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Cree Connected LED Bulb review: The right smart bulb at the right time, for the right price

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Cree was hesitant to add a smart bulb to its best-selling LED lineup, but that changed this year with the addition of the $15 Cree Connected LED. Sharing the build and lighting specs of last year's well-reviewed Cree 4Flow LED , the new Connected LED adds in a Zigbee radio. Pair it with a control hub, and you'll be able to turn it on and off remotely, or schedule automated lighting changes.

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8.7

Cree Connected LED Bulb

The Good

The Cree Connected LED boasts solid lighting specs, strong ease of use, a wide range of control options, and a terrific price point.

The Bad

Unlike standard Cree LEDs, the new connected bulbs won't dim very well on dimmer switches due to interference from the built-in Zigbee dimming smarts. Also, the all-plastic aesthetic might not appeal to everyone.

The Bottom Line

With tried and true hardware inside the bulb and smooth performance on multiple platforms, this $15 smart bulb is a smart bet for connected lighting.

At launch, Cree's smart bulb was somewhat married to the Wink Hub , which made sense given that you'll buy both off the shelf at Home Depot. Since then, however, we've seen official support roll out for additional control gateways, including SmartThings and the Philips Hue Bridge . You can add the bulbs to the new D-Link version of the Staples Connect Hub , too, although there isn't official, Zonoff-certified support just yet.

The bulb works well across all of the platforms we've tested it with, and it shares the strong lighting specs of the 4Flow LED that came before it. Most appealing is the price. At $15 -- just a few dollars more than you'll spend on non-connected competitors -- it ties with the GE Link LED as the most inexpensive connected bulb on the market. For basic automated lighting, it's the best option we've tested yet, and our current Editors' Choice winner.

Cree gets smart with the new Connected LED (pictures)

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Design and features

Cree adapted its smart bulb design from last year's 4Flow LED, packing a Zigbee radio into the existing build. That means that this isn't a bulb that goes out of its way to look fancy or newfangled -- instead, it copies the 4Flow's emphasis on mimicking the silhouette of classic incandescents.

I liked that approach with the 4Flow, and I like it with the new Connected LED too, though some might find the plastic build to be a bit cheap-looking, especially when the bulb is turned off.

The new bulb also shares the 4Flow's convection cooling trick, which uses vents to circulate air through the body of the bulb, eliminating the need for heat sinks. That helps bring production costs down, and also means that the bulb is exceptionally light for an LED, weighing in at less than 2 ounces.

The Cree Connected LED is nearly identical to the Cree 4Flow LED in terms of build and specs. Ry Crist/CNET

The Cree Connected LED shares the same lighting specs as the 4Flow LED, too, and that's largely a good thing. Both claim a light output of 815 lumens, and both clocked in even higher than that in front of our spectrometer -- 835 lumens for the 4Flow, and a very impressive 872 for the Connected LED.

In terms of efficiency, the 4Flow puts its light out using 11 watts, but the number rises to 11.5 watts for the Connected LED on account of the Zigbee radio's power draw. When we tested it out, the number was actually closer to 11.1 watts, so Cree's done a good job of keeping this bulb relatively efficient. Still, it's worth noting that both the Philips Hue Lux LED and the Belkin WeMo LED are even more efficient, each one drawing less than 10 watts.

