For non-celestial beings, smart lights are a fairly recent trend, dating roughly to the introduction of the Philips Hue in 2012. These introduced the idea of light bulbs that connected to the internet, allowing you to control them remotely. At the most basic level you can turn them on and off using your smartphone; but beyond that, things get very futuristic very quickly.
Using your phone, you might set a 'routine' for your smart lights, so that they switch on and off at certain times; or dim them; or change their colour. Or you might get them to interact with other tech around your home. Your kettle might start to boil when you switch on your smart lights in the morning; or, that evening, a sensor on your door might detect when you return home and turn on the lights.
At their most advanced, smart light bulbs work in conjunction with smart speakers to listen to your voice commands. Sync the bulbs to your home assistant like Amazon’s Alexa and you can control your surroundings simply by saying "Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights".
If that idea gives you the heebie jeebies, then don't worry: the good news about internet connected lighting is that it's one of the very best examples of smart technology out there. It's simple to operate, easy to understand, and infinitely fun to play with – whether you're using it at the most basic level or going for the full speaking-out-loud-to-inanimate-objects experience.
I tried out some of the biggest brands and was impressed right across the board. Of the smart bulbs I tried, not a single one can be described as "bad", although a few stood out above the rest.
What we like about it: Hue light bulbs remain the market leaders. They're simple to use, easy to understand, and work just as you'd expect them to
Philips Hue is the defacto standard in smart lighting. These lights popularised the trend for smart bulbs, taking them from niche and nerdy to mainstream desirable.
To look at, they're similar to standard bulbs, and have standard fittings. The only difference is that they're coloured, with the opportunity to change between a rainbow of... hues (see what they did there?).
However, there's an extra element that is worth noting. This is a bridge unit: a little box (shown left in the picture above) that plugs into the back of your internet router to connect your bulbs to WiFi. Not all smart bulbs need a bridge like this, but its presence does help you to connect all your smart tech more easily.
After plugging that lot in, you just download the app and connect your new lighting to the internet. Part of the setup process is naming each of the rooms which will have a light in it, for easy control over different spaces in your house. The app also prompts you to name each individual light, so that you can turn each of them on/off individually.
All in, the setup took me about five minutes and I had no problems with it (aside from my own impatience).
Once you're up and running, each room and bulb is shown individually on the app, so it's a simple tap to turn them on/off. This can be done remotely too – as I sit in the Telegraph office writing this, I’m turning my bedroom light on and off. Handy if your teenagers leave the house later than you in the morning and never remember to turn the kitchen light off.
There are two types of Hue bulbs – Colour and White. Both can be adjusted using a colour wheel on the app. With the former, you can choose any colour visible to the human eye; with the latter you can slide between warmer and colder whites to find the one that works for you. It's all very easy and effective – the perfect tool for a mood lighting obsessive.
Beyond the basic stuff, the Hue's features are impressive. You can create scenes that remember your favourite colours; get the bulbs to replicate the hue of a favourite photograph or painting; and create routines so that lights turn on slowly when you wake up or turn off automatically at 9am when everyone’s out of the house.
The connection with a smart speaker is smooth, and I found it surprisingly unpeculiar to say "OK Google, turn the bedroom Cerulean”. My only real gripe was that activating scenes requires very specific wording or my Google Assistant falls over in confusion. “OK Google, turn on the purple skies in the bedroom” works fine; "activate purple skies”, “turn on purple skies”, “purple skies in the bedroom, please” do not. Still, I suspect this is more an issue with the assistant than the smart bulbs themselves.
Overall, Philips Hue is a fantastic package that offers good customisation and integrates easily with the rest of your smart home gadgetry.
In terms of the bulbs themselves, there's not much difference between the Hive Active Light and the Philips Hue. They come in two varieties – colourful and white – and sync up to your smart devices. Once again, there's a hub to plug into your router.
Setup is exactly the same, asking you to choose a name for your bulbs and group them according to which room they're in. And the quality of the light that the bulbs shine is, to my eyes, indistinguishable.
With the app on the Philips Hue, you get a whole colour wheel to select from; whereas with the Hive, it's a sliding bar. This works fine for the white light, but for the coloured bulb it feels imprecise and just that bit more difficult to select find the colour you need. I'm splitting hairs here – it's hardly the biggest downside ever – but it's enough to persuade me to buy the Hue over the Hive.
