Nowadays, there seems to be a trend of everything ‘smart’. As a result, our homes are going through a complete makeover with the introduction of smartphones, smart TVs, smartwatches, smart appliances, and now smart lighting. However, figuring everything out about smart lighting is a very daunting task since a lot of factors need to be taken into consideration before taking this huge leap of faith. We have therefore written a buyer’s guide for easing this task of endless comparison and evaluation for you.
How smart lighting works:
Depending on the make and model of your choice, smart lighting can work through various methods. Some lights are as simple to set up as connecting to your phone via Bluetooth while others are sophisticated networks of communication managed through a separate hub. The most common medium of communication for smart lights in 2018 is a communication protocol named ZigBee, which uses your WiFi connection to enable these systems to work together. Of course, there are numerous variations but the general working mechanism for most of these smart lights is the same. The experience is where the manufacturers are able to distinguish themselves. Since each of the lights work in a slightly different manner, we will explain each one differently for you.
Costs of smart lighting:
Smart lighting is not cheap by any means when we compare it to traditional lighting. However, if you are switching from fluorescent or incandescent lighting, you will notice electricity savings in the long run since smart lights use LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology which not only uses lower energy to produce the same amount of light, but is also better for environment since it does not contain harmful mercury like fluorescent bulbs and last way longer, with average lifespan extending to 23 years for one unit. In terms of setup costs you will pay a large fixed cost up front, but in the long run it may prove to be beneficial for you. In the lifespan of a single LED bulb therefore, you will have replaced three fluorescent and 20 incandescent bulbs.
Here is a comparison of the electricity bill expenditure for each of the bulbs, at an average of 12 cents per Kilowatt-hour in US, for bulbs producing equivalent light, of powers of 60 watt for incandescent, 14 watt for fluorescent, and 10 watt for LED respectively if the bulbs are used for 10 hours per day.
Benefits of LED bulbs:
In terms of cost savings, there is not much of a difference when we compare LED lighting to fluorescent lighting, and when we factor in the costs of LED smart lighting, we may end up paying even more and offset the energy savings. But there are several other benefits that you might consider before making the switch:
- LED lights last way longer, with the average lifespan extending to 25,000 hours as compared to 8,000 hours for fluorescent lamps and 1,200 hours for incandescent lamps.
- LED lights are more environmental friendly, since they neither use the toxic heavy metals found in fluorescent lights nor produce as much heat as incandescent lights.
- LED lights are much more suitable for cold temperatures, where the fluorescent lighting has to warm up before reaching its maximum output.
- LED lights can be used with a dimmer switch, which can help adjust the brightness level according to your preference and scenario.
- Smart LED lights can additionally change warmth and hue according to the time of the day to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). You can sleep to warmer light and wake up to cooler light.
- Smart LED lights can also change colors according to your mood, or sync with movies or songs in some cases. Also, they can be great for parties!
- Smart LED lights can automate and ease your life. With the help of motion or geo tracking, the lights can automatically switch on or off, or change colors according to different scenarios. The possibilities are limitless.
We are hopeful that you are convinced and excited of the prospect of buying and testing smart lights yourself, so let’s get started with the products!
1. Phillips Hue – Hue’s the best?
If there was one unequivocal winner at the game of smart lighting, it would definitely be Phillips. With their Hue lighting system, Phillips has managed to produce an ecosystem of products that work in a seamless rhythm and flow between each other. While the experience is nothing but the best, the quality of lights we have come to expect from Phillips shines through every product in their lineup. It is now possible to construct fully automated homes with autonomous lighting thanks to this product.
The Phillips Hue smart lighting system is controlled by a hub called ‘Hue bridge’. The Hue bridge is a small device that connects to your internet via an Ethernet cable and a power source. Once you have connected these two wires, you can pair it with the Hue app on your smartphone (IOS or Android) and control up to 50 different Hue devices! It uses your internet connection to communicate with all of your lights using the ZigBee protocol which is fast and very accurate. The three lights on the hub are for Wi-Fi connection status, power status, and communication status. The hub is rated at 1.5 watts and can he mounted over a wall mount. Over the years, Phillips has greatly improved on the response times to the point where the lights switch on about instantly. The Hue is also fully compatible with Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa, so you can even direct and control your lighting by mere voice commands!
