With their rainbow of hues and myriad party tricks, color-tunable LEDs get all the press in the world of smart lighting. It’s fun stuff, but the reality is that most of us will rarely find much of a need to turn all the lights in the house blue or red—unless it’s time to celebrate our team winning the World Series. Even then, you’ll probably want to turn them all back to white after the celebration. And with our review of the Stack BR30 Downlight Starter Kit review, we discovered there are varying degrees of smart when it comes to smart lighting.
White light is also important in its own right, as today there is plenty of science to show how various shades of white—with variations in color temperature—impact our psychological state. Cool light that’s closer to blue has an energizing effect, and is best in the morning. Warm light is relaxing, and is best after the lights go down. If, like a growing number of us, you work where you live, chances are you don’t spend any effort switching bulbs out twice a day in order to optimize your lighting environment.
Now you don’t have to. Enter smart “white” light bulbs. Like their color brethren, white bulbs are designed to integrate with the smart home, letting you control your lights via a smart phone, set timers when you’re away from home, and (in many cases) tweak the color temperature of the bulb on the fly. These bulbs typically downplay the party features that are a staple of color-tunable bulb control apps, and many bulbs are a bit less bright than their color brethren. On the other hand, white smart bulbs are invariably less expensive than color bulbs, making it more affordable to roll them out in multiple rooms.
Best white LED smart bulb
Our choice won’t surprise anyone who’s been following this market. Philips dominates the smart bulb market, and was also our top pick for best color LED smart bulb. The latest Hue bulbs deliver high-quality light, last for tens of thousands of hours, and are backed by a strong warranty.
And while it would be easy for Philips to sit back and expect the industry to conform to it as the de facto standard, it has instead worked hard to ensure its products are compatible with other technologies, including Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Google Home. Plus, Philips Hue bulbs are available in more form factors than any other manufacturer, including the ubiquitous A19 (the most common), BR (bulged reflector), PAR (parabolic reflector), GU (glass reflector with a U-shaped, dual-pin base), and a host of specialty shapes and sizes.
Runner-up white LED smart bulb
LIFX once again earns our runner-up prize. It’s a very good product, and unlike Philips’ offering, it doesn’t require a hub to operate because the LIFX White 800 connects directly to your Wi-Fi network. LIFX has also worked hard to be compatible with other smart-home products, including the Amazon Echo and Google Home digital assistants, but its own app is a bit clunky and like its brighter color stablemate, it’s available only in A19 and BR30 form factors.
Smart light bulb protocols and features
Three control technologies continue to vie for leadership in the smart bulb market (Z-Wave is a major contender in smart lighting, but you won’t encounter it in bulbs—just in switches, plug-in modules, and control panels).
ZigBee: Bulbs that use the popular smart-home networking protocol require a bridge to communicate with your home Wi-Fi network. Philips uses ZigBee for its Hue lineup, but it’s not the only adopter.
Wi-Fi: This class of bulb talks directly to your Wi-Fi router, with no hub or bridge required. LIFX is the only major vendor marketing color Wi-Fi bulbs today.
Bluetooth: These bulbs skip your home network altogether and pair directly with your smartphone or tablet. As such, they can’t be controlled from outside your home. GE and a number of other manufacturers make Bluetooth bulbs, some of better quality than others.
Each of these technologies has pros and cons, so before you attempt to settle on a specific bulb, first try to determine which tech is right for you. If you want to hook your bulbs into a broader smart-home system—such as SmartThings or Nest—Bluetooth bulbs are out. You can control more than one bulb with your phone, but you can’t connect it to sensors or other systems inside your home. Don’t like the idea of pairing a bulb to your phone? A Wi-Fi bulb will work best for you, though you won’t have quite as many options as you’ll find with a ZigBee product.
That said, smart bulbs, no matter what the technology, still won’t be right for everyone. Notably, most of these bulbs cannot be dimmed via a hardwired wall switch (it messes with the power going to the radio, rendering them useless). Some will fail even if a dimmer is present on the circuit and dialed up to full power.
Smart bulb, or smart switch?
There’s a significant argument about the best way to install smart lighting, and two approaches present themselves. You can either go with expensive smart bulbs and control them all individually, or you can use cheap dumb bulbs and install smart switches to control all the lights on that circuit. Both approaches make sense, and each has pros and cons. With smart bulbs, the biggest issue is cost, but there’s also complexity to deal with. While bulbs can usually be grouped based on location, this is only as intuitive to manage as the bulb control app.
Smart switches, on the other hand, are far more complicated to install—to the point where some users might be uncomfortable dealing with exposed wiring and would prefer to hire an electrician. Smart switches, however, provide more flexibility in many installations. Habituated from years of flipping hard-wired switches, many users (or their children) will instinctively use the wall switch to turn the lights out when they leave a room. Once that happens, all the apps in the world won’t be able to turn the light back on until the switch is returned to the on position. While this won’t be an issue if you install smart switches, you they don’t take color temperature tuning into account.
That debate aside, today we look at six smart, white-only bulbs, running a wide gamut of technologies and feature sets. If you can’t find a white bulb in this roundup that works for your smart home, it’s safe to say it doesn’t exist. In other words: Take a closer look at smart switches (or, for lamps, smart plugs). There are an increasingly wide range of these available from manufacturers such as Lutron, Elgato, Insteon, Leviton, TP-Link, Belkin, Jasco/GE, and others. There are also a limited number of switches that don’t require hardwiring, including the Bluetooth-based Switchmate.
The good news is that bulb prices—in most cases—are going down, so it’s easier to get started with smart bulbs and less punishing should you find that a product doesn’t work for you. That said, we want to get you started on the right foot. So without further ado, here are deep dives into six of the most worthwhile white LED smart bulbs on the market.