Light Bulbs used to be simple, where they were just cheap white globes you switched on and off by hand. Talk about primitive in 2017.
Now, light bulbs–like nearly every other aspect of our lives–are “smart”. Using super-efficient and long-lasting LEDs, smart bulbs let you customize and control the lighting of your space to a degree not possible even three years ago. Connecting to your phone or smart home hub, smart bulbs change how you think about light and color in the home.
There are more options arriving everyday from a plethora of manufacturers, but we tested several different types from giants like Philips and GE, along with smaller innovators like Ilumi, LIFX, and Nanoleaf.
All of the actual light bulbs we looked at have standard size (usually E26) screw connections. So far, there’s no smart bulb solution for smaller-sized “mini-screw” light fixtures usually found above bathroom mirrors and in ceiling fans. You also need a smartphone or tablet to use these. This involves downloading the bulb’s specific app, creating an account, and getting the phone to talk to the bulb(s). From there, you can set entire schedules, color schemes and brightness levels for individual lights and rooms, and control them all remotely.
Once you pick a brand, you’ll want to stick with it when expanding. None of the lights we tried are compatible with each other. No matter what brand you go with, expect years of life and significant energy savings over regular bulbs–usage estimates range from around 10 years to over 22.
Finally, while just using the app is fine, having a voice-controlled assistant like Amazon’s Alexa-based Echo or Google Home lets you control lighting with your voice. Amazon is well ahead of Google in this respect, with “skills” for almost all brands of smart lights we tested, but Google is rapidly catching up.
No matter who makes them though, there are a few ways to incorporate these products if you’re looking to upgrade your pad’s lighting game.
ADDING SOME COLOR
In the past, having color in a light bulb usually meant a regular light with a red-tinted bulb, or some bad version of a college-esque blacklight. Now, you can switch to a million different colors and shades at will. Smart lights support multi-colored lighting themes, which are especially useful when you have multiple bulbs lighting a room—they will adopt different colors and brightness to evoke a certain mood or theme. The Ilumi smart bulbs, or instance, can even start a light show in sync with your music. Philips’ Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit ($199) might be pricey, but is a complete three-bulb kit with a base unit that connects to your network. The instant reaction time of the Hue bulbs gives it an edge over the Bluetooth-based Ilumi A19 Smartbulb ($49.99 each) and the LIFX Wi-fi LED bulbs (between around $50-$80).
That being said, all three produce amazing colors and light levels ranging from night-light dim to amazingly bright. The impressive default brightness of the LIFX bulbs are almost too bright for comfort, in fact. Also, while the Hue requires a hub, the others connect directly to your phone, so you only have to buy the bulbs. The real problem with any of these lights is that once your discover how amazing it is to have a veritable rainbow of light in your house, you’ll almost certainly want more.
Maybe you aren’t ready for an insane amount of color, or merely want a reliable bright white bulb you can control on the fly. There are bulbs for that too. Philips offers the Hue White Starter kit ($129.99) with two bulbs and the base station. You’ll still get all the functionality of a smart bulb–app controls, scheduling, and other goodies–just none of the color.
To bypass expensive hubs entirely, however, GE has a far cheaper solution in their C-Life/C-Sleep LED combo. For around $40, the C-Sleep bulb can actually change its spectrum of light throughout the day to provide “energetic” light in the morning, softer white light during the day, and a low blue-light setting for evenings. Blue light–not actual visible blue—is something nearly all light sources give off (especially LED lights and screens) and proven to mess with your sleep patterns.
The C-Life bulb is less sophisticated, just giving off a regular dimmable white light that can link up with other C lights.
String lighting used to be hit and miss, frequently barely bright enough for a night light or just used for closets. Both Philips and LIFX, however, take their strip lights seriously. Capable of absurd levels of brightness and millions of colors, the Philips Hue Lightstrip Plus ($89.99) and LIFX Z Wi-fi LED Light Strip Starter Kit ($89.99) can serve endless purposes. From accenting art features to lighting stairways and closets, these are the strips to get when you need to show something off or reliably illuminate hard to light spaces.
Both are six and half feet long, but the Hue strip requires (as with all Hue lights) the Hue hub to let it talk to your phone, other Hue lights, and Alexa. The LIFX just connects to the app.
Floodlights traditionally have been more about security than aesthetics, but that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. For around $70, both Ilumi and LIFX offer bulbs that can replace boring security lights and make them something versatile and fun. Both offer the equivalent of a regular 75 watt bulb, so brightness isn’t a problem.
Certain models of the LIFX bulbs (both indoor and out) even have the ability to radiate infrared light, which is barely visible to the human eye, but actually allows security cameras with night vision to see better. The ability to have complete control over your outdoor lights is already highly appealing, but both lights offer the same range of colors as their indoor brethren. Easily set the mood of your next outdoor party with the perfect colors and impress (or annoy) all your neighbors.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Rounding things out, there are a couple smart light products that defy easy categorization. I instantly fell in love with Philip’s Hue Go ($79.99), a portable half globe of light that can be plugged in or be used on the go. It’s not a flashlight and certainly isn’t meant for heavy duty use (it’s not waterproof and the battery lasts about three hours), but proved fun and useful. With all the colors of the standard Hue and built in lighting themes that don’t require the hub to use, it’s a perfect spot mood light, desk lamp, or vivid wireless lamp when a flashlight just won’t do.
Nanoleaf’s Aurora ($199.99) is a do-it-yourself art installation, where you connect the nine included light-up 10-inch white triangles together in whatever pattern you like. Through the app, you can control the individual panels’ colors and effects. It even supports voice control. While the panels can get pretty bright, they aren’t meant to light up a room, just your fire up your sense of personal style. It’s a rather costly art project, but has a distinctive appeal and is absurdly fun to play with.