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Smart Home

Nanoleaf Canvas review: Your smart home in living color

Expensive, color-changing, touch-sensitive, voice-activated LED light panels really tie the room together.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I'm typing this while lying on a bed in the CNET Smart Apartment, a couple of pillows propping me up as I work. Traffic from a nearby highway fills this urban living space with a steady, ambient hum. I've always found it oddly relaxing, but never more so than today.

That's because, on the wall opposite the bed, I've just installed Nanoleaf Canvas, the Toronto-based smart lighting startup's new square-shaped LED light panels, available as a nine-panel starter kit for $250 (£160, AU$319). With "Rhythm Mode" turned on, the built-in microphone picks up the sound of trucks zooming by and the occasional honk, translating all of it into gentle, occasional flashes of light across the panels. It's a bit hypnotic. I'm getting sleepy.

I like these things, but aside from the new design and the addition of touch controls, the Canvas panels aren't much different in practice than the previous-gen, triangular panels. You control them using the same app and the same library of user-created color presets. They work with the same platforms -- namely IFTTT, Amazon Alexa , the Google Assistant , and Apple HomeKit , which brings Siri controls into play. You mount them to your walls just like the triangles, with sticky tape and connector chips.

However, they're also a lot less alien-looking than the triangular panels -- which is to say, they look less like props from a space shooter like Halo or Mass Effect and more like an art piece that ordinary folks might actually want on their walls. It's a subtle difference, but the impact is striking. They're less gimmicky, more natural, and a surprisingly cozy fit for this little bedroom -- so cozy that the effect is lulling me to sleep.

That's a good thing, and a clear step in the right direction for Nanoleaf, which already touts the triangles as its most popular product to date. With the Canvas panels, the niche lighting company wants to broaden its appeal even more -- and I see no reason why the panels wouldn't. They work as advertised, and would look nice in a better variety of settings than the first-gen panels that came before.

$250 isn't cheap, but it still feels more or less reasonable for a functional smart home statement piece. If you like the look of these things, then consider this a green light to splurge.

Now playing: Watch this: Nanoleaf Canvas decorates your smart home in living color
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Design of the times

Along with the square shape, the Nanoleaf Canvas panels feature a new, patterned design that divides each panel's diodes into four sections in order to disperse the light more evenly. The effect is a gem-like texture that's fairly striking to look at. And, while the panels get plenty bright and colorful when you crank them all the way up, I never had to squint while looking at them. The brightness is just right -- nice execution from Nanoleaf.

Despite the cross-cut design, each panel can only put out one color at a time. That yields an edge to the competing Lifx Tile starter kit, which also costs $250. Each "tile" in that kit features 64 separate zones of light, and can put out all sorts of different colors at once.

Still, Nanoleaf's panels are much thinner than the bulky Lifx Tiles, and you get nine panels in Nanoleaf's starter kit as opposed to five tiles in the Lifx kit. And unlike Lifx, you can expand your Nanoleaf setup. Each power supply can support up to 25 panels, and four-panel expansion packs cost $80. A single base station can control up to 500 panels.

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You can control up to 500 panels from a single base panel -- but be prepared to spend.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

That opens the door to setups that cover entire walls, but those sorts of ostentatious configurations won't come cheap. For example, I took a close look at the extravagant demo setups featured on Nanoleaf's website and did a little math to figure out how much each one would cost.

The cheapest of these, a 21-panel dining room decoration, would set you back $490 -- $250 for the initial nine-panel starter kit, plus another $240 for three four-panel expansion packs. The most expensive one, a 121-panel PC gaming setup, would cost more than $3,000 -- that is $1,250 for five starter kits (remember, you need a separate power supply for every 25 panels), plus another $1,760 to cover the additional expansion panels.

As for me, I kept things a bit more modest and tested out a single starter kit and expansion pack, good for a 13-panel setup that would cost $330 at full price.

The connection ports aren't in the center of each edge anymore. That lets you stagger your panel placement, but it also means that some edges won't connect with others.

Ry Crist/CNET

Installation and setup

The Layout Assistant in Nanoleaf's app will help you plan your arrangement for the panels. You can also view a preview of your configuration on your walls using augmented reality.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Installing Nanoleaf's new panels is actually trickier than before, because the connection ports that link them together are no longer in the center of each panel's edge. Instead, they're split off to the left or the right, depending on which edge of the panel you look at.

In practical terms, that lets you stagger the panels in your setup in new ways, but it also means that some edges won't line up with other edges when you try to link them together. Fortunately, the Nanoleaf app for Android and iOS devices lets you plot the placement out before you start sticking anything to your walls with a nifty "Layout Assistant" that also shows you whether or not the connections in your setup will line up.

