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Been sleeping on smart lights? Time to wake up

CNET logo CNET 1/20/2019 Ry Crist
a flat screen tv sitting in a living room: Five new smart switches will join the C by GE smart lighting lineup this year, along with new color-changing bulbs and new C by GE accessories. All of them are reasonably priced. © Philips

Five new smart switches will join the C by GE smart lighting lineup this year, along with new color-changing bulbs and new C by GE accessories. All of them are reasonably priced.

When we write reviews here at CNET, one of our first priorities is to come up with a buying recommendation. Who, specifically, is this gadget a good fit for? Who, if anyone, would benefit from buying it?

Well, here's my broadest buying recommendation to date: If you have a smart phone and you use light bulbs in your home, then you should buy smart lights. Honestly, I really can't think of a good reason why you shouldn't.

Go on -- tell me I'm wrong.

But smart lights cost too much!

a close up of a box: ge-c-start-smart-switches © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. ge-c-start-smart-switches

No, they don't. Really!

Consider Philips Hue, long thought of as an expensive option in smart lighting. That's certainly true if you want every light in your home to change colors, but if you're just looking for a modest setup with a few, non-color-changing bulbs, the buy-in is much more manageable. As of writing this, a four-bulb Philips Hue White starter kit with the mandatory Hue Bridge costs $90 on Amazon. From there, additional bulbs cost $15 each.

how-to-sunrise © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. how-to-sunrise

Maybe that still sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that switching from a 60-watt incandescent to a 10-watt LED that's just as bright will knock about $6 off of your energy bill each year, on average. If you're still using outdated bulbs like those, that four-bulb Hue kit would pay for itself in less than four years.

how-to-homekit-10 © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. how-to-homekit-10

Other smart lighting products from Sengled, Sylvania, TP-Link Kasa and the Anker-owned Eufy brand of smart home gadgets are all well-reviewed, well-connected and well-priced. GE's stepping on the smart lighting gas this year with a greatly expanded lineup of budget-friendly C by GE smart lights and switches, all of which will work directly with Google Assistant. Amazon-owned video doorbell startup Ring has a new lineup of motion-sensing outdoor lights planned for this year, too -- and they're the most affordable Ring gadgets to date.

All of that competition is good for consumers -- it also means that a good sale on smart lights is rarely far away. And keep in mind that these are products that you'll use each and every day. In some cases, they'll be the first things you turn on in the morning and the last things you turn off before heading to bed. It's worth paying a little more for really nice ones with additional features you might not have considered before, things like voice controls, security lighting and wake-up fades. 

In fact, after spending more than five years talking to folks about smart lights -- friends, family, co-workers, strangers -- I honestly can't remember anyone who's bought in and regretted it outright. Can you say that about phones, laptops, TVs, VR headsets or any other number of popular product categories?

But smart lighting is useless!

No, it isn't. Really!

I mean, come on, you use your smart phone for everything else -- why not use it to control your lights, too? Got a smart speaker you'd like to use more? A set of smart lights is one of the absolute best things you can pair with it. Being able to say "OK Google, turn all of the lights off," as you head to bed or "Alexa, turn on movie mode," before binge-watching your favorite Netflix series are each great examples of the sort of little things in tech that you come to appreciate over and over and over again.

Beyond the basic app and voice controls, smart lights come with a variety of extra features designed to help you put your lights to work. Recently, we've seen lots of features that focus on security. Many platforms offer some form of Away Mode lighting that cycles your lights on and off in the evening while you're out on vacation to make it look like you're home. Some can combine with motion sensors to turn on automatically if they sense anything lurking in the shadows. The Lifx Plus LED uses invisible infrared light to illuminate things for your night vision cameras, helping to offer a much more detailed picture in the dark.

Other features are geared more towards comfort and convenience. My favorite recent example: an integration between Philips Hue and Google that lets you trigger slow fades with a voice command. You can also sync your smart lights to slowly fade on 30 minutes ahead of your morning Google Assistant alarm, which is a great way to ease out of bed.

