Yes, You Can Find the Best Smart Light Switches to Set the Mood
The pros call it a lighting scene.
Published Aug 23, 2021 1:00 AM
If you’ve ever forgotten to turn off that one sconce before leaving for vacation or wanted to get cocktail hour vibes in your living room but lacked dimmers, smart home lighting probably sounds pretty appealing. I recently served as a media judge for best products at CEDIA Expo 2021, the biggest trade show in home automation—and smart light switches figured prominently. The high-tech devices, which take the place of your existing light switches, have become a red-hot category in the expanding world of smart home technology. And why not? They make it easy to control your home’s lighting in so many life-enhancing ways.
For starters, the best smart light switches let you automate tasks you do every day, like walking from room to room turning on recessed lighting, floor lamps, and other fixtures. Instead you can have all the lights in your home come on exactly how you want them by simply pressing a button or using a voice command. These preprogrammed settings are what the pros call lighting scenes, and once you get used to them you’ll never go back.
Smart light switches also offer other helpful tricks, like allowing you to control lights remotely and working in tandem with motion sensors to illuminate darkened hallways. The most advanced switches even control other connected devices in the home, from cameras to door locks to thermostats.
So how do you figure out which switch is right for you? “Start by asking yourself what you want the switch to do for you,” says Ryan Herd, a smart home specialist and owner of 1 Sound Choice, which does home automation installations throughout the New York metropolitan area. “If you want the full smart home experience at your fingertips, that takes you down one path. If you just want the ability to turn a reading lamp on and off with your voice, that’s another.” We checked in with Herd along with other lighting pros and technology experts to share our smart switch picks for every home.
- Best overall: Lutron Caséta Smart Dimmer Starter Kit
- Best value: TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch Dimmer
- Best for total smart home control: Brilliant Smart Home System
- Best wireless: GE Lighting Cync Wire-Free Smart Switch
- Best for older homes: Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Smart Dimmer
- Best for Philips Hue lights: Philips Hue Dimmer
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Smart light switches versus smart lightbulbs: A smart switch gives you control over any and all light fixtures in a room (and in some cases other connected devices, too, like a thermostat or sound system). Smart lightbulbs, by comparison, allow control over just one fixture. Smart bulbs are a good way to dip a toe in the water, but if you’re ready to take the plunge, smart light switches are the brighter choice.
Wired versus wireless: Most smart light switches need to be hardwired to your home’s existing electrical wiring. That provides continuous power to the switch, plus this category tends to have the most features and control options. But if you’re a novice DIYer, you might need to hire an electrician to install the wired switch, since connecting to the right wires can be a little tricky. That’s opened the market for wireless switches, which are much easier to install without too much compromise in feature set. The downside is you’ll have to change the batteries every now and then, and they tend not to have the sleekest designs.
Switch style: Though you can still get old-fashioned toggles on some smart switches, most have more complex interfaces. Dials are a common design, as are paddle switches, often with a small slide on the side for dimming. You’ll also see a lot of touch-pad controls, especially on switches that connect to other smart home devices. Voice control, via a built-in assistant like Alexa, Google Home, or Apple Home Kit, is another common feature. And, of course, all switches can be controlled remotely by smartphone apps.
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Lutron Caséta Smart Dimmer Starter Kit
Lutron is one of the biggest names in lighting, going back to the 1950s. It’s kept pace with the technology, too, including the advent of smart switches. Caséta is its flagship product in the category, and it does everything well—straightforward installation; easy app setup and control; and a clean, intuitive interface. Then there’s the design versatility. “Architects and interior designers love Lutron because there’s such a wide array of color and product options, from switches to wall plates to shade controls,” says Herd. “From a design perspective, it’s the winner by a long shot.” The starter kit comes with a Lutron Smart Bridge, which allows you to control Caséta by voice or smartphone app.
Best Value: TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch Dimmer
This fuss-free light switch lets you experience the wonders of smart lighting for less than $20. The simple interface has just three buttons—on, off, and dimming—which you’ll appreciate if you’re new to connected home technology. If and when you’re ready to take the plunge into voice control, the switch supports Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana. The user-friendly app has other tricks, like the ability to program lights to gently fade, maybe as your little one drifts off to sleep.
