Tabu LuMini LED review: A smaller smart bulb that's big on value

The controls are a little simpler than I'd like -- you'll select a song from your device's library (or from an existing playlist), and the the light will begin flashing in rhythm with the music as best as it can, gradually shifting through a five-shade color cycle that you can customize with tones of your choice.

Music sync obviously works better with songs that have fairly obvious beats for the LuMini to catch onto, but I was still impressed with how well the bulb matched up to faster, more complicated rhythms. Plus, it was kind of fun going through my favorite songs and figuring out which ones synced up the best.

Not all of LuMini's smart features impressed me. The four cycles (two speeds of a strobing "disco mode," along with two more calming cycles) were nice to have, but I hated that I couldn't customize them, or create my own preset. And that feature that flashes the light when you've got an incoming call? I couldn't get that to work at all.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

Color quality

The LuMini boasts vivid, accurate colors, just like the Lumen LED does. Whether it's magenta, chartreuse, or cerulean colored light that you're looking for, the LuMini can handle it. This gives it an edge over Philips Hue LEDs, which have overpowering yellow diodes, weak blue diodes, and no green diodes at all -- all of which contribute to compromised color quality in certain parts of the spectrum.

This distinction is most evident when you start comparing shades of green. The LuMini is fully capable of putting out a wide array of green tones, which is what you'd expect from an RGB bulb with dedicated, pure green diodes. The Hue LEDs, on the other hand, have to get to green by mixing blue and yellow. Since the blue diodes aren't nearly strong enough to match what the yellow diodes put out, the Hues throw a little bit of red into the mix, too. As a result, the closest thing to pure green that a Hue LED can muster is a yellowy, tennis-ball-toned shade that just barely qualifies as green at all.

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The Lumen and LuMini LEDs both put out satisfying, pure shades of blue, while the Philips Hue puts out something closer to purple. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Things get interesting when you compare blue shades, as well. The Lumen and LuMini LEDs do a great job at producing a deep, rich blue, while the Philips Hue comes across as more purple, or at least indigo. This is thanks again to those weak blue diodes. When you select blue light, Philips once again turns the red diodes on as well to give the light a brightness boost, but, again, this compromises the trueness of the blue. Tabu's bulbs don't suffer from this problem.

Another interesting takeaway from the color comparisons is that the LuMini holds its own against the larger Lumen LED in terms of brightness. Yes, it's a dimmer bulb, which is to be expected, but not as noticeably so as I had expected.

This is due in part to the fact that the majority of the Lumen LED's brightness comes from those white diodes that allow it to replicate incandescent light. For colored light -- the light that we're comparing here -- it isn't using those diodes, and relies instead on a set of RGB diodes that aren't much different from what's packed into the LuMini. In terms of color brightness, the Lumen still comes out on top across the board, but it's a lot closer than you probably think.

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Of course, the one caveat here is natural light, which the LuMini is terrible at. Using the color wheel to try and come up with something similar to the Lumen LED's default warm white, 2,700K tone, the best I got with the LuMini was a dim, ugly, brownish play on orange. The LuMini's default tone, a dim take on bluish white light, isn't a whole lot better, or a whole lot brighter.

With the LuMini, you'll want to stick to its strength: bold colors. If natural tones of soft white, warm white, or daylight are important to you in a color-changing LED, then you'll probably want to strongly consider splurging on a Philips Hue set, as those bulbs do a wonderful job with natural tones.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion

The LuMini offers the same vivid, accurate colors and the same ease of use as last year's Lumen LED. The Lumen app has also been upgraded to a slightly more fleshed out and feature-rich experience. Given all of this, I think Tabu might have a big winner here. At $35 -- half of what the Lumen LED costs -- the LuMini just makes sense as the kind of fun, frivolous novelty splurge that you don't have to feel all that guilty about. If I bought a $200 smart bulb set and didn't like it, I'd feel like an idiot. If I bought the LuMini and didn't like it, I'd shrug it off.

The LuMini isn't a perfect bulb, but at this price, it doesn't need to be perfect. It just needs to be fun -- and it is. It's really as simple as that.

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