Home Automation

The Disconnected Bulb


We’ve seen significant growth in the connected lighting space over the past few years, yet consumers still face a daunting challenge when adding so called “smart lighting” to their homes. Products like Philips Hue, Belkin Wemo and Lifx have arguably made it at least approachable, and Ikea’s new Trådfri promises a simpler approach for their customers to retrofit their homes with modern smart bulbs. But overall, the connected lighting landscape is still fraught with usability issues.

Don’t Touch That Dial!

No matter how many features they pack, all except one type of smart bulb available today are subject to two major limitations:

  1. Your smart bulb must have constant power—turn off the light at the switch, and your “smart” bulb becomes uncontrollable from a fancy wireless knob, button, or smartphone.
  2. They are incompatible with dimmer switches (except for Sengled Element Plus)—most connected bulbs cannot function when the power is reduced through a dimmer, and they usually won’t even dim properly from the switch.

We introduced the Sengled Element Plus in our CES coverage. Sengled is the first manufacturer to date offering smart bulbs that are compatible with a conventional dimmer, but still…don’t turn that switch off!

Switching Switches

If you’re undaunted by some light-duty electrical work, and your housing situation allows it, you can swap out your wall switches with “smart” switches. This allows you to turn a large number of fixtures and bulbs into “smart” lightning, but it is nowhere near as easy as screwing in a lightbulb.

Wireless switches and remotes can help with the traditional control issue, and products like Lutron’s Connected Bulb Remote and Pico Remote, the Flic, iDevices’ Instant Switch (expected mid 2017), Aeotec’s WallMote and Logitech’s POP go a long way to that end. But you still have to keep that old light switch set to ON or nothing will work.

Things Are Shaping Up

Cree Connected Bulb Soft White OnWhile products like the Sengled Element Plus bulbs solve the issue of having to swap-out or leave your conventional dimmer set to full, they—like so many others—haven’t evolved from the half-dome style of early LED lights. We’re not fans of this style because it ignores the need to have light spread evenly toward the base when installed in a table lamp. With the half-dome globes, all the light directs up, away from the base of the bulb!

We’re finally seeing manufacturers start to pay much more attention to fixing this issue, particularly since Cree shook things up with the Cree Connect LED Bulb‘s “4Flow” design that eliminated the need for a light-blocking heat sink at the base. These types of bulbs can spread light more evenly, like the traditional incandescent bulbs we’re all used to.

A Brighter Future

There’s a lot of room for further innovation in the connected lighting space, and companies like Sengled and BeONHome have been proving that out with lightbulb features like built-in battery backup for temporary lighting during power failure, upgradeable “smarts,” and presence “spoofing” to fool would-be burglars.

Ikea may be one of the best positioned to succeed, with their expertise in experiential selling and an ability to introduce smart lighting to the masses at a reasonable price. And if their previously publicized connected kitchen concept is any gauge for what’s coming, they have a lot in store. [Pun intended.] It will be interesting to see how they handle the complexities of a connected Ikea home going forward. As you can see in this official Ikea Sweden YouTube videoTrådfri is not a candidate for a simple instruction sheet and a hex wrench (though they do try).

Tradfri pairing

[Update December 1, 2017] – Reference to Sengled Element Touch was removed from the post. Sengled Element Touch bulbs are not dimmer switch compatible.

Share your thoughts in the comments, below, and be sure to catch Home: On #087 – The Connected Car, with Ljuba Miljkovic, where we discussed Ikea Trådfri and other interesting topics.


About the author

Doug Krug

Doug has been an electronics and gadgets enthusiast his entire life. He's the son of an engineer who helped build Voyager 1, the first Mars Lander, and an Altair 8800 from scratch—before the home PC even existed. It’s fair to say his future path was inevitable. Today, Doug is an IT consultant and a passionate early-adopter of connected home technology. He writes about smart home technology, device security and privacy for The Digital Media Zone, Solo Traveller, Smart Home Primer and his own blog.