup noted earlier. This way, at least you can get both streaming and local media on the same computer to work with Sync.
This forced my hand in a number of ways. I don't have an Apple TV, so that was out, and Chromecast was limited to what I could play in a Chrome browser. I tried a strange, albeit fairly interesting, route through a mobile app called Hue Camera. By pointing a phone's camera at my TV, I could have my Hue lights change colour to reflect what was on screen. I'm wary of recommending it for the very reason that it costs $5.49 and the developer hasn't updated it in nine months.
Hue TV is another option, with more regular updates, and it's a bit cheaper at $3.99. The concept is the same; point your phone's camera at the TV while running the app, and the lights change. One caveat is that the phone must stay on that app at all times, so if you're using it for a show or movie, plug it in to charge - and refrain from texts or calls. Here's where an older phone or tablet you no longer use might come in handy if you want to experience this effect.
Not to mention interesting (though expensive) alternatives like Lightberry and DreamScreen, both of which are entire replacements with their own LED lights. So, where does Sync fit in? Well, it doesn't. These third-party options cut it out completely, since Sync isn't compatible with them anyway. third-party options that Sync didn't work with, and settling for passive lighting that, while nice, wasn't exactly what the feature is meant to do. Despite its potential, Sync is far too limiting to truly enjoy in a home theatre situation.
To move the needle forward, Philips has to strike deals with other hardware manufacturers, especially streaming boxes and game consoles. Once Sync integrates with those, the content issues become far less complicated.
Despite it being more of a tease for non-PC gamers, one saving grace is that Sync is free to download and use, so you're not committing beyond your own time to try it out. It could be worth experimenting with, especially if you have a