How we picked and tested
Ready to begin testing. Photo: Doug Mahoney
We concentrated our research and testing strictly on nonblinking miniature lights, the traditional, small, stranded Christmas lights with a clear or semiclear bulb and a candle shape. They're the standard, and we wanted to focus on the lights that most people will be using, rather than those with a lesser following. Still, we do have some thoughts on larger-bulb lights, and on other bulb sizes that didn't make the cut in our full guide. During our research, we also found that blinking lights are a very small minority of available lights, so we stayed with the type that remains lit at all times.
Once we dug into our options, we soon realized that our recommended lights would be fully rectified LEDs and not traditional incandescents. They're more durable, they're safer, and you can connect together a much higher number of strands without any risk of tripping a breaker or a GFCI outlet. There's no question that LEDs cost more than incandescents (they're at least twice the price), but we believe that the long-term benefits are worth that added cost. For more on the different types of LED lights, check out the How we picked and tested section of our guide.
In selecting the strands we wanted to test, we searched both larger online retailers and specialty retailers that deal only in Christmas lights. We dismissed companies that had overall poor reviews, strange or incomplete bulb selections, or suspiciously low pricing.
To evaluate the lights, we wound and unwound them, draped them over and into Christmas trees and rhododendrons, and tucked 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. Though this test was a bit extreme, it's certainly possible that any set of exterior lights will end up in a puddle or draped in a gutter. We also assessed each strand for color quality, using a high-quality incandescent strand as a benchmark.
Our pick for indoor lights
GE's incandescent (top) and LED (bottom) strands. Photo: Doug Mahoney
The best lights for indoor use are GE's Energy Smart Colorite LED Miniature Lights, which are available in multicolor (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs) and warm white (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs). These bulbs offer all the benefits of LED lights, including high durability, zero heat output, and a long life expectancy, but one attribute sets them apart: Of everything we tested, GE's Colorites came the closest to replicating the glow of incandescents. This was particularly true with the warm white bulbs, which were impressive in their color quality. These lights also have a nice wire that's easy to handle and to drape through a tree or railing. And unlike some other LEDs, they don't flicker.
The GE lights have sold out quickly the past two years, so if that happens again, we recommend Christmas Designers's T5 Smooth LED Lights (available in warm white, multicolor, or solid color).
Our pick for outdoor lights
The Christmas Designers 5mm Wide Angle Conical LED (top) and the regular GE Colorite LED (bottom). Photo: Doug Mahoney
For outdoor use, we recommend the 5mm Wide Angle Conical LED Lights from Christmas Designers. They are available in warm white, multicolor, or solid colors in a variety of lengths and bulb spacings (note that the 50-bulb lengths have a bulb spacing of 6 inches, not the more traditional 4-inch spacing of the 35-, 70-, and 100-bulb strands). The odd shape of the 5 mm bulb gives a lot of depth when seen from a distance. Depending on how you view the bulb, the light emits a different level of brightness. That combined with their warm colors makes them perfect for just about anywhere outdoors, including a window box, a tree, a wreath, or a roofline.
Like other LEDs, these lights cost more than incandescents, but because they're specifically designed to withstand long-term exposure to moisture, your investment will be protected if they end up drooping into a puddle or a wet gutter. They also have a clean and tight wire, which in our tests made handling, hanging, and storing them easy. And because their electrical requirements are so low, you can connect a whopping 43 strands and run them on a single outlet before worrying about tripping a breaker; this reduces the need for extension cords, which can be a big hidden cost with larger exterior displays.
If our outdoor pick is sold out, we recommend Christmas Lights Etc's Wide Angle 5mm LED Lights as a runner-up.
Our pick for incandescent lights
If you're not ready to let go of the distinctive and traditional look of incandescents for indoor use, we recommend both the multicolored and white versions of Christmas Designers's Incandescent Christmas Lights. These lights offer a great color quality that's noticeable, particularly with the multicolor strand. In our tests the wires were tight and organized, and once we stretched them out, they lay flat and straight with no issues.
The rich hues of the Christmas Designers multicolor strand, especially the yellow-orange bulb, stood out against the competition. If there is a flaw to these lights, it's simply that they're incandescents: They won't last as long as LED lights and will draw much more power.
This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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