select all

I Just Want to Control the Lights With My Voice. Is That So Hard? (Yes.)

Photo: Tang Yau Hoong/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Smart lights are a nice jumping off point for someone curious about smart-home tech. You can get started with just a few smart light bulbs, a smart light hub, and your phone. Being able to control your lighting from anywhere in your home really comes in handy — no more getting out of bed right before you fall asleep because you forgot to turn off the living-room lights. And you can quickly shift between dim lighting for a dinner party or movie night to something brighter for the early morning. Curious, I tried out a number of different setups to try to figure out what would work best for most people.

The goals of my smart lighting project were modest. We had four lamps — three in our living room, one in our daughter’s nursery — and I wanted to be able to turn them all on and off, control them individually, and set up one or two basic “scenes” (i.e., have just the side lamps in our living room turn on when we wanted to watch TV). Ideally, I wanted to be able to do this with my voice, using my smartphone to control everything when absolutely necessary. I quickly found myself outmatched.

I tried doing this using a combination of three brands of light bulbs and four different controllers: For the smart lights, I chose Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance lights, Sengled Element Plus, and Sylvania A19 Smart+ Bulbs. To control everything, I cycled through an Amazon Echo Plus, a Google Home, Apple’s HomeKit running via a HomePod, and Samsung’s SmartThings hub and app. At the end of the process, I had four light bulbs I could yell at. Sometimes they even responded to me.

The Bulbs

The Philips Hue Color lights were the most expensive at $50 per bulb. The Sylvania bulbs were cheaper, just $20 a pop (though a separate type of bulb that works with Apple’s HomeKit protocol was $21 per bulb), and the Sengleds were just $18 each. You can find all of these for cheaper if you buy in bulk or wait for sales.

There are three main options when choosing a smart light. The Sylvania A19 Smart+ Bulbs allow you to adjust how bright the bulb is, but not adjust the color temperature (i.e., the bulb gives off more or less light, but how blue or yellow that light looks won’t change). Bulbs like the Sengled Element Plus allow you to adjust both the brightness and the color temperature, meaning you can shift from a late-evening yellow to an early-morning blue light as you see fit. And Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance bulbs not only let you adjust brightness and color temperature, but the outright color as well. Want your room to feel like a college-town head shop? You can make all the lights in your room purple.

In my experience, I’ve only ended up caring about the ability to adjust brightness and color temperature. Bulbs that adjusted only brightness and not color temperature didn’t allow for brighter blues during the day when I wanted it and more relaxing yellows in the evening. On the other end of the spectrum, I struggle to think of the situation in my life where I want my room to appear green or blue or purple, and fully color-changing bulbs are about $15 to $20 more expensive per bulb.

The Hubs

Nearly every smart light bulb on the market requires also buying a “hub” or “bridge” to control the light. It can seem baffling in a world where so much of our stuff pretty naturally connects to everything else through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth that lights need their own specialized wireless hardware, but this all comes down to smart lighting (and a fair amount of smart-home tech) using the Zigbee protocol. (Not to be confused with competing Z-Wave protocol, which is used more for light switches, not light bulbs. If this seems confusing, well, welcome to the world of smart-home tech.)

The advantages of Zigbee versus Bluetooth or Wi-Fi are myriad: It has a very low power draw, it can create an ad hoc mesh network by jumping from device to device, and it’s very, very quick to respond. But your phone or Wi-Fi router can’t talk easily to a Zigbee bulb, and therefore you need something that can.

For Philips Hue, this means using its bridge, which costs $60. Philips Hue has a commanding share of the market right now, and can largely dictate demands. This means if you want the full features of the very expensive bulbs you’re paying for, you need a Hue bridge. On the plus side, all of this was extremely easy to set up. From unboxing to screwing in light bulbs to connecting the bridge, I had a working setup in about ten minutes.

If you want to use other (cheaper) light bulbs, you’ll need something like the Samsung SmartThings hub, which works across a much broader range of products, but also requires a fair amount of fiddling to get everything to work. I was able to get both the Sylvania and Sengled lights up and running, but it took me longer and required resetting to their factory defaults in odd ways. To reset a Sengled Element Plus bulb, for instance, you need to turn it on and then off ten times in a row. I was trying out various bulbs while my in-laws were staying with us, and there is nothing quite like having your father-in-law look over at you as you quietly count under your breath while flipping a lamp on and off.

If you want to avoid the headache of hubs altogether, Apple’s HomeKit offers that solution. Thanks to the sharp elbows of Cupertino, it was able to convince a large swatch of manufacturers to install bridge hardware directly into bulbs. Open up the Apple Home app on an iOS device, scan in a code, and you’re up and running. The downside? The number of things supported by HomeKit is relatively smaller (though most big-name brands are there), and HomeKit-enabled bulbs and other devices tend to cost more.

The Smarts

Once I had my bulbs installed and connected, I then needed to decide how to control them. Philips Hue comes with a very sleek app that allows you to quickly assign bulbs to a room, rename them, and set up “scenes.” The SmartThings app, because it’s meant to control not just light bulbs but also door locks and refrigerators and door locks, didn’t have quite the same slick app, but still allowed me to group lights into rooms, and set up certain automations — all the lights could turn off at a certain time of day, for instance. It was serviceable, but not slick.

