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Light Bulbs

Let there be lights in the CNET Smart Home

Automated lighting makes a lot of sense for the modern, connected living space. Here's what we decided to go with in the CNET Smart Home.

The CNET Smart Home is our living lab for testing connected-home technology in a real-life setting. We've already beefed up the Wi-Fi signal and picked out a smart hub to anchor the majority of our system-to-be -- now, it's time to bring on the gadgets.

Up first, connected lighting -- a whole home's worth of it. That's a 5,800 sq. ft. home, to be exact, and with a wide variety of existing fixtures, bulbs, switches and dimmers already in place, installing a cohesive, whole-home smart lighting setup won't be as easy as changing out a couple of bulbs.

Fortunately, the smart lighting market is pretty well developed by this point, which gives us a lot of options. The trick is to pick a mix of products capable of working seamlessly throughout the house. Automating every bulb and switch in one pass is pretty unrealistic -- the better approach is to start things off by building a connected lighting foundation that you'll be able to build upon. That's exactly what we set out to do.

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Getting started

To figure out what gear we were going to go with, we sat down and decided what we wanted our system to be capable of. For starters, we wanted to be able to schedule our lights to come on and off at specific times -- a useful way to ease out of bed in the morning, or to simulate occupancy while you're away on vacation.

Color-changing bulbs made the list, too. They're a bit of a novelty, sure, but sync them up with your smoke detectors or your security system, and they can help alert you to emergencies. I'm half deaf, and alarms don't always wake me up right away, especially if my good ear is pressed against a pillow, so that sort of functionality is the kind of specific thing that interests me.

We also want lights that can interact with the rest of our smart home's tech, and with the products we'll be testing. Accounting for devices you might add in the future won't always be top of mind when you just want to get your lights tied to your phone. But if you're in the store comparison shopping, taking a minute to search on each product to see what other devices, or families of devices they work with could pay off when you go to add another connected device later.

In our case, we're using the SmartThings Hub to anchor our connected home -- primarily because it works with a wide variety of smart-home products. That includes a lot of connected lighting options.

The Philips Hue Starter Kit seemed like an obvious first purchase. It's a very well-developed connected lighting system with a variety of products that all play nicely with SmartThings. The Hue Bridge that comes with every starter kit is one of the best lighting-specific hubs we've tested, capable of controlling Hue bulbs right alongside less expensive bulbs from other manufacturers that also broadcast their wireless signal using Zigbee.

Philips Hue bulbs in the kitchen? Check. Ry Crist/CNET

We considered skipping Hue, since you can also control many of those standard Zigbee bulbs directly through SmartThings. I think that approach makes sense, especially if you aren't interested in color-changing bulbs. For our purposes, though, we decided Hue was worth the splurge.

Setup was a breeze -- just plug the Hue Bridge into your wireless router router, swap out your old bulbs, and follow the pairing instructions in the Hue app. Within a few minutes, we had installed our first four bulbs into the overhead kitchen lights, with a fifth bulb making its way into a table lamp in the master bedroom.

Ry Crist/CNET

Switching things up

Next on the list was to automate the lights in the living room and the front of the house. Our target: a set of four switches in the living room. The first controls the living room chandelier, the second turns on a set of lights in the front window, and the last two control lights on the front porch and in the front yard, respectively. Our goal: automate all of them.

Smart bulbs weren't the play here, since the chandelier and both of the outdoor lights use candelabra-style bulbs with narrow screw-in bases. Instead, we needed to automate things at the switch itself.

The Belkin WeMo Light Switch seemed like a good fit for each of the lights. It's an automatable, SmartThings-compatible switch with Wi-Fi built right in, and best of all, automations and remote control will continue to work even when they're switched off. The only drawback is that the WeMo Switches don't function as dimmers, but that didn't seem terribly important for any of these lights.

Replacing a single light switch with a smart switch is a pretty simple job if you're comfortable with basic home do-it-yourself projects -- just shut the power off at the breaker, unscrew the old switch, remove and label the wires, rewire the smart switch, screw it in, and turn the power back on. But with four switches in a single gang box, things get more complicated. First off, you've got a lot more wiring to keep track of, and to squeeze into place behind the switches. Making matters worse, the chandelier light was also wired to a second switch on the other side of the room, and WeMo Light Switches aren't compatible with lights that use multiple switches. We'd need to disconnect that before proceeding.

