By Rachel Cericola
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Outdoor lighting isn't a splurge—it can save you from tripping on a dark pathway (again) or having to fumble for the right key. It enhances home security, and it can even light up a party. Smart outdoor lighting takes it to another level by adding automation, remote control, and other convenience features. We spent a month testing outdoor-rated smart bulbs, sconces, path lights, and spotlights, and found the best options for every outdoor scenario.
The only smart outdoor bulb we tested with a built-in motion sensor, the floodlight-style Sengled Smart PAR38 LED Bulb can light up a driveway or backyard when you need it and not when you don't. It requires a Zigbee hub, but it also works directly with an Amazon Echo Plus. The motion sensor is especially useful if you want an outdoor bulb for security purposes, and you can adjust its settings so that it doesn't trigger too frequently or at the wrong time.
The Ring Pathlight offers a near-instant option for providing helpful and elegant lighting to areas that may be tricky to navigate in the dark such as walkways or patios. It's powered by four D batteries, so you have no wires to deal with, and you can directly control it using an app or set it to turn on and off automatically through a built-in motion sensor. Because this model relies on non-rechargeable batteries, it's meant to light up for short periods of time—less than 15 minutes—so it may not be the best choice for anyone who needs constant lighting.
The Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Calla Bollard is the best-looking smart outdoor light we tested—it's a perfect addition to any party. It has a slick design with a color-changing, dimmable LED at the top that can match outdoor decor or your mood. It does require a hub, such as the Hue Bridge, the Amazon Echo Plus, or the SmartThings Hub. It also requires a power supply (included in the base kit), which can accommodate up to five fixtures.
Why you should trust me
I've written about consumer electronics for more than 15 years, and I've tested a variety of smart-home items—everything from remotes and security cameras to AV receivers and smart light switches. I've held editor positions at Electronic House and Big Picture Big Sound, and I've also written buying guides and tech articles for The New York Times (Wirecutter's parent company), Wired, Men's Health, and others.
Who this is for
More than anything, smart lighting is just convenient—you no longer need worry about entering a dark house, falling near a dark swimming pool, stumbling by the trash cans, or wondering where the edge of the driveway is.
If you hate it when outdoor lights remain on all day, if you have concerns about home security, or if you just want to enhance the looks of your yard or garden, smart lighting can be a great all-in-one choice. Smart outdoor lighting allows you to turn lights on and off from almost anywhere using a smartphone app, as well as to set them to operate automatically based on schedules, motion sensors, or triggers that you program in the app. Just like indoor smart lights, outdoor ones can integrate into a system to work with a variety of other smart devices such as smart locks, sensors, and alarm systems.
You can find several styles of smart outdoor lights, including bulbs, sconces, spotlights, and floodlights, among others. Most allow you to adjust the brightness, and some let you change the light color. Where you want to put smart outdoor lights, how you plan to use them, and the technology you prefer to use will determine the type of light that's best for you.
How we picked and tested
We looked at all of the smart outdoor lighting options that are currently available by searching online reviews, retailers, and manufacturer websites. Many outdoor lighting devices are similar, so we whittled the group down to what we thought was worth testing based on online feedback, useful features, and price. We also eliminated outdoor lighting fixtures with integrated cameras, since we cover those in our outdoor security cameras guide.
We looked at what we thought would be the practical, real-world use for each light we reviewed, and then we judged each one based on where we thought it would work best. We also considered the following elements:
- Brightness: We took note of each model's rated lumens, which is a measure of light output. The outdoor smart bulbs we looked at were rated to produce 1,100 to 1,300 lumens. By comparison the path lights we tested were far more subdued, producing just 35 to 600 lumens.
- Technology: In order to set up and control your lights, you need to use a smartphone app, and the lights need to connect to your home network wirelessly. Just one of the bulbs we reviewed uses regular Wi-Fi for remote control and connecting to things like Amazon Alexa. Almost every other device on our list uses Z-Wave or Zigbee, two common types of wireless signal that require the use of another device called a smart hub or bridge to connect the lights with other smart devices.
- Range: Z-Wave and Zigbee have a range of about 100 feet between a device and a hub, though each device can act as a wireless repeater to create what's called a mesh network, where each device shares its signal and extends coverage. (Wi-Fi can't do this and so may have range issues.) A good rule of thumb is that if you can connect your smartphone or laptop to your Wi-Fi network in a specific spot, you should be able to park a Wi-Fi device there. (And if you're having signal issues, consider upgrading your router or adding an extender or repeater. Check out our guide to Wi-Fi routers and our guide to Wi-Fi extenders for suggestions.)
