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Light Bulbs

Lutron's new switch solves a big smart bulb headache, installs in minutes

Finally, your dumb light switches are no longer your smart bulbs' worst enemy. Here's a hands-on first look at the Lutron Aurora.

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Hands on with the Lutron Aurora smart dimmer dial -- snap it over top of a dumb light switch that controls smart bulbs, and you won't lose the smarts when you turn things off at the switch.

Ry Crist/CNET

Upgrade your light bulbs to smart bulbs, and you'll be able to automate them, control them from your phone or turn them on and off and dim them up and down using voice commands. That's great! The problem? Literally none of that will work if the power is off at the light switch, and learning to leave the switch in the on position is completely unintuitive, especially for kids and houseguests.

It's one of the smart home's most enduring pain points -- but now, the light switch maestros at Lutron have an elegant, affordable solution that looks like a strong, early contender for smart home gadget of the year.

Read more: The complete guide to Philips Hue 

Read also: The best cheap smart bulbs

Now available for preorder and set to ship out later in June, the solution I speak of is called the Lutron Aurora, and it's a $40 smart dimmer dial that pairs with Philips Hue smart bulbs and other Zigbee 3.0 smart lights. What's particularly clever about it is that you don't wire it into your wall where the light switch once was. Instead, you just snap it in place on top of the switch itself -- which locks that switch into the on position. 

From there, just give it a tap to turn the bulbs on or off, or twist it to dim them up and down. Lutron claims you can install it in two minutes.

"Lutron is pleased to join the Philips Hue 'Friends of Hue' program and offer this unique, wall-mounted smart lighting control that enriches the Hue experience," said Matt Swatsky, Vice President, Residential Mid-Market Business at Lutron. "The Aurora dimmer simplifies the use of Philips Hue smart bulbs and fixtures for everyone in the home."

Translation: Even your children and in-laws will know how to use this thing.

Go ahead and hit that switch, junior. Your Hue bulb's automations and voice controls will still work just fine.

Lutron

Read more: When are Wi-Fi 6 smart home gadgets coming?

And, after testing one out for myself, I can confirm that the Aurora is really easy to install and use. Just be careful you don't try to force the dial onto the baseplate too hard during installation -- doing so can bend the plastic rim on the inside.

That's a small nitpick, though, because I like almost everything about Lutron's approach here. For starters, the Aurora doubles down on one of smart lighting's top points of appeal -- the smooth, flicker-free dimming -- by giving you a physical point of control over the Philips Hue dimming curve. In addition, the Aurora uses Zigbee to send its signals. That means that it'll still work if your Wi-Fi ever goes down.

Speaking of Zigbee, you can pair the Aurora with the Zigbee-speaking Hue Bridge using the Hue app -- or you can pair it directly with your Hue bulbs, no Bridge needed. You'll just need to turn the lights on and off a few times per the instructions in the Aurora box to put them into a 15-minute pairing mode. From there, a few taps on the Aurora will create a direct connection with your lights. 

And by the way, this should work with other, non-Hue Zigbee 3.0 bulbs, too, though Lutron currently says that "compatibility testing with other Zigbee 3.0-certified bulbs is in process."

As for the batteries, the Aurora runs off of a single CR 2032 coin battery that Lutron says will last at least three years before needing to be replaced.

The Aurora isn't the first Friends of Hue accessory that simplifies smart bulb controls at the switch. Late last year, I tested out the Click smart switch from RunLessWire, previously known as the Illumra. That switch uses EnOcean energy harvesting technology to power itself with each button press, so you don't have to wire it in -- though you do need to remove the old switch, first.

That makes the Aurora the simpler of the two, because you won't have to shut things off at the breaker box to install it, though I'd note that the Click's four buttons can be used to trigger specific Hue scenes, as can the Philips Hue Tap, another energy-harvesting Hue remote that needs no batteries. With the Aurora, you've only got one button -- if you've got a Hue Bridge, you change what setting or scene the button will turn your bulbs on to, but most will probably just want to leave it at basic on/off functionality.

I'd also like the Aurora better if it cost a little less ($30 seems closer to the magic number to me), but $40 still feels like a fair ask for folks who want to rid themselves of a common smart lighting sticking point. I'll keep testing it out a bit longer to see if I run into any connectivity or battery issues, but right now it looks like Lutron dialed up a winner here.

Originally published, May 20, 2019.
Update, June 8: Now includes hands-on first impressions and additional details about compatibility with non-Hue Zigbee 3.0 bulbs.