Sep 29, 2023

Philips Hue Festavia string lights review: Pricey but great for Hue users

By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy, a smart home reviewer who's been testing connected gadgets since 2013. Previously a writer for Wirecutter, Wired, and BBC Science Focus.

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You don't need smart, color-changing holiday lights. A smart plug and a couple packs of $20 string lights can do some of what the $160 Philips Hue Festavia string lights do. But, after spending a week with Hue's new color-changing smart lights, I think you might want a set to decorate your Christmas tree (or other winter holiday focal point) with this season.

Hue's first stab at smart holiday lights is a success. The Festavia are fully-featured smart lights, boasting 16 million colors and tunable white light, for only $10 more than the closest competition: Twinkly's $150 white and color string lights.

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Like the Twinkly strings, the Hue Festavia lights are expensive because each LED is individually addressable, which allows for some impressive lighting effects. The gradient feature and tunable white light are things you won't find on cheaper string lights and make the Festavia useful as year-round accent lighting outside of the holiday season.

Of course, you’re paying for the Hue ecosystem too, which — while expensive — is one of my favorite smart lighting platforms, thanks to its ease of use, reliability, and interoperability.

Along with standard smart lighting features — scheduling, voice control, dimming —Festavia string lights can display up to five different colors at once. Plus, with Hue's pre-set lighting scenes, you can go from a jolly green, red, and gold glow to a sophisticated, icy sparkling scene with the touch of a button or a voice command.

Other effects include flickering like candlelight, sparkling like stars, and flowing dynamically through colors and tone. As someone who lives in a neighborhood where people spend hundreds of dollars on crazy yard inflatables, I know where I’d rather put my overblown decorating budget.

The Festavia string lights consist of 250 mini LED lights along a 66-foot black cable (no option of green, which is a shame). The string feels sturdy and durable and is super lightweight, unlike my existing LED tree lights, which have thick cables that weigh down the branches. They are rated for indoor use only, and the LEDs aren't replaceable but are longer lasting than more traditional string light bulbs.

If you like your tree really full of lights, you’ll need to double up

The Festavia comes rolled around a sturdy cardboard reel, which will be handy for storage and makes it easy to unroll. A 5-foot-9-inch power cord gave me plenty of reach from the power outlet, and the whole string just about covered the 7-foot tree I was testing it on. Each individual LED is flat-topped to give off a softer, less pinpoint light than the typical tree bulbs, and they’re located 3.15 inches apart. If you like your tree really full of lights, you’ll need to double up.

Unfortunately, you can't connect two sets of Festavia lights. If you have a larger tree, the longer power cord should make it possible to add the second string halfway up the tree and then control them simultaneously in the app, though I couldn't test this.

The Hue app comes with six pre-set dynamic "winter holiday" lighting scenes, and when I set up a Christmas Zone in the app, it suggested six additional scenes "perfect for Christmas." You can also use any of Hue's dozens of other scenes.

The dynamic scenes cycle through their colors and brightness to create a subtle lighting effect. It's very subtle by default, changing almost imperceptibly. You can speed up the changes, and at the fastest level, it's much more obvious without being flashy.

Winter Beauty was my favorite. It's a lovely mix of golds and greens, classy yet festive. I also made my own scene by importing a photo of my godson standing with a colorful red, yellow, and blue umbrella on a green lawn. The app then created a bright red, yellow, blue, and green scene, and it was nice to look at the tree and be reminded of him.

You can edit any scene and change it to one of three styles: Gradient / linear lets you choose up to three colors going from top to bottom. Mirrored is like linear but, well, mirrored, and Scattered scatters up to five colors at random along the string, like a traditional multicolored string light.

There are some preset effects, Candle, Sparkle, and Fireplace, and you can sync the lights to music using the built-in Spotify integration or through SmartThings using Galaxy phones. But Hue doesn't offer any of the more dramatic, light show-style effects that Twinkly offers.

