Lifx review: Multicolor muscle, but few features (yet)

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.

When I started testing the Lifx bulb out, there was just one "Effect" available, a microphone-based Music Visualizer that didn't work nearly as well as the Lumen LED's music syncing mode. By the time I was finished, the app had been updated, bringing three new effects: a Candle mode that mimics a flickering flame, a Lava Lamp mode that cycles through cool tones, and a strobe light function that only works for as long as you hold the button down.

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Four lighting effects, and a mode for saving scenes. That's as smart as the Lifx app currently gets. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

That's improvement, sure -- but why on earth were Lava Lamp and Candle modes higher up on the Lifx list of priorities than scheduling? Setting times for the light to automatically turn on, turn off, or change colors is probably the first feature you'd expect from a smart light. It's how you use your lights to wake yourself up in the morning, or simulate occupancy while you're on vacation. As of publishing this review, you can't do any of that with the Lifx app. It's a baffling omission, frankly.

Other smart features are missing, too. There's no way to synchronize your lights with incoming alerts on your phone. You can't control the lights using proximity or motion detection. Even compared with a fairly basic smart bulb like the Lumen LED, the Lifx seems awfully slow.

What's most frustrating about this is that these were all features that Lifx promised while seeking crowdfunded support back in 2012. A year and a half later, and with more than 10 times the funds Lifx's people were seeking when they made those promises, those features are still absent. They still show up on the Lifx website as marquee features -- albeit with the caveat "available soon via free app update."

Philips Hue Tabu Lumen Lifx
Lumens 600 400 1000
Watts 8.5 7 17
Lifespan 15,000
hours
30,000
hours
40,000
hours
Weight 4.8 oz. 5.6 oz. 10.4 oz.
Scheduling Yes Yes No
Incandescent tones Full spectrum 2,700 K only Full spectrum
Native Music Sync mode No
(requires third-party app)
Yes Yes
SDK / Open API Yes No Yes
External device compatibility SmartThings, Revolv,
Staples Connect
No No
External service compatibility IFTTT No No

The obvious saving grace here is that the "free app update" in question could come at any point, bringing all of the absent features into the app and instantly making the Lifx a dramatically more appealing smart bulb. I asked the Lifx team about the timeline for such features, and this was their response (links included):

"Over the last 6 months since launch we've continued to improve the stability and reliability of our mobile platforms with regular updates, as well as releasing our music visualizer feature, scenes, candlelight, [and] strobe mode, as well as the LIFX API/SDKs which have already seen some exciting 3rd-party features and integrations built, including a Pebble app, Knock to Light, Proximity iBeacons, voice control and even Gem Miner 2 game support."

The lack of a specific place on the timeline for something as basic and essential as scheduling isn't terribly encouraging, although Lifx's people told me that a lot of their development plans are currently waiting on the launch of the Lifx cloud, scheduled to happen sometime in May. Also, the point about the open API and SDK is well taken. Third-party developers are definitely having a lot of fun hacking the Lifx for new, creative purposes, and as time goes on, the bulb will undoubtedly continue to get a whole lot smarter because of it.

Still, the average consumer is going to purchase this bulb with certain expectations of its capabilities -- an expectation that Lifx has built up on its own by advertising features that aren't yet available on its website. Given what's currently built into the Lifx app, I can't help but think that such a consumer might find the bulb's level of smarts to be more than a bit disappointing. I know I did.

lifx-bulb-comparison-product-photos-3.jpg
The Lifx (right) hits the same perfect shade of green as the Lumen LED (center), but it gets there in much brighter fashion. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Color quality

Smarts aside, we can't forget about the Lifx's core functionality. If you're paying $99 for a color-changing bulb, you're going to want those colors to be bold, vivid, and accurate.

So, how well does the Lifx perform in terms of color quality? The answer is that it does an admirable job. I'd call it more accurate with its colors than the Philips Hue, which struggles with green, but not quite as accurate as the Lumen LED, which does the best job with blue, in spite of being a simpler, dimmer smart bulb.

blue-comparison-lifx.jpg

lifx-bulb-comparison-product-photos-1.jpg
Like the Philips Hue, the Lifx take on blue skews a bit purple when compared with the more accurate Lumen LED. It's a subtle difference in our chromaticity graphs, but fairly obvious to the naked eye. Colin West McDonald/CNET

However, like the Philips Hue, the Lifx has a distinct edge over the Lumen LED in terms of its natural tones. Both offer full spectrums of white light to choose from, while the Lumen LED only offers a single, 2,700 K tone as a default. When we put the Philips Hue to the test, we found that its range of natural light fell almost perfectly in line with what you'll get from incandescent lights of various color temperatures.

We got the same result when we put the Lifx through the same test. No matter which one of the Lifx app's 16 white light tones we selected, the color plotted perfectly along the same path that incandescents travel. That tells us that in terms of color, the Lifx is just as accurate a replacement for incandescent lighting as the Philips Hue is, and that's a legitimate selling point for each bulb.

For a closer look at our comparison shots, be sure and check out our full gallery for the complete rundown.

lifx-product-photos-5.jpg
Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion

As multicolor LEDs go, the Lifx is probably the best-looking one that I've seen, and certainly the brightest. With dozens of diodes and 1,000 lumens to its name, it's a muscular bulb, capable of producing bright, vivid light of any color you want. Like the Philips Hue LED, it offers both a full color spectrum and a natural light spectrum, but by allowing you to combine the two simply by dialing a color's brightness up from 50 to 100 percent, it essentially offers you a third spectrum of tinted white light to play with -- and that makes a lot of sense for more practical household lighting scenarios.

Still, the lack of basic smart features like scheduling or alert notifications is definitely disappointing at this point. Muscles aside, the Lifx needs to get smarter if it wants to stay competitive. As of now, even bulbs like the Lumen LED that are less powerful (and less expensive) are outsmarting it at nearly every turn.

I suspect that this won't be true for very long. With an open API and an SDK, a bulb with hardware this appealing will undoubtedly go to some very fun and exciting places. But typical consumers don't know what an SDK is, and they don't care. They just want a killer product that's complete and feature-rich straight out of the box. The Lifx isn't there. Yet.

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LIFX bulb (Wi-Fi, Pearl White)

Part Number: BUL-11-A21E26-W
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