Smart light bulbs and the technology to control them are available from a fast growing range of makers and brands, with a confusing array of hubs, bulbs and applications. Our guide should help anyone understand what’s on the market and which is the best product for them.
Smart lighting started out simply adding remote control features to standard LED bulbs. This quickly evolved with technology developments adding colorful displays, scheduling and themes for different rooms.
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Choosing what to buy
The first generations of bulbs were wildly different in terms of performance, with some being a lot brighter, others offering visibly wider choice of colors and so on. However, the market is maturing fast and a second generation of bulbs see a closer level of performance from the leading brands.
From budget, color accuracy, ease of installation, ability to work with other ecosystems’ products and lighting flexibility, there are a range of criteria that you might want to apply before spending your lighting budget on a
Leader of the Pack – Philips Hue
Philips set out to conquer the smart lighting market for itself, and a few missteps aside is the clear market leader, both in terms of quality and ecosystem.
With a recently launched set of second generation bulbs (LINK) to improve the quality of its lights, plus the addition of smaller bulbs (LINK) it dominates the landscape and provides wide compatibility.
Hue bulbs require a Hue Bridge to work, with the second generation of these supporting bulbs from other manufacturers, after a firmware update.
It also supports voice control with Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo (link to full review) As well as bulbs that fit into regular light fittings, Philips also offers table lamps and lighting strips for different types of lighting experience and ambiance. Products come with a two-year guarantee against failure to encourage adoption.
Pros – Hue lights are fast to respond to app controls or voice commands, and the lights are bright and consistent
Cons – The most expensive solution and bulbs on the market
For those who just want bulbs – LIFX
LIFX’s range of LED bulbs do away with the hub concept and communicate directly with your WiFI router to reduce some of the initial buying cost. There’s a resulting loss in overall smartness but it is slowly catching up with others. It does work with Alexa via the LIFX cloud account.
The company offers a range of color and white bulbs for different rooms, with the White 800 or 900 models and Color 1000 edition available in two types, along with various bundles.
The original LIFX bulbs were pretty large but recent editions, but recent bulbs are smaller and now offer smarter features thanks to IFTTT support, working with Nest Cam to dim bulbs when there is no one around, of flashing if a Nest Protect smoke alarm goes off.
LIFX bulbs are available in screw or bayonet caps with a CAN type for larger light fittings.
The LIFX app is regularly updated with features and recent updates have added scenes and themes, geofencing to turn the lights on as you come and go, and Samsung SmartThings support. The maker promises a lifespan of 22 years for a bulb run for three hours a day.
Pros – Supports iOS, Android and Windows 10, which few lights do
Cons – Costly and reliant on your WiFi being up
Soft and Simple – GE C Bulbs
Reducing the level of communication between bulb and controller even further, GE’s C range of smart bulbs, the C-Life and C-Sleep can be controlled only by your smartphone over a Bluetooth data connection, so you have to be within a few meters to trigger them. However, if you’re basically living in a few rooms, that won’t be a problem.
A four pack (for the latest prices and discounts, check here) and the free iOS or Android app will have users up and running in no time. You can control the brightness with the Life light for most rooms and the cooler Sleep light for the bedroom to induce a sense of calm before sleep. Brightness can be set to a theme or schedule and left to run, to wake people up or ease them to sleep.
Pros – A low cost solution with lifestyle benefits
Cons – None of the thrills or color of some types
Trying too hard – SYLVANIA Lightify
Apart from having the oddest name on the market, and some of the more complex setup procedures for what should be the simple act of turning on a light, Lightify is an effort to shake up smart lights. It comes with its own Zigbee gateway, and the range comes with three types of bulbs, white, color, and soft white.
A single bulb starter kit with the gateway gets you the range of bulbs. Once past the complex set up, a range of presets such as relax and active mode can help you get going or chill out, there’s even a plant mode to encourage your horticulture! The system can support up to 50 bulbs with themes, and can be set remotely via an iOS or Android app.
Pros – A good way to start your home lighting system without spending a fortune
Cons – Horrible set up procedure for anyone non-technical
Going cheap – Belkin WeMo
Belkin aimed to compete with Philips, with a full raft of controlling devices and bulbs. It used a WeMo hub with WiFi as the controller, However, as the range is discontinued, we suggest you don’t invest in this ecosystem or bulbs, as they will gradually fade from the market.
However, as the bulbs are still out there, and could last for 20 years, this could make a bargain investment if you find them on the clearance shelves. You can find a starter kit if you shop around.
Pros – Cheaply where available, easy to install and use
Cons – Discontinued and likely to vanish soon
The Chinese Option – Various
Check online and there are endless rows of $15 bulbs that work with a smartphone app. Many of them have brand names you’ve never heard of and the apps look decidedly low rent, and event the product descriptions lack any detail.
However, as with any technology, what starts out as cheap and nasty soon becomes a solid low-cost product.
Recent examples include SunLabz, with the company’s Bluetooth LED white and color bulbs hitting the market soon. Shop around, find a brand name or product that offers reasonable value and you might save plenty of money if you only need a simple smart light solution.
Comparison Table – At a Glance
There are now dozens of smart home lighting solutions available, with the market being swamped by cheap generic lights from endless Chinese brands along with the leading lights. Sticking to a known brand provides both a guarantee worth the name and is more likely to provide long term support and improvements.
The cheaper lights rely on very mass production levels and lower quality control to get their products on the market at those tempting cheap prices. However, judging by user reviews, they seem to suffer from very high failure rates, slow response and poor app quality. For those reasons, we’d recommend sticking with a known brand to build out any serious smart home system. If you want to try just one bulb to see if you like the idea of the technology, then find the lowest cost bulbs you can.
Wide Compatibility and Product Selection: Of those covered here, Philips Hue and LIFX are the most popular names in smart lighting. They offer the widest range of bulbs and have the fullest solutions, functional apps and compatibility. LIFX’s WiFi driven solution is ideal for those without the need for a smart home hub.
Basic and User Friendly: If you don’t need that level of smartness, then the GE C offering could be perfect for low-end or smaller properties. They provide great mood lighting with the minimum of fuss and technical knowledge.
Good for Tech Experts: Finally, Lightify provides a great solution for the technically confident or those with an existing Zigbee smart home network.