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The best color-changing smart bulbs (that cost less than Philips Hue)

Want to bring some color into your smart home, but find Philips Hue too expensive? Let's take a look at your top alternatives.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

I've spent the past five or six years writing about smart lighting. Throughout that time, whenever a friend, family member, coworker or stranger would ask me for advice on how to smarten up their light bulbs, I would usually tell them to start at the same place: Philips Hue.

Put simply, Philips Hue is the best-developed smart lighting platform that you can buy into. It's been around for several years now, it has an impressive and diverse portfolio of products to pick from, it's updated regularly with new features and integrations -- and it works with just about everything, from voice control via Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant to larger smart home platforms such as Apple HomeKit, Logitech Harmony, Google Nest and Samsung SmartThings.

The problem with all of that? Despite some major strides with the surprisingly affordable Philips Hue White smart light bulbs, the color-changing Hue bulbs are still really, really expensive.

Read more: The light switch is no longer your smart bulb's worst enemy
Read also: Philips Hue's new Bluetooth bulbs let you skip the Hue Bridge

For instance, a single color-changing Hue bulb (Hue calls it a "White and Color LED") retails for $50, and though you can usually find it on sale for closer to $40, that's still more than you'll need to spend on other premium-level options such as the Lifx Mini. Those cost $35 each and, unlike Philips Hue, they don't require a hub at all. Same goes for budget brands like Sengled and Eufy, each of which offers a color-changing LED light bulb for $25 that connects directly with your Wi-Fi network and works with Alexa and Google. Want a cheap Hue alternative that supports Apple HomeKit? The Sylvania Smart Plus LED bulb and the Feit Electric Color-Changing LED Smart Bulb both work with Siri, and you can score either one of those for just $25, too.

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Prices get even more lopsided when you look at the wider Philips Hue catalog. The unique, likable Philips Hue Play light bars make great little accent lights for the back of your monitor or TV, but a single-light base kit costs $70, which is almost twice as much as I'd want to pay for it. The new lineup of Philips Hue outdoor lights get even pricier -- a single, color-changing Calla pathlight for your garden will cost you about $130, while a trio of color-changing Lily spotlights sells for about $280. They don't change colors, but I'd much rather have Ring's motion-activated outdoor lights, most of which cost a fraction of what Hue charges. And don't even get me started on Hue's overpriced light fixtures, which include the Signe floor lamp.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the smart lighting category has evolved to the point where you've got a lot of alternatives to Philips Hue that are worth considering before you spend hundreds. I've tested plenty of them -- here are the top picks that belong at the top of your list. And if you really couldn't care less about the colors, and just want a simple, dimmable soft white bulb that you can control with voice commands, worry not -- I've got a rundown for those, too.

(Disclaimer: CNET may earn a small share of the revenue for any purchases made through the links on this page).

Lifx

Best overall Hue alternative (and the best for home automation geeks)

Ry Crist/CNET

The Hue app and Hue's many integrations with third-party services and devices give you all sorts of ways to tinker around with your lights -- but for the past several years, Australian start-up Lifx has been building a smart lighting ecosystem that's almost as good. Beyond supporting voice commands via all of the major voice assistants, the Lifx lineup of color-changing light bulbs, light strips and wall tiles come with an excellent app and a smart lighting channel on the free online automation service IFTTT that's notably more advanced than Hue's. You can even buy Lifx Plus bulbs that put out invisible, infrared light at night to help light things up for your night-vision security cameras. No other brand offers anything like that.

On the whole, Lifx is only slightly less expensive than Hue -- and some of its products, like the Lifx Z light strips and the upcoming multi-color Lifx candelabra bulbs are actually more expensive than their Hue counterparts. That said, Lifx lights speak Wi-Fi and don't need any extra hub hardware to connect with your router, so buying in is a bit less expensive up front.

My recommendation: Start with a single Lifx smart bulb like that Lifx Mini LED bulb pictured above, which you can currently get for $35, then play with the app and integrations a bit to see if you like the Lifx approach.

