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I Didn’t Think I Needed Smart Light Bulbs Until I Tried These

Photo-Illustration: retailers

Smart light bulbs are one of those innovations that always seemed to me, a longtime tech writer, as more like a toy than a tool. Yes, they help optimize the fully automated homes of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — allowing you to, say, set the mood lighting in your living room to mimic the natural cycle of the sun. But do they really serve any practical purpose?

I discovered, in fact, that they do. Once I tested out versions like the reasonably priced Sengled Smart Light Bulb, I was hooked. While some of them require a hub in order to operate, meaning they need an extra piece of nearby hardware to translate your commands, many of them screw into your fixtures just the same as any standard bulb; then they connect to your Wi-Fi network via phone app and allow you to turn them on or off from wherever you are, whether that’s on another floor of the house or in an entirely different Zip Code for work (if we ever return to our nonhome offices). And although they can initially cost anywhere from four to eight times more than a traditional bulb, they can also deliver big energy savings, sometimes cutting 10 to 50 percent off your electric bill.

Plus, I must admit, they’re fun. Some of them can even change colors to match whatever music you’re playing. Or, as Strategist writer Jordan Bowman says he does with his Philips bar light as part of his Friday routine: “While watching The Mandalorian, I’ll use my phone to change the lights to a dark-green hue, setting the mood for all the bizarre Baby Yoda, space-cowboy-inspired adventures.” So whether you want to turn your space into a dance club or simply reduce your monthly power output, read on for a list of options that can illuminate every room of your house (along with the front porch).

The best smart color-changing light bulb

Sengled may not be the first manufacturer you associate with light bulbs — it’s probably GE or Philips — but the company has made a name for itself in the world of smart technology over the past few years, and it has multiple CES Innovation Awards to prove it. In my experience, the Sengled bulb ranks above the rest because it’s extremely easy to use and exceptionally well made, especially for the price, considering that similar color-changing bulbs can run you upwards of $30. Once you activate it, with the Sengled app or voice assistant like Alexa, it offers the full range of 16 million potential colors that LEDs can generate, including shades of white. While to some that may seem like an unnecessarily vast spectrum, it has more uses than you may think: For example, you can set the light to very gradually get brighter in the morning and darker in the evening to simulate sunrise and sunset (which has purported benefits for your circadian rhythms). And I must say I have taken real pleasure in freaking out the kids by slowly turning the bulbs a crimson red during a Halloween movie marathon. What’s more, the Sengled app keeps track of power usage, so you can see in real time how the output varies at different settings. One caveat: The latest generation of these bulbs requires a separate hub to operate, and while this isn’t a very complicated process (much of the setup is automated, other than entering your Wi-Fi password and some other information about your home network), it will cost you another $27. Still, assuming you buy a few of these bulbs rather than just one, that cost is quickly spread out (and overall, you’d still be paying less than you would with those pricey Philips smart bulbs that don’t require a hub).

The best smart white light bulb

Maybe you’re just not a colored-light person. I wouldn’t fault you for this, particularly because you can pay nearly double for this feature, compared to a white-only bulb. Luckily, smart bulbs don’t have to offer full-color light. This Wyze bulb specializes in the white-light realm, so it gives you more of the look of a traditional light bulb. No hub is required, and installation is a piece of cake. You can use the app to dim the intensity of the light or to change the color temperature in the white range. And if you’re someone who’s into photography, like me, you may well have an extra appreciation for this feature, as changing the shade of white can greatly affect the look of photographs and video, and it’s nice to be able to dial in the desired effect. The same goes for those Zoom meetings: Finding just the right shade of white light can flatter your appearance onscreen and fool your colleagues into thinking you actually put on makeup and/or showered that day.

The best smart candle light bulb

When you want to add a smart bulb in an E12 (candle) socket, this Philips bulb delivers a full-color option. It doesn’t need a hub, though you can buy the Philips Hue Smart Hub ($58) separately to gain extra controls, which is helpful if you are using multiple Philips smart products in your home. Otherwise, you can control the Philips bulb with an app or through your voice-controlled assistant. Here, too, you can pick from up to 16 million colors as well as dozens of shades of white. And while, yes, it will cost you nearly double the price of other full-color smart bulbs, I must say, the Philips stands out for how seamlessly it works with multiple apps — including the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant apps — which, as I’ve found from testing several of these bulbs, isn’t always the case.

The best mini smart light bulb

For certain lamps and light sockets, you want a shorter bulb that doesn’t stick out too far and become an eyesore. I’ve tried all sorts of bulb sizes to try to fix this problem — it’s one of my pet peeves — and finally came to discover this high-quality LIFX bulb. At less than four inches long, this LIFX has a shorter profile than other smart bulbs, allowing it to fit nicely into a variety of fixtures where other bulbs aren’t appropriate, such as a tiny lampshade or desk light where you don’t want the tip of the bulb extending beyond the shade. (A traditional bulb is closer to 4.5 inches in length.) This LIFX bulb has multiple shades of white available, and its price compares closely to a full-size, white-only smart bulb, which is nice. It also easily connects to your Wi-Fi network, allowing you to control it with an app or your voice assistant.