Our homes are getting smarter every year; dishwashers can now figure out what’s wrong, and assist in getting it fixed. Refrigerators can tell you when you’re low on butter or creamer. Light bulbs can also control themselves too.
LED light bulbs (most of today’s ‘smart’ bulbs are LED) are becoming more common because they’re extraordinarily energy efficient; many bulbs can last 30,000 or even 40,000 hours. That’s up to 23 years! That’s good because while smart light bulbs and LEDs will cost you more in the short term, in the long term they’ll mean fewer replacements are needed, and you’ll have a smaller energy bill too.
Smart light bulbs are becoming more popular, because adding connectivity allows you to do things like turn them off or on whenever you want, whether you’re home, or while away. You can even use geo-locating to have light bulbs switch on when you arrive home, or at work, and shut off when you leave. Smart bulbs can be set to slowly come on at your bedside, giving you a gentle wake-up, or slowly softening to black to help you drift off to sleep. Those are just the practical uses; many of these ‘smart’ bulbs also come with fun options too, like colour, which can give the room a nice ambiance for entertaining, or relaxing. Smart bulbs can also give you the option of supplying brighter task or work lighting when you need it, or mimicking a candlelit table when you don’t! Plus, there are holiday applications. I used my LIFX test bulbs to create a bright orange glow in the window on Halloween to give my jack o’lantern some extra kick. At Christmas, I coupled two bulbs together by the Christmas tree in red and green. And at Valentine’s it will make a nice soft warm peachy glow for a romantic dinner.
Smart bulbs have a multitude of uses! For those who might be new to smart homes and smart lighting, let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in setting up smart lights, how they work, how are you can use them to greatest affect, and at some of the key brands.
What is a smart light bulb?
A smart light bulb at the most basic level is a light bulb equipped with a microcomputer and a wireless receiver enabling you to remotely control the bulb using a device. Modern smart light bulbs come equipped with Wi-Fi as their wireless receiver and extra colored diodes to support light color changing. The microcomputer in the smart light bulb is designed to accept and process commands from the remote source.
What can you do with smart light bulbs
The smart light bulb fully takes over the physical power switch connected to the bulb. You want to leave that switch in its “on” state because even when the LEDs aren’t lit, the wireless receiver within the bulb remains active either maintaining a connection to a source like a wireless router or readily available to pair with other devices like a smartphone if the bulb supports Bluetooth.
Other things you can do with a smart light bulb aside from toggling the state depends on the smart bulb’s features. If the bulb has those extra colored diodes, you can use the supporting remote app or smart device to change the color or temperature of a bulb on the fly. Higher-end colored smart bulbs support the entire RGB color spectrum (16,777,216 colors to choose from!) and the controlling app may have extra features such as configurable presets where the bulb can blink, dim or cycle through colors. Some smart light bulbs may have built-in hardware that can store schedules that you can set for automation purposes while others may rely on a smart home device or background mobile app to manage the light scheduling.
Wi-Fi smart bulbs vs Bluetooth – which to choose?
Generally, I would recommend Wi-Fi smart bulbs over Bluetooth smart bulbs because Wi-Fi bulbs are more reliable, serve as superior building blocks to making a fully integrated home automation setup across the entire house, and come with extra features. Wi-Fi as a technology has superior range over Bluetooth enabling you to control the smart bulb from greater distances. The extra benefits of a Wi-Fi smart bulb really come to play if you need to position multiple smart bulbs in different areas of the house and possibly outside the house.
Cheaper Wi-Fi smart bulbs can connect directly to the router making the router a centralized hub for accepting commands from the remote device. Through the remote device’s app, you can manipulate the state of any or all connected smart bulbs with ease. Higher-end smart bulbs connect to a separate router-like piece of hardware called a bridge which uses a different low-power wireless technology to avoid interference with other wireless bands. The bridge then connects to the router so you can control it from any other devices in the wireless network. This arrangement boasts far better reliability than a Bluetooth setup.
