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Lifx Plus Wi-Fi Smart Bulb review: This smart light bulb is your night vision camera's new best friend

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It's been just a little over four years since Australian inventor Phil Bosua introduced his idea for a color-changing, Wi-Fi-enabled LED on Kickstarter. Now, Lifx is already selling its third-generation smart bulb, the Lifx Plus.

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7.9

Lifx Plus Wi-Fi Smart Bulb

The Good

The Lifx Plus is bright and efficient as ever, features a well-designed, integrated and easy-to-use app. It produces bold, accurate colors at every hue. The new night vision feature is unique and legitimately cool.

The Bad

Lifx bulbs still aren't compatible with Apple HomeKit. Those infrared night vision diodes mean that the Lifx Plus is always drawing power, making it less efficient than its predecessors.

The Bottom Line

If you use night vision cameras in your home, then these well-rounded smart bulbs can help them see in the dark -- but if you don't, there's really no reason to buy them.

The Lifx Plus looks and works just like the Lifx bulbs that came before it, but it adds in infrared diodes that cast out invisible light when the bulb is turned off. That's the same light that night vision cameras use to see in the dark, which means the Lifx Plus can give NV cameras greater visibility in low light conditions.

It's a cool, creative feature that worked well when I tested it out, which makes Lifx Plus worth considering if you use night vision cameras to keep an eye on your home. But if you don't, then I say don't bother -- at $80 each (which converts to about £65 or AU$105), they cost more than standard Lifx LEDs and they don't bring anything else new to the table besides the night vision trick.

The Lifx Plus smart bulb helps your cameras see in the dark

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Design and features

The Lifx Plus sticks to the same flat-topped design as previous-gen Lifx bulbs, adding only a plus sign beneath the Lifx logo. Like the existing Lifx bulbs, it's an 11W LED that promises to put out about as much brightness as a 75W incandescent bulb -- 1,100 lumens.

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You can change the color or the white-light color temperature of each Lifx bulb with easy-to-use selector dials.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

It sticks to the same playbook on the smarts front, too. Like the original Lifx LED and last year's second-gen Lifx Color 1000, each Lifx Plus bulb uses a built-in Wi-Fi radio to connect directly with your home network. Once everything's synced up, you'll be able to control the bulbs on your phone from anywhere with an internet connection.

The app controls include a complete spectrum of colors as well as sixteen dedicated white light settings. Those range from a warm, candle-like glow at 2,500 kelvin to hot, bluish-white daylight tones at 9,000 kelvin. The app also offers a number of preset color themes and lighting effects, including a music visualizer and a strobe function. You can also schedule lighting changes to happen at specific times of day, or at sunrise or sunset.

Lifx bulbs are compatible with a variety of third parties. You can sync them up with the SmartThings connected home platform, the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke detectors. Or you can sync them with the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot smart speakers and get voice-activated lighting changes through Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant. Lifx also has a fairly robust channel on the online automation service IFTTT, which lets you trigger lighting changes using any number of IFTTT-compatible gadgets and services.

That said, none of those partners are new this generation. Compatibility with Apple HomeKit, the set of smart home protocols in the software that runs iPhones and iPads, is still missing. HomeKit compatibility is the most-requested feature from the Lifx user base, but for now at least, Lifx COO Tim Peters would only tell me to "stay tuned."

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Lifx Plus is brighter than the previous-gen Lifx Color 1000 at every white light setting, especially daylight tones.

Ry Crist/CNET

Performance

The third-gen Lifx Plus bulbs work just the same as the past Lifx bulbs, but they were at least a little bit brighter than before at every color and white light setting I tested. That's a nice step forward given that they don't use any more energy than last year's bulbs do.

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The only colors that were noticeably brighter with Lifx Plus than with the original Lifx LED were yellow, green, and cyan.

Ry Crist/CNET

Still, they aren't quite as bright as advertised. At their brightest setting, the default 3,500 kelvin, I was only able to get the Lifx Plus' lumen count up to 1,015 -- a bit short of the stated 1,100 lumens and barely any brighter than last year's Lifx Color 1000. The results were much better at other white light settings, though -- particularly the bluish-white daylight tones, where Lifx Plus offers you an extra 200 lumens or so across the board. A small improvement, but a noticeable one.

The colors have gotten brighter, too, but again, only incrementally so. Compared with the very first Lifx bulbs, the Lifx Plus only puts out noticeably brighter colors at yellow, green and cyan. Other shades essentially finished in a tie, although Lifx Plus always came out slightly ahead.

