When it comes to controlling lighting, there are several ways to get the job done, but for most applications, there is one best way. We'll go over each of the methods of connecting lighting, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses for specific applications. And keep in mind that beyond just turning lights on and off, Smart Home lighting technologies allow users to select specific dimmer settings for each individual light or switch, or to dim or brighten an entire house all at once. This, friends, you most certainly cannot do with your 60's-era rotary dial timers!
Connecting the bulbs to a home network was perhaps the most obvious approach to automating lighting, and indeed, it's by far the easiest way to retrofit a home. But ultimately, doing so originally meant needing a different hub for each brand of lightbulb, and that's why so many companies have pulled out of this market entirely, with most of the surviving ones focusing on bulbs that work with third-party hubs. Over a year ago, we were sampled innovative kits from TCP and Belkin WEMO, and they were a good indication of what was to come, but each had severe limitations. That included clunky, slow smartphone apps that could take up to 10 seconds to load every time you wanted to access a light, and in the case of TCP, pretty mediocre network stability. But both had novel features that are perhaps harder to implement in an open system. TCP used a mesh network between its bulbs to extend a network out beyond where the hub could reach, while WEMO incorporated a novel fade in/out feature for its bulbs to allow for lighting changes that were far less abrupt than a simple on/off switch. That was great for sunset, bed times, or morning wakeup routines.
Then there was the big player, Philips, which came into the market with an attractive array of features, but a simply unacceptable price. Three bulbs plus the proprietary Philips Hue hub retails for $200, and from our point of view, this makes no sense at all. Sure, the lights harnessed cutting-edge LED tech to allow for up to 16 million colors, but we don't think that's a killer feature for most locations in a home. Want one or two Hue bulbs for some fun lighting effects in the entertainment room? That makes sense - just add them to your universal hub, like Wink. In our experience, any system that requires a proprietary hub, like TCP and WEMO, is dead in the water, and those that have optional proprietary hubs, like HUE, only make sense if you avoid purchasing that hub.
So what product do we really like in terms of bulbs? That's easy: Cree's Connected A19 bulb. At just $15, it costs only a bit more than a high-quality dimmable LED, but allows for integration into various Smart Home networks, including Wink. And unlike most LED bulbs to date, it actually casts light in all directions (most LED bulbs project light upwards). We've also found that it never loses its connection to our hub and responds quickly to commands. This is the one we'll be buying for all our fixtures from here on out. If you'd like a connected bulb in a flood light format, check out GE's R30 or PAR38 offerings, although for applications involving multiple lights, you'll likely want to use a switch instead, as discussed later on this page.
Note that a connected bulb isn't the be-all-and-end-all of smart lighting, because when your Smart Home system shuts it off, it's a little inconvenient to regain manual control. Walk into a dark room and want to turn on a floor lamp that was shut off via a pre-set schedule? You'll need to turn the switch several times to essentially reset the bulb. It could be worse... but connected switches, which we'll touch on in a moment, get around that problem.
Outlets and Lamps
Connected outlets and lamps ultimately do the same thing: they connect the fixture. And this is most definitely distinct from connecting the bulb. The reason is simple. When you allow a Smart Home system to take control of fixtures, you lose manual control over them. Shutting off power to a fixture or an outlet means the only way to bring them back on is through your Smart Home system (either an app or voice control). We think this is a serious drawback without a lot of upside. We see no reason you'd really ever want to install a smart outlet (as marketed by Leviton) for lighting (doing so for appliances is another matter, which we'll discuss in a moment). Just the labor involved in retrofitting the outlets themselves basically knocks them out of contention. A nice compromise is a plug-in module, which Leviton makes for both dimmable lamps and non-dimmable lamps/appliances. We've tested these and would recommend them every time over a connected outlet, as using them is as simple as plugging them in, and they can be moved along with your lamp or appliance should you decide to change its location.
As for connected lamps, we could see these working in one-off locations, like above a garage, where you really don't have a need to manually turn on and off the light via a switch. And with LED technology allowing many years of life, they often have built-in permanent LEDs like the Commercial Electric Smart LED Downlight shown here, which also offers a unique ability to control color temperature (from 2700K warm to 5000K daylight, great for different times of day).
When it comes right down to it though, in most cases, we think a connected bulb is a more obvious choice than a connected outlet or lamp, simply due to the ease of installation.
From our point of view, this is where Smart Home lighting really earns its wings. A connected switch allows you to control a bank of lights, centralizing the networking requirements (and thereby minimizing the cost of the overall system), while also maintaining full manual controls. The only issue is that it of course requires you to install a switch in your wall, which is quite a bit harder than screwing in a light bulb. But if you're willing to do it, or if you have an electrician who will do it at a reasonable price, this is absolutely the way to go. And of all the systems we've used, there is one best system: Lutron's Caseta. Lutron has been in the business of high-end light switches for quite some time, and they simply get it. Now, in addition to its switches, Lutron does sell a complete Caseta system with included hub, and perhaps when Lutron entered the market this made sense. But at this point, we advise you to pass on Lutron's hub and use a more universal system, like Wink.
And what's so amazing about Caseta? It provides easy on/off and dimming controls, includes a "Pico Remote" that can either be used for controlling your lights from your chair, or in a pseudo-three-way application using Lutron's convenient adapter. And when you shut your lights off either via a Smart Home app or the switch, Caseta remains connected and available for use either via app or via manual control. And this is what's so very critical in a Smart Home device: it must not take away existing functionality to offer new functionality. That, unfortunately, is what connected bulbs, switches, and fixtures do. Connected bulbs offer one distinct advantage over switches, however, and that is providing individual bulb control even when all bulbs are on the same switch. Just want one of your five track lights to turn on at 5pm and the rest at 7pm? You can't do that with a switch, as it's an all-or-nothing affair. So if you need a bulb for that application, go for GE's R30 or PAE38 Link Bulbs. Otherwise, pair your Lutron switches with a standard dimmable LED bulb like the Philips BR30 9W bulb, or if you need standard A19 bulbs, go with TCP's excellent 10W 2700K dimmable bulbs.
Are there competitors? Yes, but we're just going to be blunt here: we've used the competing solution from Lutron's arch-rival Leviton, and it's not nearly as good. Sure, Leviton's Decora Z-Wave Dimmer looks more like a regular light switch, but it's clunky to use, especially the dimmer function, and it's much harder to install, requiring a neutral wire and wire nuts that aren't included in the box. Given that Lutron's more functional and user-friendly switch costs just $10 more and includes a remote, this one's an easy call.