On the plus side, the Hive app is really good for creating routines. It's chock full of pre-loaded ideas; and the process for making your own is more simple than with the Hue.
Because Hive has a tonne of other smart tech in its arsenal, the app becomes your one-stop-shop for controlling your home, from your lights to your boiler. Yes, the app gets a bit 'busy' at times, but it's still the best in terms of operating an entire home eco-system.
I’d say purely for controlling the lights, Hue has the edge; but for those wanting to build a smart home with smart plugs, smart security cameras, smart thermostats and all the rest, Hive is the way to go.
Mini by name, mini by nature. The first thing you’ll notice about the LIFX Mini is that it’s significantly smaller than most light bulbs, making it the ideal choice for desk lamps and the like. But don't worry, the LIFX is just as powerful as a bigger bulb.
In fact, if LIFX are known for anything in this space, it’s the brightness of their bulbs. If you want something really powerful to light up the room, these are a good choice. And the functions are solid too. I’m sure you’re sick of reading about colour wheels and scenes, so just trust me when I say all that is present and correct here, with a few interesting wrinkles.
For starters, you can now send your favourite colour to other LIFX users should you know anyone who just loves what you’ve done with your living room lighting. And there's an 'effects' mode that can, for example, make your lights flicker like candles. There are only eight effects, but that’s still eight more than any of the other manufacturers have managed. Considering it’s such an obvious feature, I’m baffled as to why only LIFX have managed it.
I also appreciated the 'day and dusk' mode, which sets your lights to automatically change in colour and brightness as the day wears on. You start with a warm white on a low level to wake you up in the morning, move to a colder bright light towards midday, and then gradually get warmer and dimmer in the evenings. All this is customisable and should ensure that whenever you turn on the light in your room it is automatically at the right 'temperature'.
As for the control of the lights, there's two things to say. The first is that the bulbs connect directly to your phone so they don’t need a hub. That doesn’t make too much difference after you’ve set them up, but it will mean you don’t have an extra thing to plug into your wall sockets, which I count as a sizable benefit.
And the second is that the app, while functional, is just a bit ugly. It feels like a design afterthought, as though LIFX made these cool lights but only realised the night before they went to market that they’d have to create an app as well. And that's a shame, because if you polish the app here, you've got a really excellent all-round product – arguably better than the two that I've picked above.
The LIFX+ is basically the same as the LIFX Mini but about 300 lumens brighter and oddly shaped. Seriously, the shape is really strange. Presumably the flat head is to fit more LEDs in, making it brighter. Either way, it has no bearing on the bulb’s function.
The other 'added' element to the LIFX+ is that it’s designed to work with night vision security cameras. When the light’s brightness is 10pc or less, it can shoot out invisible infrared beams that should help your camera’s night vision see things better but won’t affect you at all.
Personally, none of those features would tempt me into spending a tenner more. I'd stick with the LIFX Mini.
In terms of the bulbs themselves, you don’t really get anything different here from Hue or Hive’s offerings. But just as with the LIFX bulbs, TP-Link smart bulbs don’t require an additional hub to connect them to the internet (thank goodness!)
In general, I was really impressed with this smart light. For my money, the app used to control the bulbs is the best of the bunch, filled with handy integrations such as the ability to check how much energy your bulbs have used over the course of the day and a prediction of how much they’ll use in a year. And the function to pick a colour is the most precise of all that I tested.
I did have one small annoyance at the start, however. When I first plugged in the bulbs they were stuck on white. After a bit of poking around in the settings I think I must have knocked some algorithm loose and the different colour options kicked in – but I'm not entirely sure how I did it. It's hardly the biggest issue, but I can see the experience frustrating people.
Overall, I’d say TP-Link have the best smart lighting app as it's the easiest to use, and comes with a range of helpful features. Ultimately, the glitch I had with my light to begin with gave me pause in recommending it as a top pick.
I have honestly never had as much fun putting up lights as I did with Nanoleaf. If you’re here for a basic bulb to screw into your light fittings, keep scrolling. If, on the other hand, you’re here to turn your room into a palace of glorious light-art, Nanoleaf is for you.
