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GE's new smart lights and switches take a shine to Google

They work with everything, but the newest "C by GE" smart bulbs and switches were made with the Google Assistant in mind.

GE Lighting

Editor's Note: Initially published on 1/3/19, this piece has been updated with hands-on impressions and details of additional devices that weren't included in GE's initial announcement.

GE Lighting got the avalanche of CES 2019 product announcements started a few days ahead of the show. Specifically, the lighting aisle mainstay announced several new switches, bulbs and accessories for the C by GE smart lighting lineup, all of which are slated to hit stores by the end of the year. 

Like the existing C-Life and C-Sleep smart bulbs, the new devices will use Bluetooth to communicate with each other, with the C by GE app on your phone, and with Alexa and Google Assistant for voice controls. Later this year, GE says a software update will bring the C by GE line on board with Apple HomeKit to let iOS users control the devices using Siri commands, too. Google Home users get the added benefit of being able to connect directly with the C by GE bulbs, no C-Reach plug-in hub required. 

I've chased the new devices down here in Las Vegas -- before I get to the details of each one, here's a quick rundown of what's coming and when, and for how much:

New C by GE smart switches

  • C-Start smart dimmer switch: Coming Q1 of 2019 for $50
  • C-Start smart dimmer switch with built-in motion and light sensors: Coming Q1 of 2019 for $75
  • C-Start smart on/off switch: Coming Q2 of 2019 for $40
  • C-Start smart on/off switch (traditional toggle design): Coming Q2 of 2019 for $35
  • C-Start smart on/off switch (traditional paddle design): Coming Q2 of 2019 for $35

New C by GE color-changing bulbs

  • C by GE color-changing A19 smart bulb: Coming Q2 of 2019 for $40
  • C by GE color-changing BR30 smart floodlight: Coming Q2 of 2019 for $45
  • C by GE color-changing rope lights: Coming Q2 of 2019 for $75

New C by GE accessories

  • C by GE smart wall plug: Coming Q2 of 2019 for $25
  • C by GE battery-powered motion detector: Coming Q4 of 2019, price TBD
ge-c-start-smart-switches

Five new smart switches will join the C by GE smart lighting lineup this year.

Ry Crist/CNET

New year, new switches

Coming first: Two new "C-Start" in-wall dimmer switches, both already listed on the C by GE website and slated to hit stores in the coming weeks. The first includes built-in motion and ambient light sensors that you can use to automate your lights, and will cost $75. The second ditches those sensors and brings the price down to $50. Credit to GE for giving paying consumers a choice over how much tech they want in their light switches.

The C-Start dimmer switch with built-in motion and light sensors will cost $75. A dimmable version without the sensors will cost $50.

GE Lighting

Later this spring, GE also plans to release a nondimming, standard on-off version of the C-Start switch that'll cost $40. That's more or less what you'd already expect to pay for a smart switch that doesn't dim. For my money, the dimmable versions of the C-Start switch sound like the better value, as dimmable competitors from popular names like WeMo and iDevices typically retail for at least $80 or so.

Still, some may question the somewhat awkward and asymmetrical design. I tend to be somewhat forgiving when it comes to light switches, but I've already had at least one colleague tell me that these things are ugly -- or, worse, unintuitive looking. 

After seeing them for myself in Las Vegas, I don't think I mind the design, but to each their own. Anyone who thinks differently will be happy to hear that GE Lighting will also release more traditional looking toggle and paddle versions of the standard on-off C-Start switch later this year. The cost for those is a little less than the modern-looking switch, coming in at $35 each.

More traditional-looking toggle and paddle versions of the nondimming C-Start switch are coming later this year.

Ry Crist/CNET

In addition to using Wi-Fi to let you automate your dumb bulbs when you aren't at home without need for a C-Reach hub, the C-Start switches can also use Bluetooth to pair wirelessly with C by GE smart bulbs. That'll let you, for instance, turn your bedside lamp on and off at the wall, and it also lets you control the bulbs from beyond Bluetooth range by using the C by GE app.

You can also use C by GE bulbs on whatever circuit the C-Start switch is wired to -- GE says that the dual dimming mechanisms in the switch and the bulb won't clash, and that you'll be able to control your bulbs remotely even when the switch is off. You can also pair multiple C-Start switches to the same set of lights for a simple three-way switch setup that doesn't require a traveler wire.

