technological innovation

What is smart lighting? Everything you need to know for your connected home

What is smart lighting?

Smart lighting is lighting that you can control from an app, usually on your Apple or Android phone.

Smart bulbs can completely transform the way your home looks, for a lot less than it’d cost to redecorate.

The app enables you to change the brightness of the bulbs, and if the bulbs have coloured LEDs you can change their colours too. That opens up a whole world of possibilities, which you might call light recipes: you might have one light recipe for watching movies, another for dinnertime, and yet another for reading. Switching from one recipe to another is as simple as tapping a smartphone or yelling at your favourite voice-activated personal assistant.

What you need for a smart lighting system

Smart lighting generally uses mesh networking, where each smart bulb wirelessly connects to its nearest neighbour. That network is controlled by a hub that plugs into your router, enabling your other networked devices - such as your phone or tablet - to communicate with your bulbs. Some systems also have an away from home mode that enables you to control the lights when you’re far away, which is handy if you’ve just remembered you left the lights on or want to terrify the babysitter. Not all systems require a hub, though. The LIFX platform just connects directly to your Wi-Fi.

You’ll often find that smart light systems can also be accessorised with additional items such as dimmer switches or motion detectors, and in some cases they can be linked to the IFTTT (If This Then That) service to create complex rules that trigger particular recipes for particular things. Fancy a flash of colour to notify you of an instant message, or a glow to gently break the news of today’s weather forecast? This and much more is possible without too much tinkering.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana and more

Smart lighting systems aren’t just controllable with smartphone or tablet apps. Philips’ Hue system works with Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, and that means you can use those platforms’ voice assistants to relay your voice commands. There’s something undeniably cool about saying “Hey Siri, set scene to cinema” or “Alexa, turn the lights off” and seeing it happen. With HomeKit you can also control the lights with an Apple Watch. IKEA’s Trådfri will get similar compatibility later this year.

Hue boasts an Apple Watch app and you can control it via Siri. It works with Google and Alexa too.

Because developers have targeted mobile platforms first that puts Microsoft in the unusual position of being an afterthought: Hue works via a third party app, Huetro, and IKEA doesn’t appear to have any plans for Windows support. We’re sure somebody will hack something together, but for the time being Windows isn’t really welcome at the smart lighting party.

What kinds of bulbs are available?

There are three main kinds: standard bulbs, candle bulbs and spotlights. Standard bulbs come with E27 or bayonet fittings; candle bulbs with SES (small screw) fittings; and spotlight bulbs are most commonly GU10 spotlight fittings. 

Smart bulbs come with standard fittings: bayonet cap, large and small Edison screws and GU10 spotlight fittings.

Smart lighting bulbs are LED, which draws much less power than traditional incandescent light bulbs. A typical smart bulb is 9.5W or 5.5W for spotlights and candle bulbs. That’s roughly equivalent to a 60W incandescent bulb and a 50W spotlight bulb respectively.

You’ll usually have a choice of two kinds of bulb: white ones or colour changing ones. The latter are more complex to make and therefore cost quite a bit more. As with normal LEDs, white bulbs come with stated colours: warm white has a yellowish cast which more closely resembles incandescent bulbs’ light, while cool white is blueish like modern car headlights.

How much does a smart lighting system cost?

Put it this way: if you’re hoping that switching to a smart LED lighting system is going to save you so much in energy bills it’ll pay for itself in no time, you’re going to be disappointed. Smart lighting systems don’t come cheap, although they are slowly getting cheaper.

Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting Starter Kit

Let’s take the market leader, Philips’ Hue. To get up and running you need the Hue 2.0 Bridge - the previous model doesn’t play nice with Apple’s HomeKit - and some bulbs. At the time of writing a bridge and two white E27 (screw cap) bulbs is £49.95, while a bridge with three multicolour bulbs is £146.95. A lightstrip, which is a 2m strip of colour changing LEDs, is £64.99. A plain white bayonet bulb is £14.95, coloured E27 bulbs are £49.99, coloured E14s are £29.95 and coloured GU10 spotlights are £49.95 apiece.