Best for Total Smart Home Control: Brilliant Smart Home System
We’re all used to reaching for light switches—it’s an intuitive control point of the home. So it makes perfect sense to pack other features into them, which is what the Brilliant Smart Home System does so, well, brilliantly. Depending on what you’re replacing, the system is available in one-, two-, three-, or four-switch panels and allows you to control regular and smart bulbs alike by touch, voice, motion detection, or via the app. Beyond lighting there’s so much you can do with this switch: play music from Sonos speakers, check who’s at the door with a Ring video doorbell, change the temperature with a Nest thermostat, and on and on. It’s truly an all-in-one solution.
Best Wireless: Cync Wire-Free Smart Switch
Here’s a truly wireless smart light switch that will work in any home. Simply peel off the back and stick it wherever you want, then pair it with compatible smart bulbs using the Cync app (it can also be paired with Cync cameras and motion sensors). The nice thing about Cync is that it doesn’t require any additional hub or bridge; all the connected technology is baked into the switch. The only drawback is that it can’t take over control of all the lights in your home the way other solutions can. But Cync has a wide range of bulbs, ranging from soft white to full color, so you can slowly build out your home’s smart lighting plan one fixture at a time.
Best for Older Homes: Lutron Caséta Wireless In-Wall Smart Dimmer
Most smart light switches need to be connected to something called a neutral wire, which building codes have mandated for the past few decades. But if your home was built before 1980, there’s a good chance its existing light switches don’t have one. This can complicate the smart switch upgrade—unless, that is, you choose this model from Lutron, which doesn’t require a neutral wire. (Note: This switch still needs to be connected to your house’s main electrical wires; the product name refers to the remote control, which can be snapped into the wall plate or mounted elsewhere.) Like other Lutron products, it’s a very versatile switch, capable of controlling up to 17 lights and all bulb types, including LEDs, CFLs, and standard incandescents.
Best for Philips Hue Lights: Philips Hue Dimmer
Nearly a decade ago, Philips Hue helped put smart lighting on the map with the launch of its color-changing LED bulbs. Though part of the appeal of the bulbs is that you can control them by voice or with the Hue app, it’s still good to have an old-fashioned wall switch—for example, so guests can control the lights. The Philips Hue Dimmer is absolutely the way to go. It’s basically a remote control disguised as a light switch. Simply screw or stick the switch to the wall (the base plate comes with adhesive backing), pair it to any Hue bulbs in your home, and create customized settings to suit your every lighting need.
Pro Tips for Buying a Smart Light Switch
- The best smart light switches come with wall plates in a range of colors, making it easy to integrate them with your decor.
- Take advantage of the security features of your smart light switch by programming lights to turn on and off at random times when you’re away from home.
- If you need to hire an electrician to install the switch, expect to spend at least $100.
Q: How do I wire a smart light switch?
First off, you need to make sure it’s a wired light switch; as noted earlier, wireless switches are an ultra-DIY-friendly option. For wired switches, start by removing the existing switch and wall plate (make sure to cut the main power of your home’s circuit breaker or fuse first!). Then connect the wires from the wall box to those on the new switch. It’s important to match the wires correctly, so make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Colored wires on the switch, required by building code, are helpful (e.g., green to ground, red to hot, white to neutral), but it’s still a little tricky. When in doubt, call an electrician or at least a friend or relative who has changed a lot of light switches.
Q: How many lights can I connect to my smart light switch?
Most wired switches can control a dozen or more lights, which is more than you’re likely to have on any one wire, or circuit, to use the technical term. However, it’s important to know if the light being controlled is a three-way, meaning it can be turned on and off from two locations (like many stair lights, which have a switch at both the top and bottom of a staircase). In those situations, you need to make sure to use a three-way switch; installation is more complicated with these switches, so this is a case where you should definitely consider bringing in a professional.
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