Take control of every bulb and transform the look and mood of your home, not to mention improve its security and make waking up all the easier
Creating the perfect lighting scheme is a theme we return to time and again on interiors websites and magazines. The impact a well-positioned lamp can have on the look and feel of a space can’t be understated, and thanks to the rise of the smart light bulb and connected lighting apps such as Philips Hue, LiFX and even Ikea, you can now create a professional-looking lighting scheme just by replacing a few bulbs.
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OK so it’s not quite that simple, but assuming you’ve got wireless broadband and use a smartphone or tablet it is incredibly easy to upgrade your bulbs to those that can be wirelessly controlled, dimmed and even colour changed.
Whether you choose to just change one lamp bulb and use it as a night light or want to be able to control every bulb in your house, create a smart home security system or play with moods depending on what you’re doing – movie night or a romantic dinner mayb. We’ve reviewed the best smart lighting kits that can help whatever your budget.
Best Smart Lighting
1. Best for the whole house – Philips Hue
Philips Hue can take the credit for bringing smart lighting control to the masses. They’ve been selling wirelessly connected bulbs since 2012 and remain the leading brand in the field. With around 50 different bulb options now available – from GU10 and E14 to strip lights and a whole range of LED pendants, chandeliers and even battery-powered garden lights – the Hue system is also the most comprehensive.
The Hue app is slick and intuitive, taking you through the setup as well as helping you try new settings and themes. You can test the water with a £29.99 wireless dimming kit that includes one bulb and a dimming switch that can control up to 10 bulbs. But to get the best from the system you’ll want to invest in a Bridge (starter kit with three bulbs and Bridge costs from £129) that connects to your Wi-Fi router and for total home control.
I have experimented with Hue for years and love the range and quality of the light. And while I’ve never been a fan of the wacky coloured themes – nobody needs 16 million colours to choose from – I can always find something suitable. The wireless switches are a very practical extra as it takes longer to get a phone out than press a switch, although nothing is as convenient as telling Alexa to turn all the lights off just before I go to sleep.
Hue works with a huge number of smart platforms including Amazon Echo, Apple Home Kit, Google Assistant voice control, Nest, SmartThings, Logitech and Bosch Smart Home Control, so it can become integrated into your security system. Turn a bedroom light on when someone walks up to the front door camera for instance, or randomly turn on/off to mimic activity when you’re on holiday.
It’s unquestionably the best system available. And while it can be a little confusing to navigate around all the settings to get just what you want, that is testament to the huge amount the Philips Hue ecosystem can do beyond simply app-controlled dimming and remote control.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
2. Ikea TRÅDFRI – Best for value
Given their massive worldwide reach – over 900 million in-store and two billion website visits each year – when Ikea invests in something it can be a global game changer. TRÅDFRI is Ikea’s first smart lighting system and consists of a whole range of app-controlled wireless lightbulbs, dimmers, switches and motion sensors.
There’s nowhere near as many bulbs available as Philips Hue (yet!) but the fact that you can buy a single E27 LED bulb (2700k) and wireless dimmer for just £15, makes this the perfect starter system. Many standard LED bulbs cost more than that! Individual smart bulbs cost from just £7 each although you do need to invest in a £25 Gateway hub that connects to your Wi-Fi if you want app-control.
Even so, this is a bargain for smart controlled lighting and with colour bulbs now available (from £35) and even LED panels for the kitchen, rapid range expansion is almost guaranteed.
But is it any good? If you just want to use a remote dimmer with your bulbs (up to 10 with each controller) then it’s a doddle. But connecting to the Gateway and app, and enjoying the timers and scenes available, is more convoluted that I hoped. You need to connect your dimmer/switch/sensor (known as steering devices) to the Gateway and then link the bulbs to the steering device. It all feels a bit unnecessary. Ironically though, if you just download the app and follow the instructions on screen, it’s far easier.
Ikea’s smart lighting is compatible with the ZigBee protocol and is also controllable using Apple Home Kit and Amazon Alexa. Google Assistant isn’t yet available but they’re working on a software update. It’s also compatible with the Philips Hue Bridge – if all the software is up to date – which could save you lots of cash.
