IoT enabled light bulbs have been on the market for a while now. The Philips Hue is probably the best known. But I think controlling bulbs directly is a rule-maintenance disaster waiting to happen. If a bulb goes out (and yes, LED bulbs do fail), you have to replace the bulb, and remember to update any scenes or other rules that control the bulb (or are triggered by the bulb.) Or if you move a bulb from fixture A in the kitchen to fixture B in the bedroom, (perhaps while cleaning), the rule that says "Turn on kitchen lights" will now illuminate the bedroom.

That may not seem like a big problem today for those of us who understand the configurations of our home automation systems intimately, but imagine a home automation system set up by a professional integrator for a typical customer. The homeowner may not know how to change the rules, so replacing a lightbulb could cost them not only the price of the smart bulb, but an additional service call charge from the integration company. A smart switch or fixture solves this problem because the switch doesn't move with typical maintenance. (The switch offers the same problem of configuration if it fails and needs to be replaced, of course, but switches typically have better life expectancies than bulbs, which are generally considered consumables.)

On the other hand, an IoT enabled light switch can't fully control every aspect of lighting the same way a smart light bulb can. A switch can do simple dimming for certain technologies of bulbs, but it can't control the color of the Hue bulb.

Much worse, smart switches use different types of electronic circuitry to perform dimming, and must be carefully matched to the technology of the bulbs they are controlling. A typical older dimmer can dim only incandescent bulbs and not CFL or LED bulbs; some dimmers can dim both incandescent and CFL but not LED bulbs; some dimmers can control incandescent bulbs and LED bulbs, but not CFLs; and some dimmers can control inductive loads like halogen transformers, but not CFLs or LEDs! With incandescent bulbs being replaced because they're such energy wasters, this has been a real problem, too.

So what's the most practical approach? Buy expensive bulbs that are directly controllable and expensive smart switches to control them, or buy cheap bulbs and just expensive smart switches, and give up on the idea of controllable color lighting?

  • 1
    Is this a consumer or a product designer question? (i.e. for you, or for new products). – Sean Houlihane Jan 3 '17 at 18:23
  • I'm a consumer who has to make these kinds of decisions. Should I bet on dumb bulbs and smart switches, or smart bulbs and a ton of weird complexities? – John Deters Jan 3 '17 at 18:31
  • What is the smart use case? How do you want to control the lights? App? Alexa? Are manual operations necessary? – Helmar Jan 3 '17 at 18:31
  • The "smart" case is the lighting is controlled in scenes, or by a remote control (maybe an ersatz Alexa someday.) The "normal" case is that when someone walks into the dining room, they see a switch on the wall and it works to turn on the lights. Both are important. – John Deters Jan 3 '17 at 18:36
  • FWIW, last time I checked, LightwaveRF had discontinued their smart bulbs (dimmable CFL which I have one), and now only have wall mount, inline or plug-socket dimmers. – Sean Houlihane Jan 3 '17 at 18:36

There are a few aspects to consider, and the answer will depend a lot on your exact situation.


Smart switches will allow far more choice in lighting overall, since you can use any bulb that would work normally. As noted in this CNet article:

With a smart switch, you're free to use whatever bulb you want -- perfect if you're picky about light quality, or if your fixture requires bulbs of a particular size, shape, or style that's incompatible with smart bulbs.

However, the customisation issue goes the other way too. With a 'smart bulb' such as the Philips Hue, you gain the ability to change the bulb colour as well as the brightness and on/off state. With a smart switch, I would imagine that colour changing is impractical, because the switch is 'dumb' and doesn't know what's connected to it, just like your regular light switch.


This is another issue with advantages and disadvantages for both options. A smart switch will need to be wired in to the lighting circuit to control your lights, which is nowhere near as straightforward as simply plugging in a bulb, as with most smart bulbs. Of course, if the bulb doesn't fit in the first place, you're going to have a problem using the smart bulb, but most light fixtures use standard sizes.

