Smart Bulb vs Smart Plug/Outlet vs Smart Switch: Which One Is Right For You?

Smart lighting is one of the easiest and most common ways to get started with home automation.

Today, we’ll clear up some of the differences between the three main forms of smart lighting at your disposal:

• Smart Bulbs
• Smart Plugs
• Smart Switches

If you’re already an old hand in this area, this is probably not for you. Today is firmly geared toward beginners so we’d direct more experienced domotics enthusiasts to our home automation blog where we look into everything from smart homes of the future to smartening up your bathroom.

If, on the other hand, you don’t really know the difference between the various forms of smart lighting and you want to see which would make most sense for you, we’ll jump straight in with smart bulbs, arguably the simplest way to get started…

Smart Bulbs

As with all forms of smart lighting, smart bulbs bring together the twin pillars of home automation: convenience and security.

By taking charge of your lighting using nothing but an app on your smartphone or voice commands, you can put a stop to scurrying around and bending down to manually hit the lights. This in and of itself is a worthwhile reason for investing in smart bulbs.

More importantly, though, is the ability you’ll have to take remote control when you’re not at home. You can easily give your house the appearance of being fully occupied while you sun yourself on the beach thousands of miles away.

For pure plug-and-play simplicity, smart bulbs allow you to get going with no requirement for a home hub, and no need at all for any special fittings whatsoever.

Smart bulbs were originally developed purely to save electricity. Using highly efficient LED bulbs capable of yielding up to 20,000 hours of use while saving you money each month on your power bill, smart bulbs have evolved just as surely as other components of your connected home.

Don’t get us wrong, you won’t get the same degree of intelligence with bulbs as you’ll find with more elaborate switches, plugs or dimmer switches, but you won’t get the stiff price tag or the complications with installation either.

If you’ve got single lamps or a particular area of your home where it’s impractical to install switches or in-wall dimmers, a bulb is a wise bet. If you’re looking for a more ambitious set-up, the cost of rolling out bulbs throughout the house can soon mount so you might want to consider a more robust lighting solution instead.

As a rule, you’ll be able to control smart bulbs using an app on your phone. Using wireless connectivity, some smart bulbs rely on Bluetooth or WiFi while others communicate using Zigbee or Z-Wave.

While the majority of smart bulbs don’t call for a home hub, others like the mighty Philips Hue range do require a gateway. Luckily, you can buy starter kits including the Hue Hub. The inbuilt advantage of this done-for-you solution is that you can build out a wider-reaching automated home with this handy hub as the foundation.

If your ambitions don’t stretch that far, there are plenty of smart bulbs from LIFX and TP-Link that allow you to get going straight out the box with no hub necessary.

Assuming you’ve got the smart bulbs of your choice in hand, you’ll need to download the requisite app then you simply use your phone to control the bulbs remotely. If supported, you’ll be able to change the brightness and color of your lighting.

The bulk of smart bulbs are compatible with your preferred digital butler, whether that’s Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant. This allows you to add control by voice commands to the mix.

You can also hit the switch as normal but that pretty much flies in the face of uprating your bulbs in the first place!

So…

While smart bulbs are undeniably convenient and a user-friendly way to kick off home automation even if you’re not a tech-fiend, they do come with a few downsides.

If you’re looking to buy multiple smart bulbs… well, you’d probably be better off with a smart switch or a dimmer which we’ll explore shortly. Not only do switches and dimmers have the ability to control more than one bulb, they’ll also work with more or less any bulb widening your options and slashing costs further.

The second and more serious flaw is that if your ambition extends beyond simple control of your bulb, you’ll definitely need a home hub.

Beyond this, choosing smart bulbs can be a minefield. While some bulbs work effectively across ecosystems, others – like Philips Hue – call for a specific bridge that might not mesh with your overall home automation plan.

Check out 3 of the very best smart bulbs here if you’re stuck for ideas.

