How to buy the best smart lights
What do smart lights offer, and what are the drawbacks?
The internet of things and lighting
Smart lights area popular household gadgets to get started with when adding simple but impressive automation to your home.
Wirelessly connected LED bulbs aren't just long-lasting; they can be controlled via an app on your phone or through voice commands from a smart assistant such as Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant.
You can also set them to turn on and off and even change colours automatically at preset times, or to set a particular mood.
This all happens via your home network. After a quick and painless setup process, your lights connect and are ready to go.
- Which smart lights should I buy?
- Why get smart lights?
- Sizes, fittings and colour options
- Downsides of smart lights – tech problems
- Other things to consider
Find out how we test smart lights.
Why get smart lights?
There are plenty of reasons you'd consider getting smart lights.
- They're long-lasting and can be controlled remotely, so you can always switch the lights off even if you forgot before you left the house.
- You can control them without getting up; voice assistant tie-ins mean you can speak commands rather than use your phone.
- Phone apps allow for a large range of options such as grouping lights together, dimming or changing colour schemes, and creating special combinations of effects, called scenes.
While removing the need to flick a light switch might sound like laziness to some people, there are some real benefits to be had, especially for the sick, elderly and those with limited mobility. Some people might even find it life-changing.
Control via apps
Apps let you control every smart light in your house from your phone or tablet. Not only does that mean you don't have to shuffle out from under the doona or pausing a movie to find the switch, you can turn off your bedroom lights once you're comfy in bed (avoiding tripping on an errant shoe in your blind shuffle from the light switch). For people with limited mobility it means taking more control of their surroundings.
Having a central place to control your lights makes life easier when leaving the house, as you can turn every light off at once without wandering from room to room.
Control via voice assistants
Of course, you might not always have your phone on you. Voice assistants built into devices such as smart speakers and phones let you speak and have your will be done. You can't create new scenes this way, but you can turn lights on and off, as well as adjust colour, dimness and activate scenes you've already created. A smart speaker or other compatible device can sit anywhere in your home, as long as it can connect to your home network.
Many smart lights can change hue and colour. This ranges from a limited white light spectrum (cool to warm white) up to 16 million colours, chosen by you from an easy-to-use palette.
Ever have trouble finding light bulbs that are all the same colour tone? Different regular lighting brands disagree on the exact nature of terms like "cool white" and "warm white". Opting for an adjustable white or RGB (red, green, blue) colour light means you can have uniform lighting right through your whole house.
Even better, you can change it up based on the time of day, such as enjoying white light when the sun is out and warmer colours as evening approaches.
If you've ever wanted to mix things up with a splash of verdant green, vibrant red or any other non-standard colour, an RGB smart light does this without losing the day-to-day functionality of white tones – and you don't need two separate bulbs. See more about colour options below.
Setting the scene
Smart lights let you create scenes – pre-set configurations made by you – that you can activate with one button press or voice command. Set all your lights except the corner lamp to turn off when it's movie time, or have one or two glow a dim orange when you get up in the middle of the night and don't want bright house lights to wake you up.
Scenes also let you set lights to different colours, if they have that feature. Set up whiter light during the day and warmer at night. Or maybe you want to wow house guests with a futuristic purple and blue theme.
If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, set your smart lights to turn on with your alarm.
Remote access is a feature of many IoT gadgets. This lets you control your lights from anywhere, so long as you have internet access.
Only people you've trusted with your smart light account's login details can do this.
Every light we've tested has a claimed life of 25,000 hours. At five hours per day, that's more than 13 years before they need replacing.
Though keep in mind, warranties are all between one and three years.
Smart light sizes and fittings
Smart lights come in all shapes and sizes. Bulbs with the standard E27 Edison screw and bayonet fittings are most common, but you can get smaller bulbs as well as lighting strips and panels.
They all let you control them via an app. Most can be dimmed and almost all can be voice-controlled via a smart assistant.
Some brands have two or more options for maximum brightness, so make sure you pay attention before buying.
There are generally three options when it comes to smart light colours:
- White: Like a normal bulb, some smart lights have one colour – either cool white or warm white, depending on the model and manufacturer. These are normally the least-expensive bulbs.
- Adjustable white: These let you control the degree of warmth your white light gives off. This way you can exactly match your smart lights to other bulbs you have around the house, or adjust the hue depending on the time of day.
