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Light Bulbs

Want smarter outdoor lighting at home? Here are your options

Whether for convenience, security or decoration, you've got a growing number of ways to bring smart lighting to your home's exterior. Let's take a look.

There are all sorts of reasons why you might want to smarten up the lights inside of your home -- the convenience of automation, for instance, or the novelty appeal of color-changing lights. You have more smart lighting options than ever, largely thanks to the fact that lights like those make a great complement to popular voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant. But what about outdoor lighting?

Turns out you've got plenty of options there, too. Whether you want motion-activated lights that sync with your security system, color-changing lights to help decorate your next backyard barbecue or just lights you can control remotely from your phone, there are plenty of products that'll get the job done. Here's a rundown of what's out there:

Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.

Smart bulbs

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Feit's Bluetooth HomeBrite LEDs come in a variety of shapes and designs, including that weatherproofed PAR38-shaped floodlight on the right.

Ry Crist/CNET

The easiest way for most folks to smarten up their home's outdoor lighting is just to swap the old bulbs out for new ones -- specifically, cloud-connected bulbs with built-in radios that sync with your home network. You'll find the greatest number of affordable options if you choose to go this route, including ones that can connect directly with your phone or router via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. 

Bulbs that use a different wireless protocol like Zigbee will require you to connect a hub to your router that can translate the signal. Zigbee-compatible options include the Philips Hue Bridge, the Amazon Echo Plus and smart hubs from names like Wink and SmartThings.

If the bulb you want to smarten up isn't directly exposed to the elements then you should be fine picking whichever bulb you like, but if it's going to have to stand up to rain or snow, then you'll want to stick with weather-rated bulbs wherever possible. Feit makes one such smart bulb, a "HomeBrite"-branded Bluetooth floodlight that sells at Home Depot for about $25. Philips Hue has a weather-rated floodlight available as well -- look for it in a $50 two-pack.

Features will vary depending on which bulbs you go with. Some, like the Cree Connected LED and the Sylvania Smart Plus Zigbee LED, will serve as generic lights that you can add to an existing smart home platform, then control remotely or automate to turn on at specific times. The cost for bulbs like those? Typically less than $15 each. Expect to pay more if you want bulbs that connect directly with your home network over Wi-Fi, or that change colors.

Smart switches

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If your outdoor lights have a switch inside the home, then you can swap it out for a smart switch like this one, the Ecobee Switch Plus.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Of course, another option is to ignore the bulbs themselves and just smarten things up at the light switch. You've got a nice variety of options here, too, including smart switches with full dimming capabilities, support for a variety of platforms and voice assistants and even new models with voice assistants built right in.

Most basic models that just offer simple automations and remote on/off functionality can be had for less than $50 each. Of those, I like the Belkin WeMo Light Switch and the Kasa Wi-Fi Light Switch from TP-Link. Both work with a good variety of third-party platforms, including Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant for voice controls. Also: Neither one requires a hub.

Spend a little more and you'll find options like the Ecobee Switch Plus, which features built-in sensors for motion, temperature and ambient light plus built-in Alexa voice controls. Make the swap, and you can automate your back porch light and add Alexa controls into the back room while you're at it.

One other thing to keep in mind if you're trying to decide between smart bulbs and smart switches is that smart bulbs only work if the power is on, which means you'll need to retrain yourself and your family members to leave the switch in the on position at all times. That's not a problem with smart switches -- even when they're switched off, they're still hard-wired, so your automations and remote controls will always work regardless of whether the light is physically on or off. That alone is enough of an advantage to nudge some users into the smart switch camp.

Now playing: Watch this: Philips Hue's newest smart lights step outside -- but...
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Swap your home's exterior fixtures out for smart fixtures like the Ring Floodlight Cam for advanced features and a premium, built-in smart lighting aesthetic.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Smart fixtures

If you're willing to spend a bit more, you could also consider replacing the fixtures on your home's exterior with smart fixtures. Doing so will give your smart lighting setup more of a premium, built-in feel, and it can also bring some additional features into play.

For instance, say you've got a floodlight fixture wired above your garage. Swap it out for the $250 Ring Floodlight Cam, and you'll enjoy smart, motion-activated lights paired with an HD night vision camera you can monitor from your phone. 

This April, look for Ring to expand its lineup of outdoor light fixtures to include a variety of new, relatively low-cost options with built-in motion sensors of their own. All of them will sync with Ring's security system and video doorbells. 

This Philips Hue Outdoor Sensor and Inara fixture would cost you a total of $100.

Ry Crist/CNET

New options this year also include the lineup of outdoor fixtures from Philips Hue, which range in price from $50 for a white-light, lantern-style Hue Inara fixture up to $280 for a three-light, color-changing Hue Lily spotlight starter kit. Unlike Ring's, Hue's lights work with Apple HomeKit, so they might be a good option if you're interested in controlling your lights via Siri.

However, note that none of those Hue fixtures features built-in motion sensors of its own. Instead, Philips offers a standalone outdoor sensor that tracks motion, temperature and ambient light. Available now, you can sync it up with any of those Hue lights for $50.

Path lighting

Shop around, and you'll also find smart fixtures that aren't designed to be bolted onto the side of your house.

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On the high end, Philips Hue's lineup of outdoor lights include these color-changing Calla path lights. New motion-activated path lighting options from Ring are on the way, too, and should cost a lot less.

Philips

Specifically, I'm talking about path lighting. Smarts aside, there are plenty of good-looking decorative options out there, including solar-powered lights that don't require you to break out the extension cords. However, if you feel inclined to upgrade, you should know that you've got a growing number of smart alternatives.

For smart, multicolor lights that look good lighting up a path or a garden, check out Sylvania's Gardenspot starter kit, which sells for $70 or less on Amazon. The lights communicate using Zigbee, so allow me to remind you that you'll need a hub from Wink or SmartThings or an Amazon Echo Plus to control them. Still, they make for a pretty easy outdoor aesthetics upgrade.

Another color-changing option: Philips Hue's Calla path lights, which look like little lighthouses for your yard. A base kit with one light and the power supply costs $130, with additional lights selling for $90, so they definitely don't come cheap, but they're an option worth considering, especially if you've already bought into Hue's well-established smart lighting ecosystem.

And again, if you're more interested in outdoor security lighting than in color control, then consider waiting until April, when Ring's new outdoor lighting lineup launches. They'll be the least expensive Ring products to date, with step lights starting at $18 each and path lights starting at $30 each.

We'll be sure to test those lights out at the CNET Smart Home once they're available, along with any other new outdoor-friendly smart home gadgets that come along. Expect full reviews and buying advice for all of it in the months ahead.

Originally published March 22, 2018.
Update, March 18, 2019, 11:00 a.m. ET: Adds up-to-date information on new options from Philips Hue, Ring and others.