Key Takeaway: If you simply want to control single bulbs remotely and you’re looking for a low-tech entry point to smart home technology, bulbs make perfect sense. If you have wider plans to automate your home, it’s worth considering going the whole hog with smart switches.

Smart Plugs

These intelligent outlets allow you to control almost any appliance you plug in using either your smartphone or a voice assistant-driven smart speaker.

From lamps and fans through to coffee machines and crock pots, smart plugs are no more complex to use than a regular outlet while offering you far more seamless functionality.

Whether you want to start your coffee machine while you’re still upstairs getting ready in the morning or hit the lights when the movie has ended without getting off the couch, smart plus are versatile, inexpensive and extremely straightforward to use.

To clear up any confusion, smart plugs and smart outlets are used interchangeably to describe the exact same intelligent outlet.

Inside the plug is a WiFi chip that communicates with both your home network and your router. Set-up is as straightforward as downloading a free app. You can control your plugs manually using the switch, in-app on your phone or using voice commands if you’ve got an Alexa-enabled device or Google Home.

The scope of smart plugs moves far beyond simply switching appliances on and off, though.

Have you got a rampant power bill lately and wondered exactly how you can start making sensible cuts but you don’t know where to begin? Well, smart plugs often give you an insight into energy use in-app. By monitoring your electricity consumption and hitting you up with real-time reports, you can see precisely which appliances are sapping that power and driving your utility bills higher.

There’s another excellent baked-in option with the majority of smart plugs: away mode. If you’re a frequent traveller and you want to make sure your smart home seems naturally occupied when you’re out of town, a great way to achieve this is by ensuring your smart plugs randomly power your devices on and off during a pre-determined time window.

Smart plugs are renter-friendly, too. Let’s face it, if you don’t own your home, it’s not practical to start messing around with wiring like you’d need to with smart switches. And when you move to your next rental, you can just unplug your outlet and take it with you.

As with any aspect of smart home tech, it’s not all rosy with smart plugs. The most dramatic problem is down to the design. You might very well find a smart plug that won’t mar the clean lines of your home too much but we have to admit many are pretty damn ugly.

A more pressing issue, though, is the way smart plugs often and inexcusably block the adjacent outlets making life awkward rather than easier. Two ways to fight back against this are to consider either a mini smart plug or a power strip.

Take a look at our recent study of the 9 Best Smart Plugs for a broad selection of the most effective outlets in 2019.

Key Takeaway: Cheap and cheerful, smart plugs let you test the waters of home automation without any tasky installation and without spending too much. You’ll be able to remotely control a range of appliances and you can also enjoy energy monitoring to potentially reduce your electricity consumption.

Smart Switches

Although you will need some form of installation, smart switches give you a wonderful degree of flexibility and you won’t need the expense of replacing bulbs throughout your entire home.

You’ll face a couple of key decisions when you’re considering smartening up your switches…

Wired Switches: If you’re a homeowner and you’re looking for a permanent and fully integrated smart lighting, wired switches makes perfect sense. You’ll need to make sure there’s a C-wire in place so it pays to call in an electrician unless you’re completely confident handling this type of work. We wouldn’t recommend going it alone! There are some switches that don’t call for this neutral wire but they’re few and far between

Wireless Switches: Fully wire-free switches are started to become more common. Complete with magnetic mounts, you can pop this on the wall without the trouble of rewiring and they make a good call for renters or anyone not happy about the expense and hassle of installing wired switches

Once you’ve decided on whether to tread the wired or wireless router, there’s another choice to make:

On/Off Switches: As the name makes abundantly clear, you’ll get rudimentary control of turning your lights on and off using nothing more than an app and your smartphone

Dimmer Switches: Giving you a little more leeway, you’ll be able to adjust the brightness of your lighting with dimmer switches making them ideal if you frequently tweak the lighting levels and don’t want to keep jumping out of your chair to do so

With smart switches, you’ll be able to use any type of bulb.

