OCT 28, 2021 / SmartHome

Is now the time to consider smart lightbulbs?

Lightbulbs, in one form or another, have been around for over 200 years. The first light bulbs were highly experimental, highly expensive, and not entirely practical up until Thomas Edison’s twist on the bulbs that had been produced before made it more practical for everyday use. We’ve shifted (largely) from those early incandescent filament lightbulbs into a world with compact fluorescent bulbs and, increasingly, LED lit lightbulbs. They’re lighter, brighter, safer, longer lasting and generally lower in their power usage.

Then there’s so-called “smart” lightbulbs. These are generally of the LED type, which means that they can not only be produced in different shapes and with differing intensities and base colours, but also depending on the precise make and model, can also be semi-programmable. That sounds complex, but for the majority of lights, it’s a simple matter of using a phone-based app to select the brightness, in some cases the colour temperature and in others the actual colour of the bulb to best suit your mood.

Smart app-controlled lightbulbs have been around for some years now, but what we’re increasingly seeing are lightbulbs that aren’t only smart in the app sense, but that are also smart to the world of personal digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri (and accompanying HomeKit platform), Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant. This means that with a little tweaking for your smart home speakers, you can control your lights, group them into sensible patterns for events such as parties, movie watching, or just when you get home after work or up at night to get a glass of water and much more all with just your voice. For want of a better term, they’re “smarter” lights.

There’s plenty of them, however, under a wide variety of brand names, all with slightly different features. So what should you look out for when buying smart light bulbs?

  • Will it work with my digital assistant? Some bulbs will work only with Google Assistant, or Alexa, or Siri. Some will work with all three. If you’ve got a mix of Amazon, Android and iOS devices, flexibility could be a big plus, but if you’re only using one platform, it doesn’t make sense to spend extra if you don’t have to.
  • What kinds of shapes can I get? Bulbs are bulbs, right? Well, not so much if you have fancy light fixtures they have to work around, or bulbs mounted vertically in walls. You may want to check if the brand you’re choosing offers alternate shapes or sizes to accomodate other light fixtures around them.
  • Can I do colours? Most lights will let you change the intensity of the brightness, and some may let you change the colour temperature, from cooler white/blue mixes to warmer white/yellow types. Others, however, offer a full disco style experience, so if you want that low red room for romance (or Halloween!), you can do it. Not a vital feature for some folks, of course, but if you want it and your brand doesn’t support it, it’s a problem.
  • E27 or B22? There are two common light fixture types worldwide. E27, often called the “Edison” or “screw” type uses a simple threaded screw to fit in, and is more common globally, but you may have B22, or “bayonet” types, distinguishable by the prongs that stick out from the sides and form the fixture point for your lights. If you’re looking at changing over your entire house over time, it’s worth checking each bulb, as some houses — especially those with a few years that may have seen a few odd electrical choices in their time — might surprise you.
  • Do I need new wiring, or a central hub? Some devices act as standalone bulbs with no need for a central hub, although this type often doesn’t work together in groups because of that fact. Other bulb types, such as the Philips Hue bulbs, work off a central “hub” device that acts as the brains. Check carefully before you start buying, because it makes sense to keep within the one system if at all possible.
  • Do you want remote control when you’re out of home? Internet-connected lights can be checked while you’re out, which is super-handy if you can’t remember if you’ve switched the lights off, or just want a light to go on for security reasons. Again, not all lights support that kind of functionality, and quite how well it works can depend on the speed and reliability of your Internet connection.
  • Do you already have dimming switches? If you’ve got existing dimmer switches for traditional incandescent lights, it’s worth checking how your brand of choice handles those. Most standard smart bulbs can dim themselves, but they don’t much like the electrical variance of an actual dimmer switch.
  • How quick do you want to change over? One of the nice things about integrating smart lighting solutions is that you don’t have to change every bulb all at once. A friend of mine is just about done with his switchover to smart lighting solutions, but he’s taken more than a year to do so, adding a bulb at a time and building up a full profile (in his case, through Google’s Home application) to cover everything from what happens when he gets home to how he wants his lights to dim when there’s an important match on he wants to watch.

While you will pay a little more for smart light bulbs, they can be very practical and useful for a wide number of scenarios. One of the more useful aspects, of course, is that they’ll still work just fine from regular light switches as well, and you generally don’t have to do any additional installation or wiring tricks to get them to work. If you buy one and decide they’re great, you can go the whole hog, but equally if you work out they’re not for you, you can simply use the bulbs you’ve already bought as regular lights, and leave it at that. Uninstallation is as simple as unscrewing a light bulb, and while there’s probably a terrible old joke in how many people that might take, typically it’s pretty easy.

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist