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Hive Active Lighting review: Effective and easy to use, but edged out by its rival

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
70
around £70 for a starter kit

A fine lighting system that provides a platform from which to build your smart home, but it's not quite up there with Philips' Hue

Pros 
Effective setup
Easy scheduling and sensory integration
Growing range of white and colour bulbs
Cons 
No physical switches
No native support for third-party bulbs
Hue has the edge on features and ease-of-use
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While there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to smart home hubs and smart light bulbs, two smart lighting systems still stand out above the rest; Philips Hue and Hive. While the former might be the biggest player in the market with a whole range of hubs, bulbs, lights and accessories, Hive’s rival system has its own strengths.

In particular, Hive has appeal for anyone looking to combine a smart lighting system with other smart home products and control from one app. That makes choosing Hive Active Lights a way to dip your toe in the smart home waters, then check out heating and security if you like how it works.

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Hive Active Lighting review: Installation

As with Hue, Hive’s bulbs connect and are controlled through a dedicated hub. Hive actually has two options here: a simple square Hive Hub that connects to your router through an Ethernet connection, or the premium Hub 360, which uses 802.11n WiFi instead and adds noise sensing and recording features.

The Hub 360 looks like a smart speaker but don’t get too excited. While it will listen out for noises like alarms or breaking glass and send a notification to your phone, it doesn’t have any internal speakers or built-in voice control. If you plan to control your lighting with your voice, you’ll still need an Amazon Echo or Google Home device.

Setting up the Hub 360 is relatively easy. You download the iOS or Android app, connect to the Hub via Bluetooth then select your router and input the password to create the more permanent link. You’ll also have to either create a Hive account or log in to one created earlier; it’s a necessity for remote control of your lighting while you’re away.

After that it’s a question of plugging in any Hive bulbs and running the Install Devices routine in the app; bulbs are categorised under Other Hive Devices. Normally, I’d recommend adding bulbs one by one and letting the app locate them but, throwing caution to the wind, I installed two Cool to Warm White tunable bulbs and two Colour Changing bulbs at once and the app surprised me by picking them all up at once. Sadly, this isn’t as common as you might think.

Hive’s bulbs use the ZigBee wireless protocol and so can work directly with an Amazon Echo Plus or Samsung SmartThings Hub, though you may lose colour change or tone change capabilities. To be honest, you wouldn’t be making the most of the lighting without Hive’s own hub but it’s good to know if you’re desperate to move to another system later on.

Hive Active Lighting review: Bulbs and Accessories

Hive can’t match Hue when it comes to sheer product range but it has the basics well covered. Bulbs start at around £17 to £19 for a simple B22 Bayonet or E27 screw white dimmable and rise to around £25 to £27 for tunable Cool to Warm White bulbs. Full RGB colour bulbs cost a little extra at £40 but they’re still cheaper than Philips’ Hue equivalents, which are usually £5 more expensive. And if you need GU10 spotlights or E14 candle bulbs you can have those too, with single bulbs at £14 to £19 and two, three and six packs available.

You don’t get the cool strip lights, table-lamps or mood lighting of the Hue range, and the Hive system seems curiously averse to switches, something many people still prefer to app or voice controls. This is an annoyance, although not necessarily a dealbreaker. You can always turn the lights on or off with the physical switch, and they’ll remember their last-used brightness and colour settings. Of course, any lights you do switch off won’t then work on their usual schedules.

To compensate for the range’s shortcomings, there is a choice of door and motion sensors and, more importantly, you get access to a broader range of smart home kit, including Hive’s smart heating devices, security cameras and leak detectors. This makes it easier to set up routines and programmable “actions” that incorporate lighting, heating and security at once. There’s nothing here you couldn’t do with a more general purpose hub such as an Amazon Echo Plus or Samsung SmartThings hub, but it’s a little easier to do using just the Hive app.

