Smart lighting is often the easiest, and most striking, way to build out your smart home. It enables you to simply speak a word and turn on your lights, as well as setting the mood and changing the colour. It's fun, it's visual, it's amazing.
But it's also growing at a fast clip, and the world of smart lighting is far more complex than it first appears. Sure, you can jump in with a brand like Philips or Lifx, but the fact is that many lighting companies use different underlying technologies to connect smart lights. What do they all mean? This guide will explain it all.
The connected tech behind smart bulbs
There are three major ways your smart bulbs connect to your smart home system. Each of these three methods has pros and cons, and some of them even require additional hardware to make them work with whatever smart home system you're running.
Zigbee and Z-Wave bulbs
The most popular connection methods, and arguably the most reliable, are smart bulbs that rely on the Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols to connect to your smart home. The great thing about using Zigbee and Z-Wave bulbs is reliability and versatility‚Ä¶ you should hardly notice any lag at all from sending a command to the light doing what you want it to.
Zigbee and Z-Wave are smart home protocols that are built to work in a big system connected by a hub. Thus, if you've got a Zigbee or Z-Wave smart bulb, you can connect it to pretty much any Zigbee or Z-Wave hub you have.
The most famous example of this is Amazon's Echo Plus and Philips Hue. Normally, you need a Philips Hue hub to run Hue bulbs. However, because the Echo Plus has a Zigbee hub built in, you can use Hue bulbs with the Echo Plus directly ‚Äď no Hue hub required. However, you are missing out on some of Philips custom features ‚Äď custom scenes and such.
Similarly, you can do things like use Ikea Tr√•dfri bulbs with Philips' hub. Essentially, because all of these bulbs use the same underlying technology, they can speak and connect with each other. You will not get some specific features that you'd normally get by sticking to one singular system, though.
The big drawback to Zigbee and Z-Wave smart bulbs is that you do need a smart hub of some sort. It could be a hub from a smart lighting maker, like Philips, or it could be from a third-party like Samsung, Wink, Matricom, Vivinit or others. This can cost you more money initially.
Smart bulb brands that use Zigbee or Z-Wave: Philips Hue, Sengled, Hive Active Lighting, Ikea Tr√•dfri and loads more.
The second most popular type of smart bulb is Wi-Fi. You know and love Wi-Fi, it's what connects most of your devices in your home to the internet. From your TV to smartphone to laptop to game consoles, there are likely a lot of devices in your home sucking on that sweet internet from your router.
Wi-Fi smart bulbs work in a similar way. Rather than connect to a hub via Zigbee or Z-Wave, they connect directly to the internet via your router. This enables them to be controlled with an app of some sort. They largely allow you to avoid buying a hub, which can make buying into them more affordable than the alternatives.
Wi-Fi bulbs aren't as easily connectible as Zigbee or Z-Wave bulbs. You need to connect them to an account with a manufacturer, like Lifx, and then you need to give the smart home service of your choice, like Amazon or Apple, access to that account to control them.
The other downside to Wi-Fi bulbs is that if you fill your house with them, you can drag down your internet. You may need a router or modem that can support a number of devices, because using a lot of smart bulbs could easily balloon the number of devices connected to your Wi-Fi. And, you may also notice some lag if your home network is busy.
Smart bulb brands that use Wi-Fi: Lifx, Eufy, Cree, Wiz.
The least popular connection type is Bluetooth, and that's for a reason. Sure, it might be cheap, allowing manufacturers to make absurdly affordable smart bulbs, but it's also surprisingly complicated.
Bluetooth bulbs connect to your smartphone and let you manage them that way. This is familiar and simple ‚Äď you've likely got headphones or wearables that connect in the same way. However, there are several downsides to Bluetooth bulbs that make them a pain.
The first is pairing. Most Bluetooth devices need to be in a pairing mode ‚Äď you know it well ‚Äď and the same is true for Bluetooth smart bulbs. C by GE is a good example of how annoying pairing a Bluetooth smart bulb is. You've got to turn them off and on and off and on and on and off until they're in pairing mode.
You also can't control them when you're out of the home, and if you want to use something like Alexa or Google Assistant, you need to buy a hub to make that possible. Thus, Bluetooth smart bulbs are the least convenient when it comes to building them into your existing smart home system.
Smart bulbs that use Bluetooth: C by GE
Why does connection type matter?
Now that you know about the three types of smart bulbs, what's even the point of it all? Well, when you're putting together your smart home, it's worth considering how all your devices are speaking to each other.
As you start to live among your smart home devices, you'll eventually come across moments where you notice seams in your setups. Maybe you slowly get tired of turning to individual apps to control your lighting or turn to unique features.
It's perfectly alright to not care about Philips' custom scenes, or not want to deal with Lifx's sometimes buggy app or C by GE's need for a hub. Sometimes you don't want to deal with all those apps and requirements and just want things to work.
To do that, you need to figure out the system you're building. If you want to make an Echo Plus the centre of your smart home, for instance, it could be worth going all in on Zigbee smart bulbs with no hubs. You're missing out on certain features, yes, but your life will be easier.
In fact, the biggest advantage of choosing the right bulb for your system is that you can group a bunch of them together. If you've got an Echo Plus or a Wink hub, it becomes very easy to group together Ikea, Philips and Sengled bulbs ‚Äď and you won't have to turn to those individual apps.
Also, once you've got your smart lights up and running it is, of course, easy to group them and control them with the popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. Alexa, for example, doesn't care a hoot if your 'Downstairs lights' group is a mish mash of different brands.
What about that other connection type?
Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the new glossary for bulb types, but lightbulbs have obviously been around for a long, long time. There are naturally more old school ways to identify bulbs, and you may come across them while you're shopping around for bulbs.
You'll see terms like A19, BR30 and GU10. What do these things mean? Well, they essentially signal what type of bulb you have. A19 is one of the most popular, a regular old bulb that you can plug in to most of your lamps and lighting fixtures.
GU10 is different, and rather than screw it in you've got a two-prong setup. They're basically modern, LED-based bulbs for halogen lamps. BR30, as you'll see from their form, are usually wider and bigger than most regular bulbs. These shine light in wider angles, covering more space. PAR30, on the other hand, is more directional and narrow, and they're mostly used outdoors in security situations.
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