Cree Connected Max LED review: Smart, color-changing light for just $10
Cree Lighting's new smart bulbs need no hub to connect with Alexa or Google, and the color-changing versions are as affordable as it gets.
Updated Nov. 17, 2020 5:00 a.m. PT
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Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
That's a marked improvement from the original bulbs, which required a Zigbee hub or a bridge device connected to your router in order to translate their signals into something your home network could work with. The new Max bulbs can skip all of that and send signals directly to your router on the 2.4GHz band. The ones I tested did so just fine, making them an easy and affordable smart lighting pick for Alexa- and Google-powered smart homes.
The new lineup
Along with white-light smart bulbs for $8 and full-color smart bulbs for $10, Cree Lighting's new smart lighting lineup includes color-changing indoor and outdoor floodlights, along with an extra-bright, 100-watt replacement bulb that changes colors, too. Here's the full list, as detailed on an Amazon landing page:
Per the specs on the box, the $10, full-color 60-watt replacement bulb puts out 800 lumens at peak brightness from a power draw of 9 watts, and would add just over $1 to your energy bill each year with an average of 3 hours of use per day. Along with Wi-Fi, the bulbs include Bluetooth radios for easier pairing with certain platforms.
App setup and voice control
To get started with Cree Lighting's new bulbs, you'll screw them in, turn them on and pair them with the Cree Lighting app for Android and iOS. That's a change from the original Cree smart bulbs, which didn't offer an app of their own at all.
The app isn't as sophisticated or intuitive as apps from names like Lifx and Philips Hue that have been around for a lot longer, but connecting with the bulbs is still pretty simple -- just tap the plus icon and follow the instructions. The bulbs require a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network and won't work on the 5GHz band, and the app cautions that some routers that join the two bands into a single, unified network might cause trouble during setup. I use a unified network like that, and I had no trouble at all, but I still appreciated that the app includes troubleshooting help for several specific brands of router.
From there, you can enable Cree Lighting in the Alexa and Google Home apps if you want to start controlling the bulbs with a voice assistant. With Alexa, you'll need to enable the Cree Lighting skill in order to let Alexa discover them -- with Google Assistant, just search for "Cree Lighting" in the Google Home app's list of supported brands to link your account and add your bulbs.
Lots of people will stop right there and just use their voice assistant of choice to turn the lights on and off or change their color. If that sounds like you, then you'll probably never need to think about the app again. That said, along with basic control of your bulbs, the Cree Lighting app also offers scheduling, scenes, wake-up lighting, themed presets for holidays and special occasions and a "Follow the Sun" mode that'll set your bulbs to mimic the natural progression of sunlight throughout the day.
That's more than enough features for a bargain-price smart bulb, but I'd still love it if Cree Lighting would add the ability to customize fade durations whenever you turn a bulb on or trigger a scene. A vacation mode that automatically cycles your lights on and off to simulate occupancy when you aren't home would be another nice inclusion, too.
The other omission of note:
support. The Cree Connected Max bulbs don't include it, so you wont be able to connect them with Siri or automate them alongside other HomeKit-friendly devices.
I didn't have any trouble testing these bulbs out over the past few weeks. I was able to pair each of them with my home network on the first try, and none of them dropped out of my control after that. Scheduled automations always ran as scheduled in the app, complete with the optional push notifications, and controlling them via Alexa and Google Assistant worked just as well as with every other smart bulb I've tested.
That's the truly important thing to keep in mind here -- so long as the bulbs you're using work as promised, your experience controlling your lights with Alexa or Google Assistant won't really vary much at all from brand to brand. You ask for the lights to come on, and the lights come on. You ask for the lights to turn purple, and the lights turn purple. Fancier lights from names like Lifx and Philips Hue might offer advanced features like music visualization or entertainment lighting that syncs with whatever's playing on your TV, but as far as basic lighting control is concerned, give me the $10 option every day of the week.
That said, you'll definitely notice it if your lights aren't bright enough, or if the colors don't look true. Fortunately, Cree Lighting's bulbs do a fine job putting out plenty of brightness -- especially the 100W-replacement bulb, which nets you 1,600 lumens of brightness for just $13.
I don't have access to my lighting lab these days, so I'll have to hold off on checking the lumen counts for myself (expect an update here when that changes), but to the naked eye, I didn't see any funky-looking colors, and I didn't see any settings that appeared too dim.
My only quibble: The white light spectrum for each bulb strongly favors the low, yellowy end of the spectrum. You'll have to dial up all the way to maximum daylight if you want anything approaching bluish-white. On the color side of things, that also means that the cyan setting isn't quite as icy-blue as I would like.
LED light bulbs aren't luxuries anymore -- even the ones that change colors and connect with voice assistants. Along with Cree Lighting, new color-changing smart bulbs from GE, Philips Wiz, and Nanoleaf are all available for $20 or less. Honestly, you'd be fine just getting whatever's on sale, provided it works with your platforms of choice.
Among them, the $10 Cree Connected Max LED is the cheapest, it works exactly as advertised and you can upgrade to an extra-bright 100W-replacement version for just $3 more. It doesn't support Apple HomeKit, so you should look elsewhere if you want Siri in charge of your lights, but outside of that, it's easy to recommend, especially for Alexa- and Google Assistant-powered smart homes.