Your lights are boring – fix that with some smart lamps. The proliferation of low powered LED lighting has meant manufacturers are able to add features like wireless interfaces and RGB colour changing LEDs to the otherwise drab world of mood lighting fixtures. What exactly is a smart lamp, and what’s out there?
What’s So Smart About Them?
“Smart” is generally a term given to a device once it gains the ability to communicate with other devices and software, enhancing its functionality. In the case of lamps, this could be as simple as turning on and off via a mobile app, but it wouldn’t make for a very compelling experience. The new generation of smart lamps can change colour, adjust brightness, react to music and much, much more.
Philips offers the most expansive and feature-rich product line under the Hue and Friends of Hue branding, consisting of the standard plug-in bulbs that can be placed into existing light fittings and lamps, as well as RGB light strips, and a freestanding 120 lumen floodlight called Bloom. There’s a range of apps available that can interact with your lights (thanks to an extensive API that any programmer can interact with), including an innovative app from Disney that changes the colour to match the scene in the story, an Ambilight extension for your Philips TV, and even some IFTTT recipes.
It doesn’t come cheap though: a starter pack of base station and 3 Hue bulbs costs $200, with additional accent lighting at around $80-100 each. Each base station can handle up to 50 lights, but reviewers have noted that even with a mix of 5 lights in a single room, it still appears dark.
Lifx offers a plug-in bulb to retrofit your own lamps, and began life as a Kickstarter; they’re now available for $99 each. There’s a range of apps, but not nearly as much support as the Hue. The bulbs themselves give out a healthy 1000 lumens of light, almost twice as much as the Hue’s 600. Apart from being a little brighter, there’s little to recommend the Lifx, and reviewers have noted numerous bugs with the control software. Steer clear.
An overpriced piece of milled aluminium with a few dim RGB LEDs; my review of the Holi “Smart” Mood lamp showed it was actually rather dumb. With a custom mobile app to select from various dynamic and static lighting scenes, a music reactive mode that only works if you play songs from within the app, and a broken sunrise alarm mode – the lamp was also not really bright enough to use in anything other than total darkness.
Belkin’s WeMo is a wider brand of fully integrated home automation devices, and have recently decided to expand the range with basic warm white 800 lumens plug-in bulbs (though no colour changing). The starter set of 2 bulbs and a base station is expected to cost $99, and will integrate with existing WeMo products and apps. Like the Hue, WeMo has a wide range of apps and IFTTT recipes for ultimate automation.
And The Rest
LuMen is unremarkable with about half the light output of Lifx, at half the price ($50); it also works over Bluetooth, not WiFi, so you’ll need to be within range.
LG unveiled their own very low output inexpensive smart bulb that adds features like flashing when you receive a call, but its only available in Korea at the moment.
The DIY Option
You could pay ludicrously inflated prices for lights that barely give off a noticeable amount of light, or you could go the DIY route – making something far brighter, for a fraction of the cost. On the downside, the software won’t be nearly as polished.
For about $20, you can buy a 5 meter strip of RGB LEDs directly from China – including controller and power supply. 5 metres is more than enough for most mood lighting projects, but you can extend or shorten them easily. A standard RGB controller works with infra-red (just like your TV), so any programmable universal remote – such as the Harmony Ultimate we reviewed here – can be customized to control the lighting too.
Once you throw a low cost Arduino or Raspberry Pi into the mix, the DIY difficultly ramps up but the possibilities are endless. Just last month I showed you how to hook up Siri to control the lights using a third party proxy service and Arduino network server (no jailbreak required!)
Should You Buy A Smart Lamp?
Though the promise of interconnected lighting is exciting, the current offerings are overpriced and incompatible with each other, so you’ll be stuck with the choice you make. Right now, I’d put my money on the Philips Hue – with the most extensive product line and an open API for developers, they have by far the most support.
Hopefully, the Smart Home API Apple is bringing to the table in iOS8 will serve to combine these various standards and allow greater interoperability, but I remain healthily skeptical.