LIFX bulbs are at the more premium end of the market (just like Philips Hue), both in terms of build quality and also their price. However whilst Philips Hue bulbs usually require a separate Hue Bridge, LIFX bulbs don’t require any extra devices: they work out the box, via WiFi. This is great because you don’t need to shell out $50 for a separate Bridge, but it also raises an important question: what happens to your LIFX bulbs if the internet fails?
LIFX bulbs that are currently on will stay on when the internet goes down, and limited bulb control from the app may be possible if you’re currently at home. But schedules, out-of-home control and a whole lot more won’t work when the internet has failed.
What are LIFX Bulbs? How do they work?
LIFX (pronounced ‘life-x’) bulbs are fairly expensive smart bulbs with a good build quality and a great range of colors in their bulbs. Whilst you can get much cheaper smart bulbs, the quality of color that these cheaper bulbs emit isn’t always up to scratch – unlike LIFX and Philips Hue bulbs that tend to produce really good quality colors. LIFX’s smart bulbs can also be dimmed, so they can be used as mood lighting, night lights and more.
If you look at a LIFX product on Amazon, you’ll see that they say “No Hub Required” and “No technical skills or additional hardware needed”. This is a bit of a marketing jab at Philips Hue whose bulbs mainly rely on a separate Hue Bridge to control them, at an extra cost of $50 or more.
The reason that LIFX doesn’t require a separate hub or bridge is that their bulbs ‘speak’ over WiFi, directly to your internet router. And from here, they can be controlled over the internet via LIFX’s cloud software.
In other words, when you’re configuring and controlling everything in the LIFX app, you’re mainly issuing a command to LIFX’s servers, and these then notify – and control – your individual LIFX bulbs via your router.
LIFX bulbs can also be controlled within your home network (known as LAN control) which I’ll explore later, but in general your LIFX bulbs will be controlled, updated and managed over the internet, via your router.
Why LIFX bulbs rely solely on WiFi
Just like humans can speak to each other in many different languages, with some languages being more popular than others, electronics can speak to each other in different ways too. Many speak over WiFi (the most popular ‘language’ – or communication protocol – within smart devices), but there’s a range of other communication protocols too:
- … and a whole bunch more.
I’ll talk about some of these other options later on, but the beauty of WiFi is that no extra cables are needed, and you already have a WiFi Hub or WiFi Bridge in your house: your internet router! As a result of this, if LIFX can manufacture their bulbs to support WiFi, they know that people’s houses can already ‘speak’ to their bulbs – and so they can easily be controlled over the internet without any problems.
This compares to ZigBee and Z-wave (for example) which your internet router doesn’t support, meaning that you need to go out and purchase a seperate Hub that speaks these ‘languages’, and then connect this Hub to your internet router. In this sense, a ZigBee or Z-wave Hub is like a language translation service.
Since LIFX doesn’t require a separate hub, they can speak directly to your router (and hence the internet). The downside of this is that if your internet fails, your LIFX bulbs can’t be controlled as well…
What happens if just the internet fails (but the router is on)
When your internet fails but your router is still working fine, your LIFX bulbs are still connected to your home network (via the router) but they simply can’t speak to the outside internet.
What this means is that your LIFX bulbs carry on working as they were before – they keep the same color, the same brightness and the same on/off state. So LIFX bulbs that are currently off will stay off, and ones that are on at 40% brightness and a blue color will stay in that state too – they won’t go off simply because the outside internet has failed.
Equally, LIFX bulbs are quite cool because they support a local network protocol (a LAN protocol) which basically means that as long as your phone is also connected to your home network, you can still go into the app and control your lights:
This is quite nice because you’d expect a WiFi bulb to fail if your internet fails, but that’s not the case.
Of course, nothing’s perfect and when your outside internet is off, some things do stop working. The biggest is that any automation you have setup won’t work. For example, you can setup schedules in the LIFX app that will change your lights at different times of day:
Since these schedules are driven from LIFX’s cloud servers and not stored locally on each LIFX bulb, any schedules simply won’t take effect whilst your outside internet is down.
