7 things to know about smart lights before you buy a boatload of them

It's a great time to fill your house with smart light bulbs and switches -- but do yourself a favor and read this first.

via cnet.com Ry Crist 
Sept. 15, 2019 5:00 a.m. PT

From light bulbs and plugs to light switches and wall panels, smart lights are a popular smart home entry point. And, with lots of new options on the market -- including smart LEDs that don't cost a whole lot -- you might be tempted to fill your whole house with the things.

And maybe you should! There's a lot to be said for a whole-home connected lighting setup, including benefits like automated vacation-mode lighting that helps make it look like you're home when you're not, the fun novelty of color-changing bulbs, and the convenience of turning off all of the lights your kids left on with a single voice command as you go to bed.

Read: Best cheap smart LED bulbs of 2019: Does it matter which bulb you buy? 

But before you fill that shopping cart, you'll want to understand the ins and outs of smart lighting to make sure you're getting the best bulbs and switches for your smart home. To that end, here's a rundown of what you'll want to know before buying in.

You'll want to pick a platform

The first question worth thinking about before you buy smart lights: Which platform do you want to use to control them? Most options offer their own control apps that let you group lights together and schedule them to turn on and off at specific times -- but there's a pretty decent chance that you'll want to smarten up more than just your lights. 

If that's the case, then you'll want to consider a wider smart home platform that can handle all of the different devices you might end up using.

Pairing smart lights with voice assistants is one of the most popular ways to do it. Whether it's the Google Assistant, Apple's Siri, or Amazon's Alexa, each makes for a capable connected home control point, particularly if you're willing to put a smart speaker or a smart display somewhere central in your home. If you've got one of those, adding in lights that your assistant of choice can control is almost a no-brainer, and you'll be able to use them alongside things like cameras, thermostats, and smart security systems.

Read more: The best LED floodlights you can buy in 2020  

Smart lights use wireless transmissions to send and receive their signals, and different bulbs use different methods to get the job done. Some use built-in Wi-Fi radios to connect directly with your router, which lets you control them remotely wherever you have an internet connection. Others use Bluetooth radios to connect directly with your phone when you're within 50 feet or so. To control bulbs like that from further away, you'll need a Wi-Fi hub to relay their signals to your router and on to you via the cloud.

And then there's Zigbee, which you can think of as a local wireless network for your smart home gadgets. Lots of smart lighting products use Zigbee to send their signals -- if so, then you'll need a Zigbee hub plugged into your router in order to translate those signals for your home network. Most Zigbee bulbs offer their own version of a hub, and setting them up typically isn't complicated at all, but it does add a little extra expense into the equation.

All of that said, things are getting easier. The most notable Zigbee brand, Philips Hue, recently started putting secondary Bluetooth radios into its products, which lets you skip the hub and connect direct with your phone for basic controls. You'll also find a number of smart home gadgets that double as a Zigbee hub -- most notably the Amazon Echo Plus and the second-gen Amazon Echo Show. Both of those can translate those Zigbee smart bulb signals into something your Wi-Fi router can understand.

They cost less than you think

It wasn't that long ago that some people were paying $20 or even $50 per bulb just to get regular, nonconnected LED lights into their home. The math made sense -- your average LED will add about a buck to your energy bill each year, compared to about $7 per year for a comparable incandescent. That means a single LED will save you about $6 per year over an old-fashioned bulb like that -- and since LEDs are designed to shine for decades, paying dozens of dollars for one upfront was a sensible long-term investment.

Then, in 2014, rising efficiency standards and market-moving government subsidies spurred the industry into action, which led to lots of new options in the lighting aisle. The new competition helped to bring prices down, while the demand from consumers incentivized the industry to keep innovating. 

The result: LED light bulbs that kept getting better and cheaper. And no, recent efforts to roll those efficiency standards back shouldn't change that reality -- the lighting industry has already moved us into the LED age, and there's no sign that it's interested in reversing course.