Ry Crist/CNET

Sengled used to specialize in novelty smart lights with built-in speakers, built-in cameras, built-in Wi-Fi extenders, you name it. Recently, though, the brand has made a sharp pivot towards simple, budget-priced smart bulbs and compatibility with Amazon's AI assistant Alexa is touted as a core feature -- enough so that you'll now often find Sengled bulbs bundled with Echo speakers on Amazon's website. The bulbs test well, too -- I even named them the best smart bulbs for cheapskates in my recent rundown of bargain-priced white-light smart bulbs.

The confusing part about Sengled is that the brand now offers two kinds of multi-color LED smart bulbs: Ones that communicate using Zigbee and thus need a hub, and also new Wi-Fi versions that don't need a hub at all. The good news is that none of them cost very much. Among color-changers, Sengled's Wi-Fi bulb that needs no hub costs $25, while the Zigbee version that does costs $20. And, by the way, that Wi-Fi version was the second brightest bulb I tested for this roundup, clocking in with a default white light setting of 858 lumens. Only the Lifx Mini edged it out.

Stick with that Wi-Fi version if you don't have a Zigbee hub and don't want to get one -- but keep in mind that the Amazon Echo Plus is a Zigbee hub. Same goes for the second-gen Amazon Echo Show smart display. If you've got one of those, or you're willing to get one, then move Sengled right to the top of your list. 

Ry Crist/CNET

Philips Hue bulbs work great with the Google Assistant, but the C by GE line of smart bulbs are even better. That's because GE Lighting is a "Made for Google" partner, and its growing lineup of Bluetooth LED light bulbs can connect directly with your Google Home smart speakers and smart displays. Those Google Home connections are among the most lightning fast that I've tested, and your Home speakers will even double as a hub for the bulbs to let you control them when you're outside of Bluetooth range. That means that Google Home users don't need the C-Reach plug-in hub to control their C by GE bulbs -- heck, they don't even need the C by GE app.

The best place to find C by GE bulbs is at Best Buy, where the color-changing bulbs come in a two-pack that retails for $55. As of writing this, that two-pack is marked down to about $44, or just $22 a piece. GE also offers C by GE light strips and a diverse new lineup of smart switches that play well with Google Home hardware, too, so you can definitely expand your setup if needed.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Would you rather control your lights with Siri? Then you'll want light bulbs that support Apple HomeKit, the iOS-based smart home platform that runs via software on your phone or tablet. You've got a couple of options that can change color and color temperature outside of big names like Philips Hue and Lifx, but I'd probably go with the Sylvania Smart Plus line of LEDs. They work well with HomeKit, and they were a bit brighter than average at almost every color setting I tested. 

A single multicolor bulb that pairs directly with Apple's Home app on your iPhone can currently be had for just $25 on Amazon. That's a great price for any smart color-changer, let alone one that works with HomeKit. Beyond that, Sylvania also sells HomeKit-compatible light strips and even a HomeKit-compatible, vintage-style filament bulb. None of them feel as high-end as Hue, but if you just want to say "Hey Siri, hit the lights" without breaking the bank, they'll get the job done just fine.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Again, none of Ring's new outdoor security lights change colors (and none of them are, y'know, bulbs), but I'm including them in this roundup because I think that they're a much more sensible choice for exterior lighting than the outdoor series from Philips Hue, almost all of which are too expensive, even by Hue standards.

Aside from costing less, Ring's outdoor security lights are the more practical pick, as each one features a built-in motion sensor. When unexpected activity is detected, those sensors can trigger your lights to turn on, or trigger your Ring cameras to start recording. They're also easier to install than Hue, and yes, much easier to afford, especially the $18 steplights and $30 pathlights.

Those battery-powered pathlights are my favorites, since you can stick them anywhere on your property where you'd like to keep tabs on motion. A two-pathlight starter kit with the mandatory Ring Bridge costs $80 -- that's where I'd start if it were my yard we were talking about.

Top picks compared

In addition to the bulbs listed above, I also considered color-changing LED options from names like Feit, TP-Link Kasa and Anker's smart home offshoot, Eufy. 

Feit offers a $25 HomeKit bulb that's comparable to Sylvania's bulb, but Sylvania edged it out with superior color quality. TP-Link's newest color changer looks fancy, but with an unimpressive app and no support for Apple HomeKit, it's not enough of a deal at $30. Eufy's color-changing bulb works well with Alexa and Google, but it's a bit bulky and dated at this point, and with the recent release of new, white-light Eufy bulbs, I expect that the color-changing version will be getting a refresh soon anyway. Still, keep an eye out for sales on all three if you're shopping for a bargain. 