The Festavia lights can work over Zigbee through the Hue Bridge or over Bluetooth to your phone (Twinkly is Wi-Fi based). You don't have to have a Hue Bridge, but adding the $60 Bridge gives you remote access, automations, the ability to customize colors and scenes, and music sync. You also need a Bridge for integration with Apple Home, and the Bridge adds a more robust and long-range Zigbee mesh connection, as opposed to the short range of Bluetooth.

Like any Hue light, setup is simple. Just plug it in, and the app will find it automatically. You can then add it to a digital "room" and to a zone, too, if you want. Zones are ways of grouping lights other than by what room they’re in. They are useful for controlling just the upstairs lights, for example. I created a Christmas Zone for all the Hue lights in my home that I wanted to be part of my holiday decor.

Where Festavia outshines Twinkly, especially for year-round use, is in Hue's extensive lighting ecosystem. While Twinkly has many different types of decorative lights, it doesn't have traditional bulbs and fixtures, as Hue does — for both indoors and out.

Where Festavia outshines Twinkly is in Hue's extensive ecosystem

For example, in my dining room (where the tree is), I have Hue lights in table lamps and in overhead lighting, as well as two Hue Play bars that I put under the tree. I can apply any scene to all these lights at once and have the whole room change color to complement the Festavia lights on the tree.

This creates an impressive lighting design that extends beyond just the tree to feel more immersive. Of course, it requires a substantial investment in Hue lights to achieve, which is why Festavia is only worth considering if you are already all in on Hue.

I also set up a Hue Tap Dial Switch to cycle through several of my favorite scenes and put the remote near the tree so anyone could easily play with the lighting effects. You can do this with a Hue Dimmer Switch as well. Finally, I paired all the lights in the dining room with a Hue Motion Sensor to have the whole room light up, along with the tree, when anyone walks in.

If you want the fanciest holiday light show on the block, Twinkly is probably a better option. Twinkly string lights have more impressive lighting effects, whereas Hue's are more subtle and sophisticated.

Twinkly also has less expensive string light options, including a color-only option with no tunable white for $125 for 250 LEDs. Plus, many more types of decorative lights, from icicles to light curtains to strings with larger bulbs. Twinkly works indoors or out and has a bigger range of lengths (up to 600 LEDs). There's also the choice of a green wire as well as black.

Both Twinkly and Hue work with Apple Home, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home, so you could make the Twinkly lights "work" with your Hue lights — but the effects wouldn't translate, just the basic on and off and dimming controls.

If you already have a Hue Bridge and are looking for a way to add your Christmas tree or another holiday focal point into your smart lighting setup, the Festavia lights will be a great addition.

However, as of publication, the Festavia lights are sold out. Signify, which owns Philips Hue, tells us they are working on getting more inventory. But if you want your tree to sparkle this season, you can still grab some Twinkly lights on sale.

Photos and video by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

Bringing connected devices into your home also brings with it concerns about how the data they collect is protected. The Verge asks each company whose smart home products we review about safeguards it has in place for your data.

To use the Festavia string lights you need to sign up for a Hue account, or you can choose a third-party sign-in option. With either route, Hue gets your email address and account name, and if you sign up directly, they know your full name, password, country, and language.

Hue's privacy policy states that its products collect data on location, device information, and information about your product use. Location data remains in the device and in the Hue Bridge. Any data collected by Signify is used for product improvement, development, personalization, and marketing. Signify says it only shares data when required by law or with user permission and that it protects user data with appropriate technical methods. It also claims to only keep data until its purpose has been fulfilled or unless legally required to keep it longer.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It's impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit "agree" to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don't read and definitely can't negotiate.

To use the Philips Hue Festavia string lights, you must have the standard Hue app installed on your phone (iOS or Android). The Hue app requires access to:

It also includes agreeing to Philips Hue's Terms and Conditions and privacy policy, both mandatory. A Philips Hue account is necessary for any remote, out-of-home control.

The total count is two mandatory permissions and two mandatory agreements.

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