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Light Bulbs

Best cheap smart LEDs: Does it matter which bulb you buy?

Looking for a light bulb that you can automate or control with voice commands? You're in luck -- and you won't need to spend more than $10.

Ry Crist/CNET

Smart lights that you can automate and control with your voice make lots of sense, and if you're looking to make the upgrade you'll find plenty of options. That includes a growing number of LED smart bulbs from reputable brands that cost $20 apiece or less -- roughly the same price you'd pay for a plain old dumb LED just five or six years ago.

Now, believe me, I could rattle on at length about the benefits of smart bulbs like these (and of LED lights in general), and I've got lots of data to share from the weeks of tests we ran in the CNET lighting lab -- but I'm assuming you're here for some quick buying advice, so let's start there.

Read more: The complete guide to Philips Hue | Best LED floodlights

Best cheap smart bulbs we've tested

Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from purchases made through the links on this page. 

Best overall: Philips Hue White LED

Of all of the smart lighting platforms available today, Philips Hue's is the most well-connected, and at $15 each, the system's Hue White LEDs are a true bargain. The only downside? Hue bulbs require the Hue Bridge in order to take advantage of their numerous features and integrations with platforms like Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit, so you'll need to start with something like the $70 kit with two bulbs pictured above. Alexa users have the additional option of pairing the bulbs directly with the Amazon Echo Plus and controlling them via the Alexa app.

Either way, we say it's worth it -- especially if you plan on expanding your smart lighting setup over time. Hue's ecosystem of lights is diverse and well-developed, and the wide array of features and integrations can't be matched. On top of that, the Hue White LEDs offer plenty of brightness and a decent dimmable range, and while they won't change colors, they'll do a good job at making the colors in your home look vivid and true. Bottom line: If you own a Hue Bridge or an Echo Plus, or you're willing to buy one, then these are the smart bulbs you should be filling your home with.

$15.00 at Amazon

Best for cheapskates: Sengled Element Classic LED

Ry Crist/CNET

Sengled's Element lineup of smart bulbs are basically a less expensive version of Philips Hue. They lack support for Apple HomeKit, and they don't dim down quite as low as the Hue White LEDs do, but otherwise, the pitch is the same -- cheap bulbs that require a Zigbee hub or an Amazon Echo Plus.

What's important is the price. At $10 each, these are pretty much the least expensive smart bulbs on the market, and if you don't have a hub, let me point out that Sengled's two-bulb starter kit is $30 less than Hue's, too. I'd rather a pay a bit more for everything that comes with the Hue ecosystem, but if you just want a functional set of smart lights that are as inexpensive as possible, then these bulbs will absolutely get the job done.

(Note: Sengled tells me that it's now selling this bulb under the name "Sengled Smart LED Soft White A19.")

$10.00 at Amazon

Best for Google Home users: C by GE Life LED

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

GE Lighting is a Made for Google partner, so it's no surprise that its lineup of C by GE Bluetooth smart bulbs all work really well with the Google Assistant. Specifically, they're all able to pair directly with the Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max smart speakers, as well as the Google Home Hub smart display. Just screw the bulb in and turn it on, then take control of it using the Google Home app. 

From there, your Google Home device works as the hub, offering snappy voice controls and the ability to control the bulbs on your phone when you're outside of Bluetooth range. With two-packs of the standard C by GE Life LED available for $25 or less (GE says that it'll soon sell single bulbs for $13 apiece, too), these bulbs are a low-cost no-brainer for fans of the Google Assistant.

(Note: GE Lighting tells me that plans to ditch the "Life" branding with this bulb -- by the end of May 2019, it'll be renamed the "C by GE Soft White LED".)

$25.00 at Best Buy

Best if you don't want a hub: Lifx Mini White

Ry Crist/CNET

Hate all of this head-scratching hub talk? Skip Zigbee and go with a bulb that uses Wi-Fi, because it won't need no stinkin' hub in order to communicate with your router -- and unlike Bluetooth bulbs, you won't need a hub in order to control it when you aren't at home, either.

I tested three such Wi-Fi options for this roundup: the Lifx Mini White, the TP-Link Kasa KB100 LED and Anker's Eufy Lumos Mini. Eufy and Kasa aren't bad budget picks, but they don't support Apple HomeKit, and their apps are pretty basic (Eufy doesn't have an IFTTT channel, either).

