Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug (2024)

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve captured a lot of critters on home security cameras or seen one too many horror movies, but entering a dark house terrifies me. Although my husband would be perfectly happy to solve this problem by leaving the lights on all day and night, it’s completely unnecessary: Smart lighting exists for precisely this purpose.

Setting up your home with smart lights can solve a lot of problems. However, because there are several types of devices you can pick from—bulbs, light switches, and add-on plugs—it can be hard to know where to start. Why and when do you pick one of those devices over another?

All smart lighting devices allow you to control them from your smartphone, and you can set them up to work like old-fashioned lighting timers, but they can do much more. You can control whole groups of lights at once, set them to go on and off based on local sunset times, and configure them to respond to other smart devices, such as motion sensors or security cameras. But each type of device has a superpower (and also a weakness, just like Superman). Let’s look at what devices work best for three different scenarios.

When to use a smart plug

Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug (1)

Smart plugs are best when you want to control a lamp. They’re small devices that fit into any outlet, and they’re the easiest way to convert a table lamp, floor lamp, or night-light into a smart light. They don’t need you to have a familiarity with wiring or any electrical know-how, as smart in-wall switches do. Smart plugs are especially easy to set up, remove, and move from room to room—once you plug one in, you simply sync it with your smartphone, and you’re off. The only downsides are that they take up some outlet space and don’t control hardwired fixtures like ceiling lights or sconces.

I like the Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Mini (EP10) because it’s cheap, it works with a few smart-home platforms (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung SmartThings), and it has been reliably turning twinkle lights in my living room on and off for a few months. If you need something that has more plugs, the Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Power Strip (HS300) is a little pricier but takes up only one outlet and gives you six independently controlled outlets in its place, plus three USB ports.

One of the great things about smart plugs is that you can use them for other things besides lights. I have the TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Outdoor Plug (EP40A) underneath my house so that I can trigger a pump to clear out water when it starts to flood under there (and that happens often). The EP40A has an extra outlet, so we can add holiday lights or a giant inflatable Christmas dragon, which we can control through the app as well via voice commands (“Alexa, release the dragon”).

When to use a smart bulb

Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug (2)

Smart bulbs are best when you want to control bulbs individually or want to adjust the color of your home’s light. Since they come in different shapes and sizes, there’s a smart bulb for almost any lamp or fixture, indoors and outdoors (so long as your fixture is weather-tight). They screw into a fixture just like any other bulb, but they sync with a smartphone app, which lets you create custom scheduled on/off times or custom Scenes (preset brightness or color settings for different activities that you can trigger instantly). The whole process is easy, and you don’t need to do a lick of wiring.

If you’re just looking to dabble, the WiZ 60W A19 Color LED (usually about $11) connects right to your home Wi-Fi and lets you change colors, turn the white light into a variety of shades on command, and schedule on/off times; it also includes support for Alexa, Google Home, and Siri Shortcuts.

If you’re looking to install these all over the house or in areas with spotty Wi-Fi, I love the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Smart Bulb Starter Kit, which includes three dimmable white bulbs and a hub—a little box you plug in to your home Internet router that allows your bulbs to talk to each other and other devices, and lets you control everything when you aren’t home. (You can also use the Amazon Echo Plus or Echo Show, which each have a hub built in). Besides putting the bulbs on a schedule (an easy task), you can dim or tweak the color and color temperature of the bulbs to suit your preference, as well as work with third-party apps that can alert you to security alarms and weather changes—or just create a disco effect (video). If you don’t need color, the Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit is a little cheaper, but includes four white bulbs and a hub.

Unlike smart plugs, smart bulbs work only with light fixtures, and those fixtures need to be turned on at all times. If someone flips the switch, you won’t be able to access a smart bulb without an add-on like the Lutron Aurora dimmer, which works with Philips Hue and other Zigbee-certified smart bulbs.

When to use a smart switch

Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug (3)

Smart in-wall dimmers and switches are best when you want to control lights operated by a light switch, and they’re especially useful for switches that control several lights at once. A smart switch or dimmer is a more permanent way to add smart lighting into your home, but that means they’re not good for rentals. They allow you to turn your lights on and off or to dim them, from a single switch or a smartphone app (or by voice, if you have a smart speaker set up for that), but they also enable you to create lighting schedules. And you can install them without having to change your existing fixture or any bulbs. The TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch Dimmer HS220 is a favorite thanks to its affordable price, reliability, and hub-free setup. On a technical note, this switch does need a white “neutral” wire in your wall to be installed, which many other smart switches require—and is often missing, especially if you live in an older house like I do. If you’re looking for something that won’t require a neutral wire, try the Lutron Caséta.

Smart switches are also great for homes with vaulted ceilings or areas with hard-to-reach lighting fixtures. The Lutron model does need a hub, so if you’re not interested in adding another box to your home networking setup, or if you just want to replace one or two switches in the house, opt for the TP-Link model instead. Of course, you’ll also need some basic knowledge of wiring. If you don’t have that, hire an electrician.

