Automating each and every light in the CNET Smart Home

We've tested a number of different products and approaches to smart lighting. Now, it's time to go all-in.

Thus far, we've taken a piecemeal approach to building out the CNET Smart Home -- a thermostat here, a kids' room there, always taking small steps toward the whole-home connected experience.

Well, small steps be damned. It's time to start making giant leaps.

Up first: the lights. We started investigating our options last year, and we've tested out scores of smart bulbs and connected switches in the months since. Now, it's time to put what we've learned to the test. Our goal? Automate each and every light in the entire CNET Smart Home, then unify everything behind a single, easy-to-use control system.

Let's get to work

My no. 1 smart-home rule of thumb: start small and build outward. If you're looking to buy into the connected-home experience, the best approach is to find the device that makes the most sense in your day-to-day routine, then expand from there with compatible gadgets that make it even more useful.

The rule still applies when you're talking about a whole-home build-out like this one. The trick is to figure out what that central starting point is. Yes, our goal is a house filled with smart, automatable lighting, but what we really want is that easy-to-use control point at the center. That's our starting point.

And as it turns out, it's already sitting in the CNET Smart Home kitchen.

We're going to let the Amazon Echo smart speaker call the shots with our connected lighting setup.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It shouldn't be that surprising that we're anchoring the CNET Smart Home's connected lighting scheme to Amazon Echo -- we took the same approach when we did a much smaller smart lighting build-out last fall. Since then, the Amazon Echo has only gotten smarter (enough so that we recently gave it an entirely new review).

At this point, the Echo works with a wide range of smart-home gadgets, including a couple of connected lighting options. Since our goal is to keep things as easy as possible, we focused on the Echo's native integrations -- the third-party tricks built directly into the Echo's software. The reason: unlike Alexa's Skills (the apps of Amazon Echo), those native integrations don't require any extra "invocation words" in order to control your gadgets. You don't need to say "Alexa, ask Philips Hue to turn off the bedroom lights" -- you can just say, "Alexa, turn off the bedroom lights."

And yep, Philips Hue is going to play a big role in this build-out. That isn't just because it's one of those native Echo integrations, or because we've already got a Philips Hue Bridge installed in the CNET Smart Home -- it's also because its most basic white-light-only smart bulbs sell for just $15 a piece.

Alexa can control these Belkin WeMo Light Switches.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Bulbs...switches...Why not both?

Of course, it takes more than smart bulbs to light up a whole house. We've got plenty of fixtures in the CNET Smart Home that don't use A-shaped bulbs, so those $15 smart lights won't work there. There are also spots with multiple bulbs wired to a single switch. In those cases, automating that one switch makes more sense than swapping out several bulbs.

The other benefit of the smart switch route is that our automations and remote controls will continue to work even when things are turned off. That isn't the case with smart bulbs -- you'll need to leave the physical switches in the "on" position in order to turn the bulbs on and off remotely.

For that reason, we're favoring smart switches over smart bulbs wherever it makes sense, then filling in everything else with those smart bulbs. Our smart switch of choice? It's still the Echo-compatible Belkin WeMo Light Switch, which we already have a good deal of experience with in the CNET Smart Home.

Not all of that experience has been positive, mind you. Belkin's WeMo gear seems to require constant firmware updates, and the sluggish app has given us plenty of small headaches. That said, the app seems to have gotten much more responsive in recent months. More importantly, we've never once had a problem with WeMo's native Echo integration. Whenever we ask Alexa to turn our WeMo gear on and off, it works perfectly.

There are a few smart switch caveats worth mentioning. First, the WeMo Light Switch isn't compatible with three-way switches, where you've got more than one light switch controlling a single bulb or a single set of bulbs. We've got a couple of lights like that in the CNET Smart Home, and for those, we'll need to use smart bulbs.

Second, those WeMo Light Switches won't dim the lights. In most cases where we have the choice, we'll take smart switch controls over the dimmability of the smart bulb approach. However, in some cases -- the chandelier that hangs over the dining room table, for instance -- dimmability seems more important. We'll use smart bulbs there, too.

amazon-echo-product-photos-14.jpg

Alexa is smart, but you can help make her even smarter as you organize your setup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Helping Alexa hear us

Once we've figured out where we'll use smart switches and where we'll use smart bulbs, it's just a matter of making a shopping list, buying what we need, and installing all of it. All told, it took two of us about a day to get everything in place -- and keep in mind that this is a pretty big home we're talking about.