In addition to this, you now have the option to control your hue bulbs independently with the ‘dimmer switch’ which does not require you to use a hub anymore. Each switch can control up to 10 separate Hue lights once you assign them via the smartphone app. The switch is operated via replaceable batteries and can be attached to your wall via the adhesive tape on back, to any metallic surface via magnets, or mounted on walls via screws.
Third Generation E26 Light Bulbs:
As of 2018, the standard E26 Phillips hue light bulbs are in their third generation. Chances are, these will be the ones you will be installing in your home since they emit a light of respectable 800 Lumens which is equivalent to the average 14-watt fluorescent bulbs. A pro buyer’s tip is to make sure the package has ‘richer colors’ written, which is the only way to differentiate the older generation bulbs from the new ones. If you are not buying through amazon, the retailer might have older stock. In this generation, Phillips has not only made the bulbs cheaper, but also more responsive and brighter.
When you decide to purchase these bulbs, Phillips has given you three options to choose from. The table below provides a comparison between the three options:
Philips Hue Go:
If you are not ready to commit to the Philips Hue smart lighting system yet, you can try one of their standalone products: Hue Go. The reason we decided to review this amongst dozens of other Hue products is because this is a really, really cool smart light. The bowl shaped, round polycarbonate body is appealing yet minimalist. The best part about this smart light is its ability to operate on the in-built battery without power input. This means that it can be a really handy tool for parties when you want to place this light anywhere you want to. Although the 3 hour of advertised battery life is nowhere near impressive, this is the best you get in autonomous smart lighting.
When you just want to use it as an ordinary light, you can plug it in any wall socket. Without the Hue app, you can cycle between colors by pressing the button on the back. However, in order to take advantage of the full 16 Million colors, and use it with home automation, cool effects, and full features, you will eventually need a hub.
To get started, you can buy one of the starter kits listed below:
- Hue white starter kit E26: includes the Hue bridge, and 4x Hue white bulbs that emit a warm light of 2700 K. The bulbs are dimmable. (also available in a 2 pack)
- Hue white ambience starter kit E26: includes the Hue bridge, and 4x Hue white ambience bulbs that can emit lights of color temperatures 2200 – 6500 K. The bulbs are dimmable and their color temperature can be changed.
- Hue white color and ambience starter kit E26: includes the Hue bridge, and 4x Hue white and ambience color bulbs that can emit white and colored light. The bulbs are dimmable, and their temperature and color can also be changed.
- Hue white wireless dimming recipe kit E26: includes the Dimmer switch, and 1x Hue white bulb that emits a warm light of 2700k. The bulb is dimmable.
- Hue white ambience light recipe kit E26: includes the Dimmer switch, and 1x Hue white ambience bulb that can emit a light of color temperatures 2200 – 6500 K. The bulb is dimmable and color temperature can also be changed.
Design and Build:
For many, the design and build quality of every product matters, even if it is a light bulb that remains hidden under a lamp in many cases. We are pleased to announce that the experience of using the Philips Hue smart lighting has been nothing short of impressive. The design of the third generation E26 A19 lamps is very impressive and unique, with a flat top and curved, seamless body. Of course, the materials are not fancy and the build is of glossy plastic, but the bulbs feels really sturdy and we have Phillips’ 125 year experience in lighting to thank for. The life is rated at an impressive 25 years, provided that the bulb is used for 3 hours a day.
Experience and App:
Perhaps the biggest reason why Philips Hue is sitting at the top of our list is the experience it provides. This is by far the most flawless smart lighting experience we have tested. Back when it was introduced in 2012, the experience was very basic at best, but with the Hue 2.0 app on Apple Store and Google Play Store the experience has become really polished. While it may not be the easiest to use or intuitive interface, it promises the best of features and future proofing. In addition to the Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Homekit integration, the Hue smart lighting is also compatible with IFTT (If This, Then That). This means that you can program it to do thousands of functions using very simple commands. When you want to sync your music or movies with your lighting, just install a third party app into your Hue system and you are ready to go. The Hue bridge and the whole Hue lineup provides the users a great experience and a wide choice to configure their homes the way they want. Also, in the recent years we have seen the Hue system expand and get better, which means that Philips really is serious about smart lighting and will continue to make it one of the best experiences.
