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It seems everyone is selling smart lighting products — from big box and specialty stores to local food markets. And that’s to say nothing about the many online stores out there! With so many vendors selling these products, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more manufacturers are getting in on the fun. In doing so, however, it becomes increasingly harder to tell the differences between one smart lighting solution and another.
Thankfully, we’ve done the research for you.
In this article, you’ll learn the differences between the three most popular smart home lighting standards and see some examples of each. Then, you’ll have a better idea which solutions are best for your home and lifestyle.
What Makes a Smart Bulb Smart?
As I’ve written previously, by definition smart lighting is a technology designed for energy efficiency. Unlike traditional LED bulbs, which are also energy efficient, smart lighting solutions offer automated controls that can make adjustments based on external conditions such as occupancy or daylight availability.
To determine whether a lighting product is smart, consider two simple giveaways. First, the product will have “Smart” somewhere in its title. Second, look at the product’s description for language indicating that it’s controllable through an app.
Smart lighting products must connect to your network and other devices wirelessly in some way. Increasingly, manufacturers have turned to one of three automation standards for this to happen: Bluetooth Smart, Wi-Fi, and ZigBee.
Bluetooth Controlled Smart Lighting
Bluetooth Smart (sometimes referred to as Bluetooth Low Energy) was first introduced in 2011 as “Bluetooth 4.0.” An extension of traditional Bluetooth, this standard is a wireless personal area network technology designed for applications in the home and healthcare, fitness, and security industries.
As its name suggests, Bluetooth Smart uses very little energy and operates in the 2.4GHz ISM band. As such, it has a short connection time with a high data rate. From there, it goes into “sleep mode” until a connection is re-established, hence the reason it uses little power.
Pros: Unlike ZigBee, as you’ll see below, you don’t need to buy a separate hub to use Bluetooth Smart light bulbs. Instead, you can use your smartphone or other controllers for communication. This solution makes sense if you don’t care what brand of smart lighting products you buy or you’d like to mix and match. On average, the price for Bluetooth Smart lights is lower than those that use other protocols.
Cons: Bluetooth Smart doesn’t allow you to control devices when outside of the range. In other words, you can’t control your lights outside of your home. Instead, you must schedule them to turn on/off at certain times BEFORE you leave home.
Another limitation: Bluetooth Smart only allows 1-to-1 connections, meaning a bulb can only be connected to one phone at a time. Therefore, if you’re in a home with multiple devices, only one of them can connect and control the bulbs at a time.
Solutions Worth Considering
The Ilumi lighting collection includes various types of bulbs. Like other solutions highlighted here, Ilumi bulbs don’t require a hub or bridge.
The Ilumi Smart Lighting app includes various presets and effects, rise and shine features, and the ability to sync with music. Better still, the app allows you to set a default color and brightness level when you turn on the bulb using a light switch.
The Flux Bluetooth Smart LED Light Bulb is a no-nonsense Bluetooth-enabled, multicolored, smart LED light that is controllable with a smartphone or tablet. The Flux bulb is $35 (or $100 for three). This bulb features a sunrise mode that can gently wake you up each morning.
Are you looking for something a little bit different? MagicLight Bluetooth Bulbs are dimmable, energy efficient, and available in multiple bulb styles starting at just $28 per bulb.
Wi-Fi Controlled Smart Lighting
When you think about home networking, you’re almost certainly thinking of Wi-Fi. This protocol is the way most of us connect our many devices to the outside world, including computers, mobile devices, smart televisions, video game controls, and much more.
Wi-Fi takes a lot of processing power, which isn’t a problem for devices that you can recharge overnight. However, it hasn’t always been the ideal solution forsmart home products such as light bulbs, window sensors, and the like. In recent years, however, Wi-Fi solutions have grown in popularity thanks to improved energy efficiency.
Pros: Wi-Fi bulbs will work wherever there’s a Wi-Fi connection. Additionally, because Wi-Fi connects to the internet, you can control these lights from anywhere on the planet.