Now, let's take a look at how those four top alternatives compare to the color-changing Hue bulbs and to each other. First, the requisite spec chart:

Philips Hue vs. the Pack


Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance LED C by GE Full Color LED Lifx Mini Color LED Sengled Smart Multi-Color Wi-Fi LED Sylvania Smart Plus Full Color LED
Default setting brightness 580 lumens 777 lumens 880 lumens 852 lumens 733 lumens
Default setting color temperature 2,634 K 2,653 K 3,265 K 2,689 K 2,688 K
Color temperature range 2,146 K - 6,106 K 1,925 K - 3,495 K 1,281 K - 9,001 K 1,963 K - 4,523 K 1,753 K - 6,205 K
Red brightness 87 lumens 72 lumens 106 lumens 55 lumens 72 lumens
Green brightness 100 lumens 123 lumens 230 lumens 146 lumens 162 lumens
Blue brightness 60 lumens 47 lumens 53 lumens 36 lumens 59 lumens
Yellow brightness 119 lumens 195 lumens 306 lumens 167 lumens 235 lumens
Purple brightness 124 lumens 105 lumens 96 lumens 60 lumens 131 lumens
Cyan brightness 119 lumens 169 lumens 257 lumens 153 lumens 221 lumens
Wireless protocol Zigbee Bluetooth Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Bluetooth
Compatible voice assistants Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri Alexa, Google Assistant Siri
Hub required? Yes (Philips Hue Bridge, Amazon Echo Plus, or 2nd-gen Amazon Echo Show will work. Hue Bridge required to use Hue app and to connect with Siri and the Google Assistant) No (Google Home speaker or smart display or C-Reach Hub required for control outside of Bluetooth range. C-Reach Hub required to connect with Alexa or Siri) No No No (Apple TV, Apple HomePod, or always-on iPad required for HomeKit control from outside of your home's Wi-Fi network)
Price $50 $55 (2-pack) $35 $25 $25

Brightness

The first big thing that jumps out is that the newest, plastic-topped version of the Hue bulb is noticeably less bright than all of these alternatives. With a default, soft white setting of about 580 lumens, the Hue bulb falls somewhere in between the brightness you'd expect from an accent light and what you'd expect from a primary light source. To put it in incandescent bulb terms, that's right in the middle between 40W and 60W.

That probably seems counter-intuitive given that Hue is the premium pick here, but keep in mind that some of Hue's higher, more bluish-white color temperature settings are noticeably brighter than the default, soft white setting. Dial the color temperature up to a neutral 3,800 K, for instance, and the bulb will put out a healthy 830 lumens or so. 

My guess is that the Hue team wanted presets like "Energy" that use those higher color temperatures to "pop" when users turn them on. Still, given that these are $50 light bulbs we're talking about here, I'd rather see a default setting that's closer to the 60W average of 800 lumens. That's what you get with a competitor like the Lifx Mini, which delivers 880 lumens at its default white light setting. It's the brightest of all of these options, and the one with the widest range of white light color temperatures, too. It's your best bet if specs are what matter most.

Aside from a greenish cyan from Philips Hue, a couple of orange-looking yellows and some disagreement over what constitutes "purple," these smart bulbs all put out comparably accurate colors.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Colors

As for the colors, none of them are ever going to be nearly as bright as the white light settings (white light diodes are just a lot brighter than RGB diodes), but some bulbs do a better job at steering clear of weak spots than others. Lifx led the pack once more with bright, accurate colors across the board, but I was also impressed with the Sylvania Smart Plus LED -- it was above average at just about every color setting we checked. Meanwhile, the colors with Philips Hue and Sengled were the least bright of the bunch, with the C by GE LED falling squarely in the middle.

Color accuracy is another concern, but at this point, most of the major players get it right. There are a few noteworthy exceptions -- most glaringly, the greenish-looking shade of cyan offered up by Philips Hue. It looks a little worse in the photo than it did to the naked eye, but it was definitely noticeable at the time. Then again, the Hue bulb was the only one that, to my eye, put out a proper-looking purple.