The Hue Application is smooth, responsive, and feature packed. We are yet to be disappointed, although it is not the most intuitive one to use. For example, the experience is more tailored towards a smart home experience, with multiple Hue lights. When we used other applications, we felt that they were much easier to navigate.
The Phillips Hue system is for people that are serious about smart lighting. Not only does the costs reflect this, but also the app interface. It is the most secure option if you plan on switching your whole home to smart lighting because the product lineup just keeps on increasing. The ability to control 50 lights simultaneously through the Hue Bridge is also really impressive for those looking for future ease of use. Not every smart lighting system is designed with the future in mind, and Philips Hue is more of a complete system than a quick fix. Therefore, we do not recommend it for someone that just wants a quick test of the world of smart lighting. For those looking for a serious smart lighting system, the Philips Hue is simply the best.
2. LIFX – the Apple of Smart Lighting
We do not exaggerate when we call the LIFX smart lighting system the Apple of smart lighting; it is simple, fast, and effective. LIFX is a startup company that has really figured out the smart lighting game. The California based startup launched its first product in 2012 on Kickstarter. Like Apple, they have few products, excellent marketing, great designs, exciting packaging, and exorbitant pricing. However, when we start comparing it with the Philips Hue smart lighting system, things start to get interesting.
Nothing beats the connectivity of the LIFX bulbs. This solution is so uniquely easy and intuitive to use, that it is truly a hassle free experience. You just have to plug in your LIFX device into a wall outlet or bulb holder and connect to it via your smartphone’s WiFi search option. Once you connect, you can control multiple bulbs from the app seamlessly. The process is really quick, and when we compare it with the Philips Hue, you do not need to use a bridge. Therefore, you avoid the up-front costs of buying the bridge and also save space and annoying cable management.
Do not expect it to be any better than the Philips Hue, though. This is because there are some disadvantages to this system as well. Because the smart lighting system depends on your wireless router, in case it goes down you are out of luck. Not only this, you cannot control these bulbs in case there is a problem with WiFi or wireless system unlike Philips Hue which has the dimmer switch in case you do not want to use the app.
Third Generation A19 Bulbs:
As of 2018, the LIFX A19 bulbs are in their third generation. It seems like there is a race between Philips Hue and LIFX and sooner than later, they are able to catch up in terms of features. The A19 bulbs perform better than the Philips Hue bulbs in every way possible. They emit a light of a very respectable 1100 lumens at only 1 watt higher power usage than the Philips alternative. Although they are bulkier and heavier, LIFX bulbs also match the robust build quality of the Philips Hue products. There used to be complaints regarding the dull colors offered by Philips Hue when compared to the LIFX, but as we mentioned before, Philips Hue has caught up with time and vice versa. The color temperature of the LIFX can also be adjusted between 2500K – 9000K which is much better than the Philips Hue A19 bulb.
The LIFX A19 bulbs are more expensive than the Philips Hue bulbs, but with the upfront costs of a Hue Bridge, the LIFX starts to look like a better deal especially because of the beefier specifications. The fight was tough between the LIFX and Philips Hue, but some factors enabled Philips Hue to be our choice. The LIFX support is hard to reach at times, with often weeks before we expect an answer which they justify by claiming that they are receiving a large amount of queries. Also, we must realize that LIFX is a startup company and the recent acquisition and end of pebble watches prove that great products do not necessitate the company’s survival.
While the options provided above are the most robust smart lighting systems, there are dozens of more options available which are unique in their operation, design, and pricing. Some of these options are listed below:
3. Yeelight RGB – The ‘Yee-Haw’ for budget consumers.
Smart lighting is not as expensive as you might think, and Yeelight is here to prove that. It is a company owned by Xiaomi, one of the biggest smartphone manufacturers of Asia which is notorious for manufacturing extremely functional tech at cheap prices. You would be surprised to know that the Yeelight RGB costs less than half of what you would pay for Philips Hue or the LIFX A19 yet manages to reproduce much of the performance.
The design of the Yeelight RGB is one of the best that we have reviewed. It is compact yet functional. The ridge lines running parallel to the body of the bulb give it a truly unique character. The build quality is also really solid with the plastic coated aluminum which body which also gives it a considerable heft. Yeelight has really put in a lot of thought and effort into this area and we are really pleased with the build and design it offers for the price.