Look for the communication protocol with the smart switch you’re thinking about buying. With Bluetooth or WiFi, you’ll usually be able to use nothing but your smartphone. Z-Wave and Zigbee, both radio protocols, will force you to use a hub as a form of a translator. Think about both the smart home kit you already have in place and the gear you’re likely to buy in the future so you can make the most effective choice with any smart switches you’re contemplating.

We’ll be taking a more in-depth look at smart switches later this week so we’ll round out our look at this more complex element of smart lighting with 3 of the best on/off switches and a trio of dimmers so you can see some concrete examples…

3 Of The Best On/Off Switches

GE Z-Wave Wireless On/Off Smart Switch

Using the highly dependable Z-Wave communication protocol, you’ll need a gateway with the GE on/off switch. This hub allows you to control every source of hardwired light throughout your smart home. You’ll also enjoy the added speed of the uprated Z-Wave Plus with this model and it’s a great approach to gain remote access to the lighting already in place.

HomeSeer Z-Wave On/Off Switch

Another Z-Wave-enabled on/off switch, you can use just about any controller beyond the proprietary pad. Once installed, you can trigger up to 14 different events within your HomeSeer system. A nifty status mode allows you to see colored LEDs indicating any doors that are open or perhaps close but not locked.

Insteon Remote Control On/Off Switch

If you want to control all the (non-dimmable) lights in your smart home as well as fans, all you’ll need is an Insteon controller. If you want to use voice commands, you’ll need an Insteon hub along with a device for Alexa or Google Assistant. From fluorescent lights and halogen lamps through to electronic ballasts, you’ll get ample scope with this classic Insteon on/off switch at a price you’ll love.

3 of The Best Dimmer Switches

Insteon Remote Control Dimmer Switch

You won’t need a neutral wire or a hub with this hard-hitting Insteon dimmer so you can launch right in without any hassle or added expense. If you want to use voice commands then you will need a hub and this will allow you to take advantage of Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa. With a choice of colors and wattages, this remote control dimmer gives you plenty of choices and makes a cost-effective entry to smart switches from a brand you can trust.

Leviton Decora Smart WiFi Dimmer

This wireless smart switch let’s you dim your lighting using nothing but an app and your smartphone. Set schedules and create Scenes with this neat switch designed to work with low-wattage light sources including LEDs. With LEDs and CFLs, the Decora is rated for loads to 300 watts while it can handle incandescent loads to 600 watts. A choice of wallplates helps you coordinate this switch with your existing décor.

Lutron Caseta In-Wall Dimmer Switch

By replacing your existing switch with the Lutron Caseta, you’ll be able to exercise remote dimming control of all LED bulbs in your smart home. Installation is a cinch and you won’t need that C-wire either. You will need a bridge, though and you’ll be able to use voice control if you prefer that to manipulate your lighting in-app.

Key Takeaway: Smart switches, whether wired or wireless, on/off or dimmer switches, make a cost-effective approach to updating the lighting in your automated home. We’ve given you just a brief overview today and we’ll be doubling down on the best smart switches later this week so if you feel this method of smartening up your lighting makes sense come back soon!

Final Word

As you can see, the field of smart lighting might initially look confusing and busy, but it’s actually remarkably simple to navigate once you know the main differences between the various options.

Smart bulbs are great if you have little interest beyond adding remote control to a bulb or two and you have no more adventurous plans up your sleeve

Smart plugs give you the added benefit of being able to control more appliances and devices from coffee machines to fans as well, of course, as your lighting. With integrated energy monitoring, you not only get a cheap solution, but you can also  save money on your monthly bills, too

Smart switches, while they might appear confusing, are actually not so tough to use once they’re installed. If you don’t mind calling in an electrician and you want a fully integrated method of controlling the lighting throughout your home, it’s worth going all-in with smart switches

Come back soon as we’re continuing the smart lighting theme on our home automation blog this month and we’ve got plenty of more detailed product reviews lined up so you can invest in the best gear with confidence.