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C by GE Sol Smart Lamp with Amazon Alexa review: Alexa in a lamp? Sure, why not

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"Sol" is the sun-inspired name of GE's long-awaited Alexa lamp. It's basically just a smallish Amazon Echo smart speaker with a big honkin' halo growing out of its head instead of the usual indicator lights. It's available on Amazon, and costs $200.

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C by GE Sol Smart Lamp with Amazon Alexa

The Good

The Sol is a surprisingly likable lamp with a distinctive design and the full capabilities of Amazon's Alexa. It even gives her a couple of extra tricks that you won't get with other Alexa devices, like visual timer countdowns.

The Bad

The lamp feels a bit plasticky, it can't call other Alexa devices like the Echo can and it doesn't include Amazon's ESP feature, which is important if you want a lot of Alexa devices in your home.

The Bottom Line

GE's Alexa lamp is a good idea and it works well, but it costs a little too much for our tastes.

So, ask yourself: If the $180 Amazon Echo sat beneath a Dysonesque ring of light, would you pay an extra $20 for it?

I have a hard time faulting anybody who says yes. After all, using Alexa to turn lights on and off is one of the virtual voice assistant's most popular features, and the Sol puts the experience into a singular package. Plus, that highly visible ring of light lets GE offer visual indicators for things like Alexa's kitchen timers and the time of day. The Sol gives Alexa one or two new tricks that you won't get with the Echo.

It can't make calls to other Alexa users, though -- for that, you'll need the Echo, the smaller Echo Dot or the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show. More importantly, it lacks Amazon's ESP feature, which makes sure only the Alexa device closest to you responds to your commands. That's a shame -- ESP is all but mandatory if you plan on placing lots of Alexa devices throughout your home. Amazon declined to respond when asked whether or not third-party Alexa devices like the Sol should expect to be able to add ESP in the future via software update.

Still, if you're just looking to bring Alexa into something like a bedroom or office, and you're willing to splurge a bit for something you'll like looking at, then the Sol fits the bill. I like it a lot more than I thought I would.

Ooh and aah at GE's new Alexa lamp

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Alexa, light up the room

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If you want, you can turn on a set of lights that indicate the time -- red for the hour, blue for the minute (this shot taken at 8:55).

Chris Monroe/CNET

The Sol is a neat-looking lamp, and roughly the diameter of a basketball at 13 inches wide. It features two rings of light: an exterior ring for the LED lamp, and an interior ring for the familiar, blue glow that indicates Alexa is listening.

That interior ring works just like the ring of light on the top of the Amazon Echo -- it lights up whenever you say "Alexa" and glows red whenever you have her on mute. It also lets Alexa offer visual indicators. As of now, the two that GE offers are a pair of lights that you can turn on to indicate the time (red for the hour, blue for the minute), along with a shrinking ring of light that shows you how much time is left on any timers you've asked Alexa to set.

To get started, you plug the Sol in and sync with it using the C by GE app on your Android or iOS device. From there, you pair the lamp with your Wi-Fi network and enter your Amazon login credentials to enable Alexa.

The Sol works just like you'd expect from an Alexa device, and aside from calling other Alexa users, it can do anything the Amazon Echo can do. That includes music streaming and news briefings, making shopping lists and telling bad jokes. You also get access to Alexa's ever-growing library of "skills," a free collection of extra tricks you can enable that now number well over 20,000.

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Along with voice commands, you can control the Sol in the C by GE app, as well as schedule it to wake you up in the morning.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The first one of those skills you should enable is the "CbyGE" skill, because you'll need it in order to control the Sol's light output using voice commands. Once it's enabled, you can ask Alexa to turn your Sol on and off, dim it up and down or change its color temperature from an orangey, soft white to a stark white daylight tone. There are also touch buttons on the top of the lamp's base to adjust the brightness and volume, and to turn it on and off.

You can also do all of that using the app, along with a couple of other tricks. Beyond turning those clock and timer indicators on and off, you can also group the Sol with other C by GE lighting products to control multiple lights at once or schedule lighting changes for specific times of day. That includes color temperature-shifting "scene" changes, as well as timed fades to help ease you out of bed in the morning.

Use Alexa to set a timer, and the lamp will provide a visual indication of how much time is left.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I love lamp?

I think I do -- or I at least love the idea of lamp. As I said up at the top, lighting control is one of Alexa's coolest capabilities, so packing her directly into a lighting fixture makes for a surprisingly compelling combo. 

On top of that, the Sol's sound quality was better than I expected: not quite as good as the Amazon Echo, but close, and right about on par with the midrange Amazon Tap. It won't please audiophiles, but it's perfect for casual listeners, or anyone who just wants to listen to a chapter in their audiobook before bed.

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The Sol has a pleasant quality of light, but it's not nearly as bright as a 60W incandescent (right).

Ry Crist/CNET

Reading under it might be a different story, though, because the Sol isn't as bright as most lamps. GE doesn't offer an official lumen count for the lamp, but to my eye, it's nowhere near as bright as a 60W incandescent bulb. Think of it more as an accent light than a primary light source.

My biggest complaint, however, is that it doesn't feel like the premium device that its price suggests. The plastic build and the sparse, hard-to-read design of the touch buttons err on the cheap side of minimalism. The rings of light aren't diffused quite enough to keep you from seeing the individual diodes inside, which emphasizes the artificial quality of the light. It's pretty, but it isn't perfect.

I also think GE missed an opportunity to pack color-changing diodes into the lamp, and make the Sol something of a standalone Philips Hue competitor. Alexa is fully capable of controlling color-changing lights like those, and GE already took advantage of that fact by letting her change the lamp's color temperature. 

Why stop there, though? Adding in a full array of colors would have been a nice complement to the lamp's already unique design, as well as a smart way to help GE justify its expense. The Sol could have also been a good opportunity for GE to finally insert itself into the color-changing category, where it has long lagged. Instead, the opportunity is missed.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Is it really worth $200?

Nah, probably not. Consider that a nearly identical lamp without the Alexa smarts is currently marked down to $40 on Amazon. Even if you take that lamp at its inflated suggested retail price of $100, that's still only half a Sol. Are the speaker and Alexa smarts really worth another $100 when you can get an Echo Dot for less than $50?

Make no mistake, the Sol isn't priced at a value -- it's priced like the first-of-its-kind product that it is. There is no other big-name Alexa lamp to speak of at the moment, which gives GE leverage to charge a premium. That would have been more forgivable had GE given it fully color-changing light or a less plasticky build -- instead, people who want it will have to pay a little more than they probably should. Capitalism!

Still, the Sol is an unexpectedly good idea that's executed fairly well, which is more than I can say about a lot of products that ask for a place in the smart home. If you want a Sol, feel free to splurge on it, but I'd recommend waiting to see if its price comes down at all -- or if other Alexa-friendly lighting manufacturers like Philips, Lifx or Sylvania ultimately try to eclipse it with a lamp of their own.

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C by GE Sol Smart Lamp with Amazon Alexa

Score Breakdown

Features 7Usability 7Design 7Performance 8