Equally, you won’t be able to control your LIFX bulbs via an Echo or Google Home smart speaker, since these go out to the internet before processing and running any requested commands. Since they’re unable to ‘speak to’ the internet, they’re unable to process your bulb management commands.
What happens if the router fails too
The above section talks about how you can still manage your bulbs via the LIFX app when the internet is down, but your router is still up. This works because your router is a type of network switch – a device that accepts and distributes internet traffic around your home (i.e. to all connected devices).
However if your router goes off (such as due to a scheduled update or equipment failure), you’ll be completely unable to control your LIFX bulbs. You won’t be able to use the LIFX app to turn bulbs on/off (or change their color and brightness), and schedules certainly won’t work!
The only things that’ll work are:
- The existing light’s state (color, on/off and brightness) will stay as-is, meaning that a bulb that’s already on will stay on.
- If there’s been a power cut, your LIFX bulbs will go back to the last selected color and on/off state too.
- However if you turn your LIFX bulbs on/off a few times in a row (or have a series of small power cuts), your bulbs will change back to a bright white light.
So if you had a series of quick power cuts that also blew out your internet router, you’d be left with all your LIFX bulbs being on white at 100% brightness with no way to change this – apart from turning the standard (dumb) switch off at the wall.
Would Bluetooth, ZigBee or Z-wave help LIFX?
Bluetooth is a short distance communication protocol which transmits small amounts of data, but is also quite low power, making it perfect for many smart home devices as they don’t need to transmit large amounts of data. However because it’s a short distance protocol, you wouldn’t be able to manage your LIFX bulbs when you’re out of your house using just Bluetooth.
Equally things like schedules wouldn’t be possible because these run off LIFX’s cloud servers, which couldn’t practically use Bluetooth to speak to your LIFX bulbs. They could also use WiFi, of course, but then your bulbs may as well just use WiFi for everything – as they do now!
Since Bluetooth isn’t much help to us, what about ‘ZigBee’ and ‘Z-wave’? Well, these are both communication protocols tailored to smart homes. They have a longer distance communication range, whist they can transmit less data than Bluetooth – but again, smart bulbs don’t tend to transmit much data so this is fine.
The downside of ZigBee and Z-wave is that nothing around the house speaks that language. Smartphones speak WiFi and Bluetooth and your internet router speaks WiFi, but nothing knows about ZigBee or Z-wave.
This is why you need to purchase a separate hub for Philips Hue (which speaks ZigBee, more on this below):
This would be the main downside of LIFX adopting ZigBee or Z-wave: they’d require that you purchase a separate hub, which means more complexity in the installation process, and more cost.
A single LIFX bulb may cost $100 (for the bulb and the hub), instead of just $40-50 as it does now!
Why does Philips Hue speak ZigBee (and require a separate hub)?
Philips Hue adopted ZigBee because it’s a well designed protocol for smart homes. Each bulb strengthens the overall ZigBee network due to a technology known as ZigBee mesh, meaning that your Hue system’s range becomes greater the more bulbs that you have, allowing you to potentially have outdoor Hue lights where outdoor WiFi lights wouldn’t work.
Equally, the Philips Hue Hub/Bridge keeps a copy of all your app’s settings in it, meaning that even if your internet goes off (and your router completely fails), automation rules and schedules can still work for your Philips Hue bulbs.
A separate hub also takes the load off your internet router. If you have 50 LIFX bulbs, that’d be 50 extra devices connected to your internet router. Whilst many modern routers will support this fine, a lot of cheaper routers (especially ones given out by budget ISPs) will struggle with 20+ connections, let alone 50 or more!
As you can tell, there’s various benefits of having a separate Hub as part of your Hue setup – and the only real downside is cost. If you’re serious about smart lighting, I’d personally say that it’s worth moving away from WiFi bulbs towards a ZigBee based solution – but if LIFX works for you right now, that’s great too.