Wi-Fi also expands the possibilities in remotely controlling the bulbs. Smart speakers with voice assistants and smart displays primarily connect to the network via Wi-Fi allowing you to operate the bulbs using your voice. Bluetooth smart bulbs will miss out on the fun since pretty much all the modern smart gadgets solely rely on Wi-Fi connections.
You should only consider Bluetooth smart bulbs if you are on a tight budget and don’t have or need a smart home device. The price difference between a Bluetooth smart bulb and a cheap Wi-Fi smart bulb is roughly $10 but those savings can add up if you need to buy a few of them. If you plan on going this route, make sure you at least go for a Bluetooth smart bulb that supports connecting to other bulbs of the same brand. With this feature, you can at least control a small group of bulbs from a single device as long as the device is connected to one of the bulbs in the group. Bluetooth smart bulbs will still have range limitations and obstructions can be an issue so you’ll have to do some extra planning if you want this low-budget setup to work.
Are smart light bulbs worth it?
Once you try a smart light bulb for the first time, I can bet that you will have time hard to time going back because manually controlling a smart light bulb remotely is just scratching the surface. With a little bit of exploring depending on the bulb’s features along with some extra hardware, you can completely automate the bulb’s state depending on conditions you can set yourself! For instance, you can connect a motion sensor to your router and let that sensor serve as a remote trigger to any smart bulbs on the same network.
As to whether that level of convenience is worth it or not depends on how many smart light bulbs you’ll set up. More smart light bulbs translate to higher energy consumption since you need to leave these bulbs on 24/7 to enjoy these automated features at any given time. Modern smart light bulbs are pretty energy-efficient though and often times, going for a more expensive bulb really makes those benefits shine for the long term.
Using IFTTT with smart light bulbs
There’s also a cool concept you can use to control smart lights in ways you never thought possible. It’s possible to use If This Then That technology to get your lights to blink when the doorbell rings, for example, or to turn blue when snow is in the forecast. Click the links to learn more about IFTTT and smart lights. The acronym stands for “IF This Then That”. Simply put it translates to, “IF I do This (your choice of activity), Then That (your selected result) happens automatically. IFTTT (pronounced to rhyme with ‘gift’) is actually a website where you go, create a free user account, and start automating your life.
How to choose smart light bulbs
For the most part you will want to choose one single brand or kit of smart light bulbs. This will ensure your lights can work as a whole home system. That’s not to say you can’t get some smart lights to work with other brands. For example, you can use Google home or Amazon’s Alexa smart digital assistant to create groupings that will control a variety of different brands of smart light. But it is often easier if you can choose one system. Even so, new technologies like Thread, Matter and devices like the Homey smart home hub, are also getting us closer than ever to having desperate smart home gadgets and brands working together in sync.
We’ve reviewed many smart light bulbs here at TechGadgets will take a look at some of the top products and brands.
Best smart light brands
Philips Hue Bulbs
Philips Hue are a Wi-Fi enabled bulb, but these differ in that they require a hub, or what Philips calls its “bridge”, to function. I did a full review of the Hue lighting set up and over the years these are my top pick for smart home lights. Check out my review of Philips Hue’s Starter Kit to see why.
The bridge must be physically connected to your home’s router via an included Ethernet cable, which I found to be an annoying extra step (and something else taking up space on my desk). That said, the use of the bridge appears to allow Philips to make their smart bulbs smaller than the LIFX version. (Phillips has also introduced a simpler Bluetooth-only lighting option in the last couple of years that allows you to forgo the bridge, and these lights will work with the Wi-Fi set up if you do decide to expand later on. Click the link to read about how these differ and what my experience was like with them.)
The Hue kit was easy enough to set up; once the bridge is plugged in, you use the app to set up the system, and then to control your bulbs. I liked the simplicity of the Philips app, which has 2 pages of shortcuts to give you lighting profiles like candle light, ‘underwater’ and ‘hammock’ to name just a few. The Hue, too, will allow you to use an infinite number of colours, in both warm and cool light. Philips also has an online portal which will allow you to access your bulbs from any computer, anywhere. Want to make it look like you’re home? Switch the lights on or off or program them as you wish. No need for those outdated timer boxes.
