Smart light bulbs—LED-based bulbs that can be controlled by a hub or smartphone app—are no longer a new idea. What is new is how far this technology has come since its advent just a few years ago. Also new: Products like the Nanoleaf Aurora—a system of interlocking LED panels that let you decorate with light—fundamentally change the light-bulb concept.
Smart bulb buyer's cheat sheet
- Best color LED smart bulb:Philips Lighting Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Bulb Starter Kit (Hub and 4 bulbs)[amazon.com]
- Best white LED smart bulb:Philips Hue White Ambiance A19 Starter Kit[amazon.com]
- Best semi-smart LED bulb:Feit Electric Intellibulb ColorChoice[amazon.com]
- Best smart bulb to pair with a security camera:LIFX+[amazon.com]
Smart LED bulbs aren’t quite a commodity, but they are getting close to maturity as far as the market goes (the Aurora being an exception). Today’s bulbs are more compact, much brighter, have better color representation, and, for the most part, feature control apps that do more than ever and are easier to set up. Prices have also come down, with some no-name color-tunable bulbs now available for less than $10 each. (Buyer beware: You get what you pay for.)
Updated July 17, 2018 to add our opinion of the Sengled Element Color Plus Starter Kit, which consists of a ZigBee hub and two color-tunable LED smart bulbs. The primary appeal of this kit is that it's about $20 cheaper than the similar two-bulb Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit ($99 at Amazon). Philips, however, offers a much larger ecosystem of compatible smart bulbs and luminaires.
Latest smart lighting news
- Nanoleaf is now shipping a quirky remote control for its equally quirky Aurora smart LED lighting products, the Aurora and the Rhythm. You can read our take on the Nanoleaf Remote here.
- Philips is now shipping a range of new outdoor luminaires in its Hue line, including a short bollard for colored pathway lighting called Calla ($130), and a three-piece expandable color spotlight kit called Lily ( $280). Included accessories give you the option of staking these devices into your landscaping. Philips also announced three new wall-mounted lights: The Inara and Lucca wall lanterns ($50 each), and the $130 Ludere floodlight. The lanterns feature Hue White bulbs, while the floodlight comes with a pair of Hue White PAR38 bulbs.
White LED bulbs are smart, too
With their rainbow of hues and myriad party tricks, color LEDs get all the press in the world of smart lighting. It’s fun stuff, but the reality is that most of us will rarely find much of a need to turn all the lights in the house blue or red—unless it’s time to celebrate our team winning the World Series. Even then, you’ll probably want to turn them all back to white after the celebration.
White light is also important in its own right, as today there is plenty of science to show how various shades of white—with variations in color temperature—impact our psychological state. Cool light that’s closer to blue has an energizing effect, and is best in the morning. Warm light is relaxing, and is best after the sun goes down. If, like a growing number of us, you work where you live, chances are you don’t spend any effort switching bulbs out twice a day in order to optimize your lighting environment.
Now you don’t have to. Enter smart “white” light bulbs. Like their color brethren, white bulbs are designed to integrate with the smart home, letting you control your lights via a smart phone, set timers when you’re away from home, and (in many cases) tweak the color temperature of the bulb on the fly. These typically downplay the party features that are a staple of color-tunable bulbs, and many are a bit less bright than their color brethren. On the other hand, white smart bulbs are invariably less expensive than color bulbs, making it more affordable to roll them out in multiple rooms.
We’ve tested just about every color and white LED smart bulb on the market. You’ll find links to all of our reviews at the bottom of the page, and we’ll update this story as new models are introduced. You’ll find our top picks next, followed by a discussion of the features you should look for in LED smart bulbs.
Best color LED smart bulb
Philips was one of the first players in this market, and the company’s experience shows. Its Hue color ambiance bulbs haven’t changed much since their introduction in late 2012, but the new bulbs last a lot longer and the company continues to add new shapes, sizes, and accessories to its lineup. The Hue app has also improved significantly, and Hue bulbs are available in a broad range of form factors, including BR30, PAR, GU10, and A19 in addition to stand-alone devices like the Philips Hue Phoenix. Note: The price shown above is for a three-bulb starter kit that includes the required Philips Hue Bridge. Additional bulbs cost $59.99 each.
Yes, we did award the LIFX 19 a higher score than the Philips Hue. Philips earned its “best” nod by virtue of the Hue system’s broad collection of styles and its numerous compatible accessories. LIFX no longer has just A19 and BR30 form factors to offer, and we really like its unique LIFX+ (which has an array of infrared LEDs that will help your home security camera see in the dark), but Philips still delivers even more diversity.
