We’ve been spotting so many “smart” light bulbs on the market that we were inspired to take a closer look. There is a dizzying array of options, it turns out, so we decided to lay out the basics in a smart lighting primer.
Above: The Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit contains two LED bulbs that emit 50,000 shades of white, plus a hub and wireless dimmer switch; $129.97 on Amazon.
What is a smart light bulb?
A smart light bulb is an Internet- or Bluetooth-enabled light bulb usually designed for use with connected home technologies.
What extra functionality does a smart bulb offer?
Most commonly, a smart bulb can be controlled via a device other than a standard light switch—say, via smart phone, tablet, or even by voice (using a connected smart home system). Some bulbs can emit an array of colors, others turn on and off by timer, and still others are equipped with speakers to play music.
Above: The Twist LED Light Two-Pack and the Twist Speaker are both currently available for preorder; $149 each. (Orders will ship by March 31.)
If I want the functionality, do I have to buy smart bulbs?
Maybe. There are a few ways to get there.
It is possible to equip your actual light sockets and/or electrical outlets with smart technology. For example: If you have an Amazon Echo, a floor lamp with a regular bulb, and you want to remotely turn the floor lamp on and off, you can keep your regular bulb if you enable the source of the lamp’s electricity to communicate remotely with your Echo. You can do that by plugging a Wi-Fi–enabling device (such as a WeMo Switch Smart Plug) into your outlet, which lets you remotely control power to the lamp.
Alternatively, if you have an Amazon Echo and a floor lamp with a smart bulb, you don’t need to bother with the lamp’s electricity source. The bulb itself is capable of communicating with a remote device (for example, via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth).
Certain functions do require a smart bulb—for instance, if you want your light bulb to play music or change colors. (In those instances, the technology must be in the bulb.)
Above: The LIFX Color LED Smart Bulb is in its third generation and can emit 16 million colors; a single A19 bulb is $59.99.
Why would I want a smart lighting system?
- The most obvious answer: You’re sitting on your couch and you don’t want to get up to turn the light off just as your movie is starting. (Lazy? Probably. But what about those of us who don’t want to disturb the sleeping cat/dog/baby in our laps?)
- You’re going on vacation for an extended period of time, and you’d like to be able to set your lights to a normal schedule so it looks like someone is home.
- You’re not fond of overhead lighting, and your open-plan kitchen/living/dining is illuminated by a suite of floor and table lamps. You can turn them all on by pressing one button.
- You want to wake up gently by having your bedroom lights slowly turn on over the course of 30 minutes.
- Your kids sometimes forget to turn the lights off when leaving for school, and you’d like to set all the lights in the house to turn off at 9 am.
- You want your lights to emit brighter, cooler temperatures during working hours and to fade and warm as the sun sets.
- You’d like to pre-set lighting schemes for different activities—like watching a movie, doing homework, or hosting a dinner party—and engage them in one click.
- You or someone in your household is hard of hearing or mobility impaired and you need safety features (one example that’s available is an air-quality monitor that causes the lights in the house to start flashing red to alert the occupant if CO2 is detected).
Will these bulbs work with a range of systems, such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Nest, IFTT, and more?
That’s the idea. But not all bulbs are compatible with all systems, and this space is constantly changing. Some are designed to operate independently, and some bulbs actually require that you have a smart home system in order to be controlled. Be sure to do your research before you buy.
Above: Ilumi Bluetooth lights come in three shapes: a standard bulb, indoor flood, and the Outdoor LED Flood Light (shown); $69.99. A standard A19 Smart Bulb is $49.99.
If I don’t use the fancy features, will a smart bulb still work like a regular light bulb?
Yes, smart bulbs will still turn on and off with a regular light switch. However, some bulbs are not compatible with existing dimmers, and using dimmer switches can affect the functionality and life span of some smart bulbs.
Can I use smart light bulbs without the Internet?
It depends. Most smart bulbs rely on Wi-Fi, so if your Internet connection goes out, you won’t be able to control your bulbs wirelessly. Others use Bluetooth, so they don’t require an Internet connection.
Does a smart bulb come with a kit of parts?
Sometimes. Bulbs that engage with wireless Internet work in one of two ways: either the individual bulb is equipped to connect directly to Wi-Fi, or the bulb links wirelessly to a separate unit that connects to your Wi-Fi or plugs into your router. Some bulbs also come with their own remote controls.
Above: BeOn Home lights are designed for home safety concerns; each light has a backup battery that will keep the light on for five hours if the power goes out. A BeOn Starter Kit with three bulbs is $129 on Amazon.
- Smart bulbs are LEDs, so they’re energy efficient and can last for a very long time (some makers claim more than 20 years).
- Depending on your lifestyle, smart bulbs could add a lot of functionality to your home. (See “Why would I want a smart lighting system?” above.)
- Smart bulbs are expensive. (Over time, technology will improve and prices will fall.)
- Not all bulbs will be compatible with your other devices.
- Be prepared to do some initial setup.
- It’s critical to remember that all Internet-enabled devices are hackable, so you’re opening yourself up to potential disruption you wouldn’t have with conventional lightbulbs.
For more stories on technology in the home, see:
- Trend Alert: 8 Techno Toilets
- Power to the People: Ikea’s New Phone-Charging Furniture
- Gift Guide: For the Tech-Obsessed
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