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Smart Home

The 3 ways to make your lighting smart

Smart lightbulbs are all the rage, but there are other options for making your lighting smart, too.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

When it comes to starting a smart home, lighting is one of the simplest ways to get going. You might assume that starts with a smart light bulb, but there are other ways to add smarts to your lighting.

Smart bulbs, switches and plugs can all contribute to a well-lit, well-connected home. Each avenue of smart lighting is different, with its own pros and cons. 

Let's take a look at the options and the best ways to use them. 

Smart bulbs

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Philips Hue bulbs come with a hub that connects to your router.

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Lutron's smart switch controls your existing lighting fixtures.

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Smart bulbs come in many shapes, sizes, colors and configurations. With smart bulbs, you can smarten any existing light fixture like a kitchen pendant light or bedside lamp. They are great for single-bulb fixtures or small groups of light fixtures you'd like to add smarts (or even color-changing capabilities) to.

You can buy smart bulbs individually, but many come in starter kits (like this one from Philips Hue) that include a bridge to connect the lights to your Wi-Fi. This lets you use remotes, apps or voice assistants to control your lights. 

Other smart bulbs, like the ones from Lifx, don't need a bridge, but instead connect straight to your Wi-Fi.

Smart bulbs can integrate into other smart home tech in scenes and routines with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri.

Smart switches

Smart switches are a great way to make your lighting smart without the expense and hassle of replacing every light bulb in your home. For instance, if you have one or two switches that control many recessed lights, opting for a smart switch is likely more cost-effective. 

Wired smart switches like the ones from Lutron and Wemo replace your existing switches and are wired into your home's electricity. 

Lutron's line of switches also requires a bridge plugged into your home's router. There's even talk of completely battery-less, wire-free switches from Philips Hue

One thing to look for: some smart switches don't work with three-way lighting setups (where one light is controlled by two different switches in your home). 

Take a look at what you have in your home and as always, make sure you turn off your circuit breaker before doing any electrical work or contact a licensed professional to install. 

Smart plugs

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There are a range of smart plugs available.

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If you're looking to smarten standalone light fixtures like lamps, consider a smart plug. Without replacing the light bulb, smart plugs allow you to connect your lamp to voice assistants and smart home hubs. 

Smart plugs don't just power products on and off; there are some very useful features hidden in smart plug apps. Some smart plugs monitor energy, providing a real-time and daily, weekly or monthly report of how much energy it uses.

Away mode, available in many smart plugs, simulates someone being at home by randomly powering devices on and off during a set window of time. That's a useful way to deter intruders while you're out of town. 

The biggest downside to smart plugs is design. Some smart plugs look great, but block adjacent outlets with their size or shape. Other plugs are downright ugly, but do a good job of keeping adjacent outlets free for other uses. 

If you're looking for a space-saving plug, a mini model might be right for you. 

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Upgrades and accessories

Many smart light bulbs, switches and plugs can be connected through their apps or IFTTT (If This, Then That) to motion sensors, so they come on as you move through your home. These smart lighting options can also be scheduled to come on at specific times or when you arrive home.

The options with smart lights and internet integrations are broad and support a ton of cool use cases. For instance, at the CNET Smart Apartment we have color-changing lights that coordinate to the air quality report for the city that day: green for good or yellow for a warning.

No matter which way you choose to smarten your lights, you won't miss wandering around your home to turn off all the lights before bedtime, or stumbling through the hall to find the light switch for a midnight snack. 

This is your complete LED buying guide

Want to buy a smart plug? Read this first