For most people, the first part of setting up their smart home is investing in some smart light bulbs. Smart lighting, especially when coupled with a smart speaker, is pretty much hassle-free (unless you class unscrewing and screwing lightbulbs as hassle).
And it's not just all Philips Hue nowadays - there are plenty of Hue alternatives. But choosing the best smart lighting isn’t an easy affair, though. There are a plethora of sizes, shapes, colours and styles on offer, from a huge array of different brands.
Rather than picking individual devices for this smart lighting buyer’s guide, we’ve instead picked what we believe to be the best smart light platforms – after all, you’re much more likely to go all-in with one particular system, rather than scattering various brands across your home.
Smart light bulbs: Things to consider
Do you want coloured lights? Different shades of whites? Do you want to replace your existing bulbs with smart equivalents or are you looking for mood lighting from lamps and light strips? Do you want to control your lights from HomeKit, by speaking to Alexa or with a physical control? Have you got money to burn or are you looking for smart lights on a tight budget?
This guide will tell you what our favourite platforms can and can’t do, what sizes and shapes are available, and what ecosystems they are compatible with, so you don’t get overwhelmed by the huge array of options available in smart home tech’s most ubiquitous genre.
The good news is that, across all the brands we’ve selected, you should be able to find exactly the smart lighting setup you’re seeking – or it may even be that you want to mix and match across multiple brands. That’s fine to do – Alexa, HomeKit and Google Assistant will pull multiple bulbs from different companies into the same place on your phone (and even let you group them together for mass-actions) with no hassle at all.
Also, if you’re tech-savvy and don’t mind a bit of fiddling about you can even get them working within your favourite smart lighting app: Big name smart bulbs from the likes of Philips Hue, Ikea Trådfri, GE and Osram are part of the Zigbee Light Link standard protocol and there are ways of getting them all syncing up within a dedicated app outside of the main ecosystems.
So, whether you want to just spend $10 on a single white smart bulb, or you’ve got a bit extra to splash out on a multi-room lighting setup – here’s our pick of the top five smart lighting brands you can buy right now…
Philips Hue is the smart lighting granddaddy – the first Hue bulb was switched on back in October 2012. It’s the original and it’s still the best in our eyes.
You don’t actually need a Philips Hue Bridge to get involved – you can just use a Hue Dimmer switch – but you’ll be limited to just a simple dimming light situation, for up to 10 bulbs, which won't get you access to advanced features like colour control or schedules. You'll probably want to get started by hooking up a Bridge to your router and go from there. If you’re anything like us you won’t stop until every light in your house is Hue’d-up.
Once you have a few bulbs, lamps and light strips synced up with your Bridge – a doddle using Philips’ redesigned app – you’ll be able to assign rooms, create custom scenes, set timers and so on. The quality of the light – both on the white and colour bulbs – is superb with white temperatures between 2200K and 6500K and over 16 million colours on offer. You’ll struggle to find a light fitting that isn’t catered for either and Philips also makes its own lamps and light fittings with Hue built in too – there are almost 50 different shapes and sizes to choose from.
The Hue app is clean and you can even control your bulbs when you’re away from your house if you’ve created a Hue account and logged in within the app. The app even knows if you’re home or away, so it knows if you’ve left the lights on by mistake (or whether to turn them on as you arrive home).
But what really sets Hue apart is the ease in which you can get your connected bulbs singing and dancing with your other smart home kit. The Friends of Hue program includes the likes of IFTTT, Xfinity and Logitech, and smart home platforms including Works with Nest, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit and Amazon Alexa have been added in the last few months too, meaning voice controls for turning your lights on and off, as well as extra security measures like having all of your lights turn on if motion is detected by a certain camera, or having your lights all flash red if your Nest Protect detects Carbon Monoxide.
