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The smart light bulb problem no one is talking about


Kitting out my new house with smart home gadgets has been a blast coming from the rigid confines of a rented apartment. But one particular issue affecting the simplest of all smart home hardware is driving me a little nuts. I was actually a little shocked to see it hasn’t been talked about more, and while I wrestle with trying to get hardware that behaves a little better, I’d like to rant for the public record about how inconsistent smart bulbs are.

I know, this sounds like a really pedantic complaint, but it’s actually pretty frustrating, primarily because one of my issues simply comes down to a company not caring to double-check its software labels. To start, what if I told you one of the highest-rated smart bulbs out there has mapped some of its colors wrong?

Great smart bulbs with one unfortunate problem. 

I’m talking about the basic and otherwise highly recommended Wyze bulbs. Sure, they’re not seamless setup, and you do have to use a third-party app and service linked with the Google Assistant to get it all working, but they’re a crazy-good value, easy to get, and generally work fine. I haven’t had any issues with buggy controls or connection problems, as so many smart home gadgets seem to suffer. They’re as reliable as dumb lights and a stupidly good buy at around $9 each.

But, they’ve had one big issue since launch that Wyze has just stubbornly refused to fix. See, the Wyze bulbs aren’t just dimmable, they also have an adjustable white point — that means they can tint slightly blue or orange, much as dumb bulbs can be purchased in “warm white” or “daylight.”

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Color temperature options for the Wyze bulbs — multi-color lights have more. 

It’s a great feature that a lot of smart bulbs support. I’m personally a fan of cooler light during the day and nice warm lighting at night. For many Assistant-connected bulbs, that means you can set up routines that trigger these different modes, or even just ask Google to make the lights “warm” or “cool,” or set them to “incandescent” or “candlelight.”

Unfortunately for Wyze, some of those labels are mixed up on the Wyze bulbs, and the gradient from a warm to a cool white point they’re supposed to represent is mapped incorrectly. Ask for the bluest “cool white” temperature and you’ll end up with a tone that borders “warm white,” and the nearly middle “ivory” setting is mapped to the coolest white the bulb can produce.

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That’s not right.

My already overly specific angst when it comes to white point sadly doesn’t end there. In the same vein, brightness between these different color temperatures can differ wildly for some smart lights. Wyze’s bulbs, thankfully, handle brightness between white points just fine, but other lights like the otherwise great Yeelight M2 suffer from this problem.

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Both of these photos of the Yeelight M2 were taken with identical camera settings (ISO 400 F/4.5 1/15), with the bulbs at max brightness for the two temperature settings. The difference is even stronger in person. 

These are very specific problems, but they can have a frustrating effect if want more than just Assistant-integrated controls for on and off. It makes it much harder to mix and match bulbs, and even if you stick with a single brand or model, it also means you can have light scenes where bulbs produce the wrong color temperatures, and you have to manually adjust brightness settings yourself, tuning them for each specific bulb and its brightness at each white point.

I’m told that more expensive smart lighting ecosystems like the Philips Hue don’t have these sorts of issues — implying that “you get what you pay for,” and that I should spend more for better hardware. That’s probably sound advice, but I feel like there’s a certain expectation here even when it comes to cheaper hardware, if for no other reason than because Google is lending its logos in an implicit stamp of approval. Some Assistant integrated hardware even has to pass certification, and the company strictly enforces things on the software side. But though the company claims to have a suite of certification requirements for its Smart Home Actions platform, they don’t seem to be good enough.

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This badge means less than you may hope. 

As someone slowly but deeply entering into the world of Assistant-integrated smart home gadgets, these sort of inconsistencies cheapen what is objectively an expensive (but clearly not always premium) experience. Even just the simple act of choosing a lightbulb requires almost as much research as some folks put into buying a smartphone to make sure everything will work as you expect, which is sort of nuts.

I’m not sure if it’s Google’s responsibility to police the masses of Assistant-integrated gadgets out there, but it is the gatekeeper, and I would argue that it should. Right now, neither the old “works with the Google Assistant” label nor the new “works with Hey Google” badge seem to be the indicator of quality I would expect. As I dip more deeply into the Assistant-compatible ecosystem, I am worried; if it’s like this for simple smart bulbs, I can’t imagine what the experience may be like for other even more complicated hardware.

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