How we tested
The Christmas Designers wide-angle multicolored lights, during hour six of being fully submerged in a bucket of water.
To evaluate the lights, we wound and unwound them, draped them over and into Christmas trees and rhododendrons, and threaded them in and out of deck railings—basically, we tried to use the lights how they're intended to be used. We tested the weather impermeability of the exterior lights by plugging them in and sinking the strands of lights into a 3-gallon bucket of water; although this test was a bit extreme, any set of exterior lights could end up in a puddle or draped into a gutter. We also assessed each strand for color quality.
Overall, we found that the wire quality has a lot to do with the success of a strand of lights. Some of the lights had tidy, close-knit strands of wire, while others were loose and messy. Some wires needed untwisting before use, like an old phone cord, and still others continued to accordion back on themselves, no matter how we tried to stretch them out and lay them flat.
From left: the Christmas Designers incandescents, the GE Colorite LEDs, and the Christmas Designers T5 LED mini lights.
For indoor use, we recommend the GE Energy Smart Colorite LEDs, available in multicolor (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs) and warm white (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs). These offer all of the benefits of LED lights, including high durability, zero heat output, and a long life expectancy. But one attribute set the Colorites apart in our tests: Of all the LED models we tried, these lights came the closest to replicating the warm glow of incandescents. This was particularly true with the warm white bulbs, which were really impressive in their color quality. The GE lights also have a nice wire that's easy to handle and drape through a tree or railing. And unlike some of the other LED options we looked at, they won't flicker.
Our pick for outdoor lights
Notice the unusual shape of the Christmas Designers wide angle bulb (top), as well as how the bulb and socket are molded into a single piece, making these bulbs ideal for exterior use.
The best lights for most outdoor displays are the 5-mm wide-angle conical LED lights from Christmas Designers. Available in warm white, multicolor, or solid colors in a variety of lengths and bulb spacings, these lights are much brighter than our indoor pick and give off a warm color that is perfect for just about anywhere outdoors—a window box, a tree, a wreath, or a roofline. As with other LED light sets, these bulbs cost more than incandescents, but their one-piece molded design can withstand long-term exposure to moisture, so your investment will be protected if these end up drooping into a puddle or a wet gutter. They also have a clean and tight wire, which made handling, hanging, and storing them very easy in our tests. Last, because their electrical requirements are so low, you can connect a whopping 43 strands together and run them off a single outlet before having to worry about tripping a breaker. This design reduces the need for extension cords, which can be a big hidden cost with larger exterior displays.
Our incandescent pick
These warm incandescents cost less than our pick, but they're not as durable or efficient, and they won't last as long.
If you're just not ready to let go of the unique and traditional look of incandescents for indoor use, we recommend Christmas Designers for both its multicolored (50-bulb strand or 100-bulb strand) and white incandescents (50-bulb strand or 100-bulb strand). They have a great warmth to them, noticeable particularly in the multicolor strand. The wires are tight and organized, and once we stretched them out, they lay flat and straight with no issues.
After spending 55 hours researching and testing Christmas lights, we found the long-lasting GE Energy Smart Colorite LED mini lights are the best all-around lights for indoor use. For outdoors, the 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers are bright, durable, and waterproof. And if you're not ready to give up the unique warm twinkle of incandescents for an indoor tree, our favorites are the Mini Light Sets from Christmas Designers.
This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.