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13 Smart LED Bulbs: The Future of Lighting Control?

Are smart bulbs and sockets the best approach for lighting control? We have pros and cons plus 13 products implementing WiFi/Internet of Things, 6LoWPAN, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth.


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Philips Hue ZigBee Light Link-enabled LED bulbs, including the new tabletop RGB controller that debuted at CES 2013.

If CES 2013 and Kickstarter are anything to go by, our current centralized lighting control paradigm may soon give way to smart light bulbs and sockets wisened by the Internet of Things (WiFi), 6LoWPAN, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth and possibly a new RF protocol from Google under its Android@Home initiative.

What could be a simpler approach to home automation? Just replace your existing bulb with a fancy new one, and it’s at your command with a simple app.

What makes smart bulbs/sockets (almost) viable these days is the proliferation of LED lights which pack a brighter punch in a smaller form factor than incandescent bulbs of yore and even new energy-saving varieties.

Likewise, chip sizes and RF radios are itty bitty these days, allowing them to share space with a bulb in a standard recessed can.

Meanwhile, mass-market home automation providers like ADT, Vivint and Comcast/Xfinity, are spending tons of money to promote home automation including automated lights.

Consumers and the popular press finally are getting (and disseminating) the message that smart lighting offers security, convenience, ambiance and energy savings.

So it seems now is the time to give non-techy consumers a little taste of the stuff with the ultimate DIY lighting control – just screw in a new bulb or socket. So easy an editor can do it.

Here’s the Rub


Whoa there, hossy!

Setting aside the price of these smart bulbs, here’s big problem No. 1: You have to keep your light switch on all the time to use them.

Who cares? For starters, if you have one switch controlling multiple lights, all of the lights must be made smart.

But here’s the bigger problem: Do you really want to pull out your iPhone to turn lights on and off or to dim them? And what about kids and guests? How can they flip the lights?

To be sure, you can always use the light switches as usual, and then use the apps to set scenes or special effects from time to time. This, I predict, will be the usual scenario with these products, in which case users simply won’t use the smart functionality except for fancy special effects.

But no doubt someone will come out with a battery-operated light-switch-looking-thing that sticks on the wall next to the original switch to control the smart bulbs directly. Great, more wall clutter.

And most of the new smart bulbs have companion handheld remotes or tabletop controllers (check out this cool one for Philips Hue, shown at CES 2013).

And then there’s the price of these bad boys, which range from about $30 to $100 each, sans special controllers that might be needed to control the products with your smart phone.

Even with these shortcomings, the bulbs certainly have merit for isolated areas such as the baby’s room (fade off and on at bedtime and morning), party pad (color effects), outdoors (security and ambiance) or media room.

Shopping for Smart Bulbs


Besides the obvious features like bulb brightness and price, here are a few other features to consider when looking at smart bulbs or screw-in sockets.

Sockets vs. Bulbs
When your $50 - $100 bulb burns out, you have to replace it. A socket won’t burn out.

Wireless Technology
I’ve seen smart lights with WiFi, 6LoWPAN (IP over 802.15.4), Z-Wave, ZigBee, Insteon and Bluetooth.

You should consider the range of the RF technology and the reliability of the protocol.

Furthermore, it’s never a bad idea to consider whether or not the wireless technology is standards-based and if it is open to third-party controls. Also, can the devices be mixed-and-matched with other smart bulbs as they become available?

All Z-Wave products should work together. As for ZigBee, look for the new Light Link profile (implemented by Philips and Osram Sylvania, with others to come) that should enable RGB lighting controls for devices from disparate manufacturers.

A word of caution: Many of the smart bulb makers advertise their products as WiFi-enabled, but they’re really not. They require a special hub that connects them to the Internet.

Central Controllers
Much has been made of Insteon’s “networked” smart bulbs that can be controlled with your iOS device. What they don’t tell you is that you need an IP-enabled Insteon hub for this to work.

So unless you’re using WiFi- or Bluetooth-enabled smart bulbs, you’ll need some kind of hub to control the bulbs with your smart phone – because even the smartest of phones don’t (yet) have Z-Wave or ZigBee or other RF communications protocols built in. (You can’t count NFC because that requires close proximity.)

Remote Control via Internet
Now if you want to control the lights remotely via the Internet, you must have a WiFi bulb – the so-called Internet of Things – or else you will need a bridge to get the smart bulbs onto the home network.

RGB Lighting Effects
Some of the coolest new smart lights enable users to activate different color effects across the entire RGB spectrum.

Color Temperature
In the case of smart bulbs, are the whites white or are they yellow or bluish?

Control Application
How’s the app for that? Consider if it is user-friendly, if you can create scenes, if it is remotely controllable via the Internet ….



View the 14 photos attached to this entry
13 Smart LED Bulbs: The Future of Lighting Control?


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Article Topics

News · Product News · Slideshow · Home Automation and Control · Control Systems · Lighting · Energy Management · Led · Internet Of Things · Philips Hue · Insteon · Smart Bulbs · Greenwave Reality · Lifx · Spark. 6lowpan · Smart Sockets · Linkup · Lumen · All topics

About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]

21 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Bjørn Jensen  on  03/15  at  09:11 AM

Just a quick addition, for remote access to control your lights all you need is for the “hub”, or “host”, or whatever is the central control for the lighting system to allow one to specify an IP address of said device in the app used to control the lights.  In other words, it can’t just connect through auto-discovery.