If you’re looking to update your bulbs to the latest energy saving LED designs and aren’t as bothered by smart features, then the TRÅDFRI is a great place to start. Given how influential Ikea can be, I wouldn’t be surprised if the app gets updated and the whole system improves greatly in the near future.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Buy now: TRÅDFRI Dimming kit, £15, Ikea
3. Sengled Pulse – Best for music and light
Sengled sells a wide range of smart lightbulbs through Wickes.co.uk, but not the most interesting models for me, which are the Pulse and Solo. Both of these feature LED bulbs and a built-in Bluetooth speaker. It’s a neat idea and great if you want to create a simple and affordable audio system but don’t want traditional speakers cluttering up the surfaces. Using the lightbulb makes practical sense as they have their own power supply and are in every room already.
The Solo (€44.90) is a good value standalone product featuring a 6W LED bulb and 3W JBL Bluetooth speaker. Not much bigger than an old CFL bulb it simply screws in, and connects like any other Bluetooth speaker. The app is very simple and while it lacks the number of features found on other smart lighting systems you can still control bulb brightness and sound volume with ease. Sound quality is OK given the size of the speaker, but don’t expect it to replace your hi-fi. I found it useful for playing my daughter music at night and dimming her bedroom light to help her sleep, and it would be OK as a kitchen radio replacement.
The Sengled Pulse Set (€129.90) is a twin set of Bluetooth speaker bulbs that can be linked together to play in stereo or separate rooms. This is a great idea and certainly helps fill the room with music – you can even link up to eight bulbs together to create a basic multi-room system – but given the price the sound quality isn’t great, and I found it hard to find a lampshade that was big enough to conceal the enormous bulbs. And remember, being Bluetooth, if you move more than 10m from the ‘master’ bulb the sound will cut out.
If you can’t face having a speaker on show this is a neat solution, but given how gorgeous some Bluetooth speakers are these days – try Vifa and Beoplay for instance – I’m not sure it’s a compromise worth making.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
4. LIFX – Best for easy installation
Unlike Philips Hue, the Lifx range of bulbs don’t need a hub to work, so all you need to do to install is screw in a bulb, download the app and you’re ready to go. Each bulb has Wi-Fi built in and we’ve yet to find a system simpler (or faster) to set up.
There’s not a vast range of bulbs available, but the selection continues to expand and now boasts GU10 (and complete downlight), A60, E27, BR30, LED strip lights and even a new colour-changing feature light installation called the Beam (£199). All the bulbs I tested were extremely well made, and I was impressed by the range of colours (16 million) and exceptional brightness. They’ve also introduced a new Night Vision bulb designed to work alongside your home security camera helping to improve the image quality in the dark.
Lifx, like Hue, works well with other smart home brands including Apple Home Kit, Alexa and Google Assistant, and in my test everything synced without fuss – although Home Kit, as always is a bit more of a faff as you have to scan barcodes from the packaging – and worked seamlessly first time with a very fast response time between pressing the phone and light responding (not always the case with smart home kit!)
The Lifx app is nicely designed and offers some great settings ready-programed for you to try including Day & Dusk that starts you off with a gently wake up using soft whites, brightens up during the day to help keep you focussed and in the evening reverts to a calming amber glow to help you relax. It’s a bit weird if you only have one smart bulb, but once the theme is spread across the home it’s surprisingly enjoyable.
The only stumbling block with Lifx at the moment is price. With the E27 800 lumen white only bulb costing £24.99 and the brighter, larger bulbs starting at £59.99 you’re looking at least one hundred pounds per room at a minimum. That said, if your budget will stretch you won’t be disappointed.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
5. Hive Smart Lighting – best for home renovations and bulk buys
Hive started out as British Gas’s stylish smart thermostat but has since branched out into the smart home with door/window sensors, security cameras, smart plugs and even leak detectors, and have recently launched their own connected LED bulbs. Available in white, cool-to-warm or colour changing standard pendant replacements (both screw and bayonet) or GU10 they’re solid value and unlike other brands can be bought in generous multi-packs of three, six or 10 which helps keep costs down.