On the other hand, a smart bulb is likely to need more setup, and some require a hub as well, which adds to the setup time and complexity. The majority of smart switches on the market seem to connect via Wi-Fi, and hence do not require an additional hub.


This is a far more difficult issue to quantify, since there is such a diverse range of products on the market. I've just picked some relatively popular products for the example, and this will vary widely depending on the exact products chosen.

The Philips Hue starter kit, which provides three bulbs and a hub, costs $199.99.

To compare, the WeMo Light Switch is $47.94 (each), so $143.82 for 3 switches. However, you do not get the dimming and colour changing options with this, so it may be worth deciding whether those functions are worth the additional $56.17.

'Graceful degradation'

Many smart bulbs will simply stop working altogether if you turn the proper light switch off, because they require power to operate, so they can't respond to wireless control. A smart switch won't have this problem - it's always connected to power and ready to respond - so it will be far more intuitive to the users of your system to use smart switches.

I also heard a highly useful rule of thumb when designing a smart home - it should be simple enough that both a 5-year-old and and 80-year-old can understand it without needing to be taught. In the case of a smart switch, you'll have no problems - it works just like any other switch, and toggling it will toggle the light, whether physically or wirelessly. A smart bulb might fail this test - switching it off physically then on wirelessly doesn't work, which is likely to confuse anyone who finds this problem.

The rule of thumb I mentioned is helpful to ensure that your IoT architecture doesn't get so complex that you can't operate it normally. In other words, if you can't operate your lights like you could before, you're doing it wrong!

In summary, think about these points and decide which is best for you:

  • Do you need dimming and colour changing? If so, pick a smart bulb.
  • Are you able to wire up a smart switch electrically, and want the choice of any 'dumb' bulb to use in your lights? If this is the case, pick a smart switch.

Above all, I'd suggest not mixing the two systems together - this way, the user of the home can learn how the system works and all their lights will work the same way - mixing two systems will lead to more confusion for little gain.

  • 2
    Good point of nog mixing them, if one of them is toggled off, you're not getting any light (; – Paul Jan 5 '17 at 18:12
  • mixing them might actually be good in a different way. Simply use smart switches everywhere and then in the few places that you want color add smart bulbs which are still driven by the smart switches. this would mean that you have total consistency, lights always turn on and off the same way, the only thing extra to learn is if you want to control color. – whitneyland Jun 28 '17 at 18:58
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    +1 for "it should be simple enough that both a 5-year-old and and 80-year-old can understand it without needing to be taught." – Greg Woods Nov 14 '17 at 12:40

I was just asking myself this very same question last week. And I came to the conclusion that for me, smart switches are the way to go. And the primary reason is that for a smart bulb to work, the light switch has to already be on.

So what to do about making sure the switch stays on?

  • Eliminate the switch by bypassing the wiring?
  • By putting tape over it?
  • By telling everyone "don't turn off this switch?"

I didn't like any of those options, so I decided to go the switch route for now. My goal now is for outside lighting mainly. I have not decided how I will actually use them properly yet. Put a Echo Dot outside, use the manufacturers app via phone, write an app for my phone that senses proximity to my house via GPS or Wifi and turns my outside lights on if its dark? TBD.

The only use that I could come up with for using the bulbs is to have individual bulbs separately addressable that are currently on the same circuit - E.G. reading lamps next to lounger, sofa, etc. I don't care about the color aspect other than I like warm over cold, but dimming would be something I might want in the future but don't care about at the moment.

So for me right now... switches.

  • Do you have any smart switches to recommend? Have you tried uisng SONOFF? – SE_User Feb 8 '17 at 13:45
  • I am using Belkin WeMo switches. Have not tried any other brands. – Jim Bledsoe Feb 17 '17 at 0:11

I am avoiding the "smart"-bulbs and I am going to migrate my old switches to make them smart.

I do understand that the big companies like Philips prefer to sell a product that is easy to install (at least the physical part), but I want to be able to easily swap and replace bulbs without any software involved. Also I want to still be able to use the good old switches.

