Lifx Mini Wi-Fi Smart Bulb review: Still a great color-changing smart bulb (and still too expensive)

This brings us to the new, extra bulbous design. It's a little funny-looking, and perhaps not as slick as its flat-topped predecessor, but it does a slightly better job of casting light evenly in all directions. It still isn't perfect, though. Like the original, the sides of the bulb don't bulge out any further than the base of the bulb, which means that very little light is actually angled down. The previous bulbs were bright enough to make this a moot point, but with the Mini, you might notice that it doesn't cast quite as much downward light as your old light bulbs did. That's not ideal if you're trying to read under it.

In addition to the classic color wheel, you can now program "Day & Dusk" natural lighting changes.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

App upgrades

I've been using a couple of Lifx bulbs in my own home for a couple of years now, and I've always appreciated the steady stream of incremental improvements to the app. They're usually small, subtle changes meant to fine-tune the experience -- the addition of scheduled fades, for instance, or the newly added ability to cycle your lights through pastel shades. It's a conservative approach that keeps things fresh and fun without compromising what makes it a good app to begin with.

That said, there are some significant new additions to the app this year. The first is a feature called "Day & Dusk," and any Lifx light that changes colors can take advantage of it, not just the $30 bulb that puts Day & Dusk right in its name. 

What Day & Dusk offers is four lighting presets meant to mimic the natural progression of light throughout the day. There's a "Wake Up" preset that puts out neutral daylight to help you feel less groggy in the morning, presets for "Day" and "Evening" that match the progression of sunlight, and a "Nightlight" preset that puts out a dull, dimmed-down orange as you sleep. Turn the feature on, and your lights will automatically cycle through whichever of those four presets you've enabled on the days of your choice. The Lifx app even shows you a little color-coded line graph of how the light will act throughout the day based on your settings. It's a great visual, and a smart way to make automated light a little more intuitive.

Day & Dusk still needs a little work, though. For instance, you can't adjust the color or brightness of those four presets (at least, not yet), and while you get to pick the start time of each one, you can't activate different presets on different days. For instance, if you wanted the nightlight setting to come on every night, but only wanted the wake up lights to come on during weekdays, you can't do that.

On iPhones, the Lifx Mini lets iOS handle most of the pairing process.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The app still includes previous-gen pairing instructions that don't quite line up with the new bulbs.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

The other big change to the app has to do with the way you pair with your lights, at least on iOS devices. Before, your Lifx bulb would broadcast as a Wi-Fi network when you first turned it on -- to connect, you'd just join the network and let the Lifx app finish syncing everything up. Now, instead of showing up as a Wi-Fi network you can connect with, HomeKit-compatible Lifx lights like the Mini will show up in your iPhone's settings as a device you can pair with your existing Wi-Fi network. 

In other words, Apple is doing what the Lifx app typically does by pairing the light to your home network. From there, it'll show up in the Lifx app as a bulb that's on the local network. To finish pairing, you can "claim" the light to connect it with your Lifx account and control it from anywhere, or you can finish pairing it with HomeKit.

Lifx tells me that the change is meant to make the pairing experience better using Apple's onboarding protocol, but it's worth noting that not all Lifx bulbs use this protocol. First- and second-gen Lifx bulbs don't work with HomeKit, and, oddly, neither do the likable Lifx Z color-changing light strips, which were released just months before HomeKit compatibility was announced as an upcoming feature. The app still connects with those lights the old way, which means there are now essentially two onboarding mechanisms built into the app, along with the in-app option to pair your bulb with HomeKit. At any rate, it's a little more confusing than it probably should be, but at least everything works.

Ry Crist/CNET

The verdict

The Lifx Mini is a good little bulb that does its job well. Despite the smaller stature, it still puts out the brightness you'd expect from the sort of bulb you'd probably use it to replace, and it still puts out the vivid color quality that we've come to expect of Lifx. On top of that, it boasts the best app for color-changing light control, as well as key integrations with Alexa, Apple HomeKit, the Google Assistant, IFTTT and more. Years of steady development at Lifx HQ are paying dividends.

I just wish that the price represented more of a step forward. At $45 each -- the same price as other high-profile color-changers that have been out for months, if not years -- the Lifx Mini is a lateral move at best. It's good, but it's not worth getting excited about.