And did I mention dimming? Smart lights do it with perfect, flicker-free precision, no need for finnicky dimming hardware at the switch. That alone is worth the cost of buying in for me.

But hey, I mentioned light switches, and that's one of the common connected lighting concerns -- smart bulbs won't work if you turn them off at the switch and cut their power. It's true, but fortunately, the days of putting a Post-it note over the switch to teach your kids to leave it on might be coming to a close. New switches designed to pair with smart bulbs and eliminate that problem are already on the market right now, and Philips, GE and other manufacturers tell us that more are on the way. Hallelujah.

And what about those fancy-schmancy LED wall panels that change colors? Aren't those just expensive gimmicks? No, actually -- they're more like functional art pieces (and priced accordingly, in my opinion). One upcoming option, LaMetric Sky, wants to go beyond the pretty colors and designs and offer billboard-like status notifications for everything from Slack to stock prices. A bit niche, perhaps, but definitely not useless.

But smart lights are risky!

No, they aren't. Really!

It used to be that, if a manufacturer wanted to release a set of smart lights, they'd need to cook up the app software to go with it. That led to all sorts of lighting control apps from companies without much of a cybersecurity track record. That asked a lot of trust of consumers (and in a lot of cases, it meant for a poor user experience on your phone, too).

Things are different now -- and it's largely thanks to larger players with lots of skin in the smart home game. The trendy way of putting it at CES 2019 in Las Vegas was that connections with Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit are now popular enough to serve as table stakes for any new smart home product. If a smart light wants to sell, it needs to offer voice support. That means that you've got a boatload of bulbs and switches that you can connect and control directly through Apple, Google and Amazon's platforms -- and each of those platforms comes from security-minded software experts with demonstrably high standards, not to mention partner certification programs. 

Let me put it another way. Are you comfortable using an iPhone or an Android device? Are you OK with Amazon knowing your shopping history and tailoring recommendations for you across the web? Then using smart lights via Apple, Google or Amazon's cloud platforms shouldn't bother you, either. 

But maybe you aren't crazy about voice controls. It still doesn't matter. Big names in smart lighting like Lifx and Philips Hue have been around long enough at this point to demonstrate a dedicated focus on user security, with frequent updates and speedy action whenever security professionals uncover a potential vulnerability.

And to be clear, these vulnerabilities are minimal. Despite the understandable paranoia over the growing number of connected devices in our homes, there's no evidence that suggests that hackers are taking any particular interest in consumer smart lights. We haven't seen a rash of compromised connected lighting platforms dishing out people's network credentials, for instance. People aren't getting robbed because they use app-enabled light bulbs -- in fact, smart lighting might actually help you prevent a robbery.

One last point. Stop and ask yourself if you've bought something from or used any of these companies in the past two years:

Surprise! All of them were hacked over that span. The number of major smart lighting hacks over that same period? Zero. Using smart lights may very well be less risky than shopping at the mall.

And sure, lots of poorly secured smart home gadgets were swept up into the Mirai botnet a few years back -- but most of those devices were things like internet-connected printers, cheap DVR boxes and no-name webcams from China. Modern smart lights from well-established names didn't seem to be involved at all.

Bottom line: Connecting anything in your home to the web is going to be a potential vulnerability -- but there's no reason to think that pairing well-developed smart lights with your router is any riskier than connecting, say, your phone or your laptop. As always, the important thing is to give your home network a strong password, and ideally, to change it every once in a while.

Light 'em up

Smart lights are useful, affordable, easy to install and safe to use. They can make your home feel more comfortable, more futuristic and more secure. You'll use them every day you own them, and you've got a lot of very strong options to choose from. They're the first thing I'd tell you to buy after getting a smart speaker, and a sensible upgrade even if you lack one.

So yes, if you haven't done so yet, you should strongly consider upgrading to smart lights the next time the ones you want are on sale. Which ones you get depend on what features you're interested in, what platforms you want to connect with, and the scope of your ideal setup. Need help narrowing it down? That's what we're here for.

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