That leaves the Lifx Mini White, a $20 Wi-Fi bulb with a terrific app and support for Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant, plus an excellent channel on IFTTT. It isn't quite as bright as I'd like, but it dims well and you can start using all of its features as soon as you turn it on, hubs be damned.

$20.00 at Best Buy

Brightest of the bunch: Cree Connected LED

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Just want a cheap smart bulb that's as bright as possible? Head to Home Depot and spend $12 on a Cree Connected LED. The thing puts out a respectable 894 lumens at full brightness, and it features a unique design that eliminates the bulky heat sink at the base of the bulb. That approach helps it cast a lot more light downward, and makes it a great pick for a bedside reading lamp.

The only catch? You'll need to pair this bulb with a Zigbee hub in order to control it. The Hue Bridge, the Amazon Echo Plus, the SmartThings Hub and the Wink Hub are your top options.

$12.00 at Home Depot

Which bulbs did you test?

For this roundup, I homed in on smart bulbs that you can buy for $20 or less. Here's all eight of them in a handy comparison chart:

Smart bulbs you can get for $20 or less


Min and max brightness Wireless standard Compatible platforms Requires hub? Price
C by GE Life LED 15 - 828 lumens Bluetooth Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT (Apple HomeKit support coming in May 2019) No (requires C-Reach Hub or Sol smart lamp to connect with Alexa) $20 for a 2-pack
Cree Connected LED 49 - 894 lumens Zigbee Alexa, Google Assistant Yes (Hue Bridge, SmartThings Hub, Wink Hub, Amazon Echo Plus, other Zigbee hubs) $12
Eufy Lumos Mini LED 47 - 827 lumens Wi-Fi Alexa, Google Assistant No $16
Lifx Mini White LED 6 - 644 lumens Wi-Fi Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, IFTTT No $20
Philips Hue White LED 13 - 850 lumens Zigbee Alexa, Apple HomeKit*, Google Assistant*, IFTTT* (*requires Hue Bridge) Yes (Hue Bridge or Amazon Echo Plus) $15
Sengled Element Classic LED 70 - 873 lumens Zigbee Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT Yes (Sengled Smart Hub, Hue Bridge, Amazon Echo Plus, SmartThings Hub, Wink Hub, other Zigbee hubs) $10
Sylvania Smart Plus LED 3 - 848 lumens Bluetooth Apple HomeKit No (requires Apple HomePod, Apple TV or always-on iPad for HomeKit control outside of Bluetooth range) $26
TP-Link Kasa KB100 LED 26 - 635 lumens Wi-Fi Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT No $15

The TP-Link Kasa KL110 and Lifx Mini White 800L LEDs are two of the next that I'll test.

TP-Link/Lifx

The one exception to the $20 rule here is the Sylvania Smart Plus LED, which retails for $26. I've included it because I often see it on sale -- in fact, as of writing this, it's marked down to $15 apiece on Amazon.

I'll add new bulbs to the list as we test them and update this guide accordingly. Some of the next ones I've got my eye on include the TP-Link Kasa KL110 and the Lifx Mini White 800L. Both are updated versions of the bulbs I've already tested here that increase the brightness to 800 lumens.

I'll also be soon testing out Sengled's Wi-Fi smart bulbs, which were recently given a permanent price cut and are available now for $15 each. Even cheaper: New smart bulbs from Wyze that you can currently score for just $8 each. Expect fresh intel on all of those in the coming weeks.

How did you test them?

I spent a few weeks testing these bulbs out. For each of them, that included a trip to the CNET lighting lab, where we load them into an integrating sphere and use a spectrometer to take carefully calculated readings for things like brightness, color temperature and dimmable range.

In addition, I spent time testing each bulb's ability to connect with voice assistants, and, where applicable, their respective companion apps (Cree and Sylvania's bulbs don't come with apps of their own, and instead rely on the apps of whatever platform you choose to connect them with).

Ry Crist/CNET

Brightness, light spread, color quality and more

Let's start with the specs, because there are some important differences to consider. For instance, if you're looking for a bulb that you can use in a reading lamp or some other fixture where brightness is especially important, then you'll probably want to rule out the TP-Link Kasa KB100 and the Lifx Mini White. Neither of those get any brighter than 650 lumens -- bright as far as accent lights go, but not bright enough to shine as the primary light source for an average-size room all on their own.