You might think that at such a price, you would have to make huge compromises. However, this might not be the case with the Yeelight RGB since it amazingly does not compromise on a lot. Unboxing was perhaps the most underwhelming experience since it is shipped in a small, insignificant cardboard box with only the bulb and a Chinese manual. The app is very easy to use and quite functional, although it does lack a lot of features present in the top tier smart lighting solutions. It produces a respectable 600 Lumens of light at 9 watts of electricity which is not the most efficient when compared to the flagship grade smart light bulbs.
The connectivity is enabled through the in-built WiFi chips just like the LIFX, so it does not require a hub and communicates in a very fast and efficient manner. Xiaomi has been very responsive to the early customer complaints and has consistently updated the bulb to the point where it now supports Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. It even supports the IFTTT integration now, so the future looks good for the Yeelight system. Sure, there are hiccups, missed inputs, and lagging, but these occurrences are occasional at best and do not disrupt the overall experience. Even though the Yeelight RGB might not be as accurate and fast as the Philips Hue or the LIFX A19, it offers much of what they offer at a fraction of the cost.
If you insist on having a color smart light with all the basic functions of the advanced offerings, yet are hesitant on spending hundreds of dollars, the Yeelight is an extremely cheap and risk free option to try. It offers a very authentic insight into the world of smart lighting so that you can experiment with it and decide if you really want to make the switch. However, if you are looking for a long term solution with a large array of options to innovate and design your living space, then the Philips Hue will be your best bet in worth the costs.
4. IKEA Tradfri – Juvenile.
There are no surprises here: IKEA decided to introduce its own lineup of smart LED lighting solutions. Although they are fairly new in the game with their first products launching in 2017, they have come quite a way. However, we still consider this smart lighting system a bit juvenile because it has a lot to catch up before we can compare it to the flagship models. The unique differentiating factor for this one is definitely the low costs and the reliability of a trusted brand like IKEA.
The Tradfri smart lighting system uses a hub to communicate like the Philips Hue smart lighting system. We were really surprised to find a shocking number of similarities between these two products. The starter kit comes with a manual switch we have seen ‘elsewhere’ before and the whole experience seems ‘familiar’. The best part about this system is without doubt, the application itself. The minimalist design is very alluring and simple to use. Everything seems to flow and the response times are also really great. The bulb is also really bright at 980 Lumens. However, this often translates to a very basic set of features as in the case of IKEA Tradfri.
So then, who is this product ultimately for? People who are IKEA customers, or those who want a balance between affordability and quality over raw features. We must keep in mind that IKEA has been constantly adding features to their current lighting system as well as expanding their range. However, there are still too many questions marks on this for us to recommend to anyone.
5. C by GE – Cheap and Easy.
The C bulbs by General Electric are as easy to operate as their name is to spell. The starter kit comes with four bulbs, two of which are sleep bulbs and two are life bulbs. The life bulbs are your regular LED bulbs that are only dimmable and the sleep bulbs can also change temperature. The whole kit is available for really cheap, and once you start comparing the unit costs, this is the cheapest option you can buy, if you purchase in bulk.
The design and build are like any standard LED bulb on the market. General Electric did not take any risks with this one; it is a relatively simple lighting system with simple features such as the ability to set timers, alarms, and change color temperature in case of the sleep bulb. There is no RGB or color option available as of writing this guide.
Getting connected with these is as simple as downloading the mobile application and connecting to the bulb via Bluetooth. No hub or Wi-Fi connection is required, which is a huge plus if there is a power outage. The application is also very easy and simple, which we found comparable to that of the application used by IKEA Tradfri. However, this application is crippled by the bare minimum set of features this bulb has on offer. What’s worse, is the very humble 10 meter range that Bluetooth is capable of offering so you have to be vary of the connectivity issues.
The C by GE line of bulbs are perfect for those looking to use the very basic features of smart lighting. However, we would very much recommend any consumer to buy the Yeelight RGB instead which not only uses a superior form of communication via WiFi, but also provides you the full experience for just a marginally higher price. But if you like the idea of what GE has to offer, there is no harm in trying the C bulbs.