- RGB colour: Usually among the more expensive smart lights in a manufacturer's range, some bulbs come with a full gamut of colour options. Control the colours via an app or your voice (if you have a smart assistant), and you can even program some to cycle or pulse through different colours.
Downsides of smart lights
Smart lights can make life easier, but there are some downsides.
Mo' tech, mo' problems
The more technology you add to any product, the more can go wrong. Sometimes smart lights can take much longer to respond to commands, especially when delivered via a smart assistant, and on rare occasions they might flicker without reason. They can even disconnect from your network and stop responding all together.
These problems are rare and can usually be fixed by turning the light off at the wall, waiting a few seconds and turning it back on again.
Problems with local network or internet connection
If your router is faulty or inoperable, none of the smart features will work. If your internet is down, but your router is still working, then most smart lights will still work because they can still reach your phone or smart assistant via Wi-Fi.
However, both Sengled and Yeelight need an active internet connection because they relay app commands from your house to an internet server and back again. If they can't contact to the server, you can't use their smart features.
No matter what techy problems you may be encountering, the worst-case scenario is you use your smart lights as regular ones (turning them on and off via a wall switch) until you can get your smart features up and running again.
Occasionally, smart lights receive updates from their manufacturer. This puts them out of commission for a few minutes and they may turn on and off a few times to test new software. This happens rarely, but it's important to do the updates because they often contain new security measures.
Generally, it's best to pick one brand and stick with it. This makes it easier to control all your lights and get their full suite of features from within one app. Some apps, like Google Home, let you turn all the lights in a room or house on and off or dim them from the one phone screen, but other features such as colour themes, scenes and effects such as pulsing or strobing can only be done via the manufacturer's app.
Smart assistants are a good workaround. You may have two different brands of light in the one room, but saying "dim all the lights in the lounge room to 10 percent" should get results, although each bulb's 10 percent brightness may vary. You can also turn lights on and off, activate scenes, change their colour or trigger IFTTT applets this way.
Some smart lights require a central bridge (or hub) to work, others don't. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach.
Philips Hue and Sengled bulbs work using a protocol called ZigBee. This means they don't talk directly to your router. Instead, they connect wirelessly to a bridge, which in turn connects to router via an ethernet cable. This can make it more expensive to get started, as you need to pay for your smart lights plus the bridge. However, after a while costs can level out and even turn in your favour. This is because some of the hardware that would need to be built into the lights is instead handled by the bridge. This means buying additional individual light bulbs can be cheaper.
TP-Link, Yeelight and LIFX skip the bridge and connect directly to your Wi-Fi network. While this can make individual bulbs more expensive, it also makes your initial spend much cheaper when starting out. You can buy one or two lights to see if you like how they work, then buy more as you need them. It also means you have one fewer little box in your home, and if your house is big enough to need a mesh Wi-Fi network, you won't need additional lighting bridges scattered throughout.
If This Then That (IFTTT, pronounced "ift") is a free app that lets you get more out of your smart lights and other IoT gadgets. It lets you group different scenes together, create new voice commands for your smart assistant, and force smart gadgets to work together automatically, even if they weren't designed to. It calls these triggers applets.
Applets have a simple premise: if one thing happens, it triggers another thing. Some examples:
- If you say "it's movie time", your smart assistant activates a lighting scene and turns on your TV.
- If your alarm goes off in the morning, your smart lights turn on and your coffee machine starts brewing a fresh mug.
An applet can also set time-based actions, such as ensuring your garage door is closed by 11pm each night (providing you have a smart door controller installed).
The options for IFTTT go far beyond smart lights. The best way to find out what you can get out of it is to download the app and play around.
A term you'll hear more and more over the next few years is the internet of things (IoT). This refers to household appliances made smart through connectivity.
Not all IoT devices have to connect directly to the internet, they usually connect to your home network.
Often they use your home network for most of their day-to-day functions, and only rely on an internet connection for setup, updates and remote access so that you can turn things on and off and control them while you're away from home. However, some IoT products need constant access to the internet to work.
Smart lighting is one of the product categories blazing the trail for IoT-filled smart homes. So far it's proven popular, with familiar brands like Philips and TP-Link going up against newer makes such as LIFX and Yeelight.