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Smart light bulbs vs. smart switches: The pros and cons

Updating your home lighting is a big project, and it may be easy to lean toward smart lights. However, smart light switches can deliver much of the same convenience at a lower cost. Let’s put these two categories of products head to head and figure out which makes the most sense for your setup.

Do I need smart light bulbs with a smart switch?

You do not need smart bulbs to install smart switches. That’s really what’s so convenient about smart switches. They provide connectivity to lights without needing to change the bulbs themselves, so you can control them remotely from your phone, via voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, or by setting automations so they turn on at sunset. This feature is especially helpful when light fixtures are set at inaccessible locations, making bulb replacement challenging. Smart switches are also handy because they can activate other outlets that are connected to different appliances. This can give you the chance to remotely control a lot more than just lights.

Do smart switches work with normal light bulbs?

The vast majority of smart switches work with normal light bulbs. You’ll need to check the packaging, though. Some smart light bulb manufacturers make switches specific to their light bulbs. For example, Philips has a dedicated switch that communicates wirelessly to all of the Hue bulbs in the house.

The smart switches that work with normal bulbs will have their own apps and setup processes where you’ll have to wire them into your home’s electrical. They’ll also need Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to the home network so you can control the switch from your devices and build automations. On that note, you’ll want to make sure smart switches are in range of your Wi-Fi router to ensure consistent connectivity. So you may need to move your Wi-Fi router or get a network extender to ensure coverage.

Are smart lights or smart switches more expensive?

Smart switches tend to be cheaper than smart lights. You can certainly find cheap smart lights, and the fanciest smart switches can crest the $100 mark.  Those higher-end smart switches will often have features like built-in speakers and microphones so you can use voice assistants like Alexa.

Generally, however, good smart bulbs cost between $20 and $40, while you can get a passable smart switch for $10. Whether that’s a big difference will depend entirely on your budget. It may be worth shelling out a little extra for the color that smart lights provide.

Are smart switches or smart lights easier to install?

Smart light bulbs are certainly easier to set up than smart switches. For smart lights, it’s a simple bulb swap and a few taps on the app, and you’re good to go. Changing light switches involves dealing with electrical work that not all homeowners are comfortable (or competent) doing. You’ll want to check to see if the switch you’re looking at replacing has a neutral wire to provide power to a potential smart switch. Some smart switches require that continuous power source, but others don’t. You’ll also need to figure out if any other switches go to the same light fixture. Often, smart switches are incompatible with these three-way arrangements. The only real way around dealing with any electrical work is to use a mechanical switcher like Switchmate, but they’re fairly large and clunky-looking.

On the software side, smart switches and smart lights are on more even ground. Manufacturers will often have families of products that can all be managed from within the same app. Even if you’re sporting a wide range of brands, third-party support for Google Home and Apple Home are common enough that you can otherwise manage all of your smart home gadgetry from one spot.

Which is better, a smart switch or smart light bulb?

In general, smart bulbs are better, but they’re also more expensive. Smart lights are better for a few reasons. For one, you need to update the bulbs if you want to experience the additional colors they have to offer. This step may seem like a superficial thing, but when you take into account the subtle improvement of using warm whites versus cool whites and the ability to sync lights to movies or music, smart light bulbs start to look pretty good. Combine that with ease of installation and that they can save you money in the long run, and the slightly higher price tag of smart lights becomes barely noticeable. Read our smart light bulb guide to learn more about which models to buy.

Hopefully, that clears up the comparison of smart bulbs versus smart switches. Though they are different means to a similar end, there are trade-offs in cost and labor either way.

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Simon Sage
Simon has been publishing in tech since before the first iPhone was released. When he's not busy lighting a candle for the…
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