But my goal wasn’t to control my lights by messing with my phone. My dream was to use a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod to do everything for me. And it’s here where I started to run into real issues.

While Alexa, Google Home, and HomeKit all synced up with the Philips Hue bulbs, they all had varying degrees of difficulty actually executing some of the commands. Each requires you to use odd command-line language, making sure to hit the trigger phrases to set lights as you want them.

Google Home struggled the most. It imported the custom scenes I had created in the Hue app, but had trouble if I adjusted them afterward. It also seemed to require the most precise commands to get everything working. “Hey, Google, set lights in living room to dimmed” didn’t work, while the more syntactically baffling phrase “Hey, Google, turn on lights in living room to dimmed” (usually) did the trick.

Alexa worked the smoothest, importing the scenes I created in the Hue app and (usually) doing what I asked, though it still sometimes seemed to stall out for reasons I couldn’t pin down. But Amazon has pushed Alexa as the smart-home voice control of choice for two years now, and its expertise shows, particularly when working with the most popular smart-lighting solution.

HomeKit run via a HomePod was more interesting — I needed to re-create all the scenes in the Home app, and I found that the color temperature of the bulbs kept shifting around as I was setting everything up. Eventually, things sorted themselves out, and controlling everything was simple — but it did require some extra steps and extra aggravation.

Things got more complicated once I started trying to tie together Sengled and Sylvania bulbs, a SmartThings hub, and a smart speaker. HomeKit and SmartThings simply don’t work together at all, so using a HomePod was out. Alexa hooked in somewhat easily to SmartThings, but had trouble with scenes and needed to re-sync several times to get everything working. Google Home struggled even more, repeatedly struggling to understand even simple commands like “Turn off all living-room lights.” I was able to sort some of this out by deleting and reinstalling all of the smart light bulbs in both the SmartThings app and the Google Home app, but it was a lot of time messing with my phone to (hopefully) not need to mess with my phone as much.

There is a third option here, which is the Amazon Echo Plus, which is an Echo with a smart-home hub built in. In theory, this should solve many of the problems I was complaining about. In reality, the Amazon Echo Hub just doesn’t quite do the trick. One of the key things I learned is that setting up and organizing your smart lights will take some time messing around in a software app of some sort, and right now the Alexa app on both Android and iOS is a pretty unintuitive mess. The market should be wide open for a smart-home speaker that has a hub built into it — most people I talked to about smart lighting who hadn’t taken the plunge themselves seemed confused about why lights would even need a separate piece of hardware. But the Echo Plus, as it stands, isn’t the solution the market is waiting for.

(Sengled, I should mention, also sells its own hub and app. I had a lot of trouble getting the hub to work, and once I did get it working, I found the app to be extremely underwhelming. I think Sengled bulbs are a great value — but the hub and app should be avoided.)

The Bottom Line

If your one goal is setting up smart lighting and you don’t mind paying extra, get Philips Hue bulbs and a bridge. Unless you really want to make your house look like a laser-tag facility, you can skip the color-changing bulbs and just opt for the Hue White Ambiance bulbs, but overall the Hue bridge, app, and bulbs are easiest to use out of any option I tried, especially when it came to creating lighting “scenes,” and it integrates reasonably well with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomeKit, and Samsung SmartThings. Philips Hue only does one thing, but it does it extremely well.

If you think that smart lighting will just be the start of your smart-home ambitions, I’d recommend a Samsung SmartThings Hub for $99 and Sengled Element Plus lights for $21 per bulb. SmartThings will require you to fiddle more with settings to get everything working, and there are moments when you are attempting to get your smart speaker to talk to your SmartThings hub to talk to your light bulbs when it can all seem like a lot of work just to turn light bulbs on and off. But a SmartThings hub will give you plenty of room to build out from, so if you do decide to take the plunge on a smart AV or security system, the SmartThings hub will be waiting for you.

If you’re an Apple-dedicated house, HomeKit offers a lot of appeal. No other system I used was as intuitive to control or set up, and Apple’s typical dedication to a sleek and smooth software pays off here. But if you want to easily use voice control to use all those things, you’ll also need a $349 HomePod — an expensive proposition (then again, smart lighting in general is an expensive undertaking).

In the end, my modest goal of setting up four lamps that I could control with my voice never really came to fruition. Even in the best setup I could find — using a Philips Hue bridge in combination with an Amazon Echo — I could only get everything to work about 60 percent of the time, so I ended up using my phone to control my lights the majority of the time.

But when I started doing all of this, I was pretty skeptical about the whole smart-lighting concept. Did I really need or want remote-controlled bulbs in my house? But what I found was that the ability to fine-tune the lighting in our home was actually really great. Getting that perfect late-evening glow from our lamps made our home feel better. The real question, I think, is whether I’ll be willing to sink dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars into replacing every light bulb in my house so I could replicate that feeling throughout our entire home.

The Complete, No-Nonsense Guide to Smart Lighting