Useful Inexpensive Gadgets –
I’ve long held the opinion that smart lights are the most sensible entry point into the connected home. They’re simple, they’re relatively inexpensive, and you’ll use them each and every day, complete with the convenience of automation and voice control. And don’t even get me started on the perfect, flicker-free dimming.
If you’re looking to make the upgrade, there are plenty of smart bulb options to consider, including a growing number of LED smart bulbs from reputable brands that cost $20 apiece or less. That’s roughly the same price you would have paid for a plain old dumb LED just six or seven years ago.
Now, believe me, I could rattle on at length about the benefits of smart light bulbs like these (and of LED lights in general, especially compared with the inefficient incandescent bulbs they replaced), and I’ve got lots of data to share from the weeks of tests we ran in the CNET lighting lab and here at my home… but I’m assuming you’re here for some quick buying advice, so let’s start there. Here are our favorites — none of which will cost you any more than $15.
My new top pick among cheap smart bulbs for 2020 is the $13 Philips Wiz Connected LED. It isn’t a Hue bulb, but it does offer a full spectrum of RGB color settings in addition to the white light settings, which you almost never see for anything less than $30.
With Wi-Fi radios in every bulb, the Philips Wiz Connected LEDs don’t need a hub to pair with your router, and they can connect with Alexa or Google Assistant for voice controls, too. Apple HomeKit isn’t supported, but you can still control the bulbs using a limited range of Siri voice commands using Apple’s Shortcuts app. The Wiz app, which you’ll use for setup and programming, is surprisingly full-featured, too. Along with basics like grouping and scheduling, it offers a wide array of fun color cycles, plus useful extras you don’t often see at this price range like vacation mode lighting and energy tracking. All of that helps make it the first bulb you should consider if you’re looking for something smart.
Wyze Labs is a Seattle startup run by former Amazon developers, and its ethos is selling bargain-priced, user-friendly smart home gadgets direct to consumers. We already like the brand’s dirt-cheap cameras — now, it’s offering dirt-cheap smart bulbs, as well. The cost? $8 plus shipping.
They aren’t just cheap — they’re great smart light bulbs, too, with lots of brightness and full support for Alexa, IFTTT and Google Assistant. They also offer a full range of color temperature options ranging from soft white light to daylight, which is rare to find in a smart bulb that costs less than $20, let alone less than $10. And, with Wi-Fi radios in each one, you won’t need any extra smart home hub hardware plugged into your router in order to use them. All of that makes them one of the easiest smart lighting picks I’ve tested, and a truly terrific value.
It’s absolutely nothing fancy — no app of its own, no unique features — but this Zigbee smart bulb from the Home Depot store brand EcoSmart costs less than $9, and it even comes with a physical remote. Don’t care about the remote, or already have one? You can also get the bulbs in a two-pack for less than $10, which is a fair price for dumb LEDs with no smarts whatsoever.
With Zigbee radios in each bulb, you can pair these lights with an Amazon Echo Plus or a SmartThings Hub to start controlling them from your phone or with your voice, and like the Wyze bulbs, they even include multiple white light settings ranging from yellowy soft white (2,700K) to bluish-white daylight (6,500K). Like I said, they aren’t fancy, but they worked perfectly with Alexa when I tested them out at home, making them a great, no-frills value pick you can use anywhere.
Now available for as little as $10 each, the Lifx Mini White is a well-established Wi-Fi smart bulb with a terrific app and support for Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, plus an excellent channel on IFTTT. It isn’t quite as bright as I’d like with a max setting of just 650 lumens or so, but it dims well and you can start using all of its features as soon as you turn it on, hubs be damned.
There are other smart bulbs that work with HomeKit, but only a few that don’t require a hub. Compared to those, the superior Lifx app features and integrations put it over the top. If you’re a HomeKit user looking for white-light automations like the lights coming on as soon as your phone detects that you’ve returned home, the Lifx Mini White is the best value.
GE Lighting is a Made for Google partner, so it’s no surprise that its lineup of C by GE Bluetooth smart light bulbs all work really well with Google Assistant. Specifically, they’re all able to pair directly with the Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max smart speakers, as well as the Google Home Hub smart display. Just screw the bulb in and turn it on, then take control of it using the Google Home app.
From there, your Google Home device works as the hub, offering snappy voice control and the ability to control your lights on your smartphone when you’re outside of Bluetooth range. Best of all is the price. In fact, as of writing this on Sept. 18, the cost for a two-pack is down to just $15 at Best Buy. All of that makes these light bulbs a low-cost no-brainer for fans of Google Assistant.
