Smart bulbs vs. smart switches: The pros and cons of connected lighting

Thinking about automating your home's lighting? There are a lot of ways to do it -- here's how to pick what's best for you.

Smart home lighting has plenty of appeal, from the convenience of lights that come on automatically when you arrive home after work, to the security of lights that cycle on and off to simulate occupancy while you're away on vacation. Automating a single lamp isn't too tricky -- just swap the bulb out for a smart light with built-in Wi-Fi like the Lifx White 800 , or plug your lamp into a smart plug like the Belkin WeMo Switch . But what if you're looking to automate a whole home's worth of lights?

That's the challenge we're facing right now with the CNET Smart Home, the living lab where we'll be testing, exploring and building the connected home of the future. It's a 5,800-square-foot home with a huge variety of lighting fixtures and switches, and putting together a connected lighting system that'll service everything in the best and smartest way possible is a pretty daunting task.

The good news is that we have plenty of options at this point, from color-changing Philips Hue LED bulbs to automated switches and sockets from names like Lutron and Insteon . The bad news is that those options mean we have a lot to sort out in order to figure out what the best plan of attack is.

But that's sort of the whole point of the CNET Smart Home. It's a real-world setting where we can dive into these sorts of challenges in the same way you would if you were getting started with smart home tech. For better or worse, we'll document the whole process, and hopefully help you with your own smart home upgrades and buying decisions along the way.

To that end, let's take a look at our smart lighting options, and sort out the pros and cons of each.

The $40 Lifx White 800 LED -- just screw it in, download the app, and start automating.Photo by Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Smart bulbs

Our first connected lighting option is to go right for the bulbs themselves and swap them out with smart versions that have wireless communication capabilities packed inside. A few, like the Lifx and Lifx White 800 LEDs , use built-in Wi-Fi radios or perhaps Bluetooth -- this lets them communicate directly with your phone or tablet, eliminating the need for a hub or control device. On a small scale, that kind of plug-and-play simplicity is pretty appealing, but the price per bulb tends to fall on the high side, making it expensive to scale up.

The more common wireless lighting protocol is ZigBee. That's the signal transmitted by Philips Hue LEDs , Osram Lightify LEDs , Belkin WeMo LEDs and $15 bargain-priced bulbs like the GE Link LED and the Cree Connected LED . Your phone doesn't speak ZigBee, so you'll need some sort of hub or bridge device to act as translator.

Clockwise from top left: The Osram Lightify, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue and Connected by TCP starter kits.Photo by Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Many options here offer some sort of starter kit with a bridge or hub included. The price on these kits can vary -- a two-bulb kit from TCP goes for about $50, while a three-bulb Philips Hue kit will set you back $200. The price per bulb varies, too, ranging from that $15 mark up to $50 or $60 for higher end models that change colors on demand.

The good thing is that you've got a growing number of options on the low end, and, in many cases, you can mix and match between different brands under a single control device. The Philips Hue bridge is probably the best example of a proprietary controller that works surprisingly well with third-party bulbs, including those $15 GE and Cree bulbs. You can also connect Osram Lightify LEDs with the WeMo plug-in bridge, then control them alongside Belkin's LEDs in the WeMo app. You can also incorporate many of these bulbs into a larger smart home setup by using a dedicated hub like the ones you'll find in systems like SmartThings and Staples Connect .

Pros: Setup is relatively simple with the bulb approach, and it's easy to move a bulb to a new fixture if needed. With many of your options, the cost of scaling up and adding lights to your setup is fairly low. Spend a little more, and you'll find feature-rich bulbs that change colors, track motion, stream audio over Bluetooth, or double as connected cameras.

Cons: Most all of your smart-bulb options are A-shape bulbs with standard-size E-shape screw-in bases, so if your fixtures require something else, like candelabra bulbs, you're out of luck. If the fixture in question is tied to an in-wall dimmer switch, the smart bulb will likely flicker and buzz. There also isn't a great deal of variety with respect to brightness and color temperature. And, of course, the bulbs won't work if the light is switched off.

CNET Smart Home outlook: Smart bulbs are the quickest and easiest way to incorporate connected lighting into a smart home setup, so we'll likely use them wherever we can. Many of the CNET Smart Home's fixtures require bulbs with small-size screw-in bases, though, and we also have a few dimmer switches to contend with. That means we'll need to look at other options -- which brings us right to:

The Belkin WeMo Light Switch.Photo by Colin West McDonald/CNET

Smart switches

If you're willing to roll up your sleeves and fiddle with your home's wiring a bit, you'll be able to swap your light switches out for smart switches fairly easily. Instead of automating the bulb, you'll be automating the on/off switch itself, and programming when it should turn on or off.