Using HomeKit or IFTTT you can also create elaborate scenes across all of your connected tech such as having your temperature set to your perfect sleeping level, while at the same time having your lights switched off, your blinds closed and your alarm armed. The scenarios are seemingly endless and the simplicity of Hue working in tandem with these platforms is one of the reasons it’s the starting point for many people’s smart home setups.
Check out our ultimate Philips Hue guide for a run-down of every feature.
Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, B22, GU10, PAR16, mains.
- The original and still the best
- Huge choice of bulbs and fittings
- Friends of Hue platform
- Not the cheapest
- Still reliant on Hub
- Default scenes won’t go away
A couple of years ago, Lifx would have just been one of the many tiny blips on the smart bulb radar. However, the platform that started life originally as a Kickstarter project, Lifx is now a worthy rival to Philips Hue, with 16 million colours – 1,000 shades of white alone – and Wi-Fi bulbs with maximum brightness at 1,100 lumens. And best of all, Lifx bulbs don't need a hub.
That’s right – all you have to do to get some Lifx into your life is to screw one of the bulbs into a light socket and you’re good to go. Lifx lighting has Wi-Fi built in so it can speak to your smartphone app or your smart speaker directly. Setup is about as easy as gets in the smart lighting worlds.
The Lifx range of bulbs is ever growing – we had a mixture of white, colour, Mini and lightstrip models on test – and each one behaved as well as the last, with minimal fuss pairing not only with the superb Lifx app, but also with an array of smart assistants.
The light quality is great with Lifx; 2500 – 9000K white light on the top models and that Hue-matching 16 millions colours as mentioned, and while some people were put off by the flat head bulbs of the original line-up, the new Mini range do look a lot more like ‘real’ light bulbs, albeit with a reduced and fixed (2700K) white light quality.
Where Lifx outdoes Hue, in our opinion, is with its integrated features when it comes to pre-set configurations and effects. Sure, Hue has an ecosystem of third-party apps that let you do pretty much anything you’d want from your lights – but Lifx puts neat functionality such front and centre of the app. We’ve had a lot of fun testing the various effects on offer – ‘Spooky’ was particularly good on Halloween – and the Day & Dusk function makes it super simple to get more natural and useful lighting throughout the day without having to faff around in the app, sliding the brightness and warmth wheel around.
Lifx taps into all the major smart home setups – Alexa and Google Assistant integration is mega easy but, HomeKit is a bit longer winded – especially if you bought your Lifx bulbs pre-HomeKit compatibility went live and you have no sticker to scan. If this is the case (as it was for us) you’ll have to go through a painful reset option to virtually get that HomeKit code.
However, once all paired up everything works seamlessly and Lifx is also one of the best platforms for syncing up with the likes of IFTTT for instant alerts via your connected bulbs.
Bulb for bulb, Lifx is actually a shade more pricy than Hue but, don’t forget, you don’t have to shell out for a separate hub to make it all work.
Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, B22, GU10, mains.
- No hub
- Great quality lighting
- Excellent smart home integrations
- Still quite expensive
- HomeKit setup can be annoying
- Flat headed bulbs not the slickest
Hive Active Light
Previously not included in our round up because lighting was second fiddle to the rest of Hive’s (decent) smart home ecosystem, new additions make Hive Active Lights a recommended smart bulb platform in its own right.
Hive has introduced white and full colour bulbs, all controllable from within the Hive app – and by Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers. You do need the Hive Hub for these guys to work, as they run on Zigbee, but that means they’re less prone to outages, and in over a year of using Hive, we’ve never experienced problems.
If you’re not using Echo or Google Home, then the Hive app has some decent features including Recipes for automating actions. These work particularly well with the Hive View camera and the Hive Active Door Sensors, so you can have the lights come on automatically when you arrive home. That’s a really neat feature and a benefit of buying into the Hive ecosystem over just a smart bulb platform.
The only downside of the platform is that it’s not quite as fast as Philips Hue or Lifx. The bulbs are a touch lethargic to turn on and off – although it’s only something you notice when using the two systems side-by-side.