(Note: GE Lighting recently ditched the “Life” branding with this bulb — it’s now just called the “C by GE Soft White LED.”)
Sengled’s lineup of smart bulbs are basically a less expensive version of Philips Hue, and they work just as well with Alexa (and with Google Assistant, too). They lack support for Apple HomeKit, and they don’t dim down quite as low as the Hue White LEDs do, but otherwise, the pitch is the same — cheap bulbs that require a Zigbee hub or an Amazon Echo Plus.
What’s important is the price. With standard, white light LED smart bulbs starting at $10 each, they’re among the least expensive smart lights on the market, and if you don’t have a hub or an Echo Plus, let me point out that Sengled’s two-bulb starter kit with a hub included is $30 less than Hue’s, too. I’d rather pay a bit more for everything that comes with the Hue ecosystem, but if you just want a functional set of smart lights that are as inexpensive as possible, then Sengled will absolutely get the job done, and the bulbs work like a charm once you connect them with Amazon’s smart speakers.
The $8 Wyze Bulb is technically cheaper, but since you’ll buy it direct from Wyze Labs, you’ll need to tack on a few bucks for shipping. Sengled’s $10 bulbs ship free on Amazon, and you can often find them bundled with Alexa speakers at a nice, additional discount.
Of all of the smart lighting platforms available today, Philips Hue’s is the most well-connected, and at $15 each, the system’s Hue White LEDs are a true bargain. The only downside? Despite the recent addition of Bluetooth that lets you connect direct with your lights for basic app controls, Hue bulbs require the Hue Bridge to take full advantage of their numerous features and integrations with platforms such as IFTTT and Apple HomeKit, so you’ll need to start with something like the $70 kit with two Hue bulbs pictured above.
Either way, we say it’s worth it — especially if you plan on expanding your smart lighting setup over time. The ecosystem of Hue lights is diverse and well-developed, and the wide array of features and integrations can’t be matched. On top of that, the White Philips Hue LEDs offer plenty of brightness and a decent dimmable range, and while Philips Hue bulbs aren’t color bulbs and won’t change colors with multiple color options, they’ll do a good job at making the colors in your home look vivid and true. Bottom line: If you own a Hue Bridge or you’re willing to buy one, then these are the smart light bulbs you should be filling your home with.
Just want a cheap smart bulb that’s as bright as possible? Head to Home Depot and spend $12 on a Cree Connected LED. The Wyze Bulb is technically brighter at 921 lumens, but that’s only at its daylight color temperature setting. At a soft white 2,700K — the most popular color temperature setting — the Wyze Bulb puts out 880 lumens, which is just shy of Cree’s 894 lumens.
Aside from that, Cree’s LED light bulb also has a unique design that eliminates the bulky heat sink at the base of the bulb. That helps it cast a lot more light downward, and makes it a great pick for a bedside reading lamp. The only catch? You’ll need to pair this bulb with a Zigbee hub in order to control it. The Hue Bridge, the Amazon Echo Plus, the SmartThings Hub and the Wink Hub are your top options.
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – Which light bulbs did you test?
When this roundup first published in 2019, I homed in on cheap smart bulbs that you can buy for $20 or less. Now, in 2020, I’ve added in several new options, all of which can be had for less than $15. Here’s all of them in a handy comparison chart — just keep in mind that I don’t have access to my lighting lab here during the pandemic, so I haven’t been able to take brightness readings for the newest bulbs on the list. When that changes, I’ll be sure to update this post.