If you can specify the IP address then you should be able to either use mobile VPN to connect to it or port forward to the device with your router.

For more info on this I suggest dealers sign up for the EST423 Remote access course at this years CEDIA EXPO!

Posted by Steven  on  03/16  at  06:50 AM

This whole piece is so flawed, you have ignored “lightwarerf” which is doing all of what you put in the “if only” section

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  03/16  at  07:17 AM

Hi, Steven, thank you for bringing LightwaveRF to our attention. It looks like a nice product. In fact, there are many solutions on the market just like this, which is the traditional way of handling lighting control.

The idea of putting the intelligence into the bulb itself, rather than the switches and hubs, is the new paradigm we’re watching. The point is to NOT have to replace your existing switches/dimmers (or am I missing something with Lightwave?)

Thanks again, I’ll take a closer look at the product.

Posted by Ernie Gilman  on  03/16  at  08:28 AM

As I see it, the article says everything except the status of the situation: there’s lots of stuff out, there’s lots of confusion, people are just beginning to see that it’s a good idea, we’re probably three years away from a system used widely enough to be a de factor standard, and this is the greatest thing to hit lighting since the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, when Edison lost the bid and Tesla lit up the place.  Yes, really!

Just six months ago I heard a lighting designer say LED lighting would all be CAT5—he obviously has no idea of the real current required by these lights; to him low power means low current.

We need articles like this to tell us the state of the art.  And remember that ‘state of the art’ does not mean ‘bleeding edge’—it means “this is how we do it.”

There’s a long way to go but this is wonderful!

Posted by Bjørn Jensen  on  03/16  at  08:31 AM

^^Like^^

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  03/16  at  08:36 AM

Bjorn—You like me? You like yourself? You like the article? You like smart bulbs? You like Greek yogurt?

Posted by Bjørn Jensen  on  03/16  at  08:37 AM

All of the above Julie (don’t tell my wife).  But I was pointing (^^) to the comment above mine made by Mr. Gilman.

Posted by Bernard  on  03/16  at  09:19 AM

I just want an led light that lowers its color temp with voltage.  That way the led light turns orange when very dim like an incandescent.  Current dimmable LEDs look good at full brightness but look like dim fluorescents when dimmed because their color temp doesn’t go below 2700k.

Posted by John  on  03/16  at  09:26 AM

I’m not sure I like the idea of big companies like Philips’ providing/selling me “hubs” to control the lights. I’m willing to bet there will be a discovered back door in that thing so whatever company sold it to you can get through.

Call me paranoid but I see the future of products like these being used in a controlled state lights out policy.

Posted by Bjørn Jensen  on  03/16  at  09:36 AM

@John….you may be right but any “back door” they can create is easily stopped by a good firewall with the right configuration.I know someone who can do that for you. wink

Posted by Sean  on  03/16  at  11:33 AM

I have replaced all my bulbs in my apartment with Philips LED bulbs.  After a month, I am quite satisfied with the light output, I do wish the controller itself was smarter and wasn’t just a dumb bridge that it appears it really is.  Other than that, the quality of the bulb is quite good.  Each bulb seems to be very high quality and they seem to have the same color ranges.  I am interested in why smart bulb manufacturers have not implemented the Ethernet over Power standards, in the very low bandwidth variety.  That seems to be one of the best methods, to get around problems with RF range.

Posted by Jim Budrakey  on  03/16  at  10:49 PM

I have many lights in my home controlled using the fairly ancient X-10 protocol introduced by BSR back in the mid ‘70s. You could by them at Radio Shack. Now in 2013 they are still working fine and newer models are available on e-bay. By the way, the X-10 web site does not have the best prices.

Posted by Eric Smith  on  03/18  at  07:49 AM

Julie, 

As we have discussed before, I still believe that if you need to replace the switch to make sure that the light bulb is always on, and to provide a mechanism to control the light when you do not want to dig out your phone to turn the light on, that you should just put a smart switch on the wall rather than a smart bulb in the socket, but I now do believe that there is a compelling reason to have a smart bulb and a smart switch.  With LED lighting comes the possibility of color control, and I do believe that for many this will be of value.  Using existing wiring this is not really possible from a wall box lighting controller without some sort of smart fixture or bulb.  I think an ideal solution would be a smart bulb paired with a simple light switch that always passes power through to the bulb and that has the ability to send RF signals to the bulb for simple control.  I would make the switch simple (just sending on/off signals) and leave the fancy configuration of colors etc. to a smart app.

Posted by skent  on  03/18  at  08:43 AM

@Eric Smith

Philips Hue does that. The standard switch on the wall will turn the bulb on to 100% light with no colors. It essentially is a reset button.

As far as fears about the a backdoor Philips just released their API and SDK to developers last week.

Big things are coming as once software developers get a hold of this very cool things will happen.

As a preview check out ifttt.com.

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  03/18  at  08:49 AM

@skent ... I did not know that. It’s an important feature.

Thanks.

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