So, a really smart home should look like a normal one, allowing less tech people to use it.

Sadly the only options so far seems to be quite expensive: £50 for a double relay but I hope that the Chinese will catch up soon and upgrade their touch switches to speak a standard protocol like ZigBee or Z-Wave. I wasted few good days trying to find something on AliExpress that can speak one of these. None under £30 so far but I keep looking.

  • That's the approach I've taken, too, but I have had to replace several smart dimmer switches when I replaced the old incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. So that's been a set of expenses I would like to have avoided. – John Deters Jan 3 '17 at 18:55
  • These looks good with a EU wall switch form factor (as opposed to vertical rectangle shape US ones) and cheap: fr.aliexpress.com/item/… they are zigbee but I'm not sure they work with anything else than the Xiaomi bridge, I would be interested if anyone feels like testing tough. – Guillaume86 Aug 11 '17 at 11:46

The majority of your bulbs probably won't be colour controlled,and even more so for a typical consumer. So a hybrid solution seems likely in the medium term.

Also, many bulbs don't really need to be dimmed, so this points towards a cheaper solution. For the average consumer, I think it is fairly important that if it has a B22 or E27 fitting, it can simply be replaced with an arbitrary similar bulb. Surely, the larger manufacturers will see this as a critical point too. Making bulbs which can be dimmed (and marketed as compatible) seems solvable.

Finally, bulb lifetime does seem to be getting better, but I am wary of anything that crams too much heat dissipation into a conventional bulb form factor.

  • 1
    I've lost 3 LED bulbs prematurely (so far) to what I believe are heat buildup issues in the fixture, probably because the bulbs are installed downward-facing and the globes are closed at the top. I'm annoyed at losing a $5.00 bulb after less than 1000 hours of usage. I'd have been gobsmacked if they had been $45 smart bulbs. – John Deters Jan 3 '17 at 19:31

When the bulbs have an integral role in contributing the look,feel & mood of the room, the switches make sure to On/off primarily & also considers the energy management of the home.

So while these two distinct products advances, obviously the impact will be on their respective purposes only. I mean to say a smart bulbs has just come up with its expected outcome only, like giving an more than hundreds of color variations & the user liberty to change/modify based on the situations.

On the other hand, Smart switches has taken a great leap in controlling the entire home appliances from a 40 watt(existing bulb) to high amps AC, Washing machine,iron box. Instead of smartifying the individual electronic products by their respective Companies & coming up with lots of individual APPS, I would say Smart switches is ahead of all these.

My conclusion is, no point in mixing up these smart bulbs & smart switches. When you install smart switches, the entire home would be automated & then buy a smart bulb for your needed rooms. Even if you cant controll the dimming or color variation using a smart switch, it can be at least switched off from anywhere which is what its destined to do.

For smart bulbs, I guess Philips is the best & for smart switches Curiousfly has come up with a complete home solution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmFBNNAAFc0&t=6s

  • I don't think this addresses the original question, rather it is more general, and the link is not relevant either. – Sean Houlihane Mar 8 '18 at 15:14

Controllable LED (White/RGB) bulbs are in my opinion product of non-innovative, linear thinking.

The reason is because in big corporations people/teams are under pressure to promote something new on the market ASAP just because company needs media presence of type "We are leading this LED game."

Probably the best solution is in smart switches and/or smart IoT controller running/monitoring/controlling bulbs/sensors/actuators via technologies such as X10 in order to avoid additional wiring.

  • 3
    Thanks for sharing. You mention that you don't think smart bulbs are very innovative, but that doesn't really answer the question fully. Here are some tips about how you can share your opinions while backing them up to write a great answer, but I think this would be a pretty good answer if you could back up your assertions a little more. – Aurora0001 Sep 5 '17 at 16:15
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    You forget that a controllable bulb is the most trivial for a consumer to install. Most consumers are not happy to re-wire a plug, let alone install a smart-switch and use the right type of dimmable bulb with it. – Sean Houlihane Sep 5 '17 at 16:26

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