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Light Bulbs

Who needs bulbs? These smart lights cover your walls with color

"Alexa, splash some chartreuse across the living room walls."

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

We've tested all sorts of color-changing smart bulbs over the years, but now, a new generation of smart lighting products are ditching the bulb altogether. Some are directional fixtures that simply cast color across your walls -- others seek to serve as functional smart home art pieces in and of themselves.

All of them offer a high-end, geek-chic kind of aesthetic -- and yes, the jury is still very much out on whether or not people actually want that sort of ambiance in their living room (enough of them to sustain the color-changing category, at least).

But don't roll your eyes too quickly. Lights like these have grown popular with younger consumers, especially gamers who like to show off their setups on streaming sites like YouTube and Twitch. Some, like Nanoleaf's bestselling LED light panels, have even become genuine breakout hits. There's a reason manufacturers keep making lights like these -- people keep buying them.

If you're tempted to join those ranks, or just itching to geek up your smart home aesthetic, all of the following color-changing accent lights will do the trick. Keep reading to learn more about your options and what sets them apart, with full CNET reviews to help you decide if any of them is right for your smart home. For international pricing and availability, see the individual reviews.

DreamScreen's smart TV lights can match the color and position of whatever's on your screen.

Chris Monroe/CNET

DreamScreen 4K Starter Kit

Let's start with one of the most popular places for color-changing accent lights -- the back of your TV. You don't need to spend much of anything if you just want to stick some cheap, USB-powered LEDs up as a bias light, but if you're willing to spend $250, you can upgrade to a DreamScreen kit, a set of multicolor lights that pairs with an HDMI pass-through box to match the colors of whatever you're watching on any of your streaming devices, cable boxes or gaming consoles.

That's a lot to pay for positional lighting effects, but the system worked as promised when we tested it out at the CNET Smart Home, complete with added features like a music sync mode and ambient lighting effects that'll mimic a roaring fireplace or twinkling lights. Personally, I'm waiting for the price to come down a bit -- and for potential integrations with voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant to arrive. But that pass-through box approach is a very good one, and that makes a DreamScreen kit a justifiable splurge -- or, at very least, it's a name worth keeping an eye on.

MSRP: $250
DreamScreen 4K Starter Kit review score: 7 / 10

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Ry Crist/CNET

Lifx Z Multi-Color LED Light Strip

If you aren't ready for DreamScreen's all-in approach, but you'd still like a smart option for behind the TV, then consider the Lifx Z Multi-Color LED Light Strip. At a retail price of $90, it isn't cheap and it won't sync up with what's on screen, but it's one of the only high-profile smart light strips capable of putting out multiple colors at once (and you can stick it up wherever you want).

On top of that, Lifx's strip works with just about everything, including Alexa, IFTTT, Google Assistant, Cortana and also Siri by way of compatibility with Apple HomeKit. All of that helps future-proof your lighting investment -- and it gives you a lot of ways to put it to use, too.

MSRP: $90
Lifx Z Multi-Color LED Light Strip review score: 7.8 / 10

Chris Monroe/CNET

Lifx Tile

Lifx Tiles are another of the company's recent offerings, and among the more distinctive products in its catalog. The $250 starter kit nets you five tiles, each of which features 64 independent zones of light. That means that each one is capable of putting out all sorts of different colors at once.

Now playing: Watch this: Lifx Tiles bring smart (but glitchy) color to your walls
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Like the GIF suggests, you can write or doodle on the Tiles using the Lifx app (unfortunately, the Tiles themselves aren't touch-sensitive), and you can save your designs as scenes, then return to them with a tap or a voice command. They look pretty, and could be a nice fit for places that stand to benefit from a fun aesthetic, like a "man cave," a game room or a kid's room. Still, we'd like to see a lot more refinement for the software that powers them before we'd recommend buying in.

MSRP: $250
Lifx Tile review score: 5.6 / 10

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Nanoleaf LED Light Panels (Rhythm Edition)

Nanoleaf's triangle-shaped, color-changing Light Panels were one of the breakout lighting products of 2016, and they've only gotten better since their debut. The addition of voice controls via Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant was an obvious upgrade, but the real kicker was last year's introduction of the Nanoleaf Rhythm Module, a clever little microphone doodad that plugs into the side of your setup and syncs up light shows in rhythm with whatever you're listening to.