It's a jungle in there. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

With a good deal of guidance from CNET Appliances technical editor Steve Conaway, I set to work. After looping the traveler wire to that second chandelier switch back to the first, we started wiring in the WeMo Switches, carefully cramming the wiring in behind each one as we went. It wasn't too long before we had everything in place. We crossed our fingers and flipped the breaker back on.

Lo and behold, the switches worked like a charm. It took a few minutes to pair each one with the WeMo app (each one broadcasts its own Wi-Fi signal -- you join its network on your mobile device, then launch the app to pair it with your home network), and it took a little trial and error to sort out which switch was which. All in all though, we got the job done within a few hours -- check out our gallery for the full step-by-step rundown.

After snapping in a faceplate and syncing everything up with the app, the job was complete. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

To finish things off, I snapped on a four-way switch plate that I picked up from Amazon for about 8 bucks. The paddles on the WeMo Light Switches are standard-sized, so the plate fit perfectly, giving us a nice, fully integrated aesthetic.

Thanks to those switches, we can automate our outdoor lighting, along with the lights in the living room. All four are useful from a security perspective -- prescheduled lighting changes in the front of the house can go a long way toward simulating occupancy, especially when combined with a light or two upstairs. If we wanted, we could craft our own security-minded automations directly through SmartThings, bringing motion sensors, open/closed sensors, and even a SmartThings-compatible siren into play.

Ry Crist/CNET

Finishing touches

With Hue bulbs and WeMo Switches synced up with SmartThings, we'd built a very solid base for the CNET Smart Home's connected lighting setup. Now, it was time to build upon that base.

Head into the kitchen-adjacent family room and look up -- you'll see two sets of track lights with a total of five bulbs lighting up the living space. After a quick trip up a ladder, I'd swapped them out with Hue Bridge and SmartThings-compatible Cree Connected LEDs. Just like that, we've got automatable lights ready to dim for our next CNET Smart Home movie night.

The Philips Hue Wireless Dimming Switch helped us smarten up an otherwise useless light switch in just a few seconds. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

And remember that second chandelier switch that we disconnected during the WeMo install? We didn't want a nonfunctional switch wasting space on the wall, but we didn't feel like removing it and patching the drywall up, either. Our answer was the dimmer switch from the Philips Hue Wireless Dimming Kit -- we simply removed the old switch and stuck the new one up in its place. The remote pops out when needed: we'll use it to control those five lights in the family room.

With all of our lights and switches up and running, we turned our focus to one last thing: voice control. It's an important and up-and-coming facet of smart-home management, and you've already got some intriguing options.

We're using Amazon Echo to control our lighting setup with spoken commands. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For us, the obvious choice was to go with the Amazon Echo smart speaker, and "Alexa," the voice-activated, cloud-connected AI housed inside. Echo is already compatible with Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo, which lets us turn our smart lights on and off simply by asking nicely. Echo works with SmartThings, too -- moving forward, that should bring voice controls to a lot of third-party gadgets. We'll also be testing out Echo's recent integration with Insteon's home automation devices.

With one Echo in the kitchen and another sitting in the master bedroom, we have accessible, on-demand voice control in the most important parts of the house. It's a different approach from the Siri-powered spoken commands of HomeKit, which lets you talk to your home wherever you want by using your phone (provided you're an iOS user).

One caveat with Echo: it recognized our Philips Hue bulbs, but not the Cree bulbs under the Hue Bridge's control. Apparently, that Echo's Philips Hue integration only extends to Hue bulbs themselves, and not to the third-party bulbs that the Hue Bridge can also control. The good news is that we can still put those Cree bulbs under Alexa's control using the Echo's integration with SmartThings.

Philips Hue bulbs are expected to sync up with HomeKit in the very near future, and when they do, you should be able to change the color of your bulbs using a Siri command (those color-changing controls are already built into iOS 9, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system). With Echo, on the other hand, you can only turn the bulbs on or off, or dim them up and down. For now at least, Alexa can't change their colors.

Moving forward, we'll be doing a lot more testing of both systems (and others), and then filling you in on the pros and cons of each. Stay tuned for a lot more on that front -- voice control is one of the next areas we'll focus on as we continue to build the CNET Smart Home.