Smart lighting is just about the easiest way to get into smart home devices for the beginner. And it arguably is the most used piece of smart home gear for most people. You use your lights all of the time! You could go out and buy a few smart bulbs and call it a day, but there are other options that may actually be better for your particular situation. Today we are going to explore the wild world of smart home light and look at smart light bulbs VS smart switches and everything in between.
The quick answer: Get smart light bulbs if you are only doing a small area or few rooms or you want color-changing functionality. Buy smart light switches if you want a lighting system that feels more familiar to your family and want to use existing light fixtures in your system. But read on for our detailed explanation…
Why smart lighting anyway?
Why would I even want smart home lighting? Well, that is pretty simple: convenience. Smart home lighting allows you to automate your lighting in your smart home to respond to things like your voice or even simple motion detection. Furthermore, once you buy other smart home gear, you can create all kinds of useful smart home automations that turn on and off your smart lights based on specific criteria.
For example, you can have your lighting system turn on and off randomly to mimic someone being home when you are actually away on vacation. You can have your light ramp up when your phone connects to your home wifi network when you arrive after work. You can make the lights dim when you say “Hey Google, movie time.” on your Google Home. My favorite is saying “Hey Google, goodnight” when I am tucked into bed and the whole house’s lighting system turns off. Lazy? Yes. Incredibly convenient. Absolutely. Am I spoiled now because of smart home lighting? Probably…
These automations are all made possible by the fact that you can connect your smart home lighting to (1) your home network and (2) other smart home devices and services that can share data with your smart lights to tell them to turn on or off.
Smart light bulbs VS smart switches
The two main ways you can hook up smart home light is smart light bulbs or smart switches.
Smart light bulbs are exactly that. They are light bulbs that are equipped with wireless connectivity which allows them to connect to your home network and be controlled by an app or voice controls. The most popular smart light bulb systems out there come from Philips Hue and LIFX right now but there are all kinds of brands out there offering the functionality.
On the other hand you have smart wall switches. This is a bit of a different approach. You would install connected light switches on your walls in place of your normal light switches and these are what will add the smart functions to your home. Again there are a bunch of companies offering smart wall switches like GE and Lutron Caseta.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both but both will essentially get you the same control (minus a few little features) but there are absolutely good reasons to choose one over the other.
Advantages of smart light bulbs VS smart switches
Smart light bulbs are the easiest way to get into smart lighting. Here are the advantages:
Smart light bulbs are simple to install
Go pick up a Philips Hue kit or a single LIFX light bulb and you should be up and running within 10 or 15 minutes. Download the app, screw the light bulb in, connect the bridge (in the case of Philips Hue) and setup the bulb to connect to your wifi network. Done and done. There really isn’t much of an install here.
Smart light bulbs can change colors
The major draw of many smart light bulb brands is that they offer a super cool color-changing version which can turn to literally thousands of vibrant colors. Hue and LIFX can even connect multiple light bulbs together to create multi-colored scenes in your home to set a nice ambience. In most cases if you go the smart switch route you will be sticking with normal white light.
Smart light bulbs come in many shapes and sizes
The beauty now is that many of the leading smart light bulb manufacturers now offer a wide array of different bulbs for different purposes. Need pot lights? Under-cupboard lighting? outdoor spot lights? Night vision IR emitting light to enhance your security camera? These all exist on the LIFX platform. And Philips Hue also has their own versions of all of these (and more). You can truly setup an all-house system with smart light bulbs which spans through all of your rooms.
Smart light bulbs give you total control
If you link all of your smart light bulbs into the main app that come with them, assuming you bought something like LIFX or Hue, you can have super detailed control over every light. Dimming has minute control over every bulb and each can be tuned to a different color or temperature separately if you have the color-changing variety. Set them to cycle colors or flicker like a candle. This is all possible within the smart light bulb app. Furthermore, the best smart light bulbs out there can all be controlled by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant compatible devices.
Smart light bulbs are affordable (in low quantities)
If you plan on just setting up a few rooms or lights, then smart light bulbs are probably your best bet. You won’t have to invest in any extra hub and pay for installation of any kind. But as you start to add more and more bulbs you’ll hit a point where it actually makes more sense economically to install smart light switches instead.
Advantages of smart switches VS smart bulbs
Okay, so we know why you might want to choose to furnish your home with smart light bulbs. But why might we want to instead install smart light switches?