Light spread matters, too, as lots of LED smart bulbs have bulky heat sinks at the base that block a lot of the downward cast light. For instance, the Philips Hue White LED puts out a very respectable 850 lumens, but not a lot of that light makes it down beneath the bulb. The Cree Connected LED and the Sengled Element Classic LED both did much better, as you can plainly see in those comparison shots above.

Those shots were all taken with fixed exposure and white balance settings. In addition to letting you get a good, comparative look at how bright each bulb is, they'll also give you a hint at how well they might illuminate the colors in your home. That wall in the background is plum purple, but different bulbs light it up differently, affecting the way the color looks. To my eye, the two that got it the closest were the Philips Hue White LED and the C by GE Life LED. Neither one is as exceptional at color rendering as, say, a GE Reveal LED, but they're both at least better than the average LED at it.

As for dimmability, each of these bulbs will dim smoothly and without flicker or buzz -- one of smart lighting's top perks. Just don't try and use any of them with a dimmer switch, because the dimming hardware in your wall will clash with the dimming hardware inside of the bulb, causing it to strobe.

I'll have more to say on the specific dimming capabilities of each of these bulbs in a future post, but know that all of them passed my tests by dimming down well below 100 lumens at minimum settings. Lifx, GE, and Philips Hue were all especially strong here, and able to dim down below 20 lumens at the 1% setting.

The bulb that went the lowest, though? That'd be the Sylvania Smart Plus LED -- it dimmed down to just just 3 lumens at its minimum setting.

As you shop, look for little badges on the box that tell you which platforms each bulb works with.

Ry Crist/CNET

Platform compatibility

Most smart bulbs do a good job of being clear about the platforms they support by putting little "Works with" badges on the packaging. If you're an Apple HomeKit user, for instance, then look for bulbs that have the "Works with Apple HomeKit' badge on the box. Easy, right?

Well, not really. The problem? Some bulbs require hubs to work with certain platforms, but not others. For instance, the C by GE Life LED can connect directly with Google Home speakers and use them as a hub for control outside of Bluetooth range, but if you want to connect with Alexa, then you'll need the C-Reach plug-in hub, a separate $50 accessory.

I've done my best to make those connection requirements clear in that comparison chart a few sections up, but here's a quick breakdown by platform:

Amazon Alexa

Pretty much everything works with Alexa at this point, so you've got lots of options. If you have an Echo Plus (or a separate Zigbee hub), then take advantage of that speaker's Zigbee radio by going with Zigbee smart bulbs like the Philips Hue White LED, the Sengled Element Classic LED or the Cree Connected LED. The Echo Plus can control all of them. 

If you don't have an Echo Plus or a Zigbee hub and you don't want to buy one, then go with a Wi-Fi bulb from Lifx, Eufy or TP-Link. Of those three, I'd either go with Eufy for the extra brightness or Lifx for its best-in-class app.

Google Assistant

Like Alexa, the Google Assistant works with almost every major smart light on the market, so again, you've got a lot of options. Even so, I think the C by GE Life LED is an easy standout here. The direct connection with Google Home speakers is easy to set up and speedy in action, and the bulbs themselves offer lots of quality, too.

Apple HomeKit

If you want to spend no more than $20 on a smart bulb that works with Siri, then your options are the Philips Hue White LED, the Lifx Mini White LED or -- if you catch it on sale -- the Sylvania Smart Plus LED. GE tells me that it plans to launch HomeKit compatibility for its C by GE bulbs by the end of May, so stay tuned for that, as well.

For the time being, I like Hue's platform, but you'll need the Hue Bridge to connect with HomeKit. The Sylvania LED is a decent bulb that can connect with HomeKit right out of the box, but you can't control it from beyond Bluetooth range unless you have an Apple HomePod, an Apple TV or a dedicated, always-on iPad to serve as a HomeKit hub. Meanwhile, the Lifx Mini White needs no hub at all to connect with HomeKit, and the Lifx app will work from anywhere, too. It just isn't as bright as the other two.

Questions?

The smart home is evolving fast, and there's a lot to keep up with. If you're confused about any of your options and need some more help, head to my CNET profile page and click the little envelope icon to send a message straight to my inbox. I'm also happy to field questions on Twitter

Just need to know a little more about LED light bulbs in general? My light bulb buying guide is here to help.

Originally published April 29.
Update, May 22: Added new details about low-cost bulbs from Wyze, which we'll be testing soon.