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C by GE's new smart switches don't need a hub, or a neutral wire

At CES 2020, the venerable lighting brand looks to build upon a big 2019 with new hardware and a new "Works with C by GE" partner program.

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GE Lighting
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Last year, GE Lighting took a big swing at the smart home with a new, expanded lineup of C by GE smart lights -- color-changing light bulbs, motion-sensing light switches, you name it. Now, at CES 2020, GE Lighting has another batch of new products, including new, smaller-size smart light switches that don't require a neutral wire -- potentially, a pretty helpful option for homes with older wiring.

The new products will start appearing on store shelves in the first quarter of 2020. I'll list all of it at the end of this post, but first, let's run through the highlights.

Three-wire, hub-free smart switches

I'll start with those light switches. Available in five different designs, including classic toggle and paddle switches for $40 each, as well as as a more modern push-button switch that can include dimming and motion-sensing functionality, they're essentially the same switches that we saw last year.

The new C by GE three-wire smart switches come in five designs, and don't need a neutral wire.

GE Lighting

The difference this time is that there are only three wires to connect during installation -- line, load and ground. There's no neutral wire at all, which is perfect if you live in an older home that doesn't have neutral wires available at the junction box. GE Lighting estimates that as many as 40% of homes in the US fit that description. 

If your home does have neutral wires running into your junction boxes, then you'll want to stick with last year's models. GE Lighting will continue to make them available wherever C by GE products are sold.

Once everything is wired up, you'll be able to schedule automated lighting changes or control the switch remotely from the C by GE app. You'll also be able to sync the switch with Alexa or the Google Assistant for voice-activated lighting changes. None of that requires any additional hub hardware.

As for Apple HomeKit, C by GE bulbs and light strips support the platform via the C-Reach plug-in hub, but the company's light switches do not. "We continue to work with Apple on tighter integration," a spokesperson says.

GE Lighting also engineered the switch in such a way that homeowners won't need to distinguish between the line wire that moves power into the switch and the load wire that moves power out of it.

"Most of the time they'll find themselves staring at two black wires," a GE Lighting spokesperson explained. "On the back of our three-wire switch we have two black wires and a green wire. The two black wires can be connected to either or of the black wires in the junction box and the switch will work."

Leveraging its generational experience as a manufacturer of electrical hardware in order to strengthen the pitch seems like a smart strategy for GE Lighting. Another nice touch to that end is that each switch will come with an optional bulb adapter accessory designed to eliminate the ghosting and flickering that can occur when a load doesn't have enough voltage running through it.

"For nearly 130 years, GE Lighting has been a trusted brand and consumers continue to have confidence in the C by GE smart
home products we offer," says Paul Williams, GM Product Management & Growth, GE Lighting. "As we expand our presence in
the smart home, we're committed to providing them with convenient products that exceed expectations."

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You can mount the new battery-powered C by GE motion sensor to the wall and use it to trigger your lights whenever someone enters the room.

GE Lighting

Wire-free options, too

Wiring aside, C by GE also has a trio of new wireless accessories for its system. They include wireless motion sensors for $30 each, as well as two new wireless remotes that you can pair with any C by GE bulb, plug or light switch for quick lighting adjustments. The more advanced of the two will cost $25 -- in addition to dimming the lights, it'll let you adjust the color temperature of your C by GE bulbs, too. 

All three come with adhesive strips that let you mount them to the wall wherever you like, which can be a handy, renter-friendly way to put a makeshift light switch where there wasn't one before.

Unlike the new three-wire light switches, which use both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios to send their signals and sync up with your voice assistant of choice, the wireless C by GE gadgets stick to Bluetooth for local connections with your C by GE lights. Each runs on a common coin cell battery that should last you about two years, the company says.

Works with C by GE

The last big announcement from C by GE isn't a product, but a platform. Specifically, the company is opening up its software to outside developers who want to hop aboard. That gives third-party manufacturers a road map for making products that you can control in tandem with your C by GE gear via the C by GE app.

"While the program is in its infant stages, we are looking at partners that manufacture products that provide enhanced comfort, safety and security," a GE spokesperson told me. "We expect to be able to share more specifics about partners in the first quarter of this year."

An open, "works with"-style platform is a nice way to build an ecosystem of smart devices with your brand at the center -- and it can also serve as a good opportunity to set standards for how secure those third-party devices need to be in order to be allowed on board. GE Lighting didn't have any specifics to share when I asked about those standards, but a company spokesperson assured me that privacy and security are front of mind as the brand looks to build partnerships.

As smart home brands go, C by GE seems fairly well-positioned to make this sort of platform play, so it'll be interesting to see if it rushes to please customers with as many integrations as possible, or if it takes a more cautious, step-by-step approach by thoroughly vetting the third-party brands that want in. 

Apart from security, the benefits of the latter can include smoother, better functionality -- something GE may have learned first-hand when it became a "Made for Google" partner in 2018. That partnership allowed C by GE to build one of the of the best Google Assistant integrations we've tested, with voice controls that are about as responsive as voice-controlled lighting currently gets.

Bright future?

We'll keep an eye out for GE Lighting's new hardware at CES 2020, and as the year progresses. Expect us to test it all out at the CNET Smart Home and report back on its performance, too. For now, here's a breakdown of what's new, what it'll cost, and when we expect it to arrive:

  • C by GE Hubless Three-Wire Smart Switch (toggle) -- Q1 2020, $40
  • C by GE Hubless Three-Wire Smart Switch (paddle) -- Q1 2020, $40
  • C by GE Hubless Three-Wire Smart Switch (push-button) -- Q1 2020, $45
  • C by GE Hubless Three-Wire Smart Switch (push-button with dimmer) -- Q2 2020, $50
  • C by GE Hubless Three-Wire Smart Switch (push-button with dimmer and motion sensor) -- Q2 2020, $60
  • C by GE Wire-Free Remote Dimmer -- Q1 2020, $23
  • C by GE Wire-Free Remote Dimmer with Color Control -- Q1 2020, $25
  • C by GE Wire-Free Motion Sensor -- Q1 2020, $30