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Lifx review: Multicolor muscle lets IFTTT handle the smarts

With new smarts and features, how's this high-powered color-changer looking in 2015?

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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.

9 min read

We've seen potential in the Lifx smart LED since first reviewing it in the spring of 2014. With 1,000 lumens to Philips Hue's 600, Lifx claims to be the brighter, better color-changer -- and a more accessible one, too. Unlike Hue bulbs, which require you to plug a ZigBee bridge into your router, Lifx bulbs have Wi-Fi radios built right in. That makes each one usable right out of of the box, with no bridge or hub necessary.

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7.9

Lifx

The Good

Putting out bright, vivid, accurate colors and a full spectrum of natural tones at up to 1,000 lumens, the Lifx bulb boasts impressive lighting qualities. The new IFTTT channel adds some sorely needed smart functionality, too.

The Bad

The bulb's app still isn't useful for very much more than basic color selection. Also, despite some progress, Lifx still lags behind Philips Hue in terms of third-party integration and overall user experience.

The Bottom Line

Lifx has slowly been getting better, and the recent addition of an IFTTT channel is its biggest step forward yet. If you're tempted by color-changing smart LEDs, it merits consideration.

The hardware is certainly sound with Lifx -- it's still one of the brightest and most powerful color-changing smart LEDs you can currently buy. The software, however, has always left a little to be desired. In my initial review, I was disappointed by the lack of key features like scheduling or custom color cycles. Compared with the well-developed Hue ecosystem, Lifx had a lot of catching up to do.

Now, after about a year on the market, Lifx has made up some of that ground. It was one of the first third-party products to integrate directly with the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke detector, and as of last week, it has an IFTTT channel, too. There's also a new version of the app, although most of the features I've been waiting for still aren't there -- instead, they've been more or less outsourced to IFTTT.

All in all, Lifx has come a long way, and if you've been waiting for the brains to catch up with the brawn, that's welcome news. At $99 per bulb, it's definitely a bit of an investment -- though keep in mind, you'll need to spend a minimum of $199 to get started with Philips Hue.

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At 10.4 ounces, the Lifx is much bigger and heavier than the Philips Hue or Tabu Lumen LEDs. Ry Crist/CNET

Design and usability

The Lifx eschews the traditional, rounded bulb design in favor of a flat-top approach. Coupled with its coarse-grained plastic body (available in either black or light gray), the Lifx has an appropriately luxurious look and feel. Even before flipping it on, you can tell it isn't an ordinary light.

With 17 watts powering it (twice as many as the Philips Hue), the Lifx bulb promises to put out up to 1,000 lumens at peak brightness, which puts it in the ballpark of a 75-watt incandescent, which will typically put out 1,100 lumens.

Let there be Lifx (pictures)

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Peak brightness typically applies to a color-changing bulb's white light, with the colored light coming in significantly dimmer. In the case of the Lifx, you're given the option of adding in white light on top of the colored light. Pick a color like green and dial it up to 50 percent, and you'll get pure green light -- anything higher than 50 percent will begin adding in the white diodes.

The result is that you get a full spectrum of "tinted" light to play with, which brings the bulb's colors up into the same range of brightness that you'll get with pure white. That's an interesting trick that you won't see with the Philips or Tabu Lumen bulbs, and one that makes those colors slightly less of a party night novelty. Those tinted tones actually look downright good when coupled with the right home decor.

Like most LEDs that claim equivalency with 75-watt incandescents, the Lifx is bigger and heavier than other bulbs, weighing in at 10.4 ounces. That bulk comes from the additional heat sinks necessary to regulate the heat from those extra diodes (the Lifx has almost three times as many diodes as a Philips Hue bulb does). Given the weight and size, it isn't an ideal bulb for small lamps. It also runs a bit hot for an LED, so you definitely won't want to use it in an enclosed fixture.

