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Orbnext review: Orbnext offers color-coded smart-home ambience

This nifty color-changer looks great and works with IFTTT -- is it worth the price?

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Ry Crist
Ryan_Crist2.jpg

Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

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5 min read

"Your world at a glance" -- that's what Colorado-based Advanced Lumonics is offering with Orbnext, a Wi-Fi enabled, color-changing desktop novelty. With 10 multicolor Cree LEDs housed within frosted glass and its own channel on IFTTT, Orbnext can change colors to notify you of things like important emails, new followers on Twitter or anything else you can think up.

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7.0

Orbnext

The Good

Orbnext is an attractive desk ornament, and -- thanks to its IFTTT channel -- it's more practical than you might think.

The Bad

The Orbnext app is pretty sparse, lacking features like a music sync mode or custom color cycles. We also struggled to come up with IFTTT recipes that felt truly useful.

The Bottom Line

At $129, Orbnext isn't an easy to splurge to justify, but makers, automation geeks and IFTTT aficionados might enjoy the niche appeal.

The rub, of course, is that Orbnext costs a hefty $129. In Australia, that comes out to around AU$185 once you factor in international shipping -- in the UK, you'll need to drop a cool £100. That certainly isn't inexpensive, especially when you consider color-changing LED competitors like Philips Hue , Tabu Lumen and Lifx that each cost a lot less per light. Cool factor aside, Orbnext is still very much a novelty item, and unless it has you dazzled, I think you can safely resist the urge to splurge.

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Megan Wollerton/CNET

As I'm sure you've noticed by this point, the cube-shaped Orbnext isn't an orb at all. The name is a callback to the Ambient Orb , a color-changing sphere from 2004 that offered basic ambient notifications before notifications were really a thing. The Ambient Orb was attractive and futuristic -- perhaps to a fault. As CNET's Brian Cooley said at the time, "All we know is that we like this thing."

Advanced Lumonics is likely hoping that in today's smartphone-centric age -- and with IFTTT doing the heavy lifting -- a color-coded, design-oriented, ambient light notification gadget makes a little more sense. To an extent, I think that it does. As a geeky sort of splurge, I can see the appeal.

Meet Orbnext, the chameleon of the smart home (pictures)

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That appeal cuts two ways. First, there's the surprising practicality of the thing. With Orbnext and IFTTT, you'll be able to program color changes for whatever you deem important. Maybe you want it turn bright red if the boss emails you, or green whenever your fitness tracker detects that you've hit a daily goal. For a subtle, unobtrusive notification mechanism that lets you keep your phone in your pocket for once, you could really do a lot worse.

The other angle comes down to design: Orbnext is pretty to look at. With frosted glass and colorful minimalism, it's an attractive little desktop decoration capable of casting a futuristic sheen over just about any workstation.

Still, the minimalist design isn't perfect. While the frosted glass certainly gives Orbnext the feel of a high-end gadget, it also looks a little bit like plastic. One or two additional design flourishes might have helped to reinforce the high-end aesthetic.

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The Orbnext app is simple, but a bit sparse. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

For basic control over Orbnext, you'll use the "blink.n.play" app from Advanced Lumonics. That name comes from the pairing process -- to connect your Orbnext, you'll hold it over your phone while the app blinks a rapid light pattern coded with your Wi-Fi info. That's the same trick that Quirky uses to connect products like the Porkfolio , the Pivot Power Genius , and the Aros Smart Air Conditioner , which isn't too surprising, given that those products use the same ElectricIMP motherboard as Orbnext.

The blink.n.play app definitely errs on the sparse side, with very basic, limited controls for Orbnext. You can set Orbnext to change color as the stock market rises and falls, or as the temperature changes. There's also a Lamp mode where you can quickly choose from one of 12 colored presets, along with a full color palette for more in-depth color selection.

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Orbnext offers both quick color presets and a full spectrum shade selector. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

I'm glad Advanced Lumonics included both the Lamp and Palette modes, but can't say that I was terribly impressed with the latter of the two. Orbnext won't change colors as you drag your fingertip around the spectrum -- you'll need to stop and tap a separate button to actually see a change. That makes shade selection a tedious trial-and-error process. It's a small complaint, but for such a pricey little device, I wish the app felt more refined.

I also wish that the app offered more unique features. Other color-changing LED products include fun things like music syncing, multiple color cycle presets, or even the ability to create your own color cycles. Orbnext doesn't. The only cycle you get is a single arbitrary setting that fades through the same six or seven colors over and over.

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You'll need to use IFTTT to schedule color changes -- and they might arrive a few minutes late. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The app also lacks any kind of scheduling mechanism, a basic feature that any smart lighting product should really include. Instead, Orbnext outsourced the scheduling to IFTTT. This isn't a terrible thing by any stretch -- it's easy enough to craft an IFTTT recipe that changes the color at a certain time each day. Still, IFTTT's servers tend to lag every now and then, with recipes sometimes taking an extra couple of minutes to fire. You wouldn't have that issue if scheduling was localized in the Orbnext app.

For more advanced automation controls, IFTTT offers plenty of room for creativity. As of writing this, IFTTT offers 131 different channels, 105 of which can be used to trigger an Orbnext color change. Along with the obvious smattering of social networks, you'll find useful Web tools and popular smart-home gadgets, too. If you've already bought into those sorts of gadgets and services, then Orbnext's IFTTT-powered smarts will carry some extra appeal.

Connect with these 35 IFTTT-friendly smart devices (pictures)

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In my tests, I played around with a variety of triggers, and aside from the occasional delay, found them to work more or less reliably. With IFTTT, I was able to trigger color changes by stepping in front of a Belkin WeMo motion detector , favoriting a co-worker's tweet, cutting an under-performing wide receiver from my fantasy football team, parking my car at the office, and placing coins into the Quirky Porkfolio smart piggy bank.

Obviously, some triggers are far more practical than others, but the point is that the Orbnext IFTTT channel works, and works well enough that you can rely on it for all but the most urgent notification needs.

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Megan Wollerton/CNET

Orbnext is a clear smart home novelty, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If it appeals to your tastes, I wouldn't fault you for wanting one -- but I'd advise you to consider the alternatives before spending the $129.

Color-changing smart bulbs like Lifx and Tabu's Lumen LED cost a lot less, and offer much of the same niche appeal, along with a level of general household lighting functionality that you won't get with Orbnext. If IFTTT is what's important to you, the $199 three-bulb Philips Hue Starter Pack might also be a worthier investment. For most with an interest in this sort of thing -- though certainly not all -- I have to think that one of those would be a better choice.

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7.0

Orbnext

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 8Design 7Performance 7
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