Like smart bulbs, most of your smart-switch options use either Wi-Fi or ZigBee. Wi-Fi models like the Belkin WeMo Light Switch can pair directly with your home network (and thus, your phone), while models that use ZigBee will require some sort of hub or control device. You'll also find a wide range of higher-end options from Lutron, a company that specializes in smart lighting control using its own, proprietary Lutron signal.

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Most smart switches cost somewhere around $50, so it's a pricier approach than with smart bulbs, where you'll be able to scale up for $15 per light if you want. You also don't have as many options as you do with smart bulbs, nor will you be able to change fixtures without re-installing everything should you decide to smarten up a different light.

Some smart switches offer built-in smart dimming capabilities -- these tend to cost a little more. You might also find smart switches with full-color touchscreen displays, or built-in speakers and microphones for intercom functionality, though nothing like that has really broken through from a major manufacturer yet. The closest would be the Wink Relay , a combination smart switch and control hub from Quirky that costs a few hundred dollars. Unfortunately, Quirky recently filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to sell off Wink to the highest bidder.

Pros: With a smart switch, you're free to use whatever bulb you want -- perfect if you're picky about light quality, or if your fixture requires bulbs of a particular size, shape, or style that's incompatible with smart bulbs. In many cases, your scheduled lighting changes will still run even when the switch is turned off.

Cons: Installation is more hands-on than with smart bulbs, and you'll have to repeat the process if you want to move the switch to a different fixture. Scaling your system up isn't as cost efficient as with smart bulbs, either.

CNET Smart Home outlook: Many of the fixtures in the CNET Smart Home wire multiple bulbs to a single switch, or require candelabra bulbs with small-size screw-in bases. We'll be using smart switches to control those lights. Smart switches also make sense for guest bedrooms, as there's no need to teach guests to leave the light switched on in order for things like motion-activated lighting to work.

The HomeKit-compatible iDevices Switch.Photo by Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Smart plugs and outlets

There's another smart lighting option worth considering, and that's to go with a smart plug, or a smart outlet that you hardwire right into the wall. The premise is simple: automate anything with a plug on it, or turn it on and off remotely using a smartphone app. Most smart plugs are designed to work with whatever you plug into them, but some are lamp-specific, with built-in dimming controls.

Insteon's automatable On/Off Outlet.Photo by Insteon

Lamps are one of the most common examples of what you'd use with a smart plug. Automating a lamp is a sensible and accessible starting point for the smart home in general, too -- particularly if you pair that plug up with a motion sensor that'll turn your bedroom lamp on as soon as you walk into the room. That's why I've long pointed to the $80 Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion combo pack as one of my favorite smart-home starting points. New plugs like the iDevices Switch also promise compatibility with Apple's HomeKit platform for iOS, which brings voice-controlled Siri smarts into play (Belkin WeMo Switches are compatible with the Amazon Echo voice-controlled smart speaker, so, with the right hardware, you can turn them on and off with spoken commands, too.)

Of course, you're free to automate things other than lamps, too. Along with other small appliances, desk fans, space heaters, and coffeemakers all make sense for automation. You can also plug a power strip into a smart plug or outlet, then automate everything plugged into that power strip at the same time -- useful for turning your media center off automatically at night and preventing it from leeching power.

Go the smart-plug route, and you'll enjoy the same sort of plug-and-play simplicity that you'll find with smart bulbs. They're a flexible option, too -- if you want to change your setup, just unplug the thing and move it somewhere else, or plug in a different device. Smart outlets are obviously less flexible, since you'll hardwire them into your walls, but they offer a more seamless and fully integrated feel for full-fledged smart homes.

Pros: Smart plugs offer simple setup and strong accessibility for smart-home novices, while smart outlets offer a seamless, built-in smart-home aesthetic. Aside from automating lamps, you'll be able to automate any small appliance with a plug on it. There's a good variety of smart plugs to choose from, too.

Cons: With smart outlets, installation is, again, a lot more hands-on than simply swapping out a bulb. And since they only automate what you plug into them, smart outlets and plugs can't control hardwired lights and fixtures. Like with smart switches, the price per plug/outlet is typically higher than the price of a single smart bulb. Some plugs might also block off an entire outlet.

CNET Smart Home outlook:It's likely that we'll lean on smart bulbs and switches wherever possible in the CNET Smart Home for more of that seamless, built-in aesthetic. Smart outlets make sense along those same lines, too. As for smart plugs, we'll probably use at least a few to help fill in any gaps in our setup.

A lot of what we decide to go with will ultimately depend on what system we use to control all of the gear in the house. We plan on installing a wide range of gadgets from a wide range of manufacturers, so we'll want to find something capable of helping everything work together -- we'll likely favor the smart lighting options that fit in best with whatever larger setup we end up putting together.

Expect to see more on our hunt for a hub in the very near future, and more on our smart lighting build-out, too. In the meantime, are there any specific smart lighting gadgets you'd like us to test out in the CNET Smart Home? Let us know!