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – Smart bulbs you can get for $20 or less
||Min and max brightness||Wireless standard||Compatible platforms||Requires hub?||Current price (as of Sept. 2020)|
|C by GE Soft White LED||15-828 lumens||Bluetooth||Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT||No (requires C-Reach Hub to connect with Apple HomeKit, and a C-Reach Hub or Sol smart lamp to connect with Alexa)||$15 for a 2-pack|
|Cree Connected LED||49-894 lumens||Zigbee||Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings||Yes (Hue Bridge, SmartThings Hub, Wink Hub, Amazon Echo Plus, Amazon Echo Show, other Zigbee hubs)||$12|
|EcoSmart A19 Smart LED||800 lumens (testing to come)||Zigbee||Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings||Yes (Amazon Echo Plus, Amazon Echo Show, SmartThings Hub)||$9 for a bulb with remote, $8 for a 2-pack|
|Eufy Lumos LED||47-827 lumens||Wi-Fi||Alexa, Google Assistant||No||$33 for a 2-pack|
|Lifx Mini White LED||6-644 lumens||Wi-Fi||Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, SmartThings, IFTTT||No||$10|
|Philips Hue White LED (Bluetooth-enabled)||13-850 lumens||Zigbee, Bluetooth||Alexa, Apple HomeKit*, Google Assistant, SmartThings*, IFTTT* (*requires Hue Bridge)||No hub needed for basic app controls, or to connect with compatible Alexa and Google Assistant devices||$15|
|Philips Wiz Connected LED||800 lumens (testing to come)||Wi-Fi||Alexa, Google Assistant||No||$13|
|Ring Smart LED Bulb||800 lumens (testing to come)||Zigbee||Alexa||Yes (Ring Bridge, Amazon Echo Plus, Amazon Echo Show)||$15|
|Sengled Soft White Smart LED||70-873 lumens||Zigbee||Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings, IFTTT||Yes (Sengled Smart Hub, Hue Bridge, Amazon Echo Plus, SmartThings Hub, Wink Hub, other Zigbee hubs)||$10|
|Samsung SmartThings LED||800 lumens (testing to come)||Zigbee||Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings||Yes (SmartThings Hub, Amazon Echo Plus, Amazon Echo Show)||$10|
|Sylvania Smart Plus LED||3-848 lumens||Bluetooth||Apple HomeKit||No (requires Apple HomePod, Apple TV or always-on iPad for HomeKit control outside of Bluetooth range)||$18|
|TP-Link Kasa Tunable White Smart LED||800 lumens (testing to come)||Wi-Fi||Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT||No||$20|
|Wyze Bulb||86-921 lumens||Wi-Fi||Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT||No||$8 (plus shipping)|
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – How did you test them?
I spent a few weeks testing each of these light bulbs out. For the ones tested in 2019, that included a trip to the CNET lighting lab, where we load them into an integrating sphere and use a spectrometer to take carefully calculated readings for things like brightness, color temperature and dimmable range. And, like I said, I’ll run those same tests for the new bulbs on the list as soon as I can. I miss that ol’ integrating sphere, lemme tell ya.
I also spent a lot of time testing each bulb’s ability to connect with voice assistants and, where applicable, their respective companion apps. (Cree, EcoSmart and Sylvania’s light bulbs don’t come with apps of their own, and instead rely on the apps of whatever platform you choose to connect them with.)
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – Brightness, light spread, color quality and more
Let’s start with the specs, because there are some important differences to consider. For instance, if you’re looking for a bulb that you can use in a reading lamp or some other light fixtures where brightness is especially important, you’ll probably want to rule out the TP-Link Kasa KB100 and the Lifx Mini White. Neither of those get any brighter than 650 lumens — bright as far as accent lights go, but not bright enough to shine as the primary light source for an average-size room all on their own.
Light spread matters, too, as lots of LED smart light bulbs have bulky heat sinks at the base that block a lot of the downward cast light. For instance, the Philips Hue White LED puts out a very respectable 850 lumens, but not enough of that light makes it down beneath the bulb. The Cree and Sengled LEDs both did much better, as you can plainly see in those comparison shots above. (Like my spec tests, new comparison pics featuring all of the new bulbs tested in 2020 are coming soon.)
Those shots were all taken with fixed exposure and white balance settings. In addition to letting you get a good, comparative look at how bright each bulb is, they’ll also give you a hint at how well they might illuminate the colors in your home. That wall in the background is plum purple, but different bulbs light it up differently, affecting the way the color looks. To my eye, the two that got it the closest were the Philips Hue White LED and the C by GE Life LED. Neither one is as exceptional at color rendering as, say, a GE Reveal LED, but they’re both at least better than the average LED.
As for dimmability, each of these light bulbs will dim smoothly and without flicker or buzz — one of smart lighting’s top perks. Just don’t try and use any of them with existing, physical dimmer switches, because the dimming hardware in your wall will clash with the dimming hardware inside of the bulb, causing it to strobe.
Another wonky thing worth knowing about smart bulbs is that some, like Sengled and TP-Link, will dim the light down using a linear dimming curve — i.e. the 10% setting gives you 10% of the full lumen count. Others, including Philips Hue and Lifx bulbs, use a logarithmic dimming curve that dims the light faster in the top half of its dimmable range, where it’s harder for the eye to detect changes from setting to setting. Bulbs like those offer a better overall range of distinct settings, but they won’t offer much of a difference between any of the settings under 10%.