To use the Hive bulbs, and any of their other products, you will need a Hive Hub (£64) connected to your Wi-Fi router. Installation is hassle free, and while the app lacks the depth of feature of the Hue it has been built to work with the other Hive products so it’s easy to turn on a light if a door sensor is tripped as well as dim and colour change, set timers, or turn off bulbs remotely.
It feels a bit basic compared to Hue or LiFX but thanks to it being ZigBee compatible it can integrate with the Samsung SmartThings system, and as you’d expect it works with Amazon Echo and IFTTT so you can create your own light control systems.
Unlike other smart home brands Hive also offers a series of smart home subscription plans. Costing from £9.99 – £29.99 per month the basic plan includes two bulbs, sensor, hub, smart plug and access to the Hive Live app that gives more home control recipes.
UPDATE: Hive has just announced that their hub is now compatible with Philips Hue bulbs, which is great for anyone who has invested in both systems, but only wants to use one app.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
6. Lightwave RF Generation 2 – Best for upgrading your existing lights
The latest generation of LED bulbs will last for years, so if you’ve recently invested in them, I can’t recommend you chuck them just to upgrade to ‘smart’ control. But I will happily point you towards Lightwave, who sell designer app-controlled smart dimmer switches (and plugs, but I’m not reviewing these here) that can instantly upgrade your non-smart LEDs.
The switches – available as single and double gang – come in a modern brushed metal finish that I really like. I’m reviewing the second generation of Lightwave switches here, but if you want a standard white design you’d need to buy the first generation that don’t offer the same level of features. It’s also worth noting that the switches are quite deep and can stick out from the wall if you have shallow wall boxes. In each box there is a 10mm spacer to work around this, although it’s not as stylish as a result.
The switches will work on their own as expensive dimmers, but you will need to buy the Link Plus Hub (£129.95) that plugs into your router for app control. Designed for simple DIY, I had no problem swapping old for new on a standard single gang circuit, but I did need to call their excellent helpline for advice for a more complicated multi-switch circuit. If you’re not confident, or you have a house full of old wiring, I would call an electrician.
The switches are compatible with a wide range of LED bulbs from leading brands such as Philips, Dial and Megaman, and they will work with halogen and incandescent types, but not CFLs. They’re also not suitable for use alongside smart colour-changing bulbs like Philips Hue.
The app, like it should be, is smartly designed and easy to navigate around, offering lots of light and power control options. It also works really well with Amazon Alexa and Apple Home Kit and Siri voice control.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
7. Best smart lighting you can take anywhere – Philips Hue Go
Most people don’t realise that Philips also sell all-in-one smart lamps like the Hue Go. As one of the most affordable and practical options available the Hue Go can be powered either via mains or battery allowing you to take around the house, use as a night light and take it outside to add a bit of ambiance to garden parties.
I like that you don’t actually need to connect the Hue Go to your Wi-Fi to add colour changing mood to your home. The lamp has seven preset colors, two white lights and five colors; red/orange (Cozy Candle), yellow/green (Enchanted Forest), blue/red (Night Adventure), orange/purple (Sunday Coffee) and green/violet (Meditation). If you don’t like these shades you can hold your finger on the button and cycle through a rainbow of colours until you find something you like.
It’s a limited palette compared to the full 16 million colour Hue experience. But if you have other Hue lights and a Bridge, you can integrate it into your smart lighting and use the app for full control.
The lamp itself is a 6-watt LED bulb shining at 300 lumens, and while that seems quite dim, remember it’s designed for ambiance rather than task lighting. As a bedside light it worked well using the white tones and hidden away in a corner I enjoyed the soft colourful glow. If you’re using battery power it will last around three hours on a single charge
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Why do I need smart lighting?
Lighting control is not especially new – brands like Lutron have been installing luxurious lighting control systems for decades – but it’s only in the past few years that prices have dropped significantly enough to make it an affordable luxury. The price of LED technology has also fallen sharply while the quality of the lights has improved immeasurably. LED bulbs, smart or otherwise, are also exceptionally energy efficient and cost very little to run and should last for years.
But why do you need app-controlled lighting? Being able to turn the lights on via smartphone, or better still, using voice control is pretty cool, as is being able to create different moods, change colours, dim brightness brings another dimension to your interior design.
