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Triangular, color-changing LED light panels you can control on your Android or iOS device, or by using spoken commands: That's the pitch for Nanoleaf Aurora, one of the most design-centric devices for the connected home that we've ever seen.
This isn't your typical smart-home gadget. It doesn't promise to make your life more convenient or your home more comfortable. It isn't even a very practical light source. Instead, Nanoleaf Aurora is a design play for the connected living space. It wants your smart home to express itself.
And you know what? All of that is fine. People buy pretty things to hang up on their walls all the time -- so why not a pretty-looking smart light setup?
At $200 (about £165/AU$260), the nine-panel Nanoleaf Aurora starter kit doesn't come cheap. But it isn't outrageously expensive, either, especially when you consider how eye-popping these panels are -- or that the cost is roughly as much as you'd pay for a three-bulb Philips Hue starter kit.
Like those Philips Hue bulbs, the Aurora panels work with Apple HomeKit, the smart home standards built into iPhones and iPads that run the latest iOS software. HomeKit lets you toggle your lights and devices right from your phone's Control Center or by using spoken Siri commands, and the Aurora panels do an outstanding job of putting it all to work. Compatibility with Amazon's Alexa is coming by the end of this year, too, so you'll soon have a second means of voice control.
All of it adds up to a cutting-edge in-home experience for out-and-proud smart home enthusiasts. You don't need these things on your walls -- nobody does -- but it's tough to deny that they make a pretty compelling case for novelty smart lighting.
If you're a fan of classic sci-fi, or if you just watched a lot of cartoons as a kid, then maybe these things look familiar. Color-changing light panels have been a mainstay of faux-futuristic pop culture for decades now, lighting up countless spaceships, alien bases, and dwellings of tomorrow. Now, Nanoleaf thinks it's time these panels lit up your living room, too.
And why not? They look terrific, thanks to a design that leans on a modular build, geometric simplicity and bold, vivid colors, all of which combine to offer a wide range of display options.
You can connect any panel to any other panel using an SD card-like connector chip to join their sides. Power flows through all of them from the base attachment, which can handle up to 30 panels. If you want more than the starter kit's nine panels, extras are available in three-packs for $60 each (about £50/AU$80).
Setting everything up is a bit of a delicate process. Those connector chips don't feel terribly sturdy and they don't snap into place. As I hung everything, I worried that I wasn't using enough of the included sticky tabs to keep everything snug and secure.
Nanoleaf doesn't provide a whole lot of guidance as far as best mounting practices go; it pretty much just tosses you an envelope of those sticky tabs and say, "Have fun!" Everything stayed on the wall for the duration of my tests, but I still would have appreciated some more specific instructions.
That said, I was beyond impressed with these panels once I had them up and running. They're plenty bright (about 100 lumens per panel), the hues are vivid and true, and the preprogrammed, color-changing scenes look great (you can make your own in Nanoleaf's app, too). They made a strong first impression on just about everyone who saw them, including co-workers of mine who think color-changing smart lights are kind of dumb.
With the Aurora panels affixed to your wall, your next step is to download the Nanoleaf app to sync them up with your phone. Doing so is pretty painless. The base station broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal when you plug it in. You connect to that signal in your phone's settings, then sync it up with your own home network, all of which meet Apple HomeKit's rigorous security protocols.
From there, the app will walk you through its controls. Your panels will appear in the app exactly as you have them arranged on your wall. You can tap on an individual panel to change its brightness or color, or you can pick a "palette" of colors for the panels to draw from using whatever transitional animation you select. Color changes can sweep across your setup from panel to panel, fade in and out for a breathing effect, or burst out randomly at various spots. You can control the speed of all of these transition effects, along with fine details like direction and smoothness.
Once you've designed a light pattern that you like (animated or otherwise), you can save it as a scene. It'll join those pre-configured Nanoleaf scenes in the app -- you can trigger any of them with a tap on your phone, or by asking Siri to run it if you're using an iPhone, a la "Hey Siri, set the Forest scene."
You can also cycle through all of them by pressing a button on the base attachment (and yes, you can delete those pre-configured Nanoleaf scenes in case there are any you don't want).
Nanoleaf's app also lets you see and control other HomeKit-compatible smart lights -- an advantage of the standardization HomeKit offers. That includes color controls for Philips Hue bulbs. Group bulbs like those into the same room as your Aurora panels, and you'll be able to tell Siri to change everything's color all at once using a command like, "Siri, set the bedroom lights to green."
You can also control the Aurora panels directly from Apple's dedicated Home app for HomeKit. You can't create patterns or adjust individual panels, but you can adjust the overall color and brightness of your setup, or tap to run a scene you've already created in the Nanoleaf app. On top of that, you can pin those scenes into the HomeKit section of your iPhone's Control Center for a speedy way to switch scenes on the fly. All of it, including the Siri controls, worked perfectly throughout all of my tests.
I'd like to see even more features for Aurora. The first one that jumps to mind is a music-syncing mode in which the panels would change colors in rhythm with whatever tunes you're listening to. That seems like a no-brainer for a design-oriented, party-friendly setup like Aurora, but you won't find it anywhere in the Nanoleaf app. Here's hoping Nanoleaf changes that with an app update in the not-too-distant future.
Another feature I'd like to see is a wake-up mode. Though you can schedule the Aurora panels to turn on and off at specific times, you won't find many options for customizing those lighting changes. You can't, for instance, schedule the panels to gradually fade on over the course of an hour at 6 a.m. each day.
That's a trick I use with a color-changing Lifx smart bulb in my bedside lamp, and it makes it a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning. To their credit, Nanoleaf tells me we can expect to see a sunrise/sunset feature in the app within the coming weeks.
Additional platform compatibility would help bolster Aurora's case, too. Alexa controls are already on the way, with a skill for Amazon's virtual voice assistant due out by the end of the year. Nanoleaf's team also has Google Home on their radar and says that they'll make an integration happen "whenever the new smart speaker is ready."
I'd also like to see an Aurora channel on IFTTT. This would let people trigger lighting changes using things like GPS location, important notifications, weather and other IFTTT-compatible smart home gadgets.
The future is bright for these colorful smart panels. There's really nothing else quite like them. They won't fit with every aesthetic, but they're still versatile enough to offer broad appeal. Art lovers could have a field day decorating their apartments with them. Parents could use them as the ultimate nightlight for their kids. College football fans could set them to shine the school colors in a man cave or a game room.
They also take full advantage of what Apple HomeKit brings to the connected living space. Aurora is better because of HomeKit -- and HomeKit is better because of Aurora, too. That's the kind of smart-home symbiosis that's worth buying into.
Above all else, Nanoleaf's Aurora panels are fun. They take the novelty of color-changing smart light and run further with it than Hue, Lifx or anything else ever has. I'll admit it. I kind of want them.