3 ways to make your lights smart and use your phone or voice to control them

From smart LED light bulbs to smart light switches to smart plugs, you've got options for controlling and automating your lights.

Molly Price Former Editor
5 min read
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. In addition to smart light bulbs , cloud-connected switches and plugs can also contribute to a well-lit, well-connected home.

Each avenue of smart lighting is different. So are the needs of each home. In some cases, you can even combine approaches to create a more sophisticated and fully featured setup. To do so, you'll first need to understand the pros and cons of each approach.

Read more: The best color-changing smart bulbs (that cost less than Philips Hue | Best smart plugs for 2019 | 7 smart switches that won't f@!% up your smart bulbs | Best cheap smart LED bulbs of 2019: Does it matter which bulb you buy?

So, let's get to it and take a look at your options and the best ways to use them. 

Philips Hue, Lifx, GE, Ring and more: Lots of new smart lights coming in 2019

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Smart bulbs


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


Smart light 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 a bedside lamp. They're great for single-bulb fixtures or groups of light fixtures you'd like to smarten or make more colorful.

Lots of smart bulbs, including ones from popular names such as Philips Hue and Sengled, send their signals using a low-energy wireless standard called Zigbee. You can buy smart bulbs like these individually, in pairs or in starter kits (like this one from Philips Hue) that include a bridge to translate the Zigbee signals into Wi-Fi network signals that your router can understand. This lets you use remotes, a mobile app or voice assistant to control your lights.

Other smart lilght bulbs, including the ones from Lifx and the new C by GE smart bulbs, send their signals using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth , and can connect directly with your phone, your router or with a smart home controller such as the Google Nest Hub.

Smart bulbs are team players, too. They can work alongside other smart home devices in scenes and routines with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri via HomeKit. The same is true for smart switches and plugs, which brings us to our next category. 

Read more: The best LED floodlights you can buy 

Smart switches

Smart switches are a great way to make your lighting smart without the hassle of replacing every light bulb in your home. If you have an in-wall switch that controls multiple recessed lights in an open area, replacing that switch with a smart switch will be simpler and possibly more cost-effective than replacing each bulb. 

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

Lutron's line of Caseta switches communicate using the brand's proprietary ClearConnect wireless signal, so they require a bridge plugged into your home's router. Meanwhile, Wemo's Dimmer light switch connects directly with Apple HomeKit to make bulbs dimmable via voice or app control.

There are a lot of other interesting smart switch options out there solving everyday lighting frustrations, like the Click touch-powered switch from RunLessWire and the Lutron Aurora switch, each of which is designed to control Philips Hue bulbs from the wall without ever cutting power to them and rendering voice commands, automation and app controls useless.

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, make note of requirements like a neutral wire, as always, make sure you turn off your circuit breaker before doing any electrical work or contact a licensed professional to install. 

Philips Hue announced a ton of new smart lights this summer

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Smart plugs


There are a range of smart plugs available.


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 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

Read more: These smart plugs are the secret to a seamless smart home

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. And don't forget to check out the outdoor models, too.

Watch this: 5 reasons you need a smart light bulb

Upgrades and accessories

Many smart light bulbs, smart light switches and plugs can be connected through their mobile app or through the free, online automation platform IFTTT (If This, Then That) to sync with a motion sensor, 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. Those same scheduling capabilities also exist in some smart lighting apps or through connection to your smart speaker, depending on the product.

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

No matter which way you choose to approach smart home lighting, 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. 

Watch this: 3 ways to get your lights to turn on when you get home