- App interface: We used iPhone and Android devices to look at the app controls to see how easy the lighting devices were to set up and to control at home and away. We also set up schedules and tested any other features.
- Smart-home compatibility: You can make most smart lights work together with other smart devices. When you wirelessly connect lights to other devices in the home, it makes them more convenient and enjoyable because they can be triggered by other lights and devices (such as security cameras). Everything we tested can pair with some type of voice assistant such as Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri, so you can operate it by voice.
- Setup: Some devices we tested were as easy to install as (literally) screwing in a light bulb. Others weren't as simple, so we took notes whenever something had an atypical installation process. This also included how to set up each device within the corresponding app. We didn't test any devices that called for new wiring.
With the exception of hardwired devices, we used everything we tested for two to four weeks, in our home office and out in the yard up to 50 feet from our router. We tested app interfaces using an iPhone 7 and a Nokia 3.1 running Android 9 Pie, when possible. We set schedules, created scenes so lights would go on at certain dimming levels, and triggered other devices using lights when we could. We also turned each light on and off while out of the house so that we could test remote capabilities.
For security: Sengled Smart PAR38 LED Bulb
Who it's for: If you have an outdoor floodlight fixture, this PAR38 bulb with a built-in motion sensor makes it easy to switch to smart lighting. Smart bulbs instantly turn any light fixture that uses traditional bulbs into a smart light you can control remotely, put on a schedule, or set to vacation mode so that the light goes on and off at random times (making it look like you're home even when you're halfway around the world). If you enable its motion sensor, you can receive notifications on your phone when the mail arrives, when the pizza delivery person is on your doorstep, or when stray cats wander through your yard. Smart outdoor bulbs offer peace of mind as well, ensuring that you never stumble in the dark or have to hunt around to fit your key in the keyhole (though you could just get a smart lock, of course). All smart bulbs can work outside, but outdoor smart bulbs are rated to tolerate wetness, so if you don't have a totally weather-tight fixture, an outdoor smart bulb works best.
Why it's great: All of the outdoor smart bulbs we tested allow you to turn them on and off using app controls, voice controls, and even in-app schedules. However, the Sengled Smart PAR38 LED Bulb was the only one we found that also included a configurable motion sensor, which could be triggered from up to 40 feet away.
The Sengled PAR38 works with any existing standard E26 fixture that does not have a motion sensor already attached. Like most smart outdoor lighting devices, it does require a small smart hub that you need to connect to your home router and plug into the wall. That hub uses Zigbee wireless, which creates a strong mesh network linking all Zigbee devices and doesn't interfere with your Wi-Fi. In addition to the Sengled hub, a number of dedicated hubs (such as the Samsung SmartThings Hub or the Amazon Echo Plus and Echo Show) also work with this bulb.
We found the Sengled bulb to be the easiest to use of the bulbs we tested. And although it does lose some minor functionality when you use it with a third-party hub (for instance, you need to set a routine to disarm the motion sensor versus tapping an in-app button), we found that it still responded quickly to voice commands from an Amazon Echo Plus, as well as to iOS and Android apps. On and off controls, dimming, and a look at the most recent motion trigger are all right on the homepage of the Sengled Home app (though the interface may vary if you use a different hub and its app). The Sengled app also allows you to adjust the sensitivity of the motion sensor so that it can turn on only when it's dark out, for example, or also when it's merely dim. The app also has adjustable settings for how long a light should stay on, between one and five minutes after sensing motion. And you can create up to 15 lighting schedules, each with its own custom dimming levels: My husband used to turn the front light on to go to work at 4:00 a.m., and it tended to stay on a lot of the day—but with the Sengled bulb installed, it now goes on and off every weekday morning automatically.
We wish the Sengled PAR38 and its hub could integrate with a wider range of other smart-home devices out of the box and that you could adjust the color, but as a replacement for a traditional bulb it does the job very well—and it does so for much less than the other bulbs on our list. You could buy three outdoor Sengled bulbs for less than the cost of just one LIFX bulb, or two Sengled bulbs for just a little more than one Philips Hue.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Sengled PAR38 bulb is the only bulb we tested that does not work with the Apple HomeKit smart-home platform. If you use HomeKit, we have two recommendations that are also very capable.
