Lights in Shining Armor
Are LED bulbs ready to save you from high energy bills?
But the worst thing about the HitLights and Tuwago bulbs was their beam direction. Both bulbs primarily shined light upward. This is OK for some uses—it’d be fine in a directional desk lamp and probably not bad in a downward-facing ceiling fixture—but it wouldn’t be ideal for a floor or bedside lamp. If you need a bulb that you can switch to different fixtures, don’t buy one of these.
Next was the $50 Switch bulb. I liked almost everything about this long-awaited product—the light it produced was luxuriously warm and bright, and unlike the cheapest bulbs, it was blessedly omnidirectional. This Switch is also, by far, the prettiest bulb of the lot. Both on and off, it’s a product you want to show off—if you’ve got a lot of dough, buy half a dozen of them and place them in the ceiling of your ultra-modern kitchen. Your fellow rich friends will hate you.
But in addition to its high price, the Switch had one annoying flaw: It produced visible geometric patterns on the ceiling and floor around the lamp. It was the only bulb I tested that produced these patterns, which look like a bunch of overlapping squares and rectangles, and I found them very off-putting—the pattern seemed more appropriate to a showroom than a living room. My wife was so turned off by these shapes that she rated the Switch dead last of all the bulbs we tried; I didn’t like the patterns, but I still thought the Switch rated better than CFL and the two cheaper LEDs.
When I asked the company about these patterns, Gary Rosenfield, the firm’s vice president of marketing, explained that they were an artifact of the specific version of the Switch bulb I was testing. My version has a clear glass dome, which is supposed to produce crisp light patterns, and is best for use in “bare bulb” fixtures indoors and in some outdoor applications. The Switch bulb is the only LED bulb on the market to offer this clear-glass dome. But the company also makes a bulb with a frosted dome that helps to diffuse its light. The company says that version, which I did not try out, doesn’t produce the annoying shapes I saw.
Finally, there’s the Philips AmbientLED bulb, which goes for just over $20. Both my wife and I really liked this one. We found its light to be bright, warm, omnidirectional, and free of any spotlight-like shapes. It’s also reasonably priced. To my wife, the Philips was the perfect bulb—she rated it higher than all other bulbs including the CFL and the incandescent. But I had a problem with the Philips: It’s kind of ugly when it’s turned off. Though it produces white light, the Philips has three mustard-yellow plastic panels on its face. My wife thought it was cute, like a cartoon version of a bulb. I thought it resembled a bug’s eye; it seemed more alien than modern to me, and I wouldn’t want to place it in a fixture where the bulb’s visible.
Obviously, this is my own personal take. If you like how the Philips looks, there’s no reason not to make it your next bulb. It’s cheap and works really well.
But you won’t lose anything by waiting to buy a slate of LED bulbs. That’s because it’s likely they’ll come down in price next year. Tracy Bilbrough, Switch’s CEO, tells me the firm is working on a new bulb that’s easier to manufacture at large scale; it should come out next year and will likely be cheaper than today’s model. Meanwhile Kevin Hou, the CEO of Tuwago, told me that his next bulb, scheduled to be released sometime during the next couple months, will be omnidirectional. Hou wouldn