Smart LEDs

Cree Connected LEDGE Link LEDConnected by TCP LEDPhilips Hue Lux LEDOsram Lightify Tunable LEDBelkin WeMo LED
Lumens (measured / stated) 872 / 815855 / 800840 / 800733 / 750848 / 805829 / 800
Watts 11.5111199.59.5
Efficiency (lumens per watt) 767876818987
Color tunable NoNoNoNoYesNo
Color temperature (measured / stated) 2,696K / 2,700K2,830K / 2,700K2,603K / 2,700K2,640K / 2,700K2,680K - 5,273K / 2,700K - 6,500K3,058K / 3,000K
Additional color temperatures (price difference) NoNo5,000K (-$1)NoNoNo
Color rendering score 8090807978 - 8388
Dimmable range 7.8 - 100%10.2 - 100%1.2 - 100%0.5 - 100%5.4 - 100%3.8 - 100%
Lifespan 25,000 hours25,000 hours25,000 hours25,000 hours20,000 hours25,000 hours
Weight 1.90 oz.6.20 oz.6.05 oz.4.60 oz.4.75 oz.2.75 oz.
Third-party compatibility Wink, Hue Bridge, SmartThings, Staples ConnectWink, SmartThings, Hue Bridge, Staples ConnectWink, SmartThingsSmartThings, Revolv, Staples Connect, IFTTTWeMo LinkSmartThings
Remote (additional cost) NoNoYes ($20)Yes ($60)NoNo
Warranty 3 years2 years3 years2 years2 years2 years
Starter kit price N/A$80 $50 $100 $100 $100
Bulbs per kit N/A22222
Price per bulb $15 $15 $20 $30 $30 $30

Cree also did a very good job with color temperature here, landing extremely close to the stated 2,700K. At 2,696K, the Cree Connected LED lands closer to the mark than any other smart bulb we've tested, so if you're picky about that perfect shade of warm, yellowy light, you'll like this LED.

The one place where Cree's smart bulb lags behind at least some of the competition is the color rendering score, which measures how accurately a given light source illuminates different shades. The Cree Connected LED hits a rather ordinary score of 80 out of 100, and given that both the WeMo LED and the equally inexpensive GE Link LED hit closer to 90, I'd have liked to see Cree do better.

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Pair the Cree Connected LED with a compatible control hub in order to enjoy remote control and automated lighting changes. Ry Crist/CNET

To access the Cree LED's smart features, you'll need to pair it with a control hub that can translate its Zigbee signal into Wi-Fi. Like the GE Link LED, the Cree Connected LED came out the gate trumpeting Wink support at launch, but soon expanded its third party compatibility to include options like SmartThings, Staples Connect , and the Philips Hue Bridge .

Different platforms offer different features -- SmartThings and Philips bring IFTTT support into the picture, for instance -- but in general, the automating experience is largely the same. We tested the bulb on multiple platforms, and never ran into any difficulties pairing it or controlling it.

Regardless of which platform you're using, you'll be able to turn the Cree Connected LED on or off remotely, dim it, or automate it using whatever controls your system offers. These likely include setting the lights to a timed schedule, or syncing them up with things like motion sensors.

The bulb paired easily with each of the above-mentioned platforms. Wink and SmartThings both have dedicated settings and pairing instructions for the Cree LED right in the app, which helps. Staples Connect doesn't offer device-specific support for Cree just yet, but it was able to detect the bulb as a generic Zigbee device on the first try.

Syncing the Cree LED with a Philips Hue setup was pretty painless, too, although I needed to manually reset the bulb during the pairing process in order to help the bridge find it. Doing so isn't tricky -- just turn the bulb on for 2 seconds, then off for 2 seconds a total of four times.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Performance and usability

First things first: as a light bulb, the Cree Connected LED is perfectly decent. Even if you don't own a hub and don't plan on buying one quite yet, you could buy Cree's smart bulb, use it as a plain ol' dumb bulb, and -- for the most part -- be quite happy with it.

I say "for the most part" because of the bulb's dimming capabilities. The 4Flow LED that the Connected LED is modeled after worked very well with dimmer switches, and was capable of dialing the light up and down without flicker or buzz. Since they're more or less identical, you might expect that the Connected LED would follow suit.

Dimmer switch compatibility goes out the window, however, when bulbs come with smart dimming mechanisms of their own, and the Cree Connected LED is no exception. Try and dim it using a dimmer switch, and the two dimming mechanisms will clash, causing moderate to severe buzz and flicker. It's a minor concern given that the in-app dimming is smooth, simple and free of both flicker and buzz, but still, it's something to be aware of.