But it’s new additions to the Hive lighting platform that have really caught our attention. First is that the company has just released its smart GU10 spotlight bulbs in the UK. They’re £15 a pop, and you get six for £70 – which works out as good value in our book. They’ll be dropping in the US shortly.
And the final change is that Philips Hue bulbs can now work as part of your Hive lighting set up. If you’re using a voice assistant to unify bulbs that’s not big news, but it means that if you already have a Hue bulb, you can tap into the cheaper Hive ecosystem much more easily.
And cost is a big part of Hive's allure. Hive’s bulbs are reasonable to pick up (starting at $17.99), once you’ve forked out extra for a hub, which means that you can build out your home lighting pretty quickly, while tapping into the excellent smart thermostat system too.
Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, B22, GU10, mains.
- Good value
- White, colour and GU10 bulbs
- Simple to set up
- Requires hub
- Can be a little slow
- Slow roll-out to the US
The cool thing about smart light bulbs is that they look like regular bulbs: you can screw them into your existing sockets and use your phone or smart home assistant to control them. The cool thing about the Nanoleaf Aurora is that it looks nothing like a regular light bulb.
Inspired by the aurora borealis, the Aurora is a whole different beast. It's a modular lighting system that can instantly upgrade the wow-factor of your smart home. If you want to show off your ‘home of the future’ to your pals but speaking to Alexa and dimming your room lights isn’t doing the trick – the Aurora definitely will.
Nanoleaf’s modular system allows you to arrange the triangle shaped pattern in any shape you want, and you can use the app to customise each panel and create movement patterns. So if you want to arrange your cool blue lights to transform into purple, and then red, and then yellow, have at it. If you want a giant peace-sign that flickers like a rainbow, go for it.
The Nanoleaf Aurora is not designed to compete with the likes of Lifx and Hue – instead it’s designed to add a colourful splash of fun to your home lighting. And, that it does. It’s a brilliant talking point. Friends have commented on the cool mood lighting during get-togethers and kids have gone crazy watching the different panels play through colours and shapes.
In the (albeit quite expensive) starter kit you’ll get nine panels and a base station and you can buy extra panels to keep expanding the design. They connect together using a clip in, SIM-card-esque, chip and stick on the wall using supplied sticky tabs. They weigh hardly anything so there’s no need for screws or the like. It’s best to design your pattern, either by drawing it out by hand or using the assistant in the app, first – otherwise you could end up with a random mess.
Once arranged, you just use the app to scroll through different themes – some static, some rotate – and you can even design your own using the easy-to-use creators tool. If that sounds like too much work, then you can steal other people’s ideas – users can update their designs to the app for others to download.
HomeKit integration is strong – with scene selection made easy on iOS devices – and there is also Google Assistant and Alexa voice commands on offer too so you can ask for your favourites scenes. Nanoleaf also has a music visualizer accessory too, making the Aurora even more awesome for parties.
- So much fun
- Very customisable
- Straightforward installation
- Quite expensive
- More fun than useful
- Need mains – cable hiding issues
Ikea turned up at the smart lighting party in early 2017 with the Trådfri smart lighting range. Sure it keeps things simple, but at $9.99 per bulb, you can forgive a lack of lighting features.
The Ikea Trådfri range is just so Ikea – as in, it comes in that 1984-esque white and black boxing, has an impossible to pronounce Scandinavian name and includes flat-pack instructions for how to get your new connected bulbs up and running. A LOT of flat pack instructions. For example, the motion sensor kit (one bulb, one sensor) comes with no fewer than five manuals explaining what’s actually a very simple setup. 192 pages (we’re not kidding) of instructions and warnings, in 28 languages (again, not kidding), on setting up a lightbulb with a motion sensor. Overkill. Planet-killing overkill.