Each triangle of the Nanoleaf is a modular light with a slot on each edge. You plug a connector into the slot, then you can add another light. As long as the sides are touching, the power flows and the triangles light up. This allows you to create your own personal designs and patterns that you can stick up on your wall.
It’s all incredibly intuitive (I didn’t look at the instruction manual once) and there’s a sort of LEGO-like fun to piecing it all together. And because it’s all modular, you can change the designs as often as you like, provided you’ve got more sticky wall strips at the ready.
You have to connect one of the panels to a power cable, which is thankfully relatively sleek, so you should be able to tuck it behind a skirting board to avoid having a wire stretching across your wall.
Once you’ve got the lights up on the wall you can control each individual one through the app to make a design of your own. The exciting thing about the Rhythm Edition is that it comes with a little dongle that connects to one of your triangles to listen to the sounds around it. This means you can start playing music and your design will light up in sync with the beat.
It’s certainly nothing revolutionary, but it is great fun and ideal for those who are frequent party hosts. I can see it going down a storm in university halls in particular.
A similar concept to the Nanoleaf Rhythm Edition, the Canvas is the newer model. Instead of being triangular in form, the Canvas panels are squares. There’s the subtle hint of a pattern in the centre of each square, breaking each panel up into four smaller squares – although, against expectation, each panel can only be one colour at a time, so I'm not sure what those inner-squares are doing.
Just like with the Rhythm Kit, the modular lights can be connected to each other in any order you choose and then you can customise the colours to create your own patterns. Personally I found squares a bit less fun than triangles, but to each their own. One thing to note is that the connector strips are different sizes so you couldn’t combine the Canvas and the original triangular Nanoleaf set.
The added wrinkle with the Canvas is that the panels are touch sensitive so you can tap one to send a wave of light through your design. Looking online I’ve found some people who’ve made really cool designs with this feature, such as a flag which appears to waves through repeatedly being tapped in one corner.
LIFX’s answer to the Nanoleaf is the ‘Beam’. Rather than tiles, the Beam is a series of rectangular bars that clip together magnetically. In the box you get six bars and one square connector which has magnets on each side so you can put a corner in your design. I feel like there should have been more than one of these, but that's by the by.
Once you've connected the bars in a style that you like, just clip the magnetic power cable in and the whole thing should light up with (incredibly bright) white light. I should note that the power cable feels a bit less secure than the Nanoleaf one but it does the job.
I really struggled to connect the Beam to WiFi. It took ten resets to get it to connect which was incredibly annoying. When I did get it set up, nothing about the Beam blew me away. You can do fun things like 'paint' your own designs onto it, but in general it's all a bit fiddly and underwhelming (apart from the brightness of the light, which is statement-making).
Just like normal bulbs, the purpose of smart lighting is simply to light up a room. Sure you can control them with a mobile app as well as the wall switch, but they’re not that different to your standard bulbs.
However, in general, smart light bulbs tend to come with a few extra features to justify the significant price increase compared to standard light bulbs. For starters, they tend to be dimmable and the vast majority are energy saving bulbs. Another feature that has come to seem synonymous with smart bulbs is the ability to change colour.
Integration with smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant is common. The vast majority of smart bulbs will work with at least one of these smart assistants but the favoured one is Amazon Echo, as that has the biggest market penetration. Just make sure you check the box before buying.
Some do, some don’t. If you’re set against buying a hub with your smart light bulbs then I’d go with TP-Link or LIFX’s offerings, which don’t require a hub. Philips Hue require a ‘bridge’ and Hive bulbs need a Hive Hub.
These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a smart light which doesn’t work with Alexa. All the major brands; Hue, Hive, TP-Link, LIFX, Nanoleaf; all work with Alexa. Buy a smart light bulb and you can be 99pc sure it’ll work with Alexa. You’ll need to be a bit more careful if you’re a Google Assistant or Siri home though, so do check the providers’ individual websites. Still, if you stick with the top manufacturers, you should be alright.
In general smart bulbs are usually around about 800 lumens (a unit of brightness, one lumen is the light from one candle) that’s about the same as a standard light bulb. However, the brightest bulb in the smart home is the LIFX A60+ which is capable of 1,100 lumens, which is obviously seriously bright, it’s about equivalent to a 75 watt incandescent light bulb or an 18 watt LED bulb.
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