Let there be smart light. The ideal way to stay in control of home lighting is by using your smartphone. Kieran Alger explains how and why.
If you’ve not yet joined the smart light revolution but are considering upgrading, you’ve come to the right place. This smart light beginner’s guide will let you know the pros and cons of smart lighting systems, how they work, why you might want them, the best smart lights to buy, how to approach smart light installation and everything else you need to know before you make the change.
We’ll help you make a clear decision on how your entire home lighting systems can be brought under the control of your smartphone.
Read our smart home beginner’s guide.
What is smart lighting?
Smart, connected home technology is fast growing trend and will, in a few years, be the norm. But what does it mean? At its most basic level making a gadget smart means connecting it to the internet, or directly to a phone, so it can be controlled via an app.
This is what the Internet of Things is all about. The aim here is to connect everything in the home to make life easier, help cut household builds and be kinder to the environment. In practice that means things like your sleep tracker detecting you’re awake and telling your smart thermostat to start the heating, for example.
One of the early pioneering categories in smart home technology, is smart lighting. The reason this has been a popular first step for many people is that it’s affordable, it’s easy to do and it can help make the home more secure.
Smart lights are usually connected to, and controlled by, an app. Some will connect directly to the home Wi-Fi connection while others connect directly to the phone via Bluetooth. They are then controlled via an app on your smartphone or tablet – usually iOS, Android or Windows Phone.
One of the great things about smart lights is that they can easily be screwed or slotted into normal light fittings and still be controlled by the light switch, should you want that. In most cases there’s no need for expensive and complicated installation.
Why should I upgrade? Smart lights pros and cons
The advantage of Wi-Fi enabled smart lights is the ability to control them from anywhere in the world. From a security perspective this is a great option as it’ll allow you to turn on a hall light, say, to make it look like you’re home with a simple tap on an app. It also makes programming your lighting much easier.
One advantage of going smart is that lots of these lights go beyond simple white light. You will be able to pick colours, lighting effects and set timers all from the app. Having a party? Just set the light to flash in multiple colours to create a club-like atmosphere – some even do it in time with your music. Settling in for the night with a good book? Set the light to a nice soft yellow and turn down the brightness to create a cosy feel. Some lights even recreate the effect of firelight, should you want to feel really comfy at home.
Beyond the light variants there are other advantages to going smart. One cloud-based service called If This Then That, or IFTTT, lets users set actions that occur as a result of others. So, it’s possible to set the app to activate smart lights in the home when it detects, based on your phone’s location, when you’re pulling into the driveway. Or perhaps you could have the lights turn on when a movement sensor like the Nest camera detects activity in the home when you’re away.
How much do smart lights cost?
Initially smart lighting was at a premium with only expensive options available. Thanks to crowd funded start-ups and a growing smart lighting market, that price has dropped, and some kits start at £30. There are still premium options but there are also more affordable smart lights that still do plenty.
How do I upgrade to smart lights?
The first thing you need to decide is where you want the smart lights. They can go into lots of light fixtures so you could have it as a main light from the ceiling or in a lamp.
Check the light fitting and make sure you have the correct one, be it bayonet or screw-in. Also make sure that the size of that fitting is correct. With that information you can then begin looking at smart light options safe in the knowledge that what you pick will fit.
Make sure you know what you’re looking for before you buy. If you want something future-proofed to connect to other smart home gadgets, you will want a Wi-Fi smartbulb.
If you want to get smart lighting bulbs on a budget then a locally connected Bluetooth enabled option might be better. Whichever you go for make sure your smartphone or tablet has software that can support the bulb.
If it’s new enough to be work with the latest iOS or Android OS then you’re likely going to be ok, presuming the bulb has an app on one of those platforms. Windows Phone apps for smart lighting are rarer so be sure to check the bulb works with that platform if Windows is what you’re using.
Which smart lights are best for me?
There are plenty of smart lighting options out there that offer different positives for everyone. From more affordable white-only lights to well connected families of lighting options, all the best are collated here.
One of the first names to pioneer the smart lighting world was Philips. Even now, four years on, the Philips Hue smart lighting is one of the most well known of them all.
The Philips Hue Starter Kit (£150) comes with three screw-in bulbs which each connect to the local Wi-Fi and can be controlled through the accompanying smart app.
Crucially thanks to its experience Philips has created an ecosystem that means the Hue bulbs will not only work with the dedicated app but play nice with a host of other apps and services. This is key as it means the future of smarthome controls, where one action leads to another automatically, is secure with Hue.
One of those previously quoted rough edges could be the price at £130 for a Starter Kit if you shop around, and a further £50 per bulb. While this sounds steep compared to normal lighting, bear in mind this is also a security investment, something which historically costs a lot of money.
They also come in either A19 or BR30 styles so should offer enough options to cover both standard lights as well as spotlight fittings.
It’s worth noting that Philips has more lighting options that fit into the same family, controlled via the bridge system that plugs into the router. This includes a £20 Lightstrip, which can be stuck to pretty much anything and offers variation in colour and intensity. There’s also the £50 Bloom, which offers wireless lighting for pretty much anywhere.
If the idea of a hub for controlling your lights sounds like hard work, there is a range of smart lighting that works directly from stand-alone bulbs, called LIFX. Born from crowd funding in 2012 the £80 LIFA bulbs offer a free companion app. You won’t be able to control light based on your location like you can with Philips Hue but variation in colour, intensity and effects like music visualiser and candle flicker are available.
Connect by TCP
For an even more affordable option there’s Connected by TCP which sells bulbs for as little as £15. These are white-only and will require a starter kit which includes the Wi-Fi connected hub, but it’s ideal for those looking to buy lots of bulbs to completely connect a home or office space. For around the £70 there’s a kit which includes two bulbs and a remote control.
One of the newest and more affordable of all bulb offerings is the GE Link. These come in three options, A19 at $15 (£10), BR30 at $20 (£15) and PAR36 floodlight at $25 (£18).
Each can be connected to, and controlled via, the GE Link Hub for $30 (£22) or Wink Hub at $50 (£36), which will allow for control of other Wink smart items.
Since Wink is a wide platform it should mean future-proofed expansion options while remaining affordable. The only caveat is these are US focused right now, but expect them to come to the UK in the future.
More recently smart lights have advanced to incorporate even more than just illumination. Playbulb is a big name in the market with plenty of lighting options all quickly built from the original and popular original smart bulb. But where these go further is in offering sound as well as smartphone controlled lighting.
The £60 Playbulb Original taps into the power of the fittings it is plugged into for light and sound. The £80 Playbulb Colour is a more recent offering that delivers multiple colour options as well as audio. The catch? Playbulb is Bluetooth connected rather than Wi-Fi. That means that it’ll work largely like a Wi-Fi bulb when connected to the app that controls it, but only locally. Don’t expect to control these bulbs from anywhere in the world via Wi-Fi.
The trade-off is the lower price despite coming with plenty of smart offerings. Also, since these act as speakers, they likely going to be used when you’re nearby and wanting to listen to the bulb’s built-in speaker.
The Playbulb range extends outside of the home with a garden offering too. For £40, there is a solar powered and IP65 water resistant option so you should be able to place it anywhere and control it via Bluetooth. It even comes with a spike so it can be pegged into the garden where it’ll work for a good 20 hours on a single charge. Plus it’ll sense when darkness falls and turn on automatically with colour and pulse lighting options to suit the mood.
Smart lighting is an easy, affordable and safe upgrade that can make life easier, right now. Why not give it a try?
Now read our beginner’s guide to smart homes.