Color us impressed with Cree's TW Series LED (hands-on)

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/ Updated: October 4, 2013 2:30 PM PDT

Consumers looking for additional reasons to switch their lights over to LEDs will want to take a look at what Cree is offering with its new 13.5W, 60W replacement TrueWhite (TW) Series bulb, available exclusively at Home Depot for $19.97 (a 40W replacement TW Series LED is also available for $17.97).

Hailing its LEDs as "the biggest thing since the light bulb," Cree already has a certified winner under its belt with the original household LED, a 9.5W 60W replacement that recently earned Energy Star qualification, knocking its already attractive $10 price tag down below $5 in certain markets that offer energy rebates. So what is it that makes the TW Series bulb worth the extra $15?

On the left, cereal lit by a basic 800-lumen LED. On the right, the same cereal lit by the Cree TW Series LED. Which looks more colorful to you? Ry Crist/CNET

According to Cree, it's the TW Series' "revolutionary" CRI score of 93 out of 100. The CRI (color rendering index) determines how accurate colors appear when a given light source illuminates them. With a score of 93, the TW Series can boast that it makes colors look better than any other consumer-level LED currently available. To test this out, I illuminated a colorful bowl of fruit-flavored cereal with Cree's TW Series bulb, then compared the results with a basic LED light of equal brightness. Conducting an informal poll of my colleagues, I found that everyone I asked preferred the look of the Cree-lit cereal, citing the more vivid-looking colors.

Cree attributes the CRI jump to a new innovation called "Spectral Notching Technology," which uses a combination of optical technology and the properties of a rare earth material called Neodymium to increase the clarity of the light. Whatever process they're using, it's a less efficient one than before. The TW Series puts out the same amount of light as the original Cree LED, but it needs an extra four watts to do it. That might not sound like much, but it comes out to an efficacy of 59 lumens per watt for the TW versus 84 lumens per watt for the original, so you're definitely giving up a noticeable amount of efficiency for that higher CRI.

That said, among other factors, the TW Series' CRI score was high enough to make it the first LED bulb to meet the especially strict standards of the California Energy Commission (CEC), and this means that starting in January, California consumers who upgrade to Cree's new bulbs will be able to take advantage of utility rebates. It remains to be seen whether or not the TW will qualify with Energy Star, the way its predecessor did, but for now, it's looking like a potential best buy for Californians at least.

The warm, cozy glow of the TW Series LED (right) is comparable to the familiar tone of a 60W incandescent (left). Ry Crist/CNET

With a low color temperature of 2,700K, the TW Series LED has a warm, yellow tone that's quite similar to what you'd expect from an incandescent bulb, so consumers looking for a familiar quality of light should be pleased with what they get. Brightness won't be a problem, either, as the TW's 800 lumens make it a worthy replacement for your standard 880 lumen, 60W incandescent.

As for life expectancy, the TW Series claims to be capable of lasting 25,000 hours before fading to 70 percent of its original brightness (that's the current definition of a "dead" LED). Cree is fond of pointing out that this comes out to 25 times the life expectancy of a standard incandescent, but it's also worth pointing out that 25,000 hours is only a slightly above-average life span for an LED (we've seen some bulbs go as high as 50,000 hours). Considering that Cree's original LED is rated for 25,000 hours, too, it would have been nice to see a bit of improvement here to help justify the higher price tag.

Ry Crist/CNET

The TW Series certainly has the look and feel of a high-quality bulb, and as a product built to last me 20 years, I'd be comfortable spending $20 for it. This is especially true given the fact that it comes with a generous 10-year warranty, making it a good bulb for LED skeptics who might be wary of life expectancy claims.

Still, the original Cree LED comes with that same 10-year warranty, too, not to mention the same number of lumens, the same life expectancy, and even better efficiency. The original Cree LED costs less up front, and it'll cost you less to use down the line. In truth, the only advantage that the TW offers in comparison is that CRI score, and unless you really need your cereal to look its best, I'm not sure that it's enough of a step forward. The TW Series is an impressive bulb, no doubt, but the original Cree LED is an awfully tough act to follow.

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Where to Buy See all prices

Cree 13.5W (60W) TW Series Soft White LED Bulb

Part Number: BA19-08027OMN-12DE26-1U110
MSRP: $19.97 Low Price: $89.82 See all prices