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Pairing Cree's LED with Wink takes less than a minute, and each bulb we added paired on the first try. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Despite compatibility with multiple platforms, Cree still prints pairing instructions with Wink right on the packaging. Connecting Cree's smart bulbs with the Wink app was an easy process: just tell the app you want to add a Cree Connected LED to your setup, then turn the bulb on when it tells you to. Pairing the bulbs worked on the first try in each and every one of my tests, and never took longer than a minute from start to finish. That's a great result, and also a relief, quite frankly. The GE Link LEDs I tested last year each took several attempts before they'd pair successfully, which got real frustrating real quick.

The one issue I did experience during the pairing process had nothing to do with the bulbs themselves, but instead, with the hub. Wink required me to update the hub to the newest firmware before it'd let me add Cree bulbs to my setup. Sounds simple enough, but it took several attempts on three different Wi-Fi networks before I could finally get the update to install correctly.

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You'll be able to automate your Cree lights using Wink's Robots. In the example above, the lights turn off automatically whenever I leave home, provided I've got my phone with me. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Once your Wink Hub is up to date and your bulbs are paired, the app experience is a good one. Basic control of the lights is intuitive -- just tap a bulb to turn it on or off, or swipe right or left to dim it up or down. Other platforms offer controls that are similar, if not borderline identical.

Automation is also pretty painless thanks to Wink's Robots feature, which does an excellent job of walking you through the process. You can set your lights to turn on or off whenever certain conditions are met -- arriving at home, or triggering a motion sensor, for instance. In my tests, the Robot automations worked perfectly as far as Cree's bulbs were concerned. I was especially happy to see the app do well with geofencing automations that detected when my phone entered or exited the area immediately around my apartment -- these types of automations didn't work out so well when I tested the Quirky Aros Smart Air Conditioner last year.

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You'll also be able to save preset lighting shortcuts, schedule automated lighting changes, or view an activity feed. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

In addition to remote controls and Robot creation, you can create shortcuts -- saved presets for multiple lights and devices that you trigger all at once with a single tap. For instance, a "Movie Mode" shortcut might dim a number of lights down to a nice, low level for those late-night Netflix binges.

You can also schedule timed lighting changes, then view all of your scheduled automations in a handy calendar view. If you want to control multiple lights at once, you can group them together. Additionally, you can view an activity timeline for your whole system, and see who changed what, when.

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SmartThings, Staples Connect, and Philips Hue can each control the Cree Connected LED, too. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

As said earlier, you'll find similar controls on other platforms, too, and in my tests, Cree's LED always worked well. I did detect some occasional latency with automated lighting changes on Staples Connect, and experienced similar lag with the GE Link LED. Both bulbs aren't officially supported yet, but Zonoff tells me they're testing them now and expect to certify them soon. Once they do, expect the hub's code to be better optimized to eliminate those laggy automations.

Your other big-name control options are SmartThings and Philips Hue. Both bring IFTTT support into the conversation, and both boast open APIs and robust third-party compatibility. Like Staples Connect, SmartThings offers direct interaction with things like motion detectors, which for some might make it a more appealing pick than Philips Hue.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The verdict

Cree's original LED leapfrogged much of the competition when it debuted in the beginning of 2013, and now, the Cree Connected LED looks primed to follow suit. At $15 per bulb, it offers better value than the Osram Lightify and Connected by TCP starter kits, a much better value than Belkin's WeMo LEDs or the Philips Hue Lux LEDs , and better performance than the equally affordable GE Link LED , too.

You'll need a third-party hub in order to control the bulbs, but you've got a good range of options at this point, and Cree meshes well with all of them. Even if you aren't sold on the smart home yet, Cree's Connected LEDs only cost a few dollars more than non-connected competitors, and perform well even when you aren't putting their smarts to work. That makes buying now and automating later a reasonable approach, so long as your home doesn't use dimmer switches.

Smart lighting is one of the clearest inroads to wider smart home adoption. By focusing on wide third-party compatibility, strong ease of use, and a low price point, Cree's positioned its Connected LED to move the needle, just as the company did with LEDs at large back in 2013. Make no mistake -- this is the smart bulb to beat.

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8.7

Cree Connected LED Bulb

Score Breakdown

Features 9Usability 9Design 8.5Performance 8