Smart-home devices sometimes require complicated installation that just doesn’t make sense for renters. Plus, apartments have different needs than single-family homes. That’s why we decided to outfit a whole condo with smart devices that don’t require rewiring or permanent installation. Each week, we’ll tackle a different category and look at various products, then explain how we made our selections. At the end of the series, we’ll examine the smart apartment as an ecosystem, and how all these devices — or do not — work together.
Digital Trends is outfitting a condo in Seattle with tons of smart-home devices suited for an apartment. In the Smart Apartment series, we’ll look at gadgets that are affordable, portable, and hopefully useful.
And for the first installment, I wanted to tackle lighting. Lights are one of the easiest and most affordable entrances to a smart home, and smart bulbs are perfect for apartment dwellers. They’re installed like regular lightbulbs and with a 20+-year lifespan, it’s important that they’re portable.
Let there be light
I can’t even count the number of LED and smart lightbulbs I have lying around, but when picking out smart lights for the DT smart apartment, I had a number of factors to consider. First, I have an iPhone, while my husband uses an Android device. That means I could use HomeKit-compatible bulbs, but if he wanted to turn on the lights via voice-control, we needed another option. Enter the Amazon Dot: The $50 puck imbued with Alexa, paired with a Bluetooth speaker.
As my condo is just 850 square feet, I can shout at Alexa to turn on my lights from pretty much anywhere. It nearly always works. Pulling out my phone and asking Siri to turn on my lights isn’t too burdensome, but it did confuse my friend, who thought I was asking her to do my bidding. There are some differences between Alexa and Siri, and we’ll get to those later.
Bulbs, switches, and plugs
There are a number of ways to make your lights smart: There are smart bulbs, smart switches, and smart plugs. I actually have a combination of all three going on right now, and there are pros and cons of each.
There are oodles of smart bulbs out there. With options like the Philips Hue, the smarts are in the bulb, but you also need a bridge — a separate, boxy device — to get them working. Lifx works with your Wi-Fi, while the C by GE uses Bluetooth. Neither of those require a hub, just your phone and an app. The Hue’s hub lets it work with several other devices, but to have Lifx integrate, you’ll need something like the Wink hub or “recipes” from the popular website If This Then That. While you can use your phone to turn on and off the C lights, you can’t yet set schedules or control them when you’re not home, as you can with Hue and Lifx.
Be aware: One thing that makes smart bulbs frustrating is that they have to be always “on.” If your switch isn’t permanently flipped up, the app can’t illuminate the bulb for you. Meaning if your roommate toggles the switch, you’re out of luck.
Pricing: A Philips Hue starter kit for white light bulbs, which comes with a bridge and two bulbs, costs $70; the starter kit with a bridge and three color bulbs is $179. Individual Lifx bulbs are $23 for white and $45 for the Color 1000. You can a four-bulb GE C starter pack for $75.
If you recently switched to non-connected, long-lasting LEDs, fear not. You can still make them smart with switches. This is more work than swapping a bulb, but it has some advantages. With the Lutron Caséta wireless dimmers, you don’t have to worry about leaving them in the “on” position all the time. Even if you manually push the off button on the wall switch, you can still turn the lights back on with your voice via Alexa or Siri or from the app. You can schedule your lights to turn on and off at certain times or when you’ve left home. Keep in mind that the Lutron dimmers require a bridge.
Be aware: With any rewiring project, you’re going to need access to your circuit breaker and may want to bring in an electrician. The Lutron switch doesn’t require a neutral wire, but the Elgato Eve switch does. Most of the switches listed below won’t work with 3-way switches, but you can add a $25 Lutron Pico remote mounting kit to get 3- and 4-way switches to dim.
For lamps with non-smart bulbs, connected plugs are a good option. They fit into an outlet and turn on and off whatever you plug in. You connect with them via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, depending on the switch. Many are standalone devices, meaning you don’t need a hub to make them work. In addition to letting you turn a lamp on or off, you should be able to set schedules, integrate it with IFTTT, and in some cases control the plug when you’re out and about. Some, like the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, can also monitor your energy usage for whatever’s plugged into it.
Be aware: Like light switches, lamps plugged into a smart outlet need to always be in the on position. Some models are pretty bulky and can actually encroach into the second outlet’s space, depending on how you plug it in.
