Hands On: TCP Wireless LED Lighting System

System offers users a good taste of the smarthome lifestyle

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Update 11-14-13: It took a little while for this system to offically launch, but it’s now on the market, though the package offered has changed from the pre-production system in this review. The package now includes three bulbs instead of four and costs $142 instead of $200. As of November 14, 2013, you can get the system for $109 at Home Depot.

The TCP Wireless LED lighting kit is a simple way for anyone to get a taste of what a smart home is like. For some people it may be all they need, but for a lot more it will probably be the gateway drug that leads them to more adventurous home automation projects.

I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit this, but the TCP Wireless kit has been my family’s favorite gadget since I set it up a few weeks ago. That’s saying a lot, since I regularly review some of the industry’s best TVs, audio systems, media servers and similar home entertainment products. But the simplicity of being able to control a room’s lights via an iPhone has really captivated them.

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That’s actually some of the magic of lighting control products. Until you try it, you probably can’t imagine what the big deal is. I mean, what’s so hard about flipping a light switch, right? The truth is that nothing’s hard about it, but being able to press one button on a smartphone to turn off a whole house full of lights is pretty cool, and convenient. Add to that the ability to individually adjust dimness levels and create custom lighting scenes on the fly, and you’ve got convenience and coolness squared.

So back to the product at hand. I picked up the TCP Wireless LED lighting kit at this year’s Lightfair expo where the product was being introduced to the public (an essentially identical system under the GreenWave Reality brand launched in other markets). The $200 kit includes four 60 watt equivalent LED light bulbs for standard screw-in sockets; a gateway station that connects to your router; and a remote; also important is the downloadable app (for iOS and Android).

Each bulb has a built-in wireless radio that works on the 6LoWPAN protocol. The bulbs communicate to the gateway, which is a small box you plug into your network router. The lights can be controlled either with the remote or with a smartphone app. There is no limit to the number of phones you can download the app to.

In fact the app is pretty much a requirement (if you’re not a smartphone user then stick to manually operating your lights) for setting the system. Once you’ve connected the gateway and screwed all the light bulbs in, you use the app to identify each light and configure it. You can assign it to a room, give it a name and even select a picture icon for it. The app allows you to take a picture with your phone and use that as the light icon. I snapped pictures of each lamp and used them to easily identify the lights in my app.

Since the gateway establishes its own independent wireless network to the bulbs, the only Wi-Fi connection is between your smartphone and the gateway.

Once that process (which only takes a few minutes for the whole kit of bulbs) is done, you simply need to tap the lamp icons to turn them on or off. Sliding controls also allow you to dim each bulb individually or treat them as groups to dim them all at the same level.

Beyond the basics, you can use the app to program lighting scenes (such as a morning scene, dining scene and TV viewing scene), then press the button for your scenes to put all the lights in that group into the proper scene mode. You can add timers to make scenes engage automatically. For instance, you might set up a wake up scene that turns on your bedroom, bathroom and kitchen lights at the same time.

The system also works remotely. If you create an account and password, you can log on via the Internet and operate your lights with your smartphone or a web-connected computer. This is nice for checking which lights were left on, turning on lights to make it look like you’re home, or freaking out the babysitter when you’re out.

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All that sounds, and is, pretty cool. $200 seems like a great deal for so much functionality, but are there tradeoffs?

First, if you’re accustomed to walking up to a wall switch or leaning over to turn out a lamp, you’ll have to give that up. Once you’ve handed over your lights to the wireless system, you HAVE to use it. In order for the bulbs to work (for the built-in radios to function) the light switch or lamp has to remain in the ON position. If you turn a light off with the switch, then you can’t turn it on again with the app (or remote) because the bulb’s radio can’t receive the signal. This means that if you walk into a dark room you have to fish in your pocket for your phone, open up the app, wait for it to communicate with the network, and then press the icon to turn on the light. That’s actually not such a big deal if you’re like me and have your phone with you all the time, but if you put your phone (or tablet…) down in another room, forget where you put it, or let someone else use the tablet to watch Netflix movies, then you can’t operate your lights.

In the time that I’ve used the system, this hasn’t been a problem, but I can see how it might chip away at the convenience factor sometimes. Also, visitors won’t be able to easily operate lights unless you’re there with them (there’s a remote, but only one).

Another possible issue is with the bulbs themselves. You get four of them in the starter kit, and the company says they have a 10-year lifespan, but that’s no guarantee. Replacement bulbs are about $30, but LED lights use so little energy that they’re still a cost savings. One of the bulbs in my kit didn’t work reliably, but this was a preproduction sample. If you get 10 years out of the bulbs, then they will have more than paid for themselves. (Note: TCP also makes wireless CFL bulbs which cost $19.99 each)

My family tells me that they really like the system, even with some of the drawbacks I pointed out. They all say they’d love to be able to expand it to more lights in the house (one of my daughters says she likes to read in bed with all the room lights on and would love to be able to turn them off without having to get out of bed).

Currently TCL only has the bulbs available in standard socket size, so if your house is full of sconces, chandeliers or other non-standard bulb formats, you’re out of luck. The system can support 50 bulbs (a reader corrected me to say that the system supports 250 lights, though I haven’t confirmed this yet).

I spoke to GreenWave, which developed a lot of the technology for the system, and was told that wireless light switches, dimmers and wireless appliance modules were also in the works. Those would be welcome additions and would solve the problem of wall sconces and other light configurations.

The TCP Wireless light kit is a great starter system for someone who wants wireless control over a few lamps and the ability to control the lights remotely. The amount of custom configuration in the app is admirable. It doesn’t allow you to change the color of the light output like the Philips Hue system. It’s somewhat similar to other products out from companies like Insteon and Belkin, so compare all the features and pricing first. If you want to go beyond controlling a few lights and want the light app to be integrated with other control features (shades, thermostats, security, audio/video), then you need to look into more advanced control systems from companies like Lutron, Control4, Elan, Crestron, AMX, URC, Savant and others.

TCP Wireless LED Kit

http://www.tcpwireless.com/

$200
4 LED bulbs
1 wireless gateway
1 remote
iOS and Android app

More about lighting control:
Control4 Expands Lighting Control Products
The Bright Future of Smart Lighting
Honeywell Adds Support for Lutron Lighting
LEDs Are the Future of Lighting Control
The Importance of Pathway Lighting

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