If your phone supports it, the Layout Assistant can also use augmented reality to show you a preview of how your configuration will look on your walls. It's a really clever way to put AR to use, and a good tool for prospective buyers who want to get a sense of how many panels they need for their dream setup. It could also interest curious shoppers who want to see how these things might look in their home before they decide to buy in the first place (and yes, the app will help you with that last part, too).

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Once you stick the panels to your wall with Nanoleaf's sticky tabs, you'll have a hard time getting them off without damaging your paint.

Ry Crist/CNET

Nanoleaf includes its own double-sided sticky tabs that you can use to hang the panels on your wall, but I'm not a big fan of them. The way the panels are designed makes it so the tabs don't stick out at all. That means that once the panels are on the wall, they're nearly impossible to remove without damaging your paint.

Velcro sticky tabs, like the ones that come packaged with Lifx Tiles, would have been a much better choice. If you're planning on buying in with Nanoleaf, I'd recommend just skipping the tabs that come in the starter kit and purchasing some Velcro tabs of your own, instead. Your walls will thank you later.

One other recommendation: Pull out your phone and snap a picture of the HomeKit code on the back of the base panel before you stick it to your wall, because you'll need that code during setup.

'Alexa, turn the wall on'

Once you've figured out how you want your panels arranged and stuck them to your wall accordingly, you'll plug the base panel in to power them up. The base panel houses the Wi-Fi radio that lets you control them with your phone or sync them up with a voice assistant.

It also features built-in touch buttons that let you turn the lights on and off, adjust the brightness, activate Rhythm Mode, or shuffle to a new preset at random. The buttons look a little ugly to me, but they aren't too conspicuous, and it's nice to have them as an option.

The buttons on the Nanoleaf Canvas base panel (plus a sticker saying what each one does).

Ry Crist/CNET

Still, more than anything else, Nanoleaf's panels are just screaming for voice control. To that end, Nanoleaf wisely made sure that its products play nice with all of the major players. No matter which AI assistant you prefer to use -- Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant -- you'll be able to ask it to turn your wall on and off, dim it up and down, or switch between preset scenes. The future is now, people.

One other nice touch: The app lets you customize a fade duration for any scheduled lighting changes. That's an easy way to program an artificial sunrise to help gradually ease you out of bed each morning.

Creating presets of your own in addition to the default ones Nanoleaf gives you is simple enough, too, though your animation options are limited to a handful of preconfigured effects. An in-app tool that allowed power users to craft their own, completely custom effects would be a great addition, especially since Nanoleaf already makes it so easy to share presets with other users. As things are now, there isn't quite as much room for creativity as I'd like.

As for Rhythm Mode, it's still one of Nanoleaf's best features, and the fact that the Canvas panels include it by default -- and don't require purchase of a separate microphone accessory -- is a nice bonus. Like the standard animations, you're limited to just a couple kinds of effects, but it's still responsive and fun, and you can customize the color palette to your heart's content.

Now playing: Watch this: Unboxing the Nanoleaf Canvas
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If you're concerned about privacy given that these panels house a microphone, Nanoleaf tells me that the Rhythm Mode light syncing all happens locally, and only when you turn the feature on. That means that no audio is ever being recorded or uploaded to Nanoleaf at any point (it's also why Rhythm Mode does pretty well as far as lag is concerned). Nanoleaf might want to consider making that clear by putting it in writing in the privacy policy; as written now, that policy makes no mention of the microphone.

The other way to control Nanoleaf's Canvas panels is to push on them. Each one is touch-sensitive, letting you tap them to turn panels on and off, or long press to send waves of color rippling outward. You can also use the touch controls to play a memory matching game where your setup displays a random mix of colors for a few seconds, then turns white and challenges you to find matching sets of shades by touching them sequentially.

At launch, it all feels a bit underwhelming, but perhaps things will improve with time. Nanoleaf says that additional gesture controls are in the works, and the open API software available via Nanoleaf's developer portal might help third parties come up with new touch-based use cases, too. For now, though, the addition of touch controls doesn't do enough to make the Canvas panels feel like anything much more than a design refresh over the triangles -- a lateral move.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

The verdict

Nanoleaf's newest light panels are surprisingly versatile. They can be fun and funky one minute, practical and elegant the next. They're great at glamming up a party, but just as great at providing some peaceful ambiance on a quiet day.

That makes Nanoleaf Canvas something of a living decoration, and not an inexpensive one with starter kits starting at $250. But your home is your home (smart or otherwise), and it's perfectly reasonable to spend money on things that make it look and feel nicer -- especially when those things can also serve a practical purpose day in and day out. Nanoleaf Canvas isn't for everybody, but it's hard to say it doesn't fit that bill.