And, for the record, we took all of those shots using locked-down camera settings, with each bulb dialed up to maximum brightness. We used separate, locked-down camera settings for the soft white shots, since the bulbs are each considerably brighter in those. As for the color presets, we used Alexa commands for all except the C by GE bulb and the Sylvania bulb -- we used color presets from the Google Assistant and Siri for those two, respectively.

Why does Hue's cyan setting look so weird?

After some further digging, I found that Philips Hue's newest bulbs do, in fact, put out an accurate shade of cyan when you've got them connected via the Hue Bridge. That weird, greenish cyan seems to be unique to Hue bulbs that are controlled via the Amazon Echo Plus or the second-gen Amazon Echo Show, which also features a built-in Zigbee bridge that can control Hue bulbs without the Hue Bridge. As the chart shows, other bulbs handle cyan just fine when paired with Alexa, so it's a little unclear why the Hue bulb responds differently when you say, "Alexa, make the lights cyan."

I plan to do a little more digging into the different ways each voice control platform handles color commands, so stay tuned for an update on that front. In the meantime, Philips Hue Head of Technology George Yianni suggests that Alexa might be defining its colors different than the Hue bulbs do.

"I expect the Echo Plus is sending hue saturation commands to the bulbs, which it takes directly from the screen RGB HSV values," Yianni tells me. "We always send CIE x,y values because that is an absolute color point while hue saturation is relative to the maximum color gamut."

Don't worry, that's a lot to process for me, too. In a nutshell, there are a number of different ways to define a specific color as a coordinate -- and when it comes to cyan, Alexa and Philips Hue seem to be misaligned. When you tell Alexa to make the lights cyan, Alexa tells the bulbs to go to a specific coordinate. With Hue, that coordinate isn't quite cyan, because Hue defines cyan differently than Alexa does.

Yianni adds that it's the Hue Bridge that handles the color conversion for each Hue bulb. That means that if you're an Alexa user with the Hue Bridge plugged into your router, and if you've enabled the Hue skill in your Alexa app to link Alexa with your Hue Bridge rather than skipping the Bridge and connecting your bulbs directly with an Echo Plus or a second-gen Echo Show, then your bulbs should land at the correct cyan setting. We'll test that out with Hue's newest bulbs and update this space.

The circular color selector and easy-to-use features like Day & Dusk mode help the Lifx app shine.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Smart features

That brings us to the apps. Lifx is the only option that can really compete with Philips Hue -- in fact, I think I prefer the Lifx app over Hue thanks to its color wheel, which is a much better interface for dialing into a specific shade than the overwhelming ocean of tints that Hue gives you, where you have to drag a little icon over the specific shade you're looking for.

Lifx just feels more comfortable and more precise, and I appreciate extra features like color cycles, music visualization and Day & Dusk mode, which automatically cycles your bulbs in rhythm with the sun. Outside of Hue, you won't find such a good mix of features and design with any of the other apps.

Then again, if you're going to use your bulbs with a voice assistant or a larger smart home platform like Apple HomeKit, then these apps don't matter nearly as much, because you'll really only use them for the initial pairing process, and perhaps to troubleshoot if you're ever having connection issues. I have a couple of Lifx bulbs in my home that I've picked up on sale over the years and, as much as I like the app, I really only use it on the rare occasion where I want to create and save a new scene. 99 times out of 100, I'll control the lights using a voice command.

Save some green

There really isn't as much separating these lights as you might think. Philips Hue offers a ton of potential for folks who want to go all in with an elaborate, whole-home smart lighting setup that they can use in all sorts of creative ways -- but that's more than a lot of people might actually want from their lights. On top of that, Hue's bulbs aren't the brightest and its colors aren't the most accurate if you're controlling them with an Echo Plus.

In the end, all of these Hue alternatives can handle the smart lighting basics. You can program them to turn on and off at specific times. You can control them with voice commands. When you have friends over for cheesy slasher flicks, you can make them red to set the proper mood. If that's good enough to scratch your itch for multi-color lighting, then skipping Philips Hue isn't a compromise at all -- it's just a smart decision.

Originally published June 13, 2019
Update, June 21, 2019: Added new information about the Philips Hue cyan setting when bulbs are paired directly with Alexa via the Amazon Echo Plus or second-gen Amazon Echo Show.