British Gas’s Hive system has expanded to include smart lighting technology under the Hive Active brand.

Looking at a modest living room, we’ve got one ceiling lamp, three spotlights and a nice place behind the TV to put a lightstrip. That little lot works out at £49 for the bridge, £147 for the spots and £64.99 for the lightstrip. So that’s £260 for our living room; using coloured bulbs for the six spotlights in the dining room would add another £300. Ouch.

That’s for an all-singing all-dancing colour system, though, and it’s using genuine Philips bulbs: third party bulbs are available for considerably less cash and should work okay with the Hue Bridge. We say “should” because an early software update accidentally on purpose removed third party compatibility, which Philips eventually restored after a PR storm. We hope history doesn’t repeat.

OSRAM’s Lightify uses the same Zigbee networking as IKEA and Philips’ systems, so they should be interoperable.

No matter what system you go for, colour changing bulbs and smart lighting kits are expensive. You’ll pay £49 for a Hive Edison Screw colour bulb and £39 for a bayonet fitting, and the Hive starter kit is £99.99 for a hub and two white bulbs. Osram’s Lightify bulbs are around £25 for GU10 spots, £22.99 for candles and £41 for the Lightify Gateway.

Does IKEA have the white idea?

If you don’t want to change colours then the price drops considerably: dimmable Hue bulbs are around £15 for white ones compared to the £50 for coloured ones, and the same applies to Hive Active bulbs.

IKEA’s smart lights are much cheaper than most, but they don’t currently offer colours. You can adjust colour temperature, though.

IKEA’s new Trådfri system is cheaper still: a bridge - IKEA calls it the Gateway - is £25, and bulbs cost from £9 to £15 depending on fitting. Light panels are £55 to £100, dimming kits are £15 and a remote control is £15. You can’t adjust the colour but you can adjust the colour temperature, so you can have warm white for mood lighting and cool white for getting stuff done. It’s much cheaper, but we think colour changing is the key selling point of smart lighting, so for us IKEA’s one to watch in the long term but not a great investment right now.

Will it be obsolete in a few years?

Nobody can predict that with certainty, but there are encouraging signs that your smart lights won’t prove to be a not-so-smart investment in the long term - so maybe the energy savings will end up paying for the kit, albeit over a fairly long period of time. For example, when Philips added HomeKit compatibility to its Hue range with Hue 2.0, that was backwards compatible, so while you had to upgrade the hub you didn’t need to buy new bulbs. 

A smart bulb inside an interesting lamp can create something really amazing, as this example from LIFX demonstrates.

Most smart lighting systems use the same ZigBee wireless networking technology. It’s called ZigBee Light Link and it’s used by Philips, IKEA and Osram, which should ensure ongoing compatibility and interoperability between competing systems. LIFX should be fairly future-proof too, as it simply uses your Wi-Fi network. And of course the various systems all use standard light fittings such as bayonet caps, edison screws and GU10 spots.

Is smart lighting worth the money?

That really depends on what you want to do. If money is your priority then non-smart LEDs deliver the efficiency savings without the significant up-front expense of smart lights, and that’s by far the most sensible option. But it’s also the least fun. Smart spotlights can turn a front room into something resembling your favourite band’s stage lighting, while lightstrips and light recipes can transform a room without the hassle and expense of redecorating. And if you have kids they’ll love messing around with the options and creating their own recipes or using third-party apps to turn your front room into a disco.

For us, smart lighting does something priceless: it makes us smile. Whether we’re telling Siri that we’re going to bed, asking for the reading preset, getting the mood ready for a movie or making the house spooky for Hallowe’en, we’ve found smart lighting to be a constant delight - and it’s still uncommon enough to impress friends and family when they pop round. We wouldn’t recommend replacing every bulb in your house with a Hue, Hive, LIFX or Trådfri bulb, but having smart lighting in a sitting or dining room can be really effective.

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