When you add each switch or bulb into the Hue or WeMo app, you'll get the chance to name it. That's important, especially when you're dealing with dozens of lights. After all, you want to be able to keep everything straight. Get sloppy with the nomenclature, and things will get confusing, fast.

This gets even more critical once you bring Alexa into the picture. Remember, we want to be able to control everything using Amazon Echo voice commands -- it's important to make it as easy as possible for Alexa to understand what we're asking of her.

You can create groups of devices to control all at once in the "Connected Home" section of the Alexa app's settings.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Putting the bulbs and switches under Alexa's command is easy enough. Once everything is installed, you'll just ask her to discover new devices. After a 20-second scan, you'll see all of your lights and switches in the Alexa app. Ask her to turn any one of them on or off using the specific name you gave it, and she'll do so within a second or two.

But we want Alexa to do more than just control a single light at a time. We want her to control entire rooms, entire floors, and the entire home if need be. Fortunately, the Alexa app makes that simple by letting you create groups of lights that Alexa can turn on, turn off, or dim up and down all at once. So, that's exactly what I did.

Alexa's grouping abilities also let you expand her vocabulary. For instance, I created two duplicate groups for the living room lights -- one called "living room," and another called "living room lamps." I also used the groups to give individual lights extra names -- for instance, creating a group with just the "stairway light" that's called "stairwell light." Call it either one, and Alexa will know what we're talking about.

I asked my colleagues to try using Alexa to turn rooms and groups of lights on and off. Whenever they flummoxed Alexa by using a command that I hadn't thought of yet, I added it into the system. The "front hall' became the "foyer," too. The "tower lamp" in the family room became "that cool lamp thing," to boot. Each time I added another name for an existing group, Alexa got a little bit smarter, and a little bit better at understanding us. It didn't take long for things to feel smooth, smart and easy for everyone to use.

There are a few limitations with Alexa. As of now, she can only really turn groups of things on or off, or dim them up and down. There's no support for "scenes," where you adjust multiple kinds of devices in multiple ways all at once. For instance, you can't activate a "morning mode" where she raises the thermostat, changes the RGB smart bulbs to blue daylight, and disarms the security system.

She also can't change the colors of your bulbs yet. Even though Hue is a native integration, Alexa's software only lets her turn things on and off, or dim them up and down. That seems bound to change, but for now, it's a bit annoying.

The good news is that there are workarounds. You can sync Alexa with IFTTT, for instance, then create multiple recipes with the same trigger phrase. Say that single trigger phrase ("Alexa, trigger morning mode," for example) and all of those recipes will fire at once. And yes, you can also use IFTTT to craft recipes that'll change the color of your RGB bulbs.

Whole-home automation can get expensive fast.

Chris Monroe/CNET

What does all of this cost?

Glad you asked. Here's the rundown:

  • 2 Amazon Echo smart speakers: $360
  • 1 Philips Hue Bridge: $60
  • 6 Philips Hue RBG BR30 floodlights: $360
  • 4 Philips Hue RGB bulbs: $240
  • 24 Philips Hue white-light-only smart bulbs: $360
  • 12 Belkin WeMo Light Switches: $600
  • TOTAL: $1,980

Yep, that's a lot of money -- but remember that this is a big home we're talking about. Let's say your home is half the size of the CNET Smart Home (my place is far less than that), and that you only need one Amazon Echo to control everything. Let's also say you skip those four color-changing Hue bulbs and stick with the less expensive white-light versions. Even leaving a few of those pricey Hue floodlights, the cost comes down below $1,000.

That's still a lot -- as much as you might spend on a new laptop or television set. You've got to really want an entire home's worth of smart lighting with a voice control system at the center to justify spending that much. Still, we're happy with the way it works.

It's also worth remembering my golden rule: start small and build outward. Sure, giant leaps are exciting, but there's no reason to automate everything all at once unless that's what you really want. The better approach is probably to start with a few of the most important lights in your home, then gradually grow your setup over time with additional bulbs and switches as needed. After all, a smart home is only smart -- and worth it -- if it makes sense to you.

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