Lifx continues to nail color accuracy, too, with bold, vivid shades that match whatever color you're trying to select in the app. That's long been an advantage over arch-nemesis Philips Hue, but not any longer since the latest Hue bulbs finally put out respectable shades of green and cyan.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Lifx plus infrared light

The Lifx Plus looks just like the Lifx Color 1000 that came before it, because it's essentially the same bulb -- same size, same colors, same features, same app. What's new is the invisible infrared light that shines when the bulb is turned off -- along with a price tag that's $20 higher than before.

So, why would you pay $20 more for a bulb that puts out light you can't see? For many of you, the obvious answer is that you shouldn't, but if you use night vision cameras in your home (Netgear Arlo, Piper, Canary and the Nest Cam being just a few popular examples) then this bulb suddenly becomes pretty interesting.

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The CNET Smart Apartment's night vision camera feed in the middle of the night, with and without a Lifx Plus screwed into the lamp in the back of the room. To the camera, it looks as if the lamp is on.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The basic pitch makes plenty of sense, and offers a lot of "why didn't anyone think of this before?" appeal. Night vision cameras don't actually see in the dark -- instead, they're built to see infrared light that the human eye can't see. They typically use their own, built-in infrared diodes to light up whatever the camera is pointed at, letting you see what's going on when the rest of the lights are out. With Lifx Plus, you can fill your living space with additional sources of invisible, infrared light -- which lets your camera see more of what's going on.

It works. We tested it out in the CNET Smart Apartment, where we have a Piper NV smart home camera keeping an eye on the living room. At night, it sees the couch and the coffee table in the foreground just fine, but it struggles to see all the way to the back wall, because the infrared light it puts out can't reach that far. Screwing a Lifx Plus into a floor lamp in the back of the room fixed that, and effectively extended the range of our camera's vision.

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The floodlight version of the Lifx Plus LED is weather-rated for outdoor use.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Windows are another common sticking point for night vision cameras. Put one in the windowsill looking out at your porch, and most of its infrared light will simply bounce off of the glass. With the Lifx Plus, you could create a pool of infrared light outside of the window, making it much, much easier for your night vision camera to see outside. To that end, the BR30-shaped floodlight version of the Lifx Plus is now sealed and weather-rated for outdoor use -- a smart, thoughtful touch.

Some caveats, of course

First, you'll need to remember that the infrared diodes in the Lifx Plus require power. That means that you'll need to be sure to turn the bulb off using the app, or using one of Lifx's smart home integrations -- Alexa, IFTTT and so on. If you turn the bulb off at the switch, you'll cut the power and the infrared light won't shine.

And yes, this also means that the Lifx Plus is continuing to draw energy even when you've turned the bulb off. This makes it noticeably less efficient than its predecessors. Like the Lifx Color 1000 that came before it, the Lifx Plus draws 11 watts at peak brightness, which will add about $1.32 to your energy bill each year at an average of three hours of use per day. But Lifx Plus will continue to draw about 5 watts during those other twenty-one hours each day as it puts out its infrared light. That brings the energy cost up to about $6 per year.

For this reason, I wish Lifx had included some kind of timer function for the infrared light. As it is now, those infrared diodes shine whenever the bulb is off, regardless of whether you need them or not. Allowing them to only shine at specific hours, or perhaps only between sunset and sundown, would save an awful lot of energy.

Fortunately, this seems like the sort of the thing that Lifx could easily add with a firmware update. The Lifx team already tells me that they plan on doing exactly that to add a feature that will let users adjust the infrared brightness, or automate it using a yet-to-be-activated ambient light sensor in the bulb. Look for that update in the coming months.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The verdict

The $80 Lifx Plus is just as colorful, capable and connected as the bulbs that came before it. It features the same, solid app interface, the same bright, vivid colors, and the same integrations with IFTTT, Alexa, Nest and more. It's everything that's good about Lifx, plus infrared light for your night vision cameras.

The problem? That infrared light is as far as the "Plus" takes you. There's nothing else that's new here -- no other new features, no dramatically better performance, no new support for Apple HomeKit. This is still my favorite color-changing smart bulb, but if you don't use night vision cameras in your home and don't plan on adding them anytime soon, then there's no reason to upgrade from the earlier, less expensive generation.

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7.9

Lifx Plus Wi-Fi Smart Bulb

Score Breakdown

Features 8Usability 8Design 7Performance 9