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The Lifx features almost three times as many diodes as you'll find in a Philips Hue LED. Lifx

The Lifx will light up as soon as you screw it in and turn on your lamp, but to control your bulb you'll need to download the Lifx app, available now for Android and iOS devices. The Lifx team has demonstrated the app controlling 50 lights at once, so you'll have no problem managing multiple bulbs. We kept it a little simpler with out setup, testing out just a few bulbs in tandem.

As soon as you open the app, it walks you through the pairing process, which is about as easy and straightforward as it gets. When you first turn a Lifx bulb on, it broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal. Join this signal as you would any other Wi-Fi network, then return to the Lifx app and jump back to your home network. That's it.

The process took me about a minute, and was even easier than my experience pairing other devices that use a similar, Wi-Fi based approach, like Belkin WeMo Switches . Heads up, though: the bulbs are only as secure as your Wi-Fi password. Anyone who has access to your home network can download the Lifx app and have access to your lights, too.

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Setting up new Lifx bulbs is an easy process that takes about a minute. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Once your bulbs are synced up with your home network, you'll be able to control them from your phone or tablet. After spending more time with the bulbs, I've encountered the occasional quirk and hiccup -- moreso than I've seen with Philips Hue. Still, I've never encountered anything that couldn't be solved with a little bit of fiddling, or by restarting the app.

Quirks aside, the app gets a lot of things right. The interface for selecting specific colors is especially well-designed. Instead of moving a tiny selector around a wide spectrum of colors (the approach that Philips and Tabu take), you'll simply rotate the spectrum itself. Tap a color, and it'll automatically rotate to the top.

In other apps, where you drag the selector around, your finger inevitably ends up covering the part of the spectrum that you're trying to see, and that makes hitting a precise shade a tedious trial-and-error process. There are no such headaches with Lifx. It's a subtle difference, but one that makes for a patently better user experience with the product's core function: changing colors.

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The Lifx color wheel is a patently better way of selecting shades than the ocean of pixels Philips offers. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Lifx offers a separate color wheel for white light tones, which range from orangey, warm white shades to hot, bluish-white variations on daylight. This is similar to the dedicated white-light spectrum that Philips offers directly above its full color spectrum. Again, rotating a wheel is a lot easier than navigating an ocean of pixels with your fingertip blocking the view.

In the center of the Lifx color wheel, you'll find a dial that dims the light up and down. As said earlier, in color mode, anything above 50 percent brightness will start adding white light to the color you've selected.

This definitely makes for brighter light, but it also decreases the saturation of the shade. For the types of bold, vivid colors you'd want from a party light, you'll want to stay at 50 percent. For a subtler (and perhaps more practical) color effect, go ahead and dial it up towards 100 percent.

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In the new Smarts tab, you'll find nine Themes, along with the bulb's third-party integrations. Tap one of these, and you'll be able to start setting up that integration. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

New "Smarts" to play with

Beyond color and white mode, you'll have access to a few basic Effects like a press-to-strobe mode and a candle-mimicking mode. Gone, however, are the Scenes of Lifx 1.0, which allowed you to save a certain set of colors and brightness levels, then return to it with just a tap. The Lifx team claims that this was one of the least-used features in the app, so they replaced it with a tab dubbed "Smarts."

As of now, these Smarts are two-fold. First, you get a selection of different Themes to play with. These themes are really just small thumbnail images of things like sunsets, mixed berries, and a crashing wave. Select one of them, and your lights will each randomly select a color from the image. There's a rainbow-esque theme that essentially works as a crapshoot -- other, more monochromatic themes offer effects that are a little more focused.

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The new Lifx IFTTT channel brings all sorts of new possibilities to the table. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Below the Themes, you'll find a Services section that lists the bulb's third-party integrations. As of now, there are just three: the Nest Learning Thermostat , the Nest Protect Smoke Detector , and IFTTT . Tapping any of the three options will send you to pairing instructions to help get you started.

I was a little curious as to why the Lifx team would get rid of its Scenes outright -- as it stood, the feature was about as close as the app got to any sort of scheduling functionality, one of its most head-scratching omissions. Since originally publishing this review, Lifx added a neat feature where you can drag your finger over a bulb's name and quickly set it to fade off over a specific period of time, but still, not any sort of full-fledged scheduling mechanism. Getting rid of the Scenes seems like a big step backward, even if the Lifx team says no one was using them.