For safety: Ring Pathlight
Who it's for: Anyone with a poorly lit walkway, driveway, or yard can install these lights without doing any wiring. Path lights are terrific for guiding people safely along a walkway, preventing you or your visitors from trampling flower beds and ensuring that you don't slip and fall into the pool. Smart path lights illuminate automatically, only when needed. They also look great, so you can install them to highlight the best-looking areas around your home.
Why it's great: The Ring Pathlight quickly, cleanly, and cheaply provides an elegant bright-white guide (3,500 K) for you and your guests through areas that would otherwise be dicey in the dark. It doesn't require running wires underground and into your house, and you can control it centrally with an app or let the built-in motion sensors automatically turn it on and off.
The Ring Pathlight uses four standard D batteries. To conserve battery life, it doesn't continuously blast out white light all night long. Instead, it's triggered by motion or Alexa voice commands, or you can turn it on manually through the Ring app. The motion settings are adjustable, as is the brightness level of the light. At 80 lumens, its full brightness is a fraction of what a typical bulb produces, but that's still enough to light the way and create a nice ambiance.
Ring, an Amazon-owned company, is well known for Wi-Fi–connected doorbells and cameras (see our guides to the best doorbell camera and the best home security system). Ring Smart Lights, however, require the use of a Ring Bridge, a tiny box that connects to your home Wi-Fi router and links all Ring Smart Lights together and with the Ring app. Unlike other hubs on our list, the Ring Bridge uses a proprietary wireless signal to make the connection. Ring claims that Ring Smart Lights work "hundreds of feet" away from this tiny hub. In testing I was able to control a Ring Pathlight I'd set up across the street in a neighbor's yard, 185 feet away from the Ring Bridge inside my house.
We used the Ring app to turn lights on and off individually and as a group. We used both an iPhone and an Android phone, with the latter having a slightly different layout in the app but performing the same functions. Both apps have brightness controls, sensor settings, and the option to link devices together so that when one light turns on, others automatically turn on. Or you can trigger other Ring devices, too—for instance, we easily linked the Ring Stick Up Cam Battery to the Pathlight so that every time it detected motion, the camera would create a recording. You can also fine-tune how often you get motion alerts: turn them off altogether, put them on a schedule, adjust the sensitivity so they aren't as touchy, or snooze them for 30 minutes, one hour, four hours, or the rest of the day. Both apps keep tabs on when triggers happen under the Event History panel. They even include access to Ring's Neighbors feature, which automatically sends user-generated alerts about crime and safety in your area unless you turn those notifications off.
Each Ring Pathlight uses four D batteries. You probably don't keep too many of those around the house, but you don't have to worry about that: In our testing, after a month of three people going in and out of the house during a busy summer vacation, remarkably the battery gauge didn't budge at all. We will long-term test this path light to see if it actually delivers on Ring's claim that the batteries will last a year.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Ring's model conserves battery power by not allowing you to schedule the lights to be on full brightness for long periods of time—you can manually turn them on and leave them at full power for only up to 15 minutes. (A dusk-to-dawn feature maintains a minimum low light level at night and then turns up the brightness in response to motion.) If you have Alexa, you can schedule your Ring Pathlights through that app, but only in the same one-, five-, 10-, and 15-minute increments. If you want continuous lighting of a pathway at full brightness, consider other devices that aren't battery powered.
The Ring Bridge uses proprietary wireless technology, so you can't swap it out for something like the Amazon Echo Plus or the Samsung SmartThings Hub. Also, Ring lights currently work only with Alexa (Amazon is Ring's parent company). If you use Google Assistant or HomeKit, you may want to opt for one of our other picks.
For entertaining: Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Calla Bollard
Who it's for: This light is for anyone who likes to entertain outdoors and has a pool or patio area, or a large yard. Besides lighting the way, multicolor path lights can match the scenery or add a splash of color whenever you want it.
Why it's great: Though the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Calla Bollard is the most expensive of our picks, it's also the best-looking outdoor smart lighting fixture we tested. It's bright enough to illuminate landscaping or to light the way for family and friends enjoying a late-night dip in the pool or a backyard barbecue. If you like to add variety to your backyard, you can shift the Calla through 16 million colors to complement any activity, holiday, or mood.
The Philips Hue Calla Bollard relies on Zigbee wireless, so it requires the use of a hub such as the Philips Hue Hub, though we successfully paired it with an Amazon Echo Plus and the Samsung SmartThings Hub, both of which have Zigbee built in. Using one of those third-party hubs means you lose some of the Hue system's one-touch special effects and other functionality, but you can still control the device, change bulb colors, and schedule lights. If you already use Hue bulbs indoors, you don't need an additional hub for the Calla. Compared with other smart light systems we tested, the Hue system supports more smart-home platforms and devices, including Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT ("If This Then That"), and Samsung SmartThings.
