Until recently, the high price point of traditional whole home automation systems was a major barrier to many homeowners looking to get into the smart home field. Then, Philips Hue debuted a $70 smart light bulb … and price point was still a major barrier to entry.
Despite its brilliant engineering and the fact that, along with Nest Learning Thermostat, Hue has been responsible for starting the DIY smart home revolution, $70 light bulbs are still fairly expensive for outfitting an entire home with wirelessly controllable lighting. The average three-bedroom home has somewhere between 30 and 40 light bulbs; $1,800 to $2,300 for smart lighting is tough to swallow for the average homeowner—even if it would be a pretty fantastic house.
How can the average homeowner install wireless smart lighting for less?
Following quickly in Hue’s footsteps, a plethora of inexpensive wirelessly controllable, smart LED bulbs have poured onto the market, including Philips' own lower-priced option, Hue Luxe. The biggest difference between these bulbs and their pricey competitor is color. These "connected" bulbs turn on and off just like regular ones and, as with Philips Hue, can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet app from within the home or anywhere with an Internet connection. They just don’t offer a full spectrum of color. If you can live without the option of bathing your bedroom in a hue of red or your kitchen in all the colors of the rainbow, then all-white smart light bulbs are a good, inexpensive alternative.
Another option is to eliminate the connected bulb and opt for controlling your regular LED light bulbs via wirelessly controlled switches and plugs. As a bonus, many of these options work in conjunction with the fancier colored bulbs like Hue, meaning you can have a few fabulous Hues in your home and the rest of your lighting can be plain white, but all can be controlled wirelessly.
Here’s a look at some of the best options for smart lighting on a smart budget:
Single Bulb Solution
The simplest way to control your lighting wirelessly is to replace your standard light bulbs with wireless smart LED bulbs. These bulbs have many advantages over basic incandescent bulbs, including long life, controllability, scene settings and automated "rules."
Additionally, some brands don’t cost much more than regular LED bulbs. However, in most cases, you will need to purchase a “hub”—a device that connects to the Internet and allows you to control your light bulbs through an app on your smartphone or tablet. These hubs generally run between $50 and $150 and can control anywhere from 50 to 200 additional bulbs.
Often, savvy shoppers can find great deals on starter kits that generally come with a hub and two bulbs. Here’s a summary of the currently available standard A19 connected LED light bulbs, sorted by price, and including details on a crucial smart home consideration: compatibility.
$15 GE Link LED
Starter pack: two bulbs and a LINK hub – $50
GE Link bulbs connect to the Wink app via a Wink hub ($50), or through a LINK plug, to allow you to control them from anywhere. The bulbs are also compatible with the Philips Hue Bridge and SmartThings hub, so if you have either of those devices already, you can get them up and running just for the price of the bulb.
$15 Cree Connected LED
Cree Connected bulbs don't have their own hub but are compatible with multiple home automation systems, such as Wink and other ZigBee—powered hubs (ZigBee is a global wireless standard that is also used by Hue and SmartThings). Recently, Cree announced that its bulbs will also be compatible with the Belkin WeMo smarthome ecosystem.
$20 Philips Hue Luxe
Starter Kit: two bulbs and a hub – $80
Luxe is Philips Hue's all-white cousin, producing a warm white light that can be brightened and dimmed via an app. They work with a Hue hub, or a “Friends of Hue” compatible hub (such as the Wink or SmartThings hubs), giving you the ability to schedule alerts, set timers and enable geofencing (create virtual GPS barriers that activate an action when you cross them, like turning the lights on when you pull into the driveway).
$20 TCP Connected
Starter kit: hub and two bulbs – $80
TCP offered one of the earliest low-priced, white-only smart bulbs on the market. As such, the feature set is somewhat limited, but recent integration with Belkin’s WeMo system means there’s a brighter future for TCP. However, the biggest selling point of these bulbs is expandability. The hub (called a gateway) will accommodate up to 250 bulbs that can be controlled by any computer, tablet, smartphone, or connected remote control. Compared to 50 bulbs on a Hue hub, TCP is a strong option for outfitting a large home on a small budget. TCP bulbs are also compatible with the Wink hub.
$24 Insteon LED Networked Bulb
Insteon, a market leader in the “traditional” smart home, offers one of the best one-stop solutions for smart lighting, but for now, users are locked into Insteon’s system. This has pros and cons. The bulbs connect to an Insteon network in your home, enabling you to directly control them with no need for plug-in modules or hardwired switches. However, you do need the Insteon Hub Pro ($150) to control all your Insteon devices. This makes these bulbs an excellent option if you are looking for a whole-home DIY smart home solution and are content buying only Insteon devices (of which there are many). But, if you want to add third-party smart home devices to your home, you’ll likely be opening additional apps and installing additional hubs. However, Insteon does seem to be moving towards breaking out of its “me-only” mode, being one of the first to offer compatibility with Apple’s HomeKit, a smart home control solution.