Smart switches are less confusing
One of the major drawbacks of smart light bulbs is that they sort of bypass the wall switch control you already have. This means that you basically need to keep your physical light switch on at all times. Many smart home users have even taped down their physical switches so family members don’t accidentally turn them off. You see, when the switch which powers the smart bulb turns off then you lose all control. It’s not really an ideal situation for many and confusion usually results. Do you have to login to the app every time you want to control your lights? Sort of, yes. Google Home and Amazon Echo make this a bit better by allowing you to control by voice though.
But with smart switches you can have the best of both worlds. When you install a smart switch it looks pretty much like what you and your family are used to. So if you decided to just flick the switch with your hand like normal, no problem! Want to control it with your voice? Totally possible. Use the app instead? Yup. Smart switches make the whole process a lot more intuitive, giving users the ability to use the lights the way they want to. Keep in mind that this doesn’t remove any of the cool technology we mentioned before with smart light bulbs either, all of those automations are still possible.
Smart switches don’t use wifi, and that’s a good thing
You may have read our piece on smart home hubs recently. Take a look because this breaks down why they are needed and what they do. In a nutshell, if you go the route of smart switches, you will likely need a hub. There are ones that do not require a hub, but the vast majority of them will need something like Samsung SmartThings or Wink to function. But the advantage here is that these hubs will connect to your smart lights via z-wave protocol. This is a wireless frequency that is separate from your ordinary wifi. The advantage here is that it keeps all of these switches from clogging up your main wifi network, usually resulting in a more efficient and reliable smart home setup.
Smart switches use all of the lights you already have
This is a big one. If you have a lot of lights in your place it is 100% better to look at smart switches instead of bulbs. You really don’t want to be buying 25 smart pot light bulbs. It will bankrupt you. Instead install smart switches that simply control your existing bulbs and lights. You can keep that awesome looking lamp that uses that weird shaped bulb. No problem.
Smart switches work offline
If your home network goes down, then your smart light bulbs won’t be reachable. They rely entirely on the cloud for control. Not great. Smart switches on the other hand can totally operate without internet. Smart automations may not function, but you can easily walk up to the switch and press it physically. This makes your home operate a little more independently and keeps your options open in case of internet outages.
Other options you should consider for smart lighting control
Smart plugs + lamps
One option is to buy a few smart plugs to connect to existing lamps around your house. This is basically and on/off affair, but it can help with filling out a smart bulb-driven system to include existing light fixtures.
Cheap smart light bulb systems
You don’t need to go crazy with color-changing smart light bulbs. You can actually very affordably pay about $15 for regular white light smart light bulbs from GE or even Ikea who offers their Tradfri system now. This could be the most effective way to build a cheap smart lighting system. That way, if you choose to go a different direction and install smart switches later, you aren’t out hundreds of dollars.
What are the best smart light bulbs?
For our money you can’t get any better than either Philips Hue or LIFX. Hue uses a small bridge that connects to each bulb via zigbee protocol so you will need to factor in having that bridge near your router. LIFX is simpler in that you just buy the bulbs, plug them in and connect them to the app. They work directly on your wifi network.
Both systems are awesome and one could debate which system is better (we chose our favorite) but the both have: excellent app control, major integrations with other smart home products like Google Home and Amazon Echo, have vivid colors, and many shapes and sizes. These are the smart light bulbs you want to consider if you’re serious about smart lighting.
What are the best smart light switches?
This one is a little bit less clear. There are MANY z-wave smart switches that do a great job. For functionality and ease of use we really like the Lutron Caseta line. They just work the best of any of them out there and come from a company with a wealth of smart lighting experience going back literally decades. If these are a bit too expensive for your taste, then there are always the excellent GE Z-Wave Plus dimmer switches. These have great support from GE and connect well with other devices but come at less of a premium.
Conclusion: Should I buy smart light bulbs or smart switches?
If you’re just going to automate one or two rooms then I think smart light bulbs are your best bet. And if you want funky color-changing functionality smart light bulbs are the only game in town. If you want to build a big smart home lighting system that is intuitive and not entirely dependent on a smart phone app then consider looking at investing in smart light switches. If you’re already a smart home hub user then it is that much easier to get into smart switches. Keep in mind that you will have to install these light switches in your wall which requires experience in working with home electricity. Get an electrician to help you out if you aren’t feeling super confident on this.
Either way smart light bulbs or smart light switches will enable you to do some super cool automaton stuff in your home. It just depends on how far down the smart lighting rabbit hole you want to go. Now excuse me, I’m going to go control my entire house’s lighting system with my voice while in the bathtub…