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Analysis Light Bulbs

Philips Hue vs. Lifx: Which color-changing smart bulb is best?

If you're thinking of filling your home with smart, color-changing light bulbs, two options sit at the top of the list. Now, they'll battle it out in a smart home showdown.

To be very clear, nobody needs cloud-connected light bulbs that change color on demand. They're an expensive novelty, and a total smart home splurge with limited practicality beyond the sort of automated lighting control you can get from less expensive bulbs.

And yet here we are, still inexplicably drawn to the things. There's just something charming about connected color control, a fun factor that you don't always see in the smart home category. And, if you're looking to buy in, you've got plenty of options at this point. Your top two: Philips Hue and Lifx.

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Both product lines are well-developed, with multiple generations of hardware under their belts, and both offer the sorts of color-changing smarts you're likely looking for. And, with bulbs selling for $50, $60, or even $80 a piece (as much as £65/AU$105), they're both fairly expensive, so if you're planning on splurging, you'll want to be sure to choose wisely.

To that end, here's a head-to-head rundown between the two -- Philips Hue versus Lifx in a clash of the color-changing bulbs.

Round one: The hardware

If it's the colors you really care about, then you'll want to take a good, hard look at what each bulb is capable of. Specifically, let's look at the third-gen Philips Hue White and Color LED and the third-gen Lifx Plus LED -- the newest offerings from both brands.

The Lifx Plus LED (right) is brighter than the third-gen Philips Hue White and Color LED at every setting we tested.

Ry Crist/CNET

On the Philips side, the bulb claims to put out 800 lumens at its brightest setting -- roughly as much as you'd expect from a standard 60W incandescent bulb. The Lifx Plus LED does better, claiming a max output of 1,100 lumens, which is more in line with 75W bulb. Both bulbs came in a little bit below those numbers when I tested them out; the brightest reading I could get from the Philips bulb was 754 lumens, while Lifx checked in at 1,015.

But there's more to it than just the numbers. At their default, white light settings -- the way the bulbs look when you first turn them on -- Philips gets clobbered, only putting out 535 lumens. Lifx puts out the full 1,015 lumens, because the bulb is smartly designed to default to its brightest setting. With Philips, there's no easy way to get to that brightest setting. The closest you can get is the "Concentrate" preset, which gives you about 700 lumens. If you want anything a little brighter, you'll need to search through the ocean of white light pixels in the Philips Hue app. Good luck with that.

But it's colors we care most about, right? Well, Lifx comes out on top there, too. At every color I tested -- red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, green, pink, and cyan -- the Lifx Plus was the brighter option, particularly with green (more than two times brighter than Philips), yellow (more than three times brighter than Philips), and cyan (more than five times brighter than Philips). It's a striking disparity given that the two bulbs use roughly the same amount of energy -- 10 watts for Philips Hue and 11 watts for the Lifx Plus.

As for the wider product lineups, both Hue and Lifx feature color tunable, white-light-only bulbs (the Philips Hue White Ambiance and Lifx White 800 LEDs, respectively), along with BR30-shaped floodlight versions of their bulbs and color-changing light strips. Hue gets some bonus points for offering relatively inexpensive fixed white-light smart bulbs, high-end color-changing light fixtures, the portable, kid-friendly Philips Hue Go, and optional control devices like a stick-up light switch, a motion detector, and the wireless, battery-free Philips Hue Tap remote. Lifx doesn't have competition for any of that.

Still, it's the flagship bulbs that matter most, and when you compare the two, Lifx is on another level.

Winner: Lifx (and it's really not even close).

The Lifx and Philips Hue apps take different approaches to the way you select colors. The Lifx color wheels are more precise and easier to use.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Round two: The apps

It's not just hardware -- the software matters, too. Both Philips Hue and Lifx offer apps for Android and iOS devices; you'll use them to set the bulbs up, to organize and program them as you see fit, and to make quick lighting changes as needed.

Both apps will let you create scheduled lighting changes.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Both are relatively straightforward and easy to use, but they take different approaches to the way you choose colors. With Philips Hue, you're given very pretty, full screen color and white light spectrums, and you change the color of your bulb by dragging a reticule around from pixel to pixel. With Lifx, you rotate a color wheel to select your shade of choice.