Mentioned above

  • An outdoor security camera can alert you to prowlers, package deliveries, and visitors, as well as animals in your trash and things that go bump in the night. The Best Outdoor Security Camera
  • A smart plug boosts the IQ of un-brainy devices such as lamps, fans, or string lights, letting you easily set them to turn on or off on a schedule or on command.The Best Smart Plugs
  • These smart devices can transform the ambiance and comfort levels of any space in the time it takes to open an app and screw in a light bulb.The Best Smart LED Light Bulbs
  • A smart dimmer works like a regular switch but makes it easy to put lights on a schedule, automate them with other devices, and control them remotely.The Best In-Wall Smart Light Switch and Dimmer
  • Wyze doesn’t understand its responsibilities in dealing with customer security and privacy. We won’t review Wyze smart devices until it learns to do better.Why We’re Pausing Our Recommendation of Wyze Smart Home Devices

Further reading

  • 4 Design-Friendly Smart Lighting Styles to Personalize Your Home

    by Rachel Cericola

    There’s more to smart lighting than basic bulbs and wall switches. These design-centric smart lights are easy to install and will enhance your living space.

  • The Best Smart Home Starter Kits to Buy Black Friday 2020

    by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

    Smart home starter kits are a quick and budget-friendly way to get started with—or expand—a smart home system that will just work.

  • Google Assistant Smart-Home Starter Kit

    by Grant Clauser

    If your smart speaker is a Google Home, here are the best devices that work with it.

  • 6 Easy Smart Home Essentials for Renters

    by Rachel Cericola

    You don’t need to own your house to enjoy the magic and convenience of smart-home devices. These affordable devices allow any renter to smarten their place up.

Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug (2024)


Seeing the Light: When to Use a Smart Bulb, Switch, or Plug? ›

Smart switches give you the ability to make any of your existing light bulbs and fixtures smart, while smart bulbs give you the ability to play with color. Luckily, you don't have to choose between the two.

What's better, a smart switch or a smart bulb? ›

Smart switches give you the ability to make any of your existing light bulbs and fixtures smart, while smart bulbs give you the ability to play with color. Luckily, you don't have to choose between the two.

Which is better, a smart bulb or a smart plug? ›

If you aim to illuminate your room and don't need more features, then the bulb is a convenient option. On the other hand, a smart plug would be better suited if you want to operate other devices around a big house. Some people opt for both when they want to maximize the functionality of their house.

Do you need a light switch for a smart bulb? ›

' If your regular switch is turned 'off,' no electricity is flowing to the bulb, so it will not fully function. While you can easily connect and manage your smart light bulbs with a flip of a regular light switch, you may find a more brilliant experience with a smart switch.

Do smart light bulbs need to be plugged in? ›

Smart bulbs consume energy even when the lights are off because they are always connected to Wi-Fi. 5 Also, if you choose a model that requires a hub, the hub also needs to be plugged in. When used correctly, however, the energy savings you get from switching to LED smart bulbs will offset their consumption cost.

What's the difference between smart switches bulbs and plugs? ›

Unlike smart plugs, smart bulbs work only with light fixtures, and those fixtures need to be turned on at all times. If someone flips the switch, you won't be able to access a smart bulb without an add-on like the Lutron Aurora dimmer, which works with Philips Hue and other Zigbee-certified smart bulbs.

What are the disadvantages of smart switches? ›

Disadvantages: Required Complexity

While smart switches offer a range of benefits, installing them isn't as plug-and-play as replacing light bulbs. It is necessary to understand electrical operation and have some technical knowledge for a successful installation.

What are the disadvantages of smart bulbs? ›

Disadvantages of Smart Bulbs

While traditional light bulbs can be purchased for a few dollars each, smart bulbs can cost upwards of $20 or more, depending on the brand and features. This can make it difficult for some users to justify the expense, especially if they are looking to replace multiple bulbs in their home.

Do smart bulbs use electricity when off? ›

As we mentioned above, smart bulbs are in a class of appliances that use electricity in standby mode: vampire devices. This means that smart bulbs use electricity even when they're off.

Do smart plugs increase electricity bill? ›

Given how little smart plugs will add to your energy consumption, it doesn't take much for them to save more than they use. Soon enough, that $10 to $20 smart plug will likely pay for itself, but it won't do all the work on its own. You'll need to use smart plugs strategically to maximize the savings.

Is it safe to leave switch on for smart bulb? ›

Yes, it is generally safe to leave your light switch on all night if you use smart bulbs.

Are smart light switches worth it? ›

Having smart switches installed is a home improvement that saves money. If you live with children or big kids, smart switches are programmed to turn off after a specific amount of time, with or without WiFi. Do you want smart switches, smart bulbs, or smart plugs? All of them have distinct advantages.

How long do smart bulbs last? ›

First-generation smart lights last up to 15,000 hours, while second- and third-generation lights last up to 25,000 hours.

Is it better to have a smart bulb or smart plug? ›

You can dip your toes into smart lighting by getting a single smart bulb or smart plug. Smart plugs tend to be more affordable while smart bulbs offer extra features such as personalized colors (be sure to read the product descriptions – features vary by bulb).

What is the difference between a smart light and a smart switch? ›

Another reason to choose smart bulbs is if you want the ability to change colors and / or use tunable white lighting. These are more expensive, but you don't get this functionality with smart switches either. Smart bulbs are also good for lamps, small fixtures, and other decorative lighting such as wall sconces.

Is it a good idea to get a smart switch? ›

Like most backup systems, when they work they work great but when they fail.. they fail hard. SmartSwitch is the way to go if you're looking for ease of transfer but keep in mind, it can often be buggy.

Can smart switches control smart lights? ›

It is typically not recommended to mix smart lighting and smart wiring accessories together using conventional wiring – a product needs to be powered in order to be controlled via the app and if a smart light is controlled directly by a smart switch this will cause the light to not always be able to connect to the app.

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