That same buyer's market extends to smart lights, including great picks from names like WyzeSengled and Philips Hue that you can get for less than $15 per bulb. Meanwhile, a decent smart light switch doesn't need to set you back any more than $30 or so. Even fancy color-changing bulbs aren't that hard to afford these days, with well-tested options from reputable brands like GE available for less than $30 apiece

They can help you get a better night's rest

Your brain is pretty sensitive to light, which plays a huge role in our sleep cycles. When it's dark for a while, our brain tells us we're tired and that we should go to bed. When the sun comes up and it gets bright again, our brain senses it and tells us it's time to wake up.

Smart lights can help you hack that biological clockwork by simulating a nice, slow sunrise to help ease you out of bed on an early morning. Personally, I also have an easier time falling asleep when I set my bedroom's smart lights to a low setting, then tell them to fade out slowly over 20 minutes.

Lifx bulbs are a good bet for use cases like this, because their best-in-class integration with IFTTT allows you to trigger a customized fade with something like a voice command. Philips Hue is a good pick, too, since its bulbs can automatically sync with your Google Assistant alarms in the morning. Just turn the feature on, set an alarm with the Assistant, and your bulbs of choice will slowly begin to fade up 30 minutes before it goes off.

Not just bulbs -- consider switches and plugs, too

If you're shopping for smart lights, you'll find the most options (and, for the most part, the lowest prices) by sticking with smart bulbs. That said, you should definitely consider adding smart plugs and smart light switches into the mix, too.

On the plug front, you'll find plenty of options for about $20 or less that can automate anything you plug in behind them. Use one with a lamp, and you'll be able to automate it to turn on and off whenever you want or by using voice commands, all while using whatever bulb you like. Smart plugs are also a great fit for alternatives like decorative string lights.

As for smart light switches, they're easier to install than you might think, and can save you money if you have a whole bunch of light bulbs wired to a single switch. Another smart switch benefit -- your automations and voice controls will continue to work even when the light is turned off at the switch.

And hey, speaking of switches... 

Smart bulbs don't work well with dimmer switches

At least not with old-fashioned ones. Smart bulbs come with their own, built-in dimming mechanisms, so when you use one in a fixture that's wired to a dimmer switch, the dual dimming mechanisms can clash, often causing the bulb to strobe unexpectedly as you dim it up and down.

The good news is that those built-in dimming capabilities are typically excellent, with smooth, precise brightness controls that won't flicker or buzz like you often see with dumb bulbs and traditional dimming controls. Just don't use them in a light fixture that already has its own dimmer and you'll be fine.

One other note -- we're seeing a growing number of smart dimmer switches that are designed to pair nicely with smart bulbs. Switches like those will give you old-fashioned, physical dimming controls at the wall that won't screw with your bulbs (or render them unreachable when you flip the switch off). An extra investment, for sure, but potentially worthwhile.

Different bulbs dim differently

While we're on the subject of dimming, it's worth noting that different smart bulbs might dim a little differently. That's because the human eye perceives brightness changes logarithmically, which is to say that you need a bigger drop in lumens when things are really bright in order to notice an actual change.

Some bulbs, like ones from Philips Hue and Lifx, account for this by using a logarithmic dimming curve that drops the light a little faster in the top half of the bulb's dimmable range (the 70% setting might actually give you 50% of the total lumen output, for instance). Other bulbs, like TP-Link Kasa LEDs, skip that approach and instead use a linear dimming curve that sticks to the specific percentage you're setting things to as you dim up and down. Dim a bulb like that to the 70% setting, and you'll get 70% of the bulb's total lumen output.

The noticeable difference between the two approaches is that you'll see more differentiation from setting to setting in the top half of the bulb's dimmable range if you're using a logarithmic bulb. Then, things flatten out in the bottom 20% or so. 

With a bulb that dims in linear fashion, you won't see as much of a difference between settings in the top half of the bulb's dimmable range because the light isn't dropping fast enough to account for the way our eyes work. That said, you'll definitely see more of a difference between those low-light settings. Neither approach is perfect, but if you're a stickler for dimming, both are worth understanding.