$25 WeMo LED Smart Bulb
Starter Kit: $49.99 for two bulbs and a Link
WeMo Smart Bulbs work with a Link plug instead of a hub, like the GE Link bulbs. This Link concept helps cut down on hub clutter. You don’t need to plug a hub into your router or find a spot on a shelf for a large hub—you can just plug the Link into a nearby socket. The WeMo bulbs integrate seamlessly with all the other WeMo smart home products and can be controlled via the WeMo app, individually or as a group.
$30 Osram LED
Starter Kit: A hub and one light – $60
An industry leader in light bulbs, Osram is a bit late to the smart bulb game but consequently comes bearing lots of features. The bulbs are "color tunable," which, while not offering colors other than white, does allow you to dial into the specific warm-to-cool color temperature of your choice. This is a feature none of its lower priced competitors currently offer. Osram is also compatible with WeMo and Wink smart home systems.
Lifx is Philips Hue's main competitor in the colored light bulb market, offering hub-less bulbs for $100 each. The lack of an expensive hub explains the comparatively high price point. But at $40, Lifx's new, white-only bulbs offer a comparative bargain. They use a built-in, low-power WiFi solution to automate your lighting, so there is no need for purchasing a separate hub or starter kit—just pop in the bulb and go. This makes Lifx a good option if you just need two or three bulbs or don't want to deal with a hub. Lifx also offers adjustable white light, like Osram, allowing you to choose from a range of vibrant warm-to-cool whites with each bulb.
The Light Switch Solution
Depending on your current lighting set up, the least expensive way to control your lights might be with wirelessly controllable switches and a dimmer. However, this route also offers the least amount of control. By replacing your light switches with wireless dimmer switches, you can control your light bulbs remotely in the same way as a smart bulb, only as a group, not individually. This is a good option if you already own LED bulbs and are loath to replace them when they likely still have a good dozen years of life left in them.
Wireless smart switches and dimmers function just like a standard dimmer—you can walk up to it and turn on or dim a light, but you can also control it via an app. This method also gives you options for controlling lights that otherwise aren’t compatible with wireless light bulbs (such as chandeliers).
For table lamps and other lighting with a plug, you can use a wirelessly controllable smart plug. Simply plug your lamp into the smart plug and you can have the same control you have with a smart bulb. Look for switches and plugs that come with a remote or their own app to control them, and also choose expandable lines, so that you can integrate more than one switch into your app if you want to start wirelessly controlling more lights in your home.
The next level of control is to install a smart electrical socket in place of your regular electrical outlet, allowing anything you plug in to be controlled remotely.
Here are a few of the best options for wireless switches and plugs:
$60 Caseta wireless dimmer with Pico remote
Replace your traditional light switch with a Caseta wireless dimmer and control your regular LED light bulbs wirelessly through the Lutron app or at the switch itself, which includes dimming functionality (as long as your bulbs are dimmable). This kit includes both the Lutron dimmer and the Pico remote, which lets you control the lighting without a smartphone or tablet. It works with Lutron’s own Caseta Smart Bridge system or the Wink hub. Caseta also just announced compatibility with Apple’s HomeKit, so you will be able to control the device with Apple’s personal assistant Siri, and also integrate it with other HomeKit compatible devices.
$40 Belkin WeMo Light Switch
This light switch from Belkin works just like a regular switch but can also be controlled wirelessly, without the need for a hub. It differs from the Caseta in that you can’t dim from the switch itself—just through the app. The WeMo switch also works with SmartThings, as well as through its own app.
$50 Belkin WeMo Switch
The WeMo Switch works with any electronic device that has a plug. Simply plug in your lamp and you can control it via the WeMo app or through your SmartThings hub. The system is expandable, so you can have multiple plugs controlling multiple devices in one app.
The options for wirelessly controlled smart lighting are many and are growing constantly. New products are being released on a near-weekly basis (GE just announced it’s adding a HomeKit compatible, color-changing light bulb to its Link line). Considering the cost of installing these smart bulbs throughout your home can be just a hundred or so more dollars than opting for regular LED bulbs, it’s definitely the smart thing for any homeowner to do.
About Jennifer Tuohy
Jennifer Tuohy is a technology buff who loves to share what she knows for The Home Depot. Jennifer explains the features and differences between the new wirelessly controlled lighting options. Visit homedepot.com to see the various options Jennifer talks about in this article.