Tech tips, insights, and deals in your inbox.

Issue #6: Smart lights demystified

Plus: New MacBooks, a cheaper Surface, and an essential iPhone navigation trick


Every once in a while, I get an urge to connect more of my house's lighting to the internet. It's a silly idea on some level--how hard is it, after all, to flick a light switch?--but at their best, smart lights can be a big help.

A set of bulbs outside your home, for instance, can automatically turn on at sunset and off at sunrise. Smart lighting in your bedroom can keep you from stumbling around in the dark after turning off the lights from your wall, and can wake you up in the morning automatically. A spread of smart bulbs around the home can simulate activity when you're on vacation, or ensure that you're not wasting energy by forgetting to turn off the lights. You can even install smart lighting in the living room, and have the lights dim during movie time.

But between bulbs, switches, hubs, and bridges, smart lighting can easily become complicated. If you don't plan ahead, you could end up with more headaches and higher costs in the long run.

The simplest way to get into smart lighting is with Wi-Fi bulbs, such as those from TP-Link or LIFX. Wi-Fi bulbs connect directly to your wireless router, so they don't require any extra hardware, and to install them you only have to unscrew your existing bulb and screw in the new one.

The main downside with Wi-Fi bulbs is the price. TP-Link's basic A19-style bulb costs $20, its wider BR30-style bulb costs $30, and LIFX bulbs are even pricier. In rooms that require lots of bulbs, the costs can quickly add up.

To minimize how much you'll pay, you have a couple options:

You could invest in a smart home hub device such as Samsung SmartThings or Lowe's Iris. (You can also buy Amazon's Echo Plus, a smart speaker that doubles as a smart home hub.) These devices work with bulbs that use a special wireless protocol, called ZigBee, and while the up-front cost of buying a hub is greater, the bulbs themselves are often much cheaper. Sengled's A19 and BR30 bulbs cost $10 and $15, respectively, which is half the price of Wi-Fi alternatives. Hubs also ensure that even if you buy lighting from different brands, you can control them all through a single app.

If you have a room with lots of bulbs tied to a single switch, you can save money by installing a smart light switch, such as Leviton's Decora Smart switches or Belkin's WeMo switches, both of which connect to your home network over Wi-Fi. (You can also buy ZigBee or Z-Wave switches that work the the smart home hubs I just mentioned.) These replace the existing light switch on your wall to control all the bulbs in the room, and a single switch generally costs between $30 and $60. Replacing a half-dozen or more bulbs could cost you twice as much.

Smart switches also eliminate the biggest downside with all smart bulbs: If you turn off your light switch while using bulbs, you lose access to all smart features, including voice commands, phone controls, and automation. With smart switches, you can keep using your lights like regular lights.

The trade-off is the installation process, which requires cutting off the power to your existing switch, pulling it out of the wall, and wiring up the new switch. If you're not comfortable messing around with your home's electrical connections, you'll want to hire an electrician to do the job, thereby wiping out the cost savings.

Unfortunately, there's no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for which solution you should choose. The best option for you will depend on how much lighting you want to connect, how much work you want to do, and--most importantly--how much you want to spend for a little more convenience.

Tip of the moment


For a long time, I couldn't figure out why our car stereo wouldn't play turn-by-turn directions from our phones over Bluetooth. Every time a turn came up, both the phone and the stereo remained silent. It turns out that with our car--and presumably, many others--audio from the phone won't play unless the stereo is on and the input is set to Bluetooth.

If you have an iPhone, you can work around this annoyance. While using Apple Maps, slide the bottom menu up, select "audio," then enable "Allow HFP Prompts." Google Maps has a similar option: Open the settings menu, select Navigation, then enable "Play as Bluetooth phone call."

By enabling these settings, your iPhone will switch to a different Bluetooth profile that can play turn-by-turn instructions through your car's speakers even if the radio is off. (Sorry, Android users, I've searched for a comparable solution but have yet to find one.)

Need to know

New MacBooks Pro: It was interesting to watch the revelations that emerged last week after Apple refreshed its MacBook Pro line. Along with more powerful processors, options for more memory and storage, support for "Hey Siri" voice commands, and "True Tone" displays that adjust color balance based on the surrounding lighting, the new MacBooks include a redesigned keyboard that Apple says is quieter.

What Apple didn't say--and in fact denied--is that the new keyboards address potential defects in company's previous MacBook Pros and several other MacBook models. Upon ripping the new MacBook open, iFixit discovered that the new keyboards include a layer of silicone to keep out dust, which could render keys inoperable in older MacBooks. A leaked internal repair document later confirmed that the silicone membrane was designed to keep dust out.

Apple is already facing several class action lawsuits over the old keyboards, so it may not want to play up the new keyboards' ability to prevent defects. But if you're buying a new MacBook Pro now, at least you won't have to worry about rogue particles ruining your ability to write. (No such peace of mind exists for current MacBook Pro users, though Apple is at least promising free repairs from the date of purchase if anything does go wrong.)

Surface for less: Microsoft is now selling a much cheaper version of its Surface tablets. The Surface Go ships early next month for $400, which is half the price of Microsoft's entry-level Surface Pro. (The attachable keyboard still costs extra, at $100 for a standard black version, and $130 for felt-like Alcantara covers in blue, platinum, or red.)

What's the difference beyond pricing? The Surface Go is smaller, with a 10-inch display instead of the Pro's 12.3-inch screen, and it's also weaker, with Intel Pentium chips instead of higher-end Core processors. You wouldn't want to use the Go for complex photo and video editing or modern PC gaming, and if you were nervous about juggling lots of browser tabs, you might want to splurge on a model with 8 GB of RAM for an extra $150. Still, the overall idea of a thin-and-light Windows tablet that snaps into a keyboard dock is the same.

I'm glad Microsoft is selling a cheaper Surface to compete with Apple's iPad Pro, but for the last year, I've done almost all my mobile computing on the latter, and it's hard to imagine going back. While Windows still offers some creature comforts that iOS lacks, like support for mouses and trackpads, the iPad has a better selection of touchscreen apps, and its relative lack of complexity has a way of helping me focus. Also, if Microsoft history with battery life claims holds up, the Surface Go will last for far less than its estimated "9 hours of video playback."

Around the web

Spend wisely


Best Buy is currently knocking $30 off the price of Apple's latest iPad, bringing it down to $299 with 32 GB of storage, or $399 with 128 GB of storage. Although the entry-level iPad isn't as slick or speedy as the $650-and-up iPad Pro, it should be good enough for most use cases, and it's the first non-Pro model that works with the Apple Pencil for drawing and writing. While $30 isn't a huge discount, sales of any kind on new Apple devices can be tough to come by.

Thanks for reading!

Last week, I had fun hosting the first live chat session for subscribers who want get their tech and cord-cutting questions answered. Let's schedule the next one for this Friday, July 27, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Use this link to join the chat at that time. To receive an email reminder to join before the chat goes live, just click here.

As always, I'd love to hear your ideas on what to cover next and how to improve this newsletter. Thanks for your support!


Trouble reading this email? Try the web version.

This has been Advisorator, written by Jared Newman and made possible by you. Spread the word, or say hi on Twitter

To cancel your membership, click here to create a pre-filled email. You can also reply to this email with UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject.