Sylvania Smart Plus Bluetooth Flex Strip (Apple HomeKit-enabled) review: Sylvania's colorful HomeKit light strip: Smart, but sluggish
A well-placed LED light strip can really jazz up the look of your living space. And, if you're an iOS user looking for one that you can control using Siri commands, you've got a couple of options. Apple HomeKit-compatible starter kits like those from Lifx and Philips Hue will set you back at least $90, but a third option, the Bluetooth Smart Plus Flex Strip from Sylvania, costs just $60.
For the money, you get 6 feet of smart, color-changing light that can connect directly with your iPhone or iPad , no hub necessary. You just stick them up under your cabinets or behind your TV, then sync them up with Apple's Home app. From there, you'll be able to automate them alongside other HomeKit-compatible gadgets , or control them using Siri voice commands on your phone, tablet or HomePod smart speaker.
With no support for Android devices or for competing voice assistants like Alexa and the Google Assistant, Sylvania's HomeKit strips aren't as well-integrated with other smart home partners as Lifx and Hue. That might matter quite a bit if you're looking for the most flexibility from your smart home gadgets, or if you aren't committed to a specific voice assistant yet. But if you're an iPhone loyalist just looking for a cost-efficient, Siri-centric smart home rooted in Apple's Home app, then these lights might be just what you're looking for.
Since they communicate using Bluetooth, Sylvania's HomeKit light strips don't require you to connect a hub to your router. Just plug them in, open up the Home app and scan the pairing code that comes printed in the instruction manual. To control the lights when you -- and your phone -- are outside of Bluetooth range, you'll need to have an Apple TV , an Apple HomePod or a dedicated, always-on iPad connected to your home network.
The starter kit includes three 2-foot LED strip segments, the Bluetooth radio module, and the power supply. Additional 2-foot segments sell in a two-pack for about $30, and a single power supply and Bluetooth radio can control up to 20 feet in total. You can also trim a segment with a pair of scissors if it's a little too long. Each strip includes its own 3M peel-and-stick backing, making it easy to stick them up just about anywhere that isn't too far from a power outlet.
The performance wasn't perfect, though. Sylvania's strips worked as advertised in my tests, and the Home app's controls seemed snappy enough, but they were noticeably slower at responding to those Siri controls than other HomeKit-compatible smart lights that don't use Bluetooth. Ledvance, Sylvania's parent company, chalks it up to recent changes to Apple's HomeKit specifications that came with iOS 11.
"Ledvance is currently certifying an over-the-air update for the products with Apple that will address the new requirements, and also increase performance significantly for Bluetooth devices which connect directly to the phone vs connecting via a router like other products," a company spokesperson told me.
Sylvania shared an early version of that upcoming firmware update with me. While it did seem to speed things up just a tad, the lag was still noticeable. For instance, after grouping the Sylvania strip with a Wi-Fi-enabled Lifx LED, I tried telling Siri to turn the duo on and off, and to change their color. The controls worked, but the Sylvania strip would occasionally lag behind the Lifx bulb by a couple of seconds or more. This was true even with a second strip that I tested at a second location. Even worse: on a few occasions, the strips wouldn't respond at all, and I'd need to try my command a second time in order to see a change.
One other note while we're talking firmware -- you can't download updates like that through the Home app. Instead, you'll need to download a separate Sylvania app that doesn't include any lighting controls and is, instead, solely designed to keep things up-to-date. That's not the worst thing in the world, but I'd still like it a lot better if you could push updates for all of your HomeKit devices through the centralized Home app.
The lack of any dedicated, in-app lighting controls on Sylvania's part also means that you'll need to make do with the rather basic lighting controls of Apple's Home app. It'll get the job done, but it lacks advanced features like color cycles and fade durations that you'll find in the apps that control Lifx and Philips Hue. Other little quibbles include the fact that the app won't let you control individual devices on their own after you've added them to a group, and the puzzling fact that Siri still doesn't seem to know what "white" is.
One other aside: Apple doesn't currently let you sync lights like these with whatever music you're listening to on your iPhone or HomePod, which feels like a big missed opportunity for HomeKit, in general.
If HomeKit isn't for you, then Sylvania also offers a similarly branded Zigbee version of its Smart Plus light strip -- it requires a hub and it doesn't work with HomeKit at all, but it does work with both Android and iOS devices, as well as both Alexa and Google Assistant (it comes with its own app, too). Separating platforms out between the two versions may have helped Ledvance bring the costs down, but it also makes things a bit confusing. At any rate, if you're buying anything from the Smart Plus lineup, be sure to buy the right version.
You don't need to spend more than 15 bucks or so if all you want is a little extra light under your kitchen cabinets. There are plenty of dumb LED strips that'll do the job just fine (and plenty of cheap USB-powered options that'll work behind your TV, too).
That said, telling an artificially intelligent assistant to change the color of your living space is a unique, inexplicably charming novelty, and a fun fit for homes with kids, too. At $60, Sylvania's HomeKit strips will get the job done if you're an iPhone user, but they won't come with as many bells and whistles as the competition. You won't be able to assign multiple colors to the same strip like you can with Lifx, for instance, and you'll miss out on Philips Hue's upcoming "Hue Entertainment" media integrations, too. And Sylvania's performance, while passable, isn't anything to write home about.
Of course, all of that might not matter much if you're just looking for the cheapest option that works with Siri. If that's the case, then Sylvania's light strips pass the test and are certainly worth a look.