Cons: If your Wi-Fi goes down for any reason, you can’t control these bulbs. And it’s important to note that Wi-Fi lights are generally more expensive than other solutions.
Great Wi-Fi Lighting Solutions
LIFX offers a full lineup of smart lighting solutions, including A19 and BR30. Besides offering 16 million color choices, the new LIFX+ lineup includes infrared capabilities, which enhance the vision of your home security camera.
With the Flux WiFi Smart LED Light Bulb, second edition, you can connect up to 50 bulbs from your Flux Wifi Pro app. You can control these bulbs individually or when grouped.
Would you rather have an all-in-one solution? TP-LINK offers an entire lineup of Wi-Fi smart lighting solutions, including white, color-changing, and dimming bulbs. These start for as little as $35 each.
ZigBee Light Link Connected Smart Lighting
Perhaps the most common smart home wireless standard is Zigbee. Like Bluetooth Smart, it requires little power consumption. Plus, because the standard works as a mesh network, the possible range is much greater through ZigBee Light Link.
Unlike Wi-Fi, which requires a router, mesh networks allow each device to have a wireless signal. In doing so, devices can talk to one another more directly. When one device drops out, alternative routes remain, allowing the whole system to stay online.
Pros: You can use ZigBee Light Link to connect hundreds of smart home devices at the same time while Bluetooth Smart has limits, at least for now.
Cons: The biggest criticism thrown at ZigBee is that it requires a smart hub for communication. These hubs usually add around $50 to the cost of your smart lighting solution. But for many users, $50 is a small price to pay for decreased connection difficulties.
The Cree Connected LED bulb produces soft white light and is one of the least expensive bulbs on the market. Once installed, these bulbs are easily dimmed or brightened via an app.
IKEA’s new lineup of lighting products, TRÅDFRI, includes LED bulbs, dimming kits, remote controls, and more. Each is reasonably priced compared to other solutions.
Finally, there’s the granddaddy of them all, the Philips Hue smart lighting system.
First introduced in 2012, the lineup now includes three types of smart lighting products in various shapes, sizes, and models.
Hue white and color ambiance lights provide the most complete experience, offering unlimited colors and the ability to sync with music, TV, and games.
Philips Hue white ambiance products offer a range of natural white light and are ideally suited for rooms where you wish to concentrate, read, and relax. Philips Hue white products provide comfort, dimming lighting for the least amount of money.
There are two more important points worth mentioning, and each has to do with compatibility.
First, it’s important to know that some lighting systems offer more than one standard. The most obvious example of this is Philips Hue, which, in addition to being compatible with Zigbee, also works with Wi-Fi.
Second, thanks to IFTTT, even smart lighting products that use different standards can work together. In other words, even if they aren’t compatible, your smart lighting solutions could be tied together using this free web- and app-based service.
Final Thoughts and Observations
When it comes to selecting an intelligent lighting solution for your home, I think it ultimately comes down to answering two questions. First, do you want the ability to control your lights outside of your home? And second, what are you willing to spend?
If you like the convenience of turning your lights on/off with your smartphone but don’t see the need to do this outside of your home, take a look at Bluetooth Smart solutions. You’ll find these are the least expensive on the market.
If you’re more into being cutting-edge, you can’t go wrong with either Wi-Fi or Zigbee, although please remember that the latter requires that you purchase a separate hub.
In my home, you’ll find a hodgepodge of smart lighting products that use different protocols. No, this isn’t a perfect solution, but one that slowly grew over time both out of convenience and due to changing technology.
Smart lighting products, like the overall smart home marketplace, continue to evolve and there’s no way of knowing what the future holds. In five years, for example, maybe we’ll be left with just one standard, rather than many. Or perhaps things will go in the other direction, and we’ll be dealing with more standards.
The bottom line? Take your time, shop around, and find the solution that’s best for your situation.
Which smart lighting solution do you use and why? Use the comments below and let us know.