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Lifx Tile review: Nifty, but the glitchy software drove us up the wall

Glitchy software kills the appeal of these nifty, color-changing smart lights.

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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.

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7 min read

If you're itching to cover your walls in color-changing light -- and hey, who isn't -- then 2018 is the year you've been waiting for. You've already got one decent option with Nanoleaf's triangular LED light panels, and the company has square-shaped, touch-sensitive versions coming in December, too.

lifx-tile-table-promo
5.6

Lifx Tile

The Good

Lifx Tiles are plenty bright and perfectly colorful, and unlike the competition, you can paint multiple colors across each one. Integrations with IFTTT, Nest, Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant make it easy to find a place for them in a larger smart-home setup.

The Bad

The app's controls for the Tiles are glitchy and underdeveloped, with constant connection quirks marring the experience. If you're a HomeKit user, Siri won't be able to understand your multicolor scenes. You can't connect more than five Tiles to a single power supply.

The Bottom Line

Lifx Tiles look great, but the software that powers them is frustrating and unreliable. Hold off for improvements, or just go with Nanoleaf instead.

Then there's Lifx, an upstart Philips Hue rival that saw what Nanoleaf was doing and muscled its way in with square-shaped Lifx Tiles of its own. Like Nanoleaf, the company has a lot of loyal fans in the lighting geek community, and its products work well with a number of important names in the smart home -- IFTTT, Apple HomeKit, Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant, just to name a few. A five-Tile starter kit retails for $250, which is only slightly higher the Nanoleaf asking price -- and unlike Nanoleaf, which only supports one color per panel, you can paint dozens of shades across the 64 zones of light in each Lifx Tile.

All of that makes Lifx Tiles a reasonable option if you're looking to add a smart pop of connected color to your walls, and in general, I think it's a pretty appealing pick for aforementioned lighting geeks who already have some skin in the Lifx ecosystem. 

But the Tiles come with some notable compromises, too -- namely, the complete lack of physical controls, the tedious setup process, the near-constant connection hiccups and the fact that you can't connect more than five Tiles to a single power supply. Lifx is a solid smart-home brand overall, but these Tiles leave a lot to be desired. For now, I say stick with Nanoleaf (or with, you know, regular old light bulbs).

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Novelty by design

Each Lifx Tile starter kit comes with five Tiles that connect together via Micro-USB cables. Each is about 8 inches squared and roughly an inch and a half thick. You plug the first one in and connect the other four, then stick them up to your walls using the Velcro sticky tabs that come preapplied on the back. 

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You'll connect the Lifx Tiles to each other using Micro-USB cables, then hang them up on the wall using 3M Velcro tabs that come preattached.

Ry Crist/CNET

Each Tile has two Micro-USB inputs, which means that each Tile can only have two Tiles connected to it. You can arrange them in a straight line or zig-zag them into your most of your favorite Tetris shapes, but you can't, for instance, arrange them in a plus shape with one Tile in the middle and the other four connected on each of its sides. A minor limitation, but a noteworthy one.

Once you've got them up on your wall in the arrangement of your choice, you pair them with your iOS or Android device using the Lifx app. In addition to changing their brightness and color, the app lets you choose from a number of colorful presets and effects. For instance, you can tap the Powerful preset for a random allotment of fiery orange and red hues, then animate that preset to dance and shift around like a lava lamp at the speed and brightness of your choice. Other effects include a music visualizer that relies on the mic in your phone, a strobe light and a morph effect that melts waves of color across the Tiles.

You can also use the app to "paint" on the Tiles by picking a color and dragging your finger across little icons representing your setup. It's a cool feature, but also rather clumsy and imprecise. Even worse, there's no undo button, so you'll need to manually reset your Tile back to its unaltered state whenever you don't like what you've drawn, which will happen often. A "stamp" effect for placing quick, crisp symbols and letters across the Tiles would be a big help. 

Some tech-savvy users have gone further and hacked their Tiles to show things like Pac-Man animations -- a mechanism for creating advanced animations like these and sharing them with other users would be a fun addition, too.

'Pretty neat'

That's how Chance Lane, one of my more taciturn co-workers, summed up his reaction to the Lifx Tiles I put up in the CNET Smart Home. Chance is a jack-of-all-trades who helps run tech support for our test facilities, and he has a keen eye for home improvement. I asked if he could imagine ever putting the Tiles up in his own home.

"Eh... probably not."

