Bright Ideas: Your Guide To Smart Light Bulbs
In a sci-fi movie, we take it as read that when the disgruntled space-cop walks into a room they just need to say ‘lights’ to trigger illumination, or when the starship captain has brought an alien woman back to show her some more of this Earth thing called kissing, he can order the computer to ‘set lights to romantic’.
This kind of command was exactly the inspiration behind Amazon’s Alexa, and with digital assistants now commonplace we know the technology to process the commands already exists.
But what of the lights?
Smart home lighting has been one of the most visible and is now one of the most established smart technologies.
Switching lights on and off while you’re in the room is just one benefit though.
The ability to do so remotely is another, which – when combined with well-designed apps – is a great way to give the impression of being home when you’re not.
It’s even possible to have smart home light bulbs flash red when someone presses your connected smart doorbell button.
Depending on the software, smart tech enables you to connect smart lights into groups that can be switched on and off with a single command, so you can turn on the whole floor.
You can also design themes, a little like the ‘romantic’ mode described earlier.
Here are the best ways to set smart light bulbs up in your home.
SMART LIGHT BULBS WITH HUB
The idea here is simple: the bulb itself includes all the smart features (it can switch itself on and off, dim and change color) and the tech to receive commands.
The hub provides a connection between your existing home network (probably Wi-Fi) and whatever technology the smart light bulbs are using to communicate.
The advantage of this is that no additional load is put upon your existing wireless network.
This means Netflix and other video streaming will be unaffected.
Furthermore, most smart home networks are low-power systems, (so you can add a smart switch without wires) and mesh based (meaning one bulb can relay a signal to another, creating a larger wireless network which doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi at all).
The cost of getting started is higher because you need to add a hub (or bridge) which typically connects to your wireless router.
The advantage is both a separate network that is optimized for smart home tech and, should you choose, you can take all the gear with you if you move house.
WE RECOMMEND: Philips Hue White and Colour Ambience Starter Kit
Philips Hue smart light bulbs are reliable, long-lasting and look the part.
The starter kit includes three smart light bulbs (crew fir or bayonet) and a bridge that links the bulbs to your smartphone or other controller.
The bulbs will shine in any of the 16 million colours, and you change the colour on your smartphone app.
The Hue app is probably best for ease of use.
Not only can you use Philips Hue with your voice if you have Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant smart speakers, but there are a number of additional apps available that add extra functions, like music-sensitive disco mode.
SMART SWITCHES WITH HUB
If you’re happy with your light fittings already, instead of replacing all the bulbs you could focus on the switches.
This is a great option if you’re less likely to move – since replacing switches requires either an electrician or some confidence with mains electricity – and pretty much essential if your home décor choices include stylish retro-style light bulbs and other special features.
Another big plus about replacing the switches is that your wall switches – which you'll still make a lot of use of – will definitely work consistently whether you're switching with a voice control, your phone app or the switch itself.
With smart light bulbs you can switch them off at the wall and be unable to power them up again with your phone (this of course can be resolved by adding smart switches, at an additional expense, that are part of the smart bulb’s ecosystem).
One factor here is international standards.
In Europe an elegant square format dominates, while in the US switches are taller and thinner.
Generally, this is not an issue, as manufacturers recognize the value of both markets, but you will need something that works with your existing wiring and wall boxes.
WE RECOMMEND: Kasa 3 Way Smart Switch Kit
Kasa's Smart Switch Kit is easy to recommend because the manufacturers have not compromise on quality – the US-friendly switches and sockets look stylish in any home and their software is compatible with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant too, so you can operate using your voice or from anywhere with your smartphone using the Kasa app should you choose.
SMART BULBS WITHOUT HUB
For the ultimate in simplicity, a smart light bulb that includes Wi-Fi connectivity is easier to add to the average home, assuming good coverage in the location you're installing it.
The Wi-Fi receiver in the bulb will draw its power from the original fitting and, like the other bulbs, they are simple to fit and just as easy to take with you.
The downside, as mentioned, has more to do with the way Wi-Fi works, with each new device using some of the total network traffic and those nearer the wireless router claiming a disproportionate share.
Wi-Fi is also not very power efficient, so you couldn't have accessories that weren't connected to the mains (unless they were charged far more often than was convenient).
WE RECOMMEND: Gosund 2.4Ghz WiFi Smart Light Switch
These bulbs are responsive and feature a stunning industrial design that might make you want to leave them without shades.
The app isn't quite as elegantly designed as some others, but it allows you to group bulbs, includes timers to turn the bulb on and off, and the ability to flash in time with music played through your phone.
These smart light bulbs not only work with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but they also do not require a hub to work.
SMART SWITCHES WITHOUT HUB
A hub, of course, needs to be put somewhere (likely near the router) to communicate with your smart switches.
Since you're not going to need to add any accessory switches (as covered in 'smart bulb accessories' below) because you're using your existing wiring, power is not a problem, so you might well ask what the advantage is of having an additional networking box?
If you feel your Wi-Fi can handle it, and you're not making too many switches smart, then the answer might very well be that there isn't any.
WE RECOMMEND: Philips Hue Smart Dimmer Switch
SMART BULB ACCESSORIES
Smart light bulbs can (obviously) be turned off at the wall by switching off the original switch and, just as logically, cannot then be turned on remotely until that manual switch has been operated.
When they're off, they're not part of the mesh network (that also means they can't pass commands to more distant bulbs or receive them from far accessories).
The solution (in the Philips system) is this battery-powered switch – the internal coin battery lasts around two years thanks to the low-power network.
It can be attached anywhere in your home and, using the app, is set up to affect a specific bulb or group of bulbs.
A common use is to stick it directly over the original switch (adapter plates are available for UK/EU switch shapes).
A very nice touch is that this is actually a remote-control-shaped wand held in place with a magnet, so you can take it to the couch with you if you like!
Another benefit is that you can add more than one controller to the same light – an extra switch just where you always wanted it without any re-wiring, plastering and repainting – and because it is set to control a bulb, it's easy to add a switch by the door for a standard light opposite.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF SMART LIGHTS
You might not realize it, but the ambient light we see changes throughout the day.
In the morning whites tend toward the blue end of the spectrum, and we have come to associate this with waking and becoming more active.
Gradually during the afternoon the tone becomes warmer, we detect this and our body responds accordingly, eventually becoming sleepier as the light gets very warm in tone around sunset.
Your eyes naturally adjust, so whites still seem like white, but the brain takes cues from the ambient color temperature and this affects the need to sleep.
Digital cameras have a tendency to reveal this 'color temperature', as photographers call it, so if you want to see the effect pick up your camera and disable its 'Auto White Balance' feature.
Smart bulbs with color-changing abilities can be set to any tone, whether you want to wake a little earlier with a bright morning tone, or set the bulb to automatically dim slowly over half-an-hour with a rich warm tone that will make it easier to fall asleep.
Many parents find this very useful.
LIFX has one of the best apps going for this (Android and iOS), with every feature of its color-changing bulbs controllable from it.
This is in stark contrast to the standard non-changing low-energy LEDs, which many have installed at home.
Most have a much closer color temperature to morning light than evening, while traditional incandescent bulbs – which consumed about ten times the energy – did have a warmer, more evening-like hue.