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You can read more about smart bulb dimming curves here if you’re interested, but know that all of the ones I’ve tested for this roundup thus far have passed my tests by dimming down well below 100 lumens at minimum settings. Lifx, GE and Philips Hue were all especially strong here, and able to dim down below 20 lumens at the 1% setting.
The bulb that went the lowest, though? That’d be the Sylvania Smart Plus LED — it dimmed down to just 3 lumens at its minimum setting.
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – Platform compatibility
Most smart light bulbs do a good job of being clear about the platforms they support by putting little “Works with” badges on the packaging. If you’re an Apple HomeKit user, for instance, then look for bulbs that have the “Works with Apple HomeKit” badge on the box. Easy, right?
Well, not really. The problem? Some bulbs require hubs to work with certain platforms, but not others. For instance, the C by GE Life LED can connect directly with Google Home speakers and use them as a hub for control outside of Bluetooth range, but if you want to connect with Alexa, then you’ll need the C-Reach plug-in hub, a separate $50 accessory.
I’ve done my best to make those connection requirements clear in that comparison chart a few sections up, but here’s a quick breakdown by platform.
Pretty much everything works with Alexa at this point, so you’ve got lots of options. If you have an Echo Plus (or a separate Zigbee hub), then take advantage of that speaker’s Zigbee radio by going with Zigbee smart bulbs like the Philips Hue White LED, the Sengled LED, the EcoSmart LED or the Cree Connected LED. The Echo Plus can control all of them.
If you don’t have an Echo Plus or a Zigbee hub and you don’t want to buy one, then go with a Wi-Fi bulb from Wyze, Lifx, Eufy or TP-Link. Of those four, I’d either go with Wyze for the extra brightness or Lifx for its best-in-class app and its excellent IFTTT channel.
Like Alexa, Google Assistant works with almost every major smart light on the market, so again, you’ve got a lot of options. Even so, I think the C by GE LED is an easy standout here. The direct Wi-Fi connection with a Google Home smart speaker is easy to install and speedy in action, and the bulbs themselves offer lots of quality, too.
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If you want to spend no more than $20 on a smart bulb that works with Siri, then your options are the Philips Hue White LED, the Lifx Mini White LED or — if you catch it on sale — the Sylvania Smart Plus LED. C by GE bulbs support Apple HomeKit now, too, but you need the C-Reach plug-in hub accessory, which is sold separately.
I like Hue’s platform, but you’ll need the Hue Bridge to connect with HomeKit. The Sylvania LED is a decent bulb that can connect with HomeKit right out of the box, but you can’t control it from beyond Bluetooth range unless you have an Apple HomePod, an Apple TV or a dedicated, always-on iPad to serve as a HomeKit hub. Meanwhile, the Lifx Mini White needs no hub at all to connect with HomeKit, and the Lifx app will work from anywhere, too. It just isn’t quite as bright as the other two. Brightness aside, that’s the one I’d go with.
Other platform points of note
Amazon, Google and Apple aren’t the end-all-be-all, mind you. For instance, if you’re a security-minded Ring customer, then you might want to check out Ring’s $15 smart bulb, which is also available as a weatherproof outdoor smart floodlight. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to have a Ring Bridge, too, so it’s really only worth it if you’ve already bought in with Ring’s smart lights, or if you’re planning on it.
Meanwhile, you can control several of the bulbs in this post on the Samsung SmartThings platform, and Samsung even boasts its own SmartThings-branded bulbs for just $10 a pop.
The takeaway from all of that is that it’s as easy as ever to find a good bargain on smart lights, regardless of what platform you use. If you’ve already bought in with one, you’ll want to be sure to stick with bulbs that work with it. If you haven’t committed to a platform yet, consider bulbs like Lifx and Philips Hue that work with just about everything — that’ll help keep your options open in case you decide to expand your smart home.
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – Questions?
The smart home is evolving fast, and there’s a lot to keep up with. If you’re confused about any of your options and need some more help, head to my CNET profile page and click the little envelope icon to send a message straight to my inbox. I’m also happy to field questions on Twitter.
Just need to know a little more about LED light bulbs in general? My light bulb buying guide is here to help.
Useful Inexpensive Gadgets – More smart home recommendations
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