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Rigging your living room with computer-controlled lights like the bridge of the USS Enterprise used to be a multi-hundred dollar prospect. But over the last few years smart lights have become more affordable, and you can get started for less than $50.

If you’re thinking about joining the smart home revolution, stop for a minute, though—there are a few things you need to know before giving your lights brains.

Colors and automation—the prettiest side of the smart bulb

First and foremost, smart lights are fun—especially the changing colors. It’s so nice to have dim red lights in the early morning; bright white ones when you’re working, and warm orange ones when it’s time to chill. And a cool purple glow on the weekends, just because it’s fabulous. Systems such as the Philips Hue can even help you set the ambiance by having your lights change color to match the movie or video game on your TV. It’s hard to go back to boring old bulbs after that.

Automation can be sweet, too. Depending on how consistent your daily routine is, you can program things so you never have to touch a light switch again. You can have lights come on automatically in the evening, and turn off as you go to bed. If you’re away, this feature also turns your lights on and off to make it seem like you’re home, to deter strangers from coming in.

But there’s a gap between the promise and the reality of smart lights, and even though the industry is getting better at getting these gizmos to work more seamlessly, it’s a good idea to save yourself from disappointment by knowing what you’re actually getting yourself into.

Choosing a platform is a lifetime commitment (sort of)

Smart bulbs are just regular LED bulbs enhanced with a few extra features, and they’re rated to last between 15,000 and 25,000 hours. At three hours a day, that’s somewhere between 13 and 28 years, which means that unless someone swings at your fixtures with a broom handle, your smart bulbs should still be shining a decade from now.

Different brands offer different platforms, each with their pros and cons, but it’s important that when you choose one, you stick to it. Even if it’s technically possible to have two functioning smart lights systems in your house, you don’t want that. Dealing with one set of quirks is fine, but dealing with two or more, and trying to get them to work together, will prove to be hell on Earth.

To hub or not to hub

Tradfri gateway
Ikea’s Trådfri kit comes with a hub, a remote control, and two lightbulbs. The challenging name is free. IKEA

Regardless of the manufacturer, there are two kinds of smart light systems: those that need a smart home hub, and those that don’t.

Hubbed systems have a base station that connects directly to your router, and use a wireless protocol like Zigbee or Z-Wave to communicate with all your smart home devices. They work differently from the WiFi network in your house, so they won’t interfere with it. Hubless systems, on the other hand, skip the base station, so you control them directly over WiFi or Bluetooth. There are also hybrid models like the the latest Philips Hue lights, which are compatible with both modalities.

It’s more expensive to set up a hubbed system, but these tend to offer more automation and better integration with other smart home products like smart blinds or smart plugs. They can also create a mesh network where each device is directly connected to every other device, so even if something is out of range of the hub, it’s still connected to the network. Philips Hue and Ikea Trådfri are some of the big names here.

Hubless systems are less expensive to set up, but have a few downsides. The biggest one is that each light in your house has to independently connect to your wireless router. That’s fine if you only want a few bulbs in a small apartment, but if you’re trying to rig up a six-bedroom house with a cheap router and a few WiFi dark spots, you can easily clog up the network for everyone at your home. And your lights won’t even work. LIFX and Eufy are two manufacturers that offer this modality.

How smart you want your home to be overall will be a big part of your decision. If you’re serious about automating everything, using a home hub makes more sense. Depending on what brand you ultimately choose, you’ll be able to integrate everything more easily and your WiFi network won’t collapse under the demands of your smart doorbells. But if you just want a few lights you can voice control, hubless is all you need.

Setting things up takes time

How many people does it take to screw in a smart light bulb?

One—but it takes a while.

No matter the kind of smart light platform you go with, the setup process is a little more involved than twisting your wrist a few times, as they all require downloading apps and connecting bulbs to gateways, control devices, and WiFi networks.

And that’s before you even start setting up the cool features, like preset scenes, schedules, voice control, and other automations. Although, in reality, that kind of setup never really ends, as there will always be some exception to your existing schedule, or a voice command that needs some troubleshooting.

The smart light paradox: inexpensive but costly at the same time

Over their total lifespan, smart bulbs don’t cost much. They can go from $15 to $50 depending on whether you’re getting a basic dimmable white smart bulb, like this one from Etekcity, or something more sophisticated, like a Philips Hue bulb with Bluetooth support. But over a 13-year lifespan that’s a bargain—like, a less-than-a-dime-a-month bargain.

