Side by side: LED, CFL, and incandescent bulbs

CNET conducts a "regular person's" comparison of the new AmbientLED bulb from Philips, along with its CFL and incandescent counterparts, without all the jargon.

Philips recently released its Ambient LED 17/75-watt-equivalent retailing for $39.97. As it indicates, the bulb gives off roughly the equivalent light of a 75-watt incandescent bulb, but uses only 17 watts of power to do it.

Many sites have been doing head-to-head tests of various LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs coming on the market. However, I'm often asked where someone can find just a "regular person review" on how LEDs stack up against CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) and the soon-to-be-phased-out incandescents without getting too buried in stats on lumens, kelvins, wattage, and the rest of the jargon that typically comes along with in-depth discussions of these different technologies.

By pure luck I happened to have not only a Philips-brand CFL but also a Philips 75-watt Dura Max incandescent bulb on hand. So I was able to do a real-world, side-by-side comparison of each type of bulb from the same brand.

Philips CFL vs. Philips LED vs. Philips incandescent. Candace Lombardi/CNET

Philips estimates the bulb costs $2.05 a year in electricity if you use it for three hours a day and your electricity company charges you 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. The average price for residential electricity in the U.S. as of February 2011 is 11.2 cents, but it ranges between 7.31 and 17.6 cents per kilowatt-hour within the continental U.S. and Alaska. Hawaiians pay an average of 31.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Philips LED feels heavy and sturdy in your hand. Its hefty plastic and metal casing is obviously less breakable than an incandescent glass light bulb or CFL. When I was done testing it out, I threw it around and dropped it from different heights onto different surfaces. (That's probably not something recommended by the manufacturer, but at $40 a bulb who's going to try this if not a tech journalist?) It survived with absolutely no perceptible damage. And, of course, if I had managed to break it, I would not have been exposed to mercury, which can happen with a broken CFL. Like all LEDs, the Philips LED does not contain any mercury or lead.

Philips against Philips. The new AmbientLED 17/75-watt bulb (left) alongside its Philips CFL (center) and incandescent counterparts. Candace Lombardi/CNET

There is a good reason the Philips AmbientLED bulb is made to be so sturdy. The bulb is intended to last you 22.8 years, according to Philips' statistics.

Some users have reported that the bulb is too big for average lamps. While the Philips LED bulb is slightly taller than an incandescent, I had no problem fitting it into my very average bedside table lamps purchased at a discount home-goods store.

The visual difference between the Philips LED and its incandescent equivalent while under a white lamp shade was nearly imperceptible. It gives off the same warm glow of an incandescent, unlike its equivalent CFL, which shines a cooler blue-white. It also offered more than enough brightness (1,100 lumens) to read by. I placed my test lamps under a slanted ceiling, so you can more easily perceive the different light each type of bulb gives off (see gallery).

While I was unable to test out this feature, the Philips AmbientLED is also dimmable--as many LEDs are.

The primary problem with the Philips AmbientLED 17/75-watt bulb is the same issue the plagues almost every LED bulb: the price. It's just not realistic that most Americans will hand over the money for this bulb or any other LED until they significantly come down in price.

Take my apartment as a real-world example. We currently have four 60-watt-equivalent CFLs, four 100-watt-equivalent CFLs, 12 incandescent candle bulbs for dimmable ceiling fixtures, and six 100-watt reflective PAR38 halogen bulbs in the recesses of our kitchen. Yes, those last ones are rather bright. But when your spouse is the house chef it's best to let him have his way in the kitchen, even if that means energy-guzzling indoor flood lights. I mention that quirk because I think it realistically represents how people really live, often choosing comfort or preference in small ways over a cost benefit or a sense of environmental obligation.

Going on today's prices, that's roughly $54.55 in light bulbs. There really are no viable LED replacements yet for those halogens, though lighting companies are working on brightly shining 100-watt equivalents. But even if we were to just replace the rest with 12/60-watt LEDs, 17/75-watt LEDs, and 2.5/15-watt LED candle bulbs it still comes to $371.40.

The bottom line
Compared to the average incandescent bulb, the Philips AmbientLED 17/75-watt bulb is much less fragile, uses less energy, can match that familiar yellow glow of incandescents, and lasts far longer. Compared to many CFLs on the market, it gives off a warmer light if that's what you're looking for. My admittedly unscientific reflective book page test (see gallery) also showed that the LED is slightly dimmer than the average incandescent, so you may want to opt for a CFL in rooms where you want a lot of bright white light. But this LED, as with most LEDs on the market, are still only available at early-adopter prices. You may want to buy one now to try it, but wait until they come down in price before you use this as your go-to incandescent replacement.

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