Now, Nanoleaf's Light Panels (formerly branded "Aurora") come bundled in a nine-panel starter kit with the excellent Rhythm Module for $230, which is only slightly more than you'll spend on a four-bulb Philips Hue starter kit. Pricey, yes, but not at all unreasonable for these inexplicably likable wall lights.

MSRP: $230
Nanoleaf Light Panels review score: 8.2 / 10

Chris Monroe/CNET

Nanoleaf Canvas Starter Kit

If Nanoleaf has you intrigued, consider holding off on buying until Dec. 1, when new, square-shaped Nanoleaf Canvas panels hit the market. At $200, the nine-panel starter kit will debut at a lower price than the current-gen, triangular models (which will almost certainly get a price cut), and they'll offer touch-sensitive effects, a built in Rhythm Mode mic and a massive upgrade in the number of panels you can connect to a single power source. With the triangular panels, that number was 30. With the Canvas panels, it's 500.

Even if that sounds like overkill, the new Canvas panels should represent a technical step forward for Nanoleaf's ambition of covering your walls in color-changing light, so keep your eyes peeled for our full review.

MSRP: $200
Nanoleaf Canvas review score: TBD

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Philips Hue Signe

If you aren't so keen on hanging actual lights on your walls, but you'd still like a smart splash of color throughout your living room, then you might consider the new Philips Hue Signe fixtures. Starting at $160 and available in two sizes, each Signe is just a thin, vertical wand with a fixed, built-in strip of color-changing LEDs. Park one in the corner or behind your TV and aim it at the wall, and it'll cast its colors across the room.

At least, that's the pitch. In practice, I found the pool of light cast by each Signe fixture to be much too narrow, which really limits their ability to light up the room. On top of that, the unusual design means that they'll probably struggle to blend in with most home decor, the way they did in the CNET Smart Home. Like other Hue products, the Signes work reliably well, and they're compatible with a wide number of popular platforms, including Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT and the Google Assistant. Still, I've gotta say, I think these fixtures are a big swing-and-a-miss from Hue.

MSRP: $160 (small), $250 (large)
Philips Hue Signe review score: 4.5 / 10

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Ry Crist/CNET

Philips Hue Play

Another new option from Philips Hue: smaller-sized Philips Hue Play fixtures. Like the Signes, each one is a standalone light designed to throw light onto the wall. You can stand them up behind your computer monitor, mount them directly to the wall or the back of your TV, or lay them down on the floor to cast their light up along a wall.

A starter kit with the power supply and a single Play light will cost $70, with additional Plays costing $60 (each power supply can power up to three of them). They work surprisingly well as versatile little accent lights, especially if you use them behind a PC gaming setup to take advantage of Hue Entertainment's ability to sync your lights up with games like Overwatch. My only real qualm? I wish they cost a little less.

MSRP: $130 (starter kit with power supply and two Hue Plays) 
Philips Hue Play review score: 7 / 10

Philips sells lots of lights that would work well with its Hue Sync software, which matches color changes to whatever's playing on your screen.

Alexandra Able/CNET

Philips Hue Light Strips

Those new Signe and Play lights from Hue seem designed to up the appeal of Philips' Hue Sync software, which matches your lights with whatever's playing on your computer or TV screen. Another good way to try out those "Hue Entertainment" features is to go with Philips Hue's trusty light strips (those cereal-bowl-ish Hue Go ($80 at Crutchfield) fixtures beneath the TV in that GIF will also work in a pinch).

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The light strips are often on sale (as of writing this, Amazon has the 2-meter starter kit marked down to $60), and they're versatile enough to work in a lot of different spots around the house: behind the TV, under a cabinet or countertop, beneath a bed -- you name it. Just know that, like with all of Hue's lights, you'll need the Hue Bridge plugged into your router in order to connect with them, or another compatible Zigbee controller, like the Amazon Echo Plus.

MSRP: $90
Philips Hue Light Strips review score: 7 / 10

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Sylvania Smart Plus Bluetooth Light Strip

Another option: the Sylvania Smart Plus Bluetooth Light Strip. At a retail price of $60 and with Apple HomeKit compatibility built in, it's one of the cheapest light strip options that you can control using Siri commands. Plus, the Bluetooth design means that you don't need an extra hub to control it with your phone (though you will need an Apple HomeKit controller -- an Apple TV, an Apple HomePod ($349 at Walmart) or a dedicated, always-on iPad ($380 at Amazon) -- in order to connect it with Siri).

MSRP: $60
Sylvania Smart Plus Bluetooth Light Strip review score: 6.8 / 10