Best white LED smart bulb
Our choice won’t surprise anyone who’s been following this market. Philips dominates the smart bulb market, and is also our top pick for best color LED smart bulb. The latest Hue bulbs deliver high-quality light, last for tens of thousands of hours, and are backed by a strong warranty.
And while it would be easy for Philips to sit back and expect the industry to conform to it as the de facto standard, it has instead worked hard to ensure its products are compatible with other technologies, including Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Google Home. Plus, Philips Hue bulbs are available in more form factors than any other manufacturer, including the ubiquitous A19 (the most common), BR (bulged reflector), PAR (parabolic reflector), GU (glass reflector with a U-shaped, dual-pin base), and a host of specialty shapes and sizes.
If you want a smart white-only bulb that doesn't require a smart home hub, the LIFX Mini White is a great choice. While it's slightly dimmer than the full-size LIFX bulb, it produces a 60-watt-equivalent 800 lumens.
Best semi-smart LED bulb
We debated including any of Feit Electric’s Intellibulbs in this category, because they technically don’t fit our definition of a smart bulb. They don’t have Wi-Fi, ZigBee, or even Bluetooth radios, so they can’t be controlled via an app, and they can’t be scheduled or incorporated into a broader smart home system in a meaningful way. Heck, we weren’t even impressed with many of them as light bulbs to begin with. But for those who just want a simple means of changing of changing the color temperature of the light in a room, the Intellibulb ColorChoice is an ingeniously simple solution.
Best smart bulb to pair with a security camera
Most home security cameras are equipped with infrared LEDs to deliver a semblance of night vision. the LIFX+ is equipped with infrared LEDs of its own, which are active even when the bulb is turned off via software. Infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, but the LIFX+ can bathe a room in it so that your security camera can see more of the room and in more detail than it can with its own infrared LEDs.
Smart light bulb protocols and features
Three control technologies continue to vie for leadership in the smart bulb market (Z-Wave is a major contender in smart lighting, but you won’t encounter it in bulbs—just in switches, plug-in modules, control panels, and smart-home hubs).
- ZigBee: Bulbs that use the popular smart-home networking protocol require a bridge to communicate with your home Wi-Fi network. This is the technology Philips has adopted for its Hue lineup, but it’s not the only one.
- Wi-Fi: This class of bulb talks directly to your Wi-Fi router, no hub or bridge required. LIFX is the only major vendor marketing color Wi-Fi bulbs today.
- Bluetooth: These bulbs skip your home network altogether and pair directly with your smartphone or tablet. As such, they can’t be controlled from outside your home. GE and a number of other manufacturers make Bluetooth bulbs, some of better quality than others.
Each of these technologies has pros and cons, so before you attempt to settle on a specific bulb, first try to determine which tech is right for you. If you want to hook your bulbs into a broader smart-home system—such as SmartThings or Nest—Bluetooth bulbs are out. You can control more than one bulb with your phone, but you can’t connect it to sensors or other systems inside your home. Don’t like the idea of pairing a bulb to your phone? A Wi-Fi bulb will work best for you, though you won’t have quite as many options as you’ll find with a ZigBee product.
Smart bulb, or smart switch?
There’s a significant argument about the best way to install smart lighting, and two approaches present themselves. You can either go with expensive smart bulbs and control them all individually, or you can use cheap dumb bulbs and install smart switches to control all the lights on that circuit. Both approaches make sense: With smart bulbs, the biggest issue is cost, but there’s also complexity to deal with. While bulbs can usually be grouped based on location, this is only as intuitive to manage as the bulb control app.
Smart switches, on the other hand, are far more complicated to install—to the point where some users might be uncomfortable dealing with exposed wiring and would prefer to hire an electrician. Smart switches, however, provide more flexibility in many installations.
Habituated from years of flipping hard-wired switches, many users (or their children) will instinctively use the wall switch to turn the lights out when they leave a room. Once that happens, all the apps in the world won’t be able to turn the light back on until the switch is returned to the on position. While this won’t be an issue if you install smart switches, they can’t change a bulb’s color or color temperature.
That said, smart bulbs, no matter what the technology, still won’t be right for everyone. Notably, most of these bulbs cannot be dimmed via a hardwired wall switch (it messes with the power going to the radio, rendering them useless). Some will fail even if a dimmer is present on the circuit and dialed up to full power. And while today’s bulbs are brighter than ever, they’re still dim by “dumb” bulb standards. But the quality of light from an LED bulb is likely to be much, much better.
The good news is that bulb prices are going down, so it’s easier to get started with smart bulbs and less punishing should you find that a product doesn’t work for you. That said, we want to get you started on the right foot. So without further ado, here are deep dives into the most worthwhile color and white LED smart bulbs on the market.