It’s also straightforward and simple – another two Ikea traits; much more useful Ikea traits. You'll need to buy a Gateway ($29.99) to open up the app-powered controls such as timers, moods, scenes and alarms… nothing ground-breaking but all very easy to use.
But, you don’t even have to go fully smart lighting at all with the bulbs – you can just connect them to accessories like the wireless dimmer ($9.99) or the remote control ($14.99) and never even bother to install the Trådfri smartphone app.
If you do decide to go ‘smart’, that’s where it does get a bit more tricky and fiddly. You see, it’s not the bulbs themselves that you pair to the Gateway, but the controllers (the wireless dimmer or remote control already mentioned). Once paired to the Gateway you then add bulbs to that switch/dimmer (up to 10 bulbs per controller). It's not that complicated, but more drawn-out than it needs to be and we found the whole system falls apart if the steering device is more than a few metres from the Gateway.
When the range first went live it was white only (dimmable, of course) lighting – but the range is already vast and growing rapidly and there are now colour bulbs in the mix too. You’ll find bundles of accessories starting from just $19.99 and bulbs, or standalone A+ Energy LEDs bulbs from a ridiculously cheap $9.99.
The first colour bulb in the lineup is $34.99 and comes with a remote control. A plethora of fittings are on offer and Ikea is even offering up light doors and panels for you fitted kitchen. There’s no away from home control for your Ikea lights so you’ll have to rely on timers for any sort of security setup using the range - or make use of automations within Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple Home.
If you’re not bothered about a huge array colours, or in fact all that convinced you need smart lighting in your home – Ikea’s bulbs are probably your best bet. As stated you don’t even need to use an app to control them and for standalone bulbs they aren’t much more expensive than regular white LED lightbulbs. Sure, the platform is by far the buggiest that we’ve tested and the app is basic at best – but the price points are great.
Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, GU10.
- Cheap, cheap, cheap
- Works without hub/app
- Zigbee compliant
- Limited shades/colours
- Fiddly pairing to Gateway process
Lightwave Smart Dimmer
Lightwave has been in the home automation game for a while now, but it's only with its second-generation products, launched in late 2017, that the British company have jumped in feet first with Alexa, Google Assistant, HomeKit and co.
Unlike the other smart lighting options in this list, Lightwave doesn't actually make lightbulbs – its focus is on the switches. And it's the second-gen smart light switches that we've been living with. Coming in either single or double options, the new Lightwave switches essentially make your dumb bulbs smart – they are compatible with 80% of regular LED bulbs in circulation.
You have to fork out north of $180 for the starter kit, which also includes the Link Plus hub – and you might be asking yourself why you'd spend that much to smarten up a light fitting, when you could get a smart bulb installed for a fraction of the price.
After all, even the smart switch itself is nearly $60 once you've got the Link Plus in place. The answer is versatility. With a smart switch, not only do you not have to deal with that annoying problem of a light switch being turned off at the wall, thus placing your smart bulbs offline and unreachable. What's more, you can also control multiple lights attached to a single switch – think of a kitchen or bathroom spotlight scenario for example, with multiple GU10 light bulbs on one circuit.
The switch itself, which comes in stainless steel or white metal, is able to dim, as well as turn on and off the light bulb(s) it is connected to – the Lightwave app syncs up with the Link Plus hub to send over the commands. But the big selling point, as always, is the HomeKit / Alexa / Google Assistant integrations that let you ditch the pretty-basic app and open up a world of scenes, automation and voice controls.
Installing a new light switch is obviously not as easy as screwing in a new bulb – but it's not all that difficult either. Trust us when we say DIY is not our strong point but we had the Lightwave wired up and working inside 15 minutes. The switch, once paired up to the Hub, works without issues and the app does allow for away from home controls, as well as timers; obviously hit up Home or the Alexa app for more complex functions.
- Good option for spot light rooms
- Lights stay smart all of the time
- Great integrations
- Harder than replacing a bulb
- Quite expensive
- Design isn't amazing