Light It Up: The Connected Home’s Battle Of The Bulbs

ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.

Lighting is a key ingredient in the connected home, and the benefits of smartening it up are obvious. Practically everyone has forgotten to turn off a light or fumbled around for the switch. And some find coming back to a dark house creepy. But with smart lights, you can use your smartphone to control or set automations for your lamps and bulbs, and a lot more.

The leader in smart lights is Philips Hue Wi-Fi-enabled bulbs. But the competition just heated up last week, with both LG and Samsung unveiling new smart bulbs.

Not that Philips is sitting idly by. This boss of intelligent bulbs also unveiled two new products: the Hue Lux LED bulb, a cheaper, stripped-down version of its pricey original, and the Philips Hue Tap, an add-on that lets you trigger lights by touch

A Range Of Hues

Controllable via mobile device, Philips Hue is able to illuminate in multiple colors from a single disco-worthy light and hub. Hue practically started the smart lighting trend and inspired numerous knock-offs. 

The issue with Hue is price. A starter kit of three bulbs and a bridge (or hub) will set you back $200. As if to answer the critics, Philips has just announced its new $40 Hue Lux, a smart white lightbulb that swaps features for savings. 

Lux works the same as the original, lacking only the color-changing feature. That may seem a bit boring; on the other hand, consider that the original Hue costs $60 per bulb. The Lux starter kit also goes for less, at half the amount of the original starter kit. To help bring the price down, the company stuffed only two bulbs in the kit, along with the bridge, for $100.

Somewhat more interesting is the Hue Tap, a wireless accessory for controlling Hue smartlights that’s designed for wall mounting in a convenient location.

The Hue Tap provides an alternative to digging out your phone, waking it up, navigating to the app, etc. just to switch the lights on or off. And since you add it to your Hue Bridge as a wireless controller, it doesn’t interfere with the system. When you shut off a lamp manually, Hue may not know what state the light is in. Turn it off with the Tap, and it knows the lights are off.

At first, this $60 accessory seemed a bit silly to me. If you’re going to reach over to touch it, why not save your money and just hit the actual light switch? But the way it draws power changes everything. The juice comes from kinetic energy—when you tap the device, you’re actually charging it. There are no batteries to mess around with, and that absence of cords means that you can put it anywhere—your coffee table, nightstand, or even the side of your fridge. 

It’s easy to see the appeal of Hue Tap. If you’ve ever found your light switch’s location inconvenient (or even stupefying—my old apartment inexplicably had a light switch near the ceiling), you’ll be glad to know you don’t have to be bound to the confines of your home’s wiring. The downside, however, is that it relies on your Wi-Fi network to function. So you won’t want to place this anywhere with a weak signal.

Who Will Light The Way? 

For connected home companies like SmartThings, Revolv and Zonoff, which powers Staples Connect, as well as services like “If This Then That,” Philips Hue has become the belle of the ball. Numerous parties have flocked to it, making the smart lights compatible with their own systems. 

Now LG and Samsung want a piece of the action too. 

Last week, LG announced its latest, the LED Smart Lamp. (Google translation here.) These $32 bulbs promise a 10-year life, can be controlled or automated via smartphones, and use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The company also pointed out that its lamp can groove to music or blink for smartphone notifications. (Though these have become rather standard features for smart lights. Philips Hue, for example, can do the same.) 

Like LG, Samsung’s new Smart Bulb shines a white light and promises a 10-year life, but it does away with Wi-Fi entirely, relying solely on Bluetooth. The communication approaches are interesting, because they both connect directly to phones, which means no costly hubs required, like with Philips Hue. 

Samsung hasn’t announced availability or pricing yet, but the latter will likely fall somewhere around $30 to $40. LG’s Smart Lamp is destined for its native South Korea, at least to start. But if it succeeds there, the company will probably consider extending the bulbs to international distribution. Philips, meanwhile, plans to roll out the Hue Tap and Hue Lux in North America and Europe in the latter half of 2014.

None of these options are rock-bottom cheap, especially compared to standard incandescents. Their long life and smart features, though, might tempt some buyers. And with prices starting to come down, we could see an influx of new users setting foot on the smart home path. This is undoubtedly the goal. 

Though they may lack Philips Hue’s integrations and partnerships, both LG and Samsung run a variety of businesses across consumer electronics, appliances and smart devices. They could essentially fit lighting like a piece in their broader connected-home puzzles. 

If those smart lights act like gateway products, whoever dominates that first entry point may light the entire way to their entire eco-system of smart home products.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user André Mouraux. All others courtesy of respective companies. 

Correction: The original draft errantly stated that the Philips Hue starter kit costs $200 for four smart bulbs and the bridge. There are only three bulbs in this kit. 

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