However, starting out can be a bit pricey: hubs cost $35 to $60, six bulbs is at least $100, and smart bulb-compatible switches usually retail for $20 or more. If you want voice control, you’ll need a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo (from $25) within shouting range of every room. Yes, you can get a Hue starter kit for $80, but you’ll likely need to spend more to get a system that works for you.

Once you’ve got the basics covered, the costs start coming down. You should only ever need one gateway or bridge to power your smart lights, for example, and that same smart speaker can control more than one room as long as they’re all connected to the same network.

Color is awesome but it’ll cost you extra

Smart bulbs’ best feature isn’t the automation—it’s the changing colors. But this comes at a premium. Bulbs that let you choose among various shades of white light, like the Philips Hue White Ambiance bulb, go for $25, while if you want to have the full color version, you’ll have to pay $50.

You’ll have to ponder if the extra cost is worth it—if you’re happy with regular white light bulbs, maybe it’s better if you stick with that and save some money. The long-term plan for my own home is for almost every bulb to have full color control, but with 20-plus light fixtures in the house, it’ll take time—or a pay raise.

Light switches have a place

Light switch
You never thought you’d miss this guy, did you? Isabella and Louisa Fischer / Unsplash

When I walk into the bedroom, it’s a lot slower to say, “Alexa, lights on,” and then wait a second or two for the lights to come on, than it is to flip the switch conveniently located a foot from me. Similarly, controlling lights with an app sounds reasonable, but it actually takes longer than a voice command. Good thing smart lights still work the old fashioned way.

But there’s a problem with this, too. When you turn your lights on from the switch, they usually turn on to whatever your last setting was, but if you turn them off the same way, you lose the smart-functionality—the exact level of dimness, for example—until you turn it on. This is particularly bad when not everyone in your household is on board.

Smart light-compatible switches can be the answer. They connect to your network and have different buttons for different presets, so if people keep messing up your voice-controlled presets, they’ll be just as handy as that good ol’ on-off switch.

Automation leaves a lot to be desired

I had big visions of the automated light setup I was going to have. I wanted to be able to say, “Alexa, wake us up at 6:30 a.m.,” and then have the lights slowly ramp up at that time, starting red and going to white, before the radio came on as the alarm. This is possible on a daily schedule, but you can’t set up a different wake-up time with a quick voice command, and it takes two different apps to make work properly. Maybe there’s a way to make this happen, but I haven’t managed to get it to work—and I’m a person who gets paid to figure these things out.

And there’s other, smaller quirks, like when your smart assistant and your smart light platform just don’t offer the same options. For example, Alexa supports a more limited range of colors than those in the Ikea app, so I can’t dial in the exact color I want without picking up my phone. Using the word “light” in any custom voice commands confuses things in weird ways, too, and there’s no way to stop a routine that’s in progress, which means I can’t cancel my 30-minute evening wind-down if I want to go to sleep earlier. If I turn off the lights, they get turned back on again a few minutes later so they can be automatically dimmed.

The various components of your smart home setup have different sets of problems, so even though you may not have these exact troubles, it is likely you’ll run into something similar and equally annoying. Different setups or some coding may be enough to take care of some of these problems, while others will take some work from manufacturers to fix. But for all the marketing smart bulb makers do around automation, things are just not easy if you don’t want to stick to their rigidly defined parameters.

Getting started

If the idea of smartening up your lighting situation is still irresistible, all that’s left to do is get started. The good news is that as messy as the setup and interoperability of things can be later on, things are simpler when you’re starting out. If you go for a hubbed system, most smart bulbs are compatible with most smart speakers, so you can use that as your primary way of controlling things.

This is a good way to go if you’re planning to replace more than a couple of lights. But if you’re just dabbling, grab a cheap WiFi smart bulb and see how you like it before you spend more money.

Once you’ve figured that out, you can plan out what you need. There are smart bulbs available for all the different light fixtures, and some are a bit pricier than others, so you don’t really want to buy anything you can spare. Starter kits are often good deals that come with a couple of bulbs, and a hub if necessary. But they’re not worth getting if you’re going to be left with bulbs you can’t use.

Finally, think about how you’re going to control things. Having to whip out your phone to do everything gets annoying fast, so budget in any extra smart speakers or smart light switches you’ll need.

When you know exactly what you need, smash that buy button. And set aside a weekend to get it all up and running.

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