One disappointment is the lack of support for third-party bulbs. Hive supports Hive products, but not bulbs from the likes of Trust or Innr. Hive wins brownie points for now supporting Hue products, however, so that if you have existing Hue kit, it can work within your Hive setup. However, this comes with two big caveats. First, you still need your Hue bridge for them to work – your bulbs won’t work on their own with the Hive system. Second, any Hue rooms or groups you’ve set up don’t appear to come across to Hive. You’ll have to configure them again.

Hive Active Lighting review: App and Controls

Hive’s app has grown slicker and less clunky over the years, adding features while removing unnecessary clutter. You can control lights individually and group them into rooms, although it helps to give them distinctive names so you’re not stuck with trying to remember which is “Dimmable light 1” and “Dimmable light 3”. With a lot of lights, the list gets a bit unwieldy but at least you don’t have to keep hopping from room to room in the app to turn off lights or set routines, as you do when you’re configuring a Hue setup.

All Hive lights can be dimmed up and down but Tunable and Colour bulbs get further adjustments, which you switch between at the tap of a button. The slider control works brilliantly for setting the tone of a Cool to Warm White bulb but isn’t quite so effective when you’re changing colours; it’s tricky to find the right shade and intensity. Hue’s system, with a more conventional colour picker, makes it easier to get the exact right, erm, hue.

There’s also a slightly longer delay between making an adjustment and the bulb changing brightness, tone or colour. It’s not a major annoyance, but Hue’s controls are that little bit snappier.

Otherwise, you can set schedules for your lighting, adding timeslots then setting the status, brightness and tone of the bulb, then copy that schedule across to specific days – handy if you want a different setup for weekdays than weekends. Actions, meanwhile, make it easy to program what happens in response to external events, whether that’s sunset or sunrise (so lights turn on or off automatically) or a motion sensor being tripped (so lights come on when you enter a room).

I tried the latter out with Hive’s motion sensors, and while their range wasn’t fantastic, the bulbs came on every time I entered the field of view. What’s more, the small, battery-powered sensors come with their own sticky pads for easy attachment to a shelf or skirting board.

There are some frustrations with the programming – setting times isn’t particularly intuitive, for example – but the ready-made actions cover a lot of basic requirements and customising these isn’t hard. Scheduling also works flawlessly. I didn’t have a light drop out of the network or fail to come on in a week of testing. I’m also a big fan of Hive’s Mimic setting, which turns lights on or off when you’re away to make it look like you’re at home. You can do this in Hue, but it involves a bit of setup. With Hive, you can turn it on or off with a couple of taps.

Hive Active Lighting review: Voice Assistants

Hive plays nicely with both Google Assistant and Alexa once integrated through the Home and Alexa apps. You can turn individual lights or groups on or off, change brightness values, white tones and even colours, although Alexa seems to have the edge when setting specific colours. Google Assistant was fine setting coloured lights to white, yellow or green, but struggled with blue and red. Neither was of any use at all at turning lights on or off at specific times.

Hive Active Lighting review: Verdict

Hive’s Active Lighting system is maturing nicely, to the point where it’s a credible rival to Hue. All the same, Hue still has the edge on advanced features and overall ease of use, not to mention the availability of honest-to-goodness physical switches and a wider range of different lighting products. The Philips system is also slightly cheaper to get into and, while there’s not much difference in bulb pricing (always the biggest expense), Philips does allow you to use third-party bulbs.

This leaves Hive in a tricky position but with one key strength. If you’re looking to put together a more comprehensive smart home system encompassing heating and security, then Hive Active Lighting gives you a platform to build from and without the limitations of using SmartThings or an Echo Plus. If you’ve already invested in Hive heating, or plan to, Hive Active Lighting is a no-brainer. If not, then Hive is a fine lighting system, if not quite up there with Hue.

Buying options
Starter kit (£70 to £84)Buy now from Amazon
Hive Hub 360 (£86)Buy now from Amazon
B22 Dimmable bulb (£26)Buy now from Amazon
E27 Dimmable bulb (£31)Buy now from Amazon
Colour changing smart bulb (£39)Buy now from Amazon

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