You have two options for smart lighting: smart bulbs or smart switches. While a smart bulb is fine for a lamp or two, or a single room, smart switches can be the most cost-effective solution if you want to do whole-home smart lighting.
As with all these decisions, there are trade-offs to consider:
|Ease of Install
|Bluetooth, Zigbee, Thread, WiFi
|WiFi, Thread, Other
|For Zigbee connectivity, or to use automations.
|For non-WiFi connectivity options
Installation is generally the primary factor for deciding which you will choose. On the one hand, smart bulbs screw into your lamp or fixture like a regular bulb, while smart switches require you to remove the existing light switch and wire the smart switch in its place — which, depending on the quality and age of the wiring in your home, can be a daunting task.
The ease of installation, and removal, of a smart bulb, also makes them a more attractive proposition for those who rent.
Smart bulbs tend to work either by connecting to them directly via Bluetooth from your phone or tablet using a vendor-specific mobile app or by adding them to your home platform, like HomeKit — often requiring an additional hub. Unlike most devices that don't use WiFi for power consumption reasons, lightbulbs tend to do it for three reasons: space constraints, heat constraints, and maybe most importantly response time — which is also the primary reason for choosing Zigbee or Thread over Bluetooth.
Another user experience consideration also has to do with power: with a smart bulb, if the light is off at the switch, the bulb receives no power and cannot be controlled. This is less of an issue with lamps, but for light fixtures controlled by wall switches, this leaves you in a situation where the lights cannot be controlled (reliably) from the wall. There are options, such as the Lutron Aurora for Hue which can be placed over your existing switch, locking it in the on position and providing an alternative switch to use.
However, a smart switch is wired directly to your house power and has power all the time — this means it's ready to go 24/7, and using the switch isn't an unintentional consequence, but rather a feature of the device. This power requirement is why most basic smart switches require a neutral wire — this is what allows it to receive power at all times while still allowing the light itself to be off.
While your smart switches will typically replace your regular light switches 1:1, they frequently have a slightly different physical switch mechanism: they will be push-button switches rather than a toggle switch. Some will have separate on-off buttons, others will have a single toggle button. This is because the switch isn't the only mechanism via which they can be controlled, if you turn a light on by the switch, and then turn it off through your voice assistant, the switch will still be in its "on" position.
Different connectivity types have different trade-offs, and which one makes sense to you will differ depending on how you want to use the devices, who you want to use them, and the space in which they will be installed.
Of all the connectivity options, Bluetooth has the most drawbacks, it doesn't have the range of WiFi, or low power consumption of Zigbee or Thread. It can also typically only pair to a single device, like your phone or tablet.
While WiFi isn't a great option for many smart home devices, this is usually due to the power requirements of battery-operated devices — but smart lighting almost always has constant power, making the power-hungry WiFi a viable option. However, WiFi suffers from reliability problems and can be slow to respond. In addition to that, while its range is vastly superior to Bluetooth, walls and ceilings can cause issues, and with no peer-to-peer mesh, it can be hard to get decent connectivity everywhere.
I'm putting Zigbee and Thread together here as they are fairly closely related and have similar features and benefits. Both create mesh networks, which means great range, even at the far reaches of your installation, and reliability. They are typically faster than WiFi devices due to lower overhead and the optimizations enabled by a dedicated communication method.
The last option is the proprietary Lutron ClearConnect. I generally dislike proprietary things, but ClearConnect is the most reliable, and performant option by a wide margin. The super-low 434Mhz frequency band means it isn't battling network congestion and is really good at penetrating obstacles such as walls and ceilings for a range that — despite not being a mesh — will absolutely cover all but the largest homes, with the ability to add a repeater if necessary.
One of the attractions of smart lighting is the ability to do things you can't typically do with non-smart lighting: changing white balance or color, and not just a few colors but often the full RGB spectrum. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of physical switches, they don't support these extra features. In reality, there may only be a few places where colored lighting is actually desirable, so you may not miss this. Different white temperatures on the other hand are often used for different places in your home, most people will want warm white (similar to the old incandescent bulbs) in their living rooms, but daylight in their working spaces or makeup tables.
By far the most common feature I use in my lighting is dimming. I use dimming in time-based automations, to set the mood, or just to relax my eyes. While most smart bulbs support dimming as a core feature; when it comes to switches you need to buy specific dimming switches.
One thing I see more frequently on switches and less so on bulbs is the ability to set the minimum and maximum brightness within the limits of whichever bulbs you choose. For example, I have a 5-bulb fixture above my dining room table but full brightness is rarely the mood I want to achieve, so I have the max set to about 80% instead.
What's Right For Me?
If you're a renter, undoubtedly smart bulbs are the best option — unless you have a very forgiving landlord, or want to go through the hassle of re-installing the original dumb switches when you move.
For homeowners, the choice is much more difficult. If you only want smart lighting in a small area, then smart bulbs are definitely the cheapest and easiest option. If you want whole-home smart lighting, then smart switches might be the better choice.
Installing smart switches — if you have a neutral wire — isn't difficult to do yourself with just a short YouTube tutorial, a flipped circuit breaker, a screwdriver, and 15 minutes, even a complete novice can handle it.
The neutral wire might be make-or-break though, without a neutral wire your choices are much more limited, and given the lack of options and the other benefits of bulbs, you might decide to go that direction anyway.
I personally have smart light switches on every light switch in my home except for my shower lighting because we wanted colored lights.
When it comes to smart bulbs you have almost unlimited options, but you should consider several things when it comes to making your decision: price (both individual bulbs and any necessary hub), connectivity, brightness, and color features.
Primarily, I would be looking at the Philips Hue bulbs if your budget can stretch to it, their Zigbee-based hub and bulbs are rock solid, with good features, longevity, and many options for many different fixtures. Plus they have options for outdoor and other lighting. Many of their bulbs also support BlueTooth and can be "upgraded" to using the hub at a later date if you want to run automations or integrate with your smart home platform (e.g. HomeKit). I used Hue bulbs when I was a renter, and continue to use them in my lamps.
Alternatively, the Nanoleaf Essentials bulbs are some of the cheapest bulbs on the market, with good features, and featuring Thread support — which means if you have a Thread Border Router such as the HomePod mini or AppleTV 4K (2021), you don't need a special hub.
Light Switches are in some ways quite different from smart bulbs, in that there is an expectation that they work 100% of the time. They are some the part of your smart home that guests will interact with most often, and frequently unsupervised, so familiarity and physical hardware are critical
There are a lot of options for light switches, but the gold standard is the Lutron Caseta for normal home use. If you do have a home larger than say 5000sqft (465m2) then you might want to start looking at the Lutron RA2 line instead due to limits on the number of devices (75), as well as reaching the limits of their single hub + one repeater ClearConnect network with the Caseta line.
Most other switches use WiFi, and aside from the reliability concerns with the congested 2.4Ghz network, and the reach of your network signals, you should also consider how many devices are connecting to your WiFi router and how much that impacts your other devices.
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