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

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The answer here is the new Lifx IFTTT channel, to which the bulb essentially outsources much of its missing functionality. With IFTTT's "if-this-then-that" style recipes, you can set your Lifx bulbs to come on at specific times, or when an IFTTT-compatible motion detector gets triggered, or when somebody mentions you in a tweet. It's a pretty colossal upgrade, and I'm kind of puzzled it took Lifx this long to make it happen.

Regardless, the important thing is that it's here now, and it's quite good. You have a good number of Lifx-based IFTTT Actions to choose from (the "then-thats" of your recipes) -- these include turning the bulb on or off, and also changing to a specific color. You can even tell the bulb to "breathe" out a series of light pulses in whatever color you like, perfect for an ambient notification. If you want three red pulses whenever the boss emails, it's easy to set up.

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You'll need to upgrade the bulb's firmware using the separate Lifx Updater app. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

One caveat, though: you'll need to upgrade your bulb's firmware before you'll be able to take advantage of the new features. To do so, you'll need to download a separate "Lifx Updater" app, then follow its instructions.

The process is fairly painless, although it took me about 90 minutes and roughly 30 percent of my phone's battery to get through it. Once you're done, you'll be able to sync your bulbs up with the long-awaited Lifx Cloud, which is the key to unlocking all of the new features and integrations.

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The Lifx (right) hits the same perfect shade of green as the Lumen LED (center), but it gets there in much brighter fashion. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Color quality

Smarts aside, we can't forget about the Lifx's core functionality. If you're paying $99 for a color-changing bulb, you're going to want those colors to be bold, vivid and accurate.

So, how well does the Lifx perform in terms of color quality? The answer is that it does an admirable job. I'd call it more accurate with its colors than the Philips Hue, which struggles with green, but not quite as accurate as the Lumen LED, which does the best job with blue, in spite of being a simpler, dimmer smart bulb.

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Like the Philips Hue, the Lifx take on blue skews a bit purple when compared with the more accurate Lumen LED. It's a subtle difference in our chromaticity graphs, but fairly obvious to the naked eye. Colin West McDonald/CNET

However, like the Philips Hue, the Lifx has a distinct edge over the Lumen LED in terms of its natural tones. Both offer full spectrums of white light to choose from, while the Lumen LED only offers a single, 2,700K tone as a default. When we put the Philips Hue to the test, we found that its range of natural light fell almost perfectly in line with what you'll get from incandescent lights of various color temperatures.

We got the same result when we put the Lifx through the same test. No matter which one of the Lifx app's 16 white light tones we selected, the color plotted perfectly along the same path that incandescents travel. That tells us that in terms of color, the Lifx is just as accurate a replacement for incandescent lighting as the Philips Hue is, and that's a legitimate selling point for each bulb.

Lifx versus the competition (pictures)

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For a closer look at our comparison shots, be sure and check out our full gallery for the complete rundown.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Conclusion

As multicolor LEDs go, the Lifx is probably the best-looking one that I've seen, and certainly the brightest. With dozens of diodes and 1,000 lumens to its name, it's a muscular bulb, capable of producing bright, vivid light of any color you want. Like the Philips Hue LED , it offers both a full color spectrum and a natural light spectrum, but by allowing you to combine the two simply by dialing a color's brightness up from 50 to 100 percent, it essentially offers you a third spectrum of tinted white light to play with -- and that makes a lot of sense for more practical household lighting scenarios.

Last year, I stopped short of recommending Lifx due to the key features that weren't in the app, most notably scheduling and automation capability. They still aren't there, which is less than reassuring, but the addition of a Lifx IFTTT channel at least makes that sort of functionality possible. That, coupled with the Nest integration, makes Lifx a dramatically more functional bulb than it was at launch, and it's a lot easier to justify spending $99 on it as a result.

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7.9

Lifx

Score Breakdown

Features 8Usability 8Design 7Performance 9
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