LIFX Smart Bulbs
These bulbs are pretty good and LIFX has continued to update them over time. While some of the earliest versions were quite massive and would not fit in all lighting fixtures, life X has continued to work on downsizing its technology. Their lightbulbs can be on the large size because they house all of the necessary guts to connect to your home’s Wi-Fi directly inside the bulb. This eliminates the need for an extra hub, Gateway, or bridge.
Generally speaking, LIFX bulbs are easy to use, programmable, and give you a great array of colour options, from warm white, to cool blues, and specialty colours all over the spectrum.
You simply screw in the bulbs, and turn them on. Using the app, connect to wifi and set up the bulbs. Then, the app becomes a remote control for your lights; allowing you to control one at a time, or multiple bulbs all at once. You can dim or brighten the bulbs, or change colour options. Basic white light can be warmed or cooled, depending on the type or colour of light you prefer; my personal preference is for warm white-ish pink light in the house. I find it soothing. If you lose wifi, the bulbs still work, reverting to the last setting you used. That’s one other think I liked about the LIFX bulbs; when you switch them off, and then on again, they’ll still be set to the colour you last used, whereas some other bulbs (Philips Hue, below), resets itself each time you shut it off. You can select an infinite number of colours, both strong and subtle, and the app allows you to dim them too. You can also use the app to build your own favourite colour combinations, and it remembers them for you. And if for some reason the bulbs are reset, they’ll still function as regular white-light LED bulbs.
Take note that these bulbs are not for outdoor use.
Cync by GE
This is another smart lighting set up that four goes the use of a hub or bridge. These lights are what’s called direct connect bulbs, though you can add a home hub for additional functionality such as scheduling. The Cync line has a few helpful lighting options including light bulbs, light strips and an outdoor smart plug that can make dumb outdoor lights smart. Read my review of Cync by GE lighting here.
Ring smart lights
Most people know ring for their video doorbells, but over the last few years Ring has expanded its smart home security system from doorbells and cameras into lighting too. Ring’s smart outdoor lights can work in conjunction with their cameras and doorbells; that means you can set your system up so that if one of your cameras or motion detectors sensors movement, it can turn on all your outdoor connected lights. Very convenient for creating a ring of security around your home. Ring also has both battery powered and solar powered smart light options, as well as hardwired options including things like its Ring wired floodlight cam which I was able to test and review and found to be a very valuable gadget for our back alley.
WiZ smart lights
The WiZ smart home system has been purchased by the same company that owns Philips Hue; Signify. Hopefully that bodes well for its future. Wiz is known as a discount smart lighting brand in some circles and well it offers most of the same features as other smart lighting brands, it operates a little bit differently, and I do find it a little bit buggier than other systems. I installed the WiZ system when I opted for the Liteline Skye connected downlights (pot lights) in my home following a renovation. The hardwired down lights use the Wiz system and Wiz app to connect your lights to the rest of your smart home. You can control it with the wiz app or with other smart home set ups like Google or Alexa.
I later tried and then returned some WiZ Edison bulbs, finding they did not play well with the rest of my system. Since my down s have been permanently installed, and Wiz is the only operating system that runs them, I’m somewhat stuck with this system. I find these lights can be buggy to set up and they tend to disconnect a lot. I have also had two of them (out of 24 installed across the house) simply stop working and require replacement.
Govee smart lights
I am a relative newcomer to this particular brand, but after I got a set of what’s called Govee 3-D Hexa lights to review for Spy.com, I did some research on the brand. It’s enormously popular, particularly thanks to its wide variety of lighting style options and is really popular in gaming and cinema circles. It also has an extremely easy to use app that has a ton of features and options.
Nanoleaf was among the first to branch out into new lighting technologies with their early versions of flat LED lighting panels known as Nanoleaf Aurora. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a chance to get hands-on with any new Nanoleaf technology. When I reviewed a few of their products a few years ago, I found the app and set up buggy though the lighting installation options were extraordinarily unique and beautiful. I’m overdue to get another look at their system and see if changes and improvements have been made to the overall technology. If you have thoughts about their lights I’d love to hear them in comments below.
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