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Smart lightbulbs explained: Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo and more compared

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Smart lightbulbs in the UK: Which should you pick?

The modern smart home is actually made of a number of interconnected constituent parts, all working together through our Wi-Fi and smartphones. Let's break it down a little by discussing one of the most popular and accessible types of home automation available: smart lighting.

Light. It's pretty fundamental to photography, reading, laser tag, and human existence. But do we often pay it any heed? Do we heck.

Even when it comes to our homes, how we set our artificial lighting up can have a profound affect on our sleep, our energy bills, and our sense of security.

The subject of smart lighting, then, is something that should really be understood.

What makes a lightbulb smart?

A smart lightbulb needs to be controllable beyond a simple flip switch, with the primary ability of using a networked device to remotely switch it on and off.

But it goes beyond that, with a degree of automation that should remove much of the day to day control onus from you. Smart lighting will allow you to use an app to set programmes, so you've always got the appropriate level of light at the appropriate time.

In order to do this, of course, a smart lightbulb must be able to work in conjunction with other smart lightbulbs in a network. Many smart lighting systems will also employ sensors or talk to other devices so that they're aware when you're in and out of the house or room.

Related: Smart thermostats in the UK – Which one is best?

IFTTT

The IFTTT of light

Any smart lighting system worth its salt will have IFTTT support. It's pretty much a must-have if you want any degree of flexibility in your set-up.

IFTTT stands for 'If This, Then That.' It's a free web-based service with associated mobile apps that lets you concoct 'recipes,' or single-function relationships between separate devices and services, using a simple trigger and action set-up.

Put simply, IFTTT lets you easily hook your smart lighting system up to your other connected services, whether that be an app, a social network, a fitness tracker, or another smarthome device. Keep an eye out for it.

Here are a few of the best and most interesting smart lighting systems out there right now.

Related: IFTTT explained futher

Hue

Philips Hue

Philips is unarguably the big name when it comes to smart lighting, and it Philips Hue system should figure highly on anyone's consideration list.

It has the largest range of bulbs and lighting options on the market, and it also boasts the support of a huge range of third party apps, services and developers. Apple's HomeKit (ask Siri to turn on your lights), Samsung's Smart Things, and Nest Weave are all on the supported list.

Meanwhile if you have a Philips TV, it can hook up to your Hue system to alter the lighting according to what's happening on-screen.

A Philips Hue Starter Kit will set you back around £150, and will consist of three LED lightbulbs and a bridge device. You can add more bulbs as you see fit.

The bridge device plugs directly into your home router, and allows you full control of the bulbs using a mobile device. You can use this to create schedules for when you want your lights to come on, as well as setting the exact colour and tone you want. You can even pick a colour from a photo, and the Hue system will replicate it.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Hue ecosystem after its ubiquity and huge third party backing, is its IFTTT support. Want your Nest thermostat to switch off your lights when it detects you're not home? How about switching on when your Jawbone Up tracker tells it you're getting up? All of this and more can be whipped together with an IFTTT recipe.

WeMo

Belkin WeMo

If you're after something a little simpler and, well, on the more affordable side, established peripheral maker Belkin has you covered.

Its WeMo lighting range isn't as flashy or flexible as Philips Hue, but you can pick up a starter set for just £60 - less than half the price of the Philips set.

What's more, the bridge device doesn't need to be hooked up directly to your Wi-Fi router, unlike the Philips Hue system. Having said that, you only get the two LED bulbs in the package, and those bulbs don't change colour.

Still, you can set programmes and control the lights with your smartphone. We particularly like the feature that turns the lights on at random when you're on holiday. Belkin WeMo also has IFTTT support, so you can concoct your own connected recipes for automating your home life.

There's also a wider ecosystem of WeMo devices, such as motion trackers and web cams, that will seamlessly hook in.

lights

LIFX

Here's a rival to the monster that is Philips Hue that matches the Dutch company's effort for bling. In fact, in some ways it exceeds it.

There's no need for a traditional starter kit, as such because the system doesn't consist of a bridge device and a bunch of dumb bulbs. Rather, the bulbs themselves hook up to your smartphone (and each other) direct through Wi-Fi.

As such, each bulb is pretty pricey. A single LIFX Colour 1000 will set you back £60 on Amazon, which is £10 more than the already-expensive Philips equivalent.

However, that gets you the smartest of lightbulbs. Not only does it hook up directly to your phone, but it can run through 16 million colours and a thousand shades of white. It can also hit 1,000 lumens, which is a good 200 lumens brighter than the Philips and Belkin systems.

The LIFX app lets you program timings, create scenes, create a music visualiser, and set up different zones for separate control.

There's also support for IFTTT, Nest, and SmartThings, but no Apple HomeKit as yet.

Related: Nest vs Hive

MiPow

MiPow Playbulb

MiPow has a whole range of lights in its Playbulb range, all of which hook up to your smartphone directly through Bluetooth 4.0 rather than a bridge device or even Wi-Fi itself. Its the sheer variety of this hardware offering that makes it stand out from the crowd.

For example, besides the usual coloured and plain LED bulbs, MiPow offers a wireless garden model for outside usage - yours for £40.

Then there's the Playbulb Candle which is, well, a £20 digital candle for placing on tables and setting a certain chilled mood.

Even the apparently regular LED bulbs have an extra trick up their sleeves. Both the classic MiPow Playbulb and the MiPow Playbulb Colour contain a speaker for integrated music output.

The bad news comes with regard to the MiPow Playbulb range's software smarts. There's no IFTTT channel, HomeKit support, or anything of the like, and you can't access the lights remotely - all due to the lack of Wi-Fi connectivity.

Will you be buying a smart lightbulb? Let us know in the comments.

Lightbow

February 11, 2016, 4:35 pm

Hey Jon, great writeup on the differences between the major players. One thing worth mentioning though with the LIFX bulbs is that they can achieve a true green and blue, which the Philips hue still can't do. (See attached screenshot of Lightbow's color slider when controlling a Philips hue and LIFX bulb simultaneously, which triggers auto-calibration). The spectrum on the top represents LIFX, which can hit true green, aqua, and a deep blue. The bottom spectrum shows what the Philips hue puts out.

Another difference is strobe lights. Yes, it's a fun side-feature, but it's worth noting that while LIFX supports strobing, Philips has removed strobing from all new bulbs (and with firmware updates, removing strobing from older bulbs/bridges as well).

Also, any thoughts on ilumi? It's a worthwhile market entrant utilizing Bluetooth, and has a few other novel features.

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