One and a half years after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that saw over a million bucks' worth of consumer excitement, the Lifx multicolor smart LED is now available to the public at a price of $99 per bulb. With 1000 lumens to the Philips Hue's 600, it claims to be the brighter, better color-changer, and a more accessible one too. Unlike the Hue bulbs, which require you to plug a ZigBee bridge into your router, Lifx bulbs base their smarts off of a Wi-Fi connection, which makes each one usable right out of of the box.
For these reasons and others, the Lifx shows a great deal of potential. Its brightness and light quality passed our tests with flying colors. However, 18 months after a crowdfunding campaign that netted its creators more than 10 times what they were seeking, the Lifx LED's smarts still feel underdeveloped, with an app that lacks basic, obvious features like scheduling, alert notifications, and customizable color cycles. As multicolor LEDs go, the Lifx is the most powerful we've tested yet -- but I wouldn't blame you for waiting for its brain to catch up to its brawn.
Design and usability
The Lifx eschews the traditional, rounded bulb design in favor of a flat-top approach. Coupled with its coarse-grained plastic body (available in either black or light gray), the Lifx has an appropriately luxurious look and feel. Even before flipping it on, you can tell it isn't an ordinary light.
With 17 watts powering it (twice as many as the Philips Hue), the Lifx bulb promises to put out up to 1,000 lumens at peak brightness, which puts it in the ballpark of a 75-watt incandescent. Peak brightness typically applies to a color-changing bulb's white light, with the colored light coming in significantly dimmer. In the case of the Lifx, you're given the option of adding in white light on top of the colored light, giving you a full spectrum of tinted light to play with and bringing the bulb up into the same range of brightness as you'll get with pure white. That's an interesting trick that you won't see with the Philips or Tabu Lumen bulbs.
Like most LEDs that claim equivalency with 75-watt incandescents, the Lifx is bigger and heavier than you'd probably expect, weighing in at 10.4 oz. That bulk comes from the additional heat sinks necessary to regulate the heat from those extra diodes (the Lifx has almost three times as many diodes as a Philips Hue bulb does). Given the weight and size, it isn't an ideal bulb for small lamps. It also runs a bit hot for an LED, so you won't want to use it in an enclosed fixture.
The Lifx will light up as soon as you screw it in and turn on your lamp, but to control your bulb you'll need to download the Lifx app, available now for Android and iOS devices. The company Lifx has demonstrated the app controlling 50 lights at once, so you have no problem managing multiple bulbs. We kept it a little simpler in our labs, managing just a few bulbs simultaneously.
As soon as you open the app, it walks you through the pairing process, which is about as easy and straightforward as it gets. When you first turn a Lifx bulb on, it broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal. Join this signal as you would any other Wi-Fi network, then return to the Lifx app and jump back to your home network. That's it.
The process took me about a minute, and was even easier than my experience pairing other devices that use a similar, Wi-Fi based approach, like the Belkin WeMo products, which have smart bulbs of their own due in stores soon. One caveat, though: the bulbs are only as secure as your Wi-Fi password. Anyone who has access to your home network can download the Lifx app and have access to your lights, too.
Once your bulbs are synced up with your home network, you'll be able to control them from your phone or tablet. The interface for selecting specific colors is especially well-designed. Instead of moving a tiny selector around a wide spectrum of colors (the approach that Philips and Tabu take), you'll simply rotate the spectrum itself. Tap a color, and it'll automatically rotate to the top.
In other apps, where you drag the selector around, your finger inevitably ends up covering the part of the spectrum that you're trying to see, and that makes hitting a precise shade a tedious trial-and-error process. There are no such headaches with the Lifx. It's a subtle difference, but one that makes for a patently better user experience with the product's core function: changing colors.
Lifx offers a separate color wheel for white light tones, which range from orangey, warm white shades to hot, bluish-white variations on daylight. This is similar to the dedicated white-light spectrum that Philips offers directly above its full color spectrum. Again, rotating a wheel is a lot easier than navigating an ocean of pixels with your fingertip blocking the view.
In the center of the Lifx color wheel, you'll find a dial that dims the light up and down. In color mode, anything above 50 percent brightness will simply add white light to the color you've selected. This definitely makes for brighter light, but it also decreases the saturation of the shade. For the types of bold, vivid colors you'd want from a party light, you'll want to stay at 50 percent. For a subtler (and perhaps more practical) color effect, go ahead and dial it up towards 100 percent.
Beyond color and white mode, you'll have access to a few basic "Effects" like a press-to-strobe mode and a candle-mimicking mode. You can also tap the magic wand icon to access the "Scenes" menu, where you can save the current lighting scheme and return to it later with just one tap. I like having these Scenes so easily accessible, but found that they often stopped working if I relaunched the app, forcing me to delete them and recreate them from scratch. It's a small bug that I expect Lifx will likely fix in one of its next app updates, but as of now, it's a legitimate annoyance.
LEDs that change colors are nothing new. We picked one up at our local hardware store for about $6 -- just tap a button on the base, and it'll switch between a whole slew of color options, including a few preset cycles. Spend a little more, and you can find color-changing LEDs that come with remote controls. Given that bulbs like that already exist, why would you spend $99 on a Lifx bulb, or $199.95 on a Philips Hue starter kit? What are you really paying for?
Aside from the uptick in brightness and the full spectrum of natural tones that you get to play with, the real answer is smart features -- and I'm not just talking about controlling the light on your phone. I'm talking about things like automation, scheduling, and connecting your bulbs with third-party software and devices. And as of right now, this is where Lifx falls short.