The best smart lights for your home

Buyers guide: We review the latest and greatest smart light bulbs and systems

The best smart light systems

For most people, your smart home experience will start with either a smart assistant speaker or a smart light bulb. And the chances are, if it’s the former, your next move into the market will be picking up one of the latter. Smart lighting is a gateway to getting your house hi-tech and is pretty much hassle-free (unless you class unscrewing and screwing lightbulbs as hassle).

Choosing the best smart lighting isn’t an easy affair any longer 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 humble abode.

Smart lights: Things to consider before you buy your connected lighting

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?

There are hundreds of considerations when it comes to making your home’s lighting smart. 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 four smart lighting brands you can buy right now…


Philips Hue

The best smart lights for your connected home

From $14.99 up to $200+, meethue.com

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, and that’s hardly embracing the smart home revolution, is it? No – so 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 socket 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.

Read our ultimate Philips Hue guide.

Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, B22, GU10, PAR16, mains.

the ambient verdict
Philips Hue
Hue remains the undisputed heavyweight king in an ever-expanding division and with good reason. It’s unrivalled in terms of choice, compatibility and quality. Lifx, in particular, is pushing Hue hard but if we had to recommend just one smart bulb brand we wouldn’t have any hesitation before offering up Philips’ smart home baby.
PROS
  • The original and still the best
  • Huge choice of bulbs and fittings
  • Friends of Hue platform
CONS
  • Not the cheapest
  • Still reliant on Hub
  • Default scenes won’t go away


Lifx

The best smart lights for your connected home

From $24.99 up to $249.99, lifx.com

A couple of years ago, Lifx would have just been one of the many tiny blips on Philips’ radar – another smart lighting pretender promising similar features for less money but one that inevitably fell short. 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, the lights 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 being HomeKit, Apple’s platform is obviously 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. Apple’s fault? Lifx’s fault? Whoever’s at fault, it’s not easy or ideal for the average user.

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.

the ambient verdict
Lifx
Lifx is a serious contender in the smart lighting world. It may not be a smart household name as per Hue but, with fantastic quality, a slick app, a rich array of functions and features, ubiquitous integrations and an ever-expanding line-up of lightning options, it’s only a matter of time before it is. Highly recommend and, if you want to be hub-free, definitely a clear winner.
PROS
  • No hub
  • Great quality lighting
  • Excellent smart home integrations
CONS
  • Still quite expensive
  • HomeKit setup can be annoying
  • Flat headed bulbs not the slickest


Nanloeaf Aurora

The best smart lights for your connected home

From $229.99, nanoleaf.me

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.

Compatibility: Mains.

the ambient verdict
Nanoleaf Aurora
Totally different from anything else on this list (although Lifx’s new Tile is somewhat of an alternative), the Nanoleaf Aurora is a superb addition for anyone looking to add some slick tech smarts to their connected home setup. Sure, light strips from the more traditional smart lighting brands also do a good job of adding some ‘future home’ feels to an abode – but they can’t compete on cool with Nanoleaf’s unique setup.
PROS
  • So much fun
  • Very customisable
  • Straightforward installation
CONS
  • Quite expensive
  • More fun than useful
  • Need mains – cable hiding issues


Ikea Trådfri

The best smart lights for your connected home

From $9.99, ikea.com

Ikea turned up at the smart lighting party in early 2017 with the Trådfri smart lighting range. There aren’t many bells and whistles just yet – but you get the feeling that the Swedish furniture king is standing at the side nodding its head along to the head to the music before it goes full Frank the Tank later in the evening.

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 5 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. In fact, 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, let alone open it. However, you can throw a Gateway into the mix ($29.99) and open up the app-powered controls such as timers, moods, scenes and alarms… nothing ground-breaking but all very easy to use.

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 steering devices (the wireless dimmer or remote control already mentioned). Once paired to the Gateway – easy enough to do, even with the odd app quirk thrown in – you then add bulbs to that steering device (and it’s 10 bulbs per controller). Sounds complicated? It really isn’t but it is a bit more drawn-out than it needs to be and we found the whole system falls apart if the steering device 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.

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.

For more advanced users, HomeKit, Alexa and Google Home support is on its way (any day now, we’re promised) and Trådfri bulbs will even connect and show up within Philips Hue setups – if you’re a bit tech savvy and you’ve got a bit of patience.

Compatibility: Android, iOS, E26/27, E12/14, GU10.

the ambient verdict
Ikea Trådfri
Ikea’s smart home bulbs are very much a work in progress with their buggy app and flaky performance but, at the prices the Swedish smart home giant is knocking them out for, there are a serious contender to their more established neighbours. They’re far from perfect but they do work well most of the time, with the odd hiccup here and there.
PROS
  • Cheap, cheap, cheap
  • Works without hub/app
  • Zigbee compliant
CONS
  • Buggy
  • Limited shades/colours
  • Fiddly pairing to Gateway process

TAGGED   lighting   smart home

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