All the pretty colors
There’s no doubt that color-changing lights are cool. I have a routine called “murder” set up for a Halloween party that turns my Hue and Lifx 1000 bulbs red at 50-percent brightness. There are a couple of issues, though. My living room doesn’t have an overhead light, and when I had two lamps with Hue’s 800-lumen color bulbs providing all the light, it was way too dim. The Lifx Color 1000 is definitely brighter at 1,055 lumens, so it’s closer to a 75-watt equivalent than a 60-watt, like the Hue. I have two Hue bulbs installed in the overhead light above my dining room table, and they work just fine, probably because it doesn’t need to illuminate a whole room.
When I run my “creepy green” setup, my Hue and Lifx bulbs turn green at 50 percent. Here’s the thing, though: My Lifx is a bright, emerald-y green that would draw Gatsby’s attention. The Hue bulbs are sort of yellow with tinges of green. They’re also not all the same green, as you can see in these pictures of the app. Philips says this is likely because I have one older bulb and two newer ones, released in the fall of 2016. The new version has more saturated colors, according to the company, but it’s still not as green as the Lifx bulb.
Most smart bulbs, whether colorful or not, tend to hang out in the 700 to 800 lumen range, but it’s not the only factor you’ll want to consider: Color temperature will also play a role. (Check out more info in our LED bulb buying guide.)
Siri vs. Alexa
After realizing two Hues weren’t going to cut it in my living room, I added another Hue and two Lifx Color 1000s. This provides ample brightness, and all the bulbs can be voice-controlled with Alexa. I grouped them all as “living room” in the device’s app, so saying, “Alexa, turn on the living room” illuminates them all. Alexa also works with Lutron Caséta, so I can ask her to turn off the hallway and office lights, which are controlled by wall dimmers. My one lamp in the bedroom is controlled by a Caséta plug, so that, too, is voice-controlled. Both Hue and Lutron Caséta are compatible with Siri, so I can summon her to turn off lights, too, though I have to remember distinct commands for each. (Lifx isn’t HomeKit compatible, so Siri doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I ask her to turn off the small lamp.)
Siri has the edge over Alexa when it comes to Hue bulbs.
Here’s where things get complicated. It’s easy enough to remember that I have a group called “living room,” but with five bulbs in there, I have to remember which is which. That means giving them distinct names that can still be understood by Alexa. That also means being careful to give everything a unique name. When I asked her to run blue living room — to turn my living room lights blue — she told me there was more than one, then asked, “Which one did you want.” I was stumped, and so was Alexa. “Sorry, I couldn’t find a group called ‘want,’” she told me. Apparently, she was picking up the last word of her own sentence.
Siri has the edge over Alexa when it comes to Hue bulbs. I can ask her to change the kitchen lights to pink, and she’ll reply, “Pink, coming right up!” in her Australian accent. I don’t get to pick the pink, though. Alexa doesn’t have this capability, unless you bring in a third party, like If This Then That or Yonomi. IFTTT currently can’t find any of my Hue bulbs, but Yonomi can — that’s how I made my murder and creepy green lights. In the routine page, I can make all my connected, colorful bulbs turn one of eight colors at varying percentages of brightness.
Despite some issues with brightness and color, Hue does surpass Lifx in connectedness. It works with a lot of devices and apps, so that’s something to keep in mind.
Worth all the hassle?
If you add up $190 for two wall dimmers and a bridge and a $60 smart outlet from Lutron Caséta, plus $200 for the Philips Hue starter kit and $50 a pop for two extra bulbs, along with two $45 Lifx Color 1000 bulbs, you can see the price starts to add up. For the fixtures and lamp controlled by the Lutron products, I used non-connected Cree LEDs. A four-pack costs $20. That’s about $660, and I still don’t have a complete, smartly lit condo. The fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom are halogen, so I’d have to swap in more light switches for those. I’d like to get there eventually, because I really like the idea of shouting at Alexa to turn all the lights off.
One of the biggest issues for me is keeping all my voice commands straight, but pulling out my phone to turn a light on or off just isn’t worth it, unless I’m already in bed. While setting schedules to have lights come on at dusk is great, it’s really the voice control, whether through Siri or Alexa, that transforms smart lighting.
But if you don’t want to drop tons of dimes, I’d say start with a smart bulb or plug. One of my lamps has a busted switch, so being able to actually use it by plugging it in to the smart outlet is pretty great. I’m also thinking of adding a Hue light strip below my kitchen cabinets for added brightness… and an extra $90+.
Updated 1/19/2017: Updated to correct the price of the Hue starter pack and include information about the new version of its color bulbs, which the company says has more saturated color compared to the older version. We also added information about the Lutron switches working with 3- and 4-way switches.