Put Smart Light Bulbs on Your Christmas List

December 2014/January 2014

On the one hand I live in a trailer in a trailer park. On the other hand, it’s a smart trailer.

Yes, my trailer is now a smart home graced by smart light bulbs, thanks to the free sample sent to me by Connected By TCP. (Being a tech journalist has its advantages.)

Here’s the scenario: I usually arrive home about the same time each evening, and during the winter months, when it’s dark, I often struggle to get my key in the door. In the past, I would sometimes remember to turn on the porch light before I left. But it always felt wasteful having it on for no purpose for a number of hours just so it would be on when I arrived home.

I suppose I could have used a small flashlight, but I already often have things in hand, so that wasn’t a solution.

Problem solved with the Connected By TCP Starter Kit. I now have a smart light bulb on my porch that turns itself on about 15 minutes before I arrive home. And another in my living room also turns on. I know it may sound dumb, but that little touch — a lighted porch and living room — simply makes my home feel friendlier when I arrive after dark.

What else can smart bulbs do? It depends on which kind you buy. And which ones you buy depends on your needs and budget. High-end bulbs like the Philips Hue or Ilumi can do an amazing range of things via smartphone apps.

You can configure a bulb so that the light changes color when a phone call comes in. Or turns red when the stock market is down or green when it’s up. There are over 200 third-party smartphone apps for the Hue that let your bulbs do things like change color in time with the music that’s playing. A free app called SyFy Sync actually adjusts the lighting in a room according to the action taking place in a movie you’re watching.

Connected By TCP offers a good basic package for non-colored light: two bulbs and a “gateway” (or base station) for between $70–85. Additional bulbs are around $19. The LED bulbs are the equivalent of 60W and can last over 20 years if you use them about three hours a day. I recommend their soft white bulb.

You use your smartphone or tablet to configure the bulbs via your home WiFi network. You can set them up to go on and off at specific times, as I’ve done, or adjust the brightness. There’s also an option that can turn them on and off to coincide with dawn or dusk, with the app being smart enough to know when that is. You can also control and configure your smart bulbs via the Internet when you’re away from home.

I was a bit confused at first by the purpose of the gateway device, which is about the size of a deck of cards and connects via Ethernet to my WiFi router. I now understand that when I’m configuring my bulbs it’s the gateway, not the bulbs themselves, that’s remembering what the bulbs are supposed to do. The gateway communicates with the bulbs via a short-range wireless protocol that’s neither WiFi nor Bluetooth.

That means once you use your home WiFi network to configure the bulbs, they will still work even if the WiFi is turned off or you don’t have an Internet connection.

An advantage of having a gateway is that the bulbs themselves can be less expensive. You can add $19 Connected By TCP bulbs to every room in your house with all of them being controlled by the one gateway.

The Philips Hue, which also uses a gateway, or “bridge,” is pricey, costing $180–200 for a starter kit that includes the bridge and three bulbs, with additional bulbs costing $55–60. If you want lots of color options and special effects, Hue may be your choice. Hue also offers a less expensive white light package for $100 that includes a bridge and two bulbs.

There are also bulbs available that don’t use a gateway or bridge, such as the $50 Elgato Avea and the $80 Ilumi Smartbulb. You can simply buy individual bulbs and control them with your smartphone or tablet via a Bluetooth connection. Both of these bulbs can do colors.

I like Connected By TCP for scheduling and remotely controlling my lighting, but I may also ask Santa for an Avea or Ilumi bulb to add some color to my life.

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© 2014 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen