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Light Bulbs

CES smart lighting showdown: Lifx squares off with Nanoleaf

With new, color-changing LED "Tiles" coming this February, Lifx is set for a face-off with Nanoleaf's upcoming light panels. Here's an early hands-on comparison.

Lifx

Nanoleaf scored a big win in 2017 with its triangular, color-changing Aurora light panels, its most successful product to date. Now, as the Toronto-based startup gears up to double down on the idea with new, touch-capacitive, square-shaped panels, Lifx looks to have gotten the memo -- and it may ultimately beat Nanoleaf to the punch with square-shaped light panels of its own called Lifx Tiles.

Lifx tells me that its new Tiles will arrive by the end of February and sell in a five-panel starter kit for $249 (no word yet on what Nanoleaf's new panels will cost or how many will come in a starter kit, but Nanoleaf tells me that they're aiming for something close to the cost of the original panels, which sell in a nine-panel kit for $230). Along with buying them direct from the Lifx website, you'll be able to find Lifx Tiles at Best Buy -- which, incidentally, is also a top retail partner for Nanoleaf. Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase "squaring off," doesn't it?

A tale of two tiles

lifx-tile-app

You'll be able to "paint" designs onto your Tiles in the Lifx app, similar to the way you use the Lifx Z light strip.

Ry Crist/CNET

After first announcing the product back in September, Lifx offered me a hands-on sneak peek of its new Tiles here at CES 2018 in Las Vegas. Lifx says that it's still making a few final tweaks to the design, but what I saw was still pretty impressive.

The standout feature differentiating them from Nanoleaf is that each Tile is actually an 8x8 grid of fully customizable "light zones." That means that you're essentially getting 64 different points of light to play with in each Tile, leaving lots of room for creative designs and eye-popping color combinations. With Nanoleaf, each panel will only display a single color at a time.

You'll create those designs in the Lifx app by "painting" colors across a digital mockup of your collection of Tiles. The controls look similar to ones for the Lifx Z color-changing light strip, which let you drag colors across a line in the app that represents the light strip.

nanoleaf-gif-square

Unlike Lifx, Nanoleaf's panels are touch-sensitive.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Nanoleaf has some advantages of its own, though -- primarily the fact that each of its square panels are touch sensitive, allowing for nifty ripple effects when you press on them, or quick lighting adjustments with a tap or a swipe. Nanoleaf also has Lifx beat in terms of scalability, as each base station can support up to a whopping 1,000 panels, and up to 60 for each power supply. The Lifx power supply only supports up to 10 Tiles.

Each of those Tiles is about the size of a salad plate, and thicker than I had realized at about one inch deep. That gives the Tiles visible edges when viewing them from the side, a subtle difference with the much flatter Nanoleaf panels. Fat or flat, I'm not sure which approach I prefer, but it's a difference in aesthetic worth considering before you choose between the two. 

Lifx also offers slightly better flexibility with how you connect the Tiles. With Nanoleaf, you connect everything using double-ended chips that slide into slots on the back of each panel in your setup, the same basic approach as the triangular panels from last year. With Lifx, the Tiles connect via cables -- that means that in addition to lining them up edge-to-edge like Nanoleaf, you can also string them together at a slight distance, or tuck the cable underneath a corner to stagger them in a zig-zag pattern.

lifx-tile-back

You'll connect the Lifx Tiles to each other using cables, and hang them up on the wall using 3M Velcro tabs.

Ry Crist/CNET

You'll hang each Lifx Tile on your wall using 3M Velcro tabs (Lifx includes four for each Tile in the starter kit). The Tiles aren't terribly heavy, but they weigh a little more than the smaller-size Nanoleaf panels, so good on Lifx for including plenty of mounting support.

Both Lifx and Nanoleaf support all three of the major voice platforms -- Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant -- and both have channels on the free online automation platform IFTTT, too. Both can display animated lighting effects, and both can sync lighting changes up with your music, too -- Lifx via the microphone in your smartphone, Nanoleaf via a "Rhythm Module" that used to plug into the panels but will now come built directly into the base station.

Both use Wi-Fi radios to connect with your home network, but Nanoleaf packs the radio into the base station, while Lifx includes Wi-Fi hardware in each individual Tile. That means that Lifx doesn't need a base station attached to the Tiles at all, making for a look that's a little more seamless once everything's up on your wall.

Lifx might also benefit from its wider portfolio of additional lighting options. Aside from the aforementioned Lifx Z light strips, Lifx sells a variety of color-changing light bulbs and will, by the end of this month, begin selling its new Lifx Beam starter kits, too. You can control all of it together in the Lifx app to create elaborate color-changing lighting setups. As for Nanoleaf, it offers unique-looking "Ivy" smart bulbs that you can control alongside your light panels -- but they don't change colors.

Nanoleaf's new, dodecahedron-shaped remote could help set it apart, especially for fans of Apple HomeKit.

Chris Monroe/CNET

That said, Nanoleaf does have a very nifty, 12-sided Remote launching this spring for $50 -- it triggers lighting scenes and even HomeKit scenes depending on which side you rotate to the top. Lifx doesn't have anything like that (although I should point out that Lifx lights support HomeKit, too, meaning that you could use the Nanoleaf remote to trigger Lifx lighting changes, no Nanoleaf panels necessary).

All of it adds up to one of the most compelling face-offs in the color-changing lighting category that I've seen since coming to CNET five years ago. Nanoleaf's panels were a huge hit last year, and people seem genuinely excited by the new options coming in 2018. For whatever reason, the fun, frivolous novelty of wall panels like these seems to be connecting with consumers -- there's a market for these things, and likely a bigger one than most of us initially realized.

Whether or not the Lifx team can steal any of that thunder remains to be seen, but it sure looks like they're on the right track to me. And, in the end, healthy competition between two worthwhile products can only mean good things for consumers. 

At any rate, I'm licking my chops to test both options out this year, so stay tuned for full reviews of each in the months ahead.

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