13 Smart LED Bulbs: The Future of Lighting Control?

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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.


Mar. 15, 2013 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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 wizened 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

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.

Most of the new smart bulbs have companion handheld remotes or tabletop controllers. 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 (read a review of that networked LED light here) 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 …


 




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