I prefer the Lifx approach. The color wheel is easy and intuitive to use -- just rotate the color you want to the top. It's also more precise than Hue, which forces you to cover the part of the spectrum you're aiming for with your finger as you drag that reticule around. On top of that, Lifx puts a handy brightness dial in the center of the wheel, and labels each shade by the degree of the circle it sits at, making it easy to find a color you like and come back to it later. With Hue, you have to tap away from the spectrum to get to a brightness slider, and your colors and color temperatures aren't labeled at all.

Both apps do a fine job of letting you group lights by room or by zone, and both let you create and save lighting "scenes" that you can come back to later with a single tap. You can also create scheduled lighting changes in both apps, including wake-up lighting that slowly fades in to ease you out of bed in the morning. All of it looks a little more polished in the Philips app, but controls are more streamlined and slightly more advanced with Lifx.

Winner: Lifx (but only just barely).

Philips Hue is one of the most well-developed and well-connected smart home platforms money can buy.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Round three: The platforms

The apps are just your starting point. If you're spending $50, $60, or even $80 per bulb on a color-changing smart lighting setup, then you're going to want to get as much utility out of it as possible. That means syncing your lights up with compatible third-party platforms and products.

IFTTT's "Turn on lights" actions for Philips Hue and Lifx LEDs. The Lifx controls go a lot deeper.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Hue is pretty tough to beat here. For years, Philips has aggressively maneuvered its color-changing bulbs out ahead of the curve, making sure that they work with just about everything you'd want them to work with. As a result, Hue bulbs were some of the first smart home gadgets to get their own channel on the online automation service IFTTT, and they were among the first smart home gadgets that synced up with Amazon's Alexa, too. Just recently, Hue bulbs were a launch partner for the Google Home ($129 at Dell Home) smart speaker.

But in some ways, Lifx plays tortoise to Hue's hare. It wasn't the first of the two on IFTTT, but it has a much better channel with controls that go a lot deeper than Hue's does. It wasn't the first to work with Alexa, but it's the only one of the two with a custom skill that lets her change the colors of your bulbs (with Hue, Alexa can only turn things on and off or dim them up and down.)

It's also worth mentioning that the new Lifx Plus LED emits invisible infrared light when the bulb is off to help night vision cameras see in the dark. It's a unique, interesting angle on third-party compatibility -- the bulbs work with any infrared-based night vision camera not by software or by protocol, but by science. Hue bulbs don't do anything like that.

Still, Philips has a couple of notable feathers in its cap that keep it ahead of Lifx. Most notable among these: Apple HomeKit, the software-based smart home protocols that let gadgets work natively with iOS devices, and with Siri. As it usually is, Hue was one of the first big names on Apple's smart home bandwagon. Lifx won't be on board until this February, when it's set to add HomeKit compatibility for its current-gen bulbs. For now, advantage Hue.

Philips also deserves credit for working well as a platform in and of itself. The Hue Bridge doesn't just work as a controller for Hue bulbs, but for generic, off-brand Zigbee bulbs, too. That makes it a lot easier to expand your smart lighting setup with relatively inexpensive bulbs.

Winner: Philips Hue (but not by as much as you might think).

The Lifx bulbs (seen here) just edge out the Philips Hue bulbs.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The final decision

There are pros and cons to both Hue and Lifx, and with color-changing bulbs starting at $50 and $60 each, respectively, neither one can be called a bargain.

Still, if it's the colors you care about, then Lifx is a better pick than Philips Hue. It produces brighter, bolder colors at every shade we tested, it boasts a better app, and it gets more out of its integrations with IFTTT and Alexa. Hue is still the better-connected platform overall, but Lifx isn't too far behind, especially if you can forgive its lack of support for Apple HomeKit (and even that will change come February). And, since the bulbs connect directly to your home network over Wi-Fi and need no hub, Lifx is the easier pick to get started with. It's close, but we're giving the title to Lifx, the best color-changing smart bulb money can buy.