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Review: 'Smart' LED bulbs controlled by iPhones

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 4:20pm  ET

AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- LED bulbs seem to be the future of home lighting: They save electricity, they're durable and they don't contain mercury like compact fluorescents. But having them produce white light like any old light bulb is like using a computer as a doorstop.

That's because each LED, or light-emitting diode, is a small chip, the product of the same sort of manufacturing process that spawned the digital revolution. The chips are backed up by more electronics in the stem of the bulb. These bulbs are smart, or at least they can be if we make them that way.

Philips, the world's largest maker of LED lighting, does make them that way. The company has produced the first kit of LED bulbs whose color and brightness can be wirelessly controlled from your iPhone. I tested the Philips bulbs and, in descending order of "smarts," I tried out some GreenWave Reality bulbs whose brightness can be controlled by an app. I also looked at a cheap off-brand color-changing bulb that comes with a remote control.

Why would you want to control your light bulbs from your phone? I haven't really found a good answer yet. On their own, these bulbs aren't a big deal. Few people will pony up $200 for the Philips kit with three smart bulbs. But these products are still interesting because they point the way to the future of lighting. Remember: The first Apple computer was a niche product, too --and look where that went.

Each Philips bulb produces light equivalent to a 50-watt incandescent bulb. Additional bulbs cost $59 each. That compares with slightly brighter, non-smart, white-light Philips LED bulbs that cost $25 each.

The Hue bulbs cost more, Philips says, because there are five unique and expensive lime-green LEDs in each bulb, balanced by four red-orange ones and two blue ones. Together, these LEDs produce a range of colors, including a nice span of "whites," from warm to cold.

In the future, the price difference between color-mixing LEDs and regular ones will shrink, and perhaps vanish. Adding color and wireless controls to bulbs will cost very little, so we might as well get used to it.

In fact, I found a cheaper alternative to the Hue: an $18 bulb of the TorchStar brand. sells a bunch of similar ones under different names. This bulb doesn't talk to your phone. Instead, it comes with a small remote that lets you pick from 16 colors. Unfortunately, the "white" color is a nasty bluish shade, reminiscent of a bad fluorescent tube. It's also a lot dimmer than the Hue.

On the plus side, the TorchStar produces more vivid, saturated colors than the Hue. To produce a good white, the Hue sacrificed the ability to produce really deep colors.

I also found the remote on the TorchStar pretty friendly. Do I really want to whip out my iPhone or iPad and fire up the Hue app every time I want to adjust the lighting? In fact, I was tempted to attach the remote to the wall like a light switch -- there's something to be said for those old wall switches.

Once you have it up, the free Hue app is entertaining. One of the ways you can change colors is to pick a photo, then point to the hues you want the lights to replicate. The app sends your commands to your Wi-Fi router. The router, in turn, tells the Hue base station (a small box included in the $200 kit) attached to it to send signals to the bulbs using a different wireless technology, known as Zigbee. Philips says the signal can reach nearly 100 feet. But it can travel even farther if you have your bulbs strung out, because each bulb will relay the signal to others that can't "hear" the base station directly. So these bulbs are "smart" enough to talk to each other.

The "smarts" doesn't go all that far, though.

You can set a timer that's supposed to fade the light down slowly -- a nice touch if you're trying to get a kid to sleep -- but it didn't work for me. The light just cut out at the designated time, with no fade.

The base station is capable of connecting to the Internet, so you can control your lights away from the home. Some wags have created apps that turn the bulbs into disco lights that change color in response to music they pick up from your phone's microphone.

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