All the smart light brands allow you to set scenes (often called recipes) by linking together several bulbs, each at you preferred colour and brightness. This means you can switch from bright and functional while you cook, to relaxed and romantic as you eat in the kitchen, or dim the living room lights for movie night, adjust your own bedside light so you can continue to read without disturbing your partner, or even slowly dim and turn off your child’s light.
You also have control over when the bulbs turn on and off, so if you know the whole family will be at work and school by 9am you can turn everything off. OK so this doesn’t teach your kids to be responsible, but on the flipside, you can wake them up with a bright flashing light if they’re running late! Oh, and did we mention some smart light have a disco mode and can flash along to your favourite music…
Finally, on a more serious note, smart lights can transform your home’s security. Instead of using a plug-in lamp controller when you go on holiday you can now program random lights to come on throughout the evening, so the house looks lived in, and if you choose a brand that works with other smart home products – Nest, IFTTT, Apple Home Kit and Amazon Alexa – you can be even more creative. By linking to a smart camera or sensor you can make a bedroom light turn on if someone approaches the front door to mimic movement inside, rather than using a predictable security light.
What happens if I turn the light off at the wall?
Smart lights need to have constant power in order to work remotely, so if you turn off the standard wall switch you won’t be able to operate them from the app and any timers won’t work. It takes some getting used to, but you can buy smart switches if you want a physical button to press.
Do smart light bulbs still work if the internet crashes?
Without the internet smart bulbs just become bulbs and will work perfectly normally. Any pre-set colours or brightness won’t work however.
How to buy the best smart lighting
We recommend you start small with one of the many starter kits available, featuring a hub and a couple of bulbs, and experiment with smart control in one room before expanding across the home. It’s important to work out what you want the bulbs to do, and we have found the best way is to play around and try things out.
Colour-changing bulbs are impressive, but do you really need to be able to turn the bathroom lights green? Sticking to white-only bulbs will save money and reduce the number of choices you have. With 16 million colours available on some systems, choice isn’t always a good thing!
Choose the brightest bulbs you can from the get-go. You can always dim them to suit the mood of the room. Measured in lumens, look for at least 800 lumens, which is the equivalent of a traditional 60W bulb. In our tests the Lifx were the brightest bulbs, especially when you first turn them on.
Think about the other smart home technology you have (or may want in the near future) as many of the lighting systems can integrate nicely. If you already have a Hive heating system, the Hive smart lighting makes perfect sense as you’ll already be familiar with the app and won’t need to buy a hub. Likewise, Hue and Lifx both work with Nest products.
Virtually all smart lights can connect with Amazon Alexa, which is great if you want to talk to the bulbs. Apple users should also look out for Home Kit compatibility as you can use Siri voice control and link seamlessly with other Home Kit products. Google Assistant isn’t as catered for, but updates are coming.
How much should I spend on smart lighting?
With prices ranging from £15 to £45 per bulb it can be an expensive option to replace all your bulbs at once. A kitchen with nine GU10 spotlights will cost upwards of £250 to turn smart, but a bedroom with lamp and pendant fitting could cost as little as £50. We recommend you start with a kit – Philips Hue White Starter Kit consists of Bridge hub and two white E27 bulbs for just £60 – and work your way from there. Also, unless you choose Lifx that has built-in Wi-Fi you’ll need to factor in the cost of a hub to plug into your Wi-Fi router. Typically, they cost £50-£120.
Alternatively, you can enjoy basic app-control over lights using a smart plug-in like the Belkin WeMo Switch (£25) to control a single lamp. Or invest in a switch replacement like the Apple Home Kit compatible Lightwave RF system that can control your existing mains lighting.
Can I replace every bulb?
Read out next smart home guide: Best smart home security systems for protecting your property
Standard fittings are well catered for, but smaller obscure designs for chandeliers aren’t yet available. GU10 halogen spotlight replacements are thankfully now readily available, meaning you can update your kitchen and bathroom lighting, too. Although check the fittings to ensure they’re safe for wet areas. Philips Hue offer the greatest choice of bulbs with slim E14 candle style bulbs.