If you're looking to splurge on something fancy and futuristic, chances are that a desk lamp isn't the first thing that pops into mind. The engineers and designers at OTI Lumonics in Toronto are hoping to change that with the luxurious Aerelight OLED desk lamp. A svelte, slimmed-down fixture, Aerelight is aimed at design-minded early adopters who want the desk lamp of tomorrow lighting up their workstation today.
Of course, early adoption comes at a cost, and with Aerelight, that cost is $240 (about £160 in the UK, plus an extra charge for international shipping). That's obviously an awful lot to pay for a desk lamp -- but it's also relatively inexpensive among OLED fixtures, which often retail for thousands of dollars. You can even find similar, non-OLED models that cost even more.
Aerelight looks good, works well and boasts a Qi charger built into the base that can charge your phone wirelessly, all of which helps justify at least some of the cost. Still, OLED lighting isn't as good as it needs to be if it wants to become the new standard, at least not yet, and that, coupled with an overall imperfect design, has me resisting the urge to splurge.
If you want to sell people on a $240 desk lamp, then it's going to need a build that's both beautiful and near-flawless. I think OTI Lumonics was successful on that first front, as Aerelight looks every bit the part of a desktop luxury. It doesn't take up much workstation real estate, and all three color varieties -- black, red, or silver -- look fancy and sufficiently futuristic. If you're in the market for lamp compliments, it'll certainly do the trick.
Using the Aerelight feels luxurious, too. Look the thing over, and you won't find a switch. Instead, it turns on with just a touch, the entirety of its anodized aluminum body (the black, red or silver part) serving as a capacitive surface. If you're worried about heat, don't be -- the OLED panel barely gets warm as you leave it on, and the body itself stays cool.
Tap once to turn the thing on at a low setting, tap again to bump it up to medium and tap a third time to crank it up to full brightness. A fourth tap will shut it back off. Tap on the base, the neck or the head -- anywhere on the metal frame will work.
The one exception is the woodgrain paneling on the base, which isn't just there for cosmetics. It hides the Aerelight's Qi charger -- set a Qi-ready smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the Google Nexus 7 down in the right spot, and it'll power up wirelessly. For Qi-free devices like the iPhone, you'll need to purchase a special case.
In my tests, the wireless charging worked fine whether the lamp was on or not, though I had a bit of difficulty placing some phones in the "sweet spot" where the Qi charger kicks in. Of course, that depends on where, exactly, the Qi components are located in your specific phone or case. At worst, it's a small frustration that you'd likely get used to after a slight learning curve.
My main Qi-related design qualm is that the charging base is a flat surface, and one that you can't adjust to different angles. Other Qi chargers have angular designs that make it more comfortable to view the screen while the phone is charging. Something similar from Aerelight would have been a nice, thoughtful touch -- instead, it's a missed opportunity.
A related misstep (and frankly, a bigger one) is that you can't adjust the angle of the neck, either. That OLED panel is fixed in place, so if you want to reposition the pool of light, you'll need to move the entire lamp. Keep in mind that you'll adjust the brightness or turn the thing off entirely as soon as you touch it.
Aesthetically, the Aerelight looks like a prop from the movie "Her," and as a fan of that film's technophile-friendly art design, I mean that as a compliment. However, the build's functionality falls a bit short when compared with similar lights that cost a lot less, and that comes as a disappointment.
Coming into this review, I was particularly curious to see how bright the Aerelight was. In a blog post, the team at OTI Lumonics stops short of describing the lamp's light output in terms of lumens, citing the challenge of accurately representing the unique light distribution of an OLED panel.
None of that is incorrect or misleading, but it did leave me wondering how the Aerelight would stack up against common 40W and 60W replacement lights, like the Cree LEDs I used in the photos above. So, I asked CNET Appliances' Multimedia Producer Tyler Lizenby to take some comparison photos, making sure to lock the settings for things like exposure and shutter speed.
As you can probably see, the results look quite good for Aerelight. The lowest setting is probably dimmer than you'd like for late-night reading, but bright enough to illuminate your keyboard if you're trying to get some work done. At the medium setting, you're getting light that looks to fall somewhere between that 40W and 60W level, and at the top setting, you're looking at the sort of brightness that you might expect from a 100W bulb.
I also liked that the Aerelight offers a wide, even distribution of light, albeit a directional one that only shines downward. It wouldn't be ideal as a room's primary light source, but this is a desk lamp we're talking about. As a secondary light for your desk or bedside table, it does a terrific job.
The Aerelight's color temperature varies slightly between the three settings. At the lowest setting, we measured it at 2,665K, but that number rose to 2,890K at the medium setting and then 2,949K at the highest setting. It's a pretty subtle difference, but noticeable if you're looking for it. Higher color temperatures tend to appear slightly brighter to the naked eye, so if anything, the brightness gets reinforced as you tap up to max.
I was less impressed with Aerelight's color rendering score -- a number that represents a given light source's ability to illuminate colors accurately. At its brightest setting, the Aerelight came in at 77 out of 100, and the score fell lower still with the light dimmed down. That's a subpar number, and one that's bested by most LEDs, which typically hit 80 at a bare minimum.
The Aerelight's power draw varies as you dial the light up and down, and of course, you can tack on some a few extra watts whenever you're charging your phone. The numbers are pretty good at the two lower settings -- at roughly 9 watts on medium, it's comparable to many 60W replacement LEDs. At the highest setting, though, the efficiency drops behind what you'd get from a comparable LED.
One last note on performance: if you cut the Aerelight's power, it won't remember what brightness level it was set to previously. Plug it back in, and it'll be back at the off setting. This means that you won't be able to automate it with something like a WeMo Switch or an automated power strip -- every time the switch turned the light off, it would be unable to turn it back on.
OLED lighting shows a lot of potential, particularly with regards to design-centric fixtures. With the promise of stronger specs and lower prices, plus strong interest from big names like LG Chemical, Konica Minolta and Philips, there's good reason to believe that we'll be seeing a lot more Aerelights in the near future.
Still, at this point, OLED fixtures are priced at too high a premium to merit much consideration from all but the most devoted of early adopters. That puts the pressure on products like Aerelight to deliver distinct upgrades over existing tech, and designs that are as close to perfect as possible. By both metrics, Aerelight falls short. $240 for a desk lamp might be a step forward for OLED, but it's a small one, and not enough of one for me to tell you it's time to buy in.