You can animate randomized, color-changing presets across your Tiles in the Lifx app, or save your hand-drawn designs as scenes and call them up later with a voice command.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I suspect that a lot of folks can probably relate to Chance here. As futuristic novelties, Lifx Tiles and other products like them might feel a little out of place in your present-day living space. That said, it isn't hard to imagine them lighting up a gaming nook or a teen's bedroom -- and if you're an out-and-proud smart home enthusiast, then you might be looking to make a statement in your living room, too.

To that end, Lifx Tiles will certainly get the job done. Like the rest of the Lifx lineup, they're plenty bright and plenty colorful, and the assortment of quick presets and effects in the Lifx app gives you lots of control over the way they look. Want a mix of pastels to cast some subtle shades across your decor? You got it. Want them to cycle through the rainbow like a screensaver on your wall? Done. Want to write "HELLO" across them to greet guests? Sure, why not?

All of that makes Lifx Tiles something like functional abstract art for modern smart homes, and if you're design-oriented, that might be an intriguing pitch. I just wish they were a touch more practical. With no physical controls on the Tiles themselves and no remote control accessory, either, your only real option for changing up their look is use the app, or to sync them up with a voice assistant. That's fine if you've got an Echo Dot in the room, but if not, you'll be relying on your phone more than you might prefer.

Even then, there are limitations. You can doodle on the Tiles and save your creation as a scene, then ask Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant to return to that scene later, but you can't ask your assistant of choice to turn on any of the nifty animations that cycle through random colors. That means that you're forced to use the app in order to see motion on the Tiles.

And that GIF above? That's me tapping two separate presets for the "HELLO" and "CNET!" designs in the Lifx app to trigger the changes. There's no way to tell the app to cycle through those distinct designs automatically, which feels like a missed layup for the Lifx team.

Glitchy graffiti

The limitations don't stop there. If you're using Siri to trigger your scenes, you'll be disappointed, because Apple HomeKit won't support multicolor scenes from a single device. Instead, you'll get a single, solid color across your setup (for instance, telling Siri to turn on that "CNET!" preset would just give us solid red Tiles).

I discovered pain points with Alexa and Google, too. The app can keep up no matter which side of the Tile is facing up, but rotating them might create problems for your voice assistant. That was my experience when I rotated some of the Tiles to make it easier to route the cords from left to right -- the Lifx app was able to follow along and tell which way was up with each Tile, but Alexa and Google could not. That left me with scenes that looked fine as I created them and triggered them via the app, but then looked like a mess when I'd ask Alexa or Google to return to them, as seen in that video above from my Twitter feed.

But wait, it gets worse. Realizing my mistake, I sighed heavily and pulled the Tiles off of the wall, then reinstalled them with the right side up on each one (even when it made it harder to snake the cord correctly). That seemed to do the trick -- but a few days later, the app was suddenly confused and thought that the fifth Tile was sideways again when it wasn't. I couldn't figure out how to fix it without confusing Alexa and Google all over again, so I deleted my spooky "REDRUM" scene and made it a second time, this time writing the "M" at the end sideways in order to make it work.

In addition to all of that, we encountered lots of connection kinks with the Tiles -- much, much more so than I've experienced with other Lifx products, including a couple of perfectly reliable lights that I use in my own home every day. Sometimes, the app would lose connection with them, then reconnect with a jumbled sense of their configuration. Other times, I'd only be able to control some of the Tiles -- and I've heard similar complaints from the wider Lifx user base, including in the user reviews on the Lifx web site. Just a hunch, but something about that daisy-chain of Micro-USB connections seems to be throwing things off, because like I said, I've never had this much trouble with any of the bulbs.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

The verdict

If all of those glitches make it sound like I hate these things, well... you're not wrong. I'd certainly hate spending $250 on them only to have to troubleshoot them day in and day out in order to get them to work. Lifx might have been rushing to catch up with Nanoleaf, and it shows. It needs to do better.

Lifx also needs to step on the gas with regards to animated effects -- undoubtedly the biggest area of potential for these multicolor Tiles, and their biggest advantage over the competition. Sure, lava lamp lighting is neat, but that's really about all you can do right now, and you can't even trigger those animated scenes outside of the app. A wider variety of animated presets, or better yet, an in-app tool for creating your own custom presets, would help take Lifx Tiles to the next level. An online community for sharing those custom animations would be even better.

We don't have any of that yet, so for now, the potential of these Tiles is almost totally unrealized. Until that changes -- and until those glitches get taken care of -- I say your walls can wait.

lifx-tile-table-promo
5.6

Lifx Tile

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 5Design 7Performance 4
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