Each Calla Bollard measures 10 inches high, but the 600-lumen LED on top takes up less than 3 inches of that. Included in the base kit are a power supply and cord that allow you to place the unit up to 11.5 feet away from a covered outlet and that can support up to five lights. (Need to go farther? Another 16.5-foot extension cable is included too.) The cords are thick and should withstand the elements, although we recommend running them against the side of the house or through shrubbery to prevent tripping or lawn mower mishaps. (Philips says the cables can also tolerate being buried underground, and recommends a minimum depth of 4 inches.)
Although the add-on Calla Bollard is cheaper without the power supply, it's still far more expensive than our other picks. It's also the most decorative and most colorful of any of the lights we reviewed. The housing disappears in the darkness, leaving just the illuminated portion highlighted. We were able to create colored mixtures to match patio furniture and to add a touch of color to shrubbery, and we can see how it would work to highlight a holiday-season theme.
The Calla Bollard reacted quickly to the Hue app for iOS and Android devices, which allows you to control individual lights or group them by room. We also successfully created schedules and scenes so that the Calla Bollard would instantly turn on to a specific brightness and a specific shade of pink, blue, purple, or bright white.
The Calla Bollard doesn't have a built-in motion sensor, but Philips Hue does offer a separate outdoor sensor, which you can use to configure your lights to automatically turn on when someone or something walks by.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Hue system has a wireless range of just 30 feet, so if you don't have your home router close by, you may have problems if you place the Calla Bollard too far from your house. However, if you happen to have other Hue devices (such as our smart bulb pick), each device acts as a Zigbee wireless repeater and so extends the network. Also, being limited to just five Calla Bollard lights for each power supply may require some people to buy multiple base stations (and have outlets to support them).
We tested a number of lighting devices that we didn't prefer as overall picks but that we think would be perfectly good for specific outdoor lighting needs.
Philips Hue bulbs are our top indoor pick, and the Philips Hue Single PAR38 Outdoor White Bulb is a good choice for anyone with that system. It works with Alexa, Google Assistant, and HomeKit, as well as everything under the Hue umbrella, making it perfect for those looking to sync a larger smart-home setup. The Sengled bulb just edged this one out because of cost and the Sengled's built-in motion sensor.
If you don't want to deal with a hub, go for the LIFX + BR30 Wi-Fi Smart LED Light Bulb. It connects directly to Wi-Fi and is the only outdoor color-changing bulb we tested. Note that this particular model includes infrared LEDs, which can perk up the night-vision capabilities of any nearby outdoor security cameras you may have. (LIFX also sells a standard BR30 bulb for less money.) This bulb is not as bright as the Sengled or the Philips Hue PAR38 and is more expensive, so we recommend it only if you have a single outdoor fixture that's located within range of your home Wi-Fi network.
Putting out just 35 lumens, the battery-powered Ring Steplight is the least powerful outdoor smart light we tested. However, it was also the least expensive outdoor lighting fixture. Designed for stairs where you don't need an intense burst of light, the Steplight works great, but it's mainly just for accent lighting and has the same drawbacks as the Ring Pathlight, including the inability to stay on continuously.
The 600-lumen Ring Floodlight Battery can brighten nearly any space, making it perfect for placement by the shed or next to trash cans. Unlike the Ring Pathlight, this model needs to be mounted on something, but since you don't have to deal with wiring hassles, you could put it on the side of the house, in the garage, on a shed, or even on a tree. (Ring also sells a hardwired version, if you do have an existing fixture.) This model was brighter than any of the other Ring smart lights we tested, but we found it to be too sensitive to motion—it would turn on seemingly randomly at night—and it's also less attractive.
We also tested a few lighting devices that worked fine but didn't earn our recommendation because our picks were much better:
We recommend the Arlo Smart Home Security Light only if you currently have an Arlo camera system. It's pricey, it requires the use of an extra bridge (that isn't one of the existing Arlo Base Stations), and it isn't as pretty or as bright as other colored-light offerings on our list—or, frankly, what we'd expect at this price.
We dismissed the Philips Hue Welcome Floodlight and the Philips Hue Lucca Wall Light based on the design, price, and installation process. There aren't too many in-wall outdoor lighting fixtures available yet, and we don't think you should start with either of these. We found each one trickier to install than it needed to be—you'd be better off picking the fixture of your choice and using a smart bulb.
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