The humble light bulb hasn’t changed much since it was invented back in the late 19th century. Over time, the warm glow of incandescents was replaced by the sterile white of compact fluorescents, then the bright shine of LEDs. Now, the Internet of Things is turning the very concept of the light bulb on its head, reimagining the role of light in our homes.
Need some examples? Philips Hue bulbs can change color in sync with movies and TV shows to increase your immersion. BeON Home wants to use light to trick thieves into thinking you’re home when you’re not. Companies like Cree and GE want to bring smarts to even inexpensive LEDs, with bulbs as cheap as $15.
But to make bulbs “smart,” manufacturers have taken a variety of approaches. Some require a hub to connect the bulbs to the Internet. Others cut costs by tethering the bulbs to your phone, with the tradeoff that you can’t control them when you’re out of range. One bulb even uses WiFi to get online.
We’ve gathered more than a dozen popular smart bulbs—products from juggernauts like Philips and Osram to startups like Ilumi and Misfit—and put them through their paces to find the best you can buy.
How We Tested
Some of the traits that differentiate smart bulbs are spec-based, like life expectancy, brightness, color temperature, and light throw. These qualities are difficult (or impossible) to test outside of a lab. On top of that, they aren’t the reason you’re interested in buying a smart bulb.
We focused on five attributes: setup difficulty, build quality, ease of use, responsiveness, and functionality.
So for these bulbs, we focused on five key attributes: setup difficulty, build quality, ease of use, responsiveness, and functionality. We pitted them against each other in a multi-round survey, using our staff of expert reviewers as hands-on testers. The reviewers also provided their opinions about the value proposition and fun/usefulness ratio of each bulb. After tabulating the survey results, we ranked the bulbs in the order you see above.
So what’s the big takeaway? We found that just about all of these bulbs are solid performers—the exceptions being the last four—but that spending a bit more definitely gets you improved performance, and better sets you up for the future of the smart home.