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Philips Hue Festavia: We Test Smart Home Lights Ahead of the Holidays

These string lights add voice control, effects and light-sync features to your Christmas tree, and sync seamlessly with other Philips Hue products.

Philips Hue, the Dutch giant's smart lighting brand, is celebrating the festive season with its new Festavia string lights, a kind of holiday-specific smart lighting. This strand of 250 LED lights can glow individually to create scenes, gradients and dynamic effects for your Christmas tree and more.

To see the Festavia lights in action and hear my full review, watch the video at the top of this article. For the abridged version, keep reading.

Read moreThe Philips Hue Starter Kit Will Make Your Holidays Brighter (and Smarter)

What's in the box

The Festavia string lights come in one length, 65 feet. The cord has two large power bricks that connect together using a similar cable to Hue's outdoor fixtures, but these are not cleared for outdoor use. 

One set of lights was more than long enough to cover my 6-foot tree. You should be able to comfortably cover a tree that's another foot or two taller than mine. When hanging these you need to start from the bottom and leave just enough for the top. You don't want to have too much extra when you reach the top, because you can't wrap the lights going the other direction or it will interfere with the strip's gradient effect. 

gradient

You can create a gradient using up to three colors on the Hue app's color wheel.

Bobby Oliver/CNET

Philips Hue Dynamic scenes and effects

There are three preinstalled effects in the Hue app -- Candle, Fireplace and Sparkle, the latter designed specifically for the string lights. Each of these creates a comforting effect throughout the string light that looks fantastic. However, you can't adjust the speed or color of these effects.

effects

There are three preinstalled effects: Candle, Fireplace and Sparkle.

Bobby Oliver/CNET

You can also create custom "scenes" using the Hue color wheel and select from a few different styles. There's Linear, which creates a gradient using three colors from top to bottom; Mirrored, which uses three colors to create gradients from both the top and bottom that meet in the center; and Scattered, where you choose up to five colors that scatter around the tree. 

Once you create scenes, you can elevate them using Dynamic scenes that cycle the lights through set colors. You can adjust the speed and set Dynamic scenes to play automatically when a scene is activated.

While these effects look great, they do feel limited compared to Twinkly, a competitor that sells string lights that offer a better mix of effects and customization features. I'll get into more detail on Twinkly in a bit.

You can sync Hue lights to music and movies

All Philips Hue lights can sync to music using Spotify, which is engrained right in the Hue app. The string lights look great glowing in rhythm with music, but there are only six color schemes to choose from -- and you can't create your own. I wish I could set certain colors to match themed holidays and events -- and this goes for all my Philips Hue lights.

spotify

The string lights can sync to music on Spotify using the sync tab on the Hue app.

Bobby Oliver/CNET

You can also sync Hue lights to content on a TV using the Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box. This device acts as a conduit between your gaming consoles and streaming devices and your TV to sync Hue lights to video content. It's been fun to match the tree to videos on the TV, but I think I prefer the tree lights static while I watch certain shows and movies.

Twinkly lights have more effects and customization

Overall, I'm really happy with the Philips Hue string lights after playing with them for a couple weeks. If you already have Philips Hue products, these will work seamlessly with your smart home setup.

I would be remiss not to bring up Twinkly, which has been selling smart Christmas lights for a few years now. Its string lights come in a bunch of shapes and sizes, and you can link multiple together to get a full coat of lights that work together to create a large amount of effects. Philips Hue's Festavia lights can link together in a room or zone, but it is more limited than Twinkly.

The biggest advantage to Twinkly is that its string lights are weatherproof. You can also sync the lights to music using its on-board module that listens to sound in the room. That's different to Hue, which relies on Spotify integration.

For Hue to become a true contender here, it needs to add more preinstalled effects in its app and not rely on the appeal of linking with the Hue ecosystem, which I'll admit is very nice. But if you've already bought Hue stuff and you're looking to expand your setup for the holidays, these lights might be worth a look.