Smart LED-based light bulbs used to be a figment of science fiction back in the day. However, this is no longer the case. Smart LED light bulbs have evolved by leaps and bounds in just the past few years. Furthermore, products such as the LIFX Tile – a customizable ambient light decoration – have fundamentally changed the entire concept of the traditional light bulb. Oh yeah, did we mention that smart LED light bulbs will also help reduce your energy bill?
While not quite a commodity, smart light bulbs are getting close to maturity as the market goes. Today’s bulbs are compact, brighter, and have better color representation. Furthermore, these bulbs integrate with smartphone apps that do more than ever and are easier to use than ever before. Prices have also come down across the board. There are even a handful of generic brands that cost less than $10/bulb. However, it is important to keep the age-old mantra of, ‘buyer beware’, in mind.
White LED bulbs are smart, too!
Color LEDs typically get all the press in the world of smart lighting with their array of colors and assortment of party tricks. However, the reality is that few of us will find the need to turn every light in our house orange or teal…unless your favorite hockey teams scores in double OT.
White light is important in many ways. There are plenty of scientific studies showing how the different shades of white – with variations in color temperature – impact our psychological state. Cooler shades of light that are closer to blue have an energizing effect and are best in the morning. On the other hand, warmer shades are more relaxing and are best after the sun goes down.
White smart light bulbs certainly downplay the party features that are a staple of color-tunable lights. On the other end of the spectrum, white smart lights are less expensive than their colorful counterparts. This makes white smart lights less of a financial burden to roll out in multiple rooms.
Our Favorite Smart Light Bulbs
Best Color LED Smart Light Bulb
Phillips was one of the original players in the smart light industry and their immense experience shows in their products. Their Hue color ambiance bulbs haven’t changed much since they hit the market in late 2012. However, the new bulbs last a lot longer and Phillips continues to add different shapes, sizes, and accessories to its product lineup.
The Hue app has also improved a lot, and Hue bulbs are available in a wide range of form factors. Phillips recently introduced a handful of devices meant for the outdoors. These devices include the Phillips Hue Calla pathway light and the Phillps Hue Lily outdoor spotlight.
The LIFX 19 is an overall better light on its own when pitted against its Phillips Hue counterpart, but we had to account for the extensive offerings that make up the Phillips Hue product lineup. LIFX has extended beyond it’s original offerings – A19 and BR30 forms – and the LIFX+ is simply awe-inspiring with its array of infrared LEDs that enhance your home security cameras night vision abilities. However, Phillips Hue still takes the cake with its extremely diverse product lineup.
Best White LED Smart Bulb
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Phillips Hue reigns supreme in the white LED smart bulb genre. The latest Hue bulbs not only deliver high-quality light, but they last for tens of thousands of hours and are backed up by an impressive warranty.
Phillips could easily sit back and expect the industry to conform to their products as the de facto standard. However, this is not the case. Instead, they work hard to make sure that their products are compatible with other home automation products, including, but not limited to, Amazon’s Echo devices and Google’s Google Home. Furthermore, Phillips Hue bulbs are available in more form factors than any other manufacturer. The Hue lineup includes the practically universal A19, BR (bulged reflector) PAR (parabolic reflector), GU (glass reflector with a U-shaped, dual-pin base), and a wide array of specialty shapes & sizes. Phillips also offers an assortment of Hue-based lighting fixtures for both indoor and outdoor placement.
If you want a smart white-only bulb that doesn’t require a smart home hub, the LIFX Mini White is a great choice. While it’s slightly dimmer than the full-size LIFX bulb, it produces a 60-watt-equivalent 800 lumens.
Smart light bulb protocols and features
Three control technologies continue to vie for leadership in the smart bulb market (Z-Wave is a major contender in smart lighting, but you won’t encounter it in bulbs—just in switches, plug-in modules, control panels, and smart-home hubs).
- ZigBee: Bulbs that use the popular smart-home networking protocol require a bridge to communicate with your home Wi-Fi network. This is the technology Philips has adopted for its Hue lineup, but it’s not the only one.
- Wi-Fi: This class of bulb talks directly to your Wi-Fi router, no hub or bridge required. LIFX is the only major vendor marketing color Wi-Fi bulbs today.
- Bluetooth: These bulbs skip your home network altogether and pair directly with your smartphone or tablet. As such, they can’t be controlled from outside your home. GE and a number of other manufacturers make Bluetooth bulbs, some of better quality than others.
Each of these technologies has pros and cons, so before you attempt to settle on a specific bulb, first try to determine which tech is right for you. If you want to hook your bulbs into a broader smart-home system—such as SmartThings or Nest—Bluetooth bulbs are out. You can control more than one bulb with your phone, but you can’t connect it to sensors or other systems inside your home. Don’t like the idea of pairing a bulb to your phone? A Wi-Fi bulb will work best for you, though you won’t have quite as many options as you’ll find with a ZigBee product.
Smart bulb, or smart switch?
There’s a significant argument about the best way to install smart lighting, and two approaches present themselves. You can either go with expensive smart bulbs and control them all individually, or you can use cheap dumb bulbs and install smart switches to control all the lights on that circuit. Both approaches make sense: With smart bulbs, the biggest issue is cost, but there’s also complexity to deal with. While bulbs can usually be grouped based on location, this is only as intuitive to manage as the bulb control app.
Smart switches, on the other hand, are far more complicated to install—to the point where some users might be uncomfortable dealing with exposed wiring and would prefer to hire an electrician. However, smart switches provide more flexibility in many installations.
Habituated from years of flipping hard-wired switches, many users (or their children) will instinctively use the wall switch to turn the lights out when they leave a room. Once that happens, all the apps in the world won’t be able to turn the light back on until the switch is returned to the on position. While this won’t be an issue if you install smart switches, they can’t change a bulb’s color or color temperature.
That said, smart bulbs, no matter what the technology, still won’t be right for everyone. Notably, most of these bulbs cannot be dimmed via a hardwired wall switch (it messes with the power going to the radio, rendering them useless). Some will fail even if a dimmer is present on the circuit and dialed up to full power. And while today’s bulbs are brighter than ever, they’re still dim by “dumb” bulb standards. But the quality of light from an LED bulb is likely to be much, much better.
The good news is that bulb prices are going down, so it’s easier to get started with smart bulbs and less punishing should you find that a product doesn’t work for you. That said, we want to get you started on the right foot. So without further ado, here are deep dives into the most worthwhile color and white LED smart bulbs on the market.