All five of the new switches will support voice controls via Alexa or the Google Assistant. GE tells us that compatibility with Siri is coming, too, thanks to an upcoming software update that'll bring C by GE's lineup on board with Apple HomeKit by this summer. Unlike the Alexa and Google connections, you'll need a C-Reach plug-in hub to connect the switches with Siri.    

cbyge-tablelamp-bed-v4-green

Color-changing C by GE smart bulbs are coming in the first half of 2019.

GE Lighting

Color-changing bulbs, too

The second quarter of 2019 will also bring new C by GE smart bulbs -- color-changing ones, to be exact. Surprisingly enough, that's a first for GE, and it'll bring some new competition to brands like Lifx, Sylvania and Philips Hue that have been selling color-changing smart bulbs for several years now.

At launch, GE's color-changing lineup will feature three options: a standard, A19-shaped smart bulb that'll cost $40 and a BR30-shaped floodlight bulb that'll cost $45, plus a set of color-changing rope lights that'll cost $75. All of those prices are more or less comparable to what's already on the market, but they should still help the C by GE brand feel more fully realized than before.

To that end, GE also plans to release a $25 C by GE smart plug this spring and, by the end of the year, a battery-powered motion sensor accessory, too. Pricing hasn't been locked in on that one just yet.

google-starter-kit-1
Chris Monroe/CNET

Works with everything (but made for Google)

Color control aside, GE already sells smart bulbs -- namely, a set of Bluetooth C-Life and C-Sleep bulbs that offer different tones of light for different times of day. Those didn't grab as much attention as flashier competitors, but the addition of Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility kept them relevant to the growing number of shoppers who use smart speakers, many of whom seek out affordable smart bulbs that work with their assistant of choice.

GE is putting its partnership with Google front and center.

GE Lighting

With support for Siri due in the coming months, it's clear that GE Lighting wants its devices to work with all of the major platforms -- but the company also seems to be zeroing in on Google as a primary partner. Just recently, the two teamed up to offer the Home Mini smart speaker packaged with a free C-Life bulb on Black Friday. That collaboration came after GE joined the "Made for Google" program and promptly updated its bulbs to offer native pairing with the Google Assistant via the Google Home app.

That native compatibility -- which GE bulbs were the first to tout -- will now extend to all of the new GE devices coming in 2019, and it means that you'll be able to pair them with your Google Home smart speaker direct from the Google Home app as soon as you turn them on. 

That's a lot easier than pairing the bulbs with Alexa or, later this year, with Siri. Both of those require you to have the $50 C-Reach plug-in hub to act as a gateway device, as well as the C by GE app for the initial pairing process with your phone. The Google Assistant requires neither -- the Google Home app handles the pairing process, and your Google Home speaker acts as the hub, letting you control GE's bulbs and switches from beyond Bluetooth range.

For Google's part, it seems pretty clear that this is an answer to Amazon's partnership with Philips, which gives owners of the Echo Plus smart speaker or the Echo Show smart display direct control over Philips Hue smart lights, no Hue Bridge needed. That makes the partnership with GE a good, defensive get for Google -- but I wonder if GE, which already sells the C by GE "Sol" Alexa lamp, ultimately relents and extends that native compatibility to Amazon, as well. Technically, there shouldn't be anything stopping it; Echo speakers speak Bluetooth, too.

"We are always open to opportunities, but for the foreseeable future you will need the C-Reach hub (or Sol) for Alexa connection," a GE Lighting spokesperson tells me.

Bright outlook?

A few years ago, I took on the task of smartening up the majority of the lights in the CNET Smart Home. One of the key takeaways from that project was that smart switches and smart bulbs each have their advantages. Smartening the switch ensures that your automations and voice controls will work even when the lights are off at the wall. Smartening your bulbs is generally more affordable and less intimidating than rewiring a switch -- and if you like, you can splurge on bulbs that change colors. 

The point is that your ideal whole-home connected lighting setup might very well require a mix of smart bulbs and smart switches -- and from WeMo and Lutron to Sylvania and Philips Hue, most brands only offer one or the other. That forces you to figure out what works with what as you mix and match between different brands. Pretty soon, you might need a whole folder on your phone for the various apps controlling the lights in your home.

That's not an issue with GE -- and that makes the new, expanded C by GE lineup pretty darned interesting. With a solid assortment of platform partners, long-established brand recognition in the lighting aisle and the manufacturing know-how to support multiple varieties of connected switches and bulbs, this is the company of Edison flexing its muscle at a particularly opportune time.

Time will tell if new devices and deeper compatibility with the Google Assistant actually gets people to buy in -- and we'll certainly have more to say once we get a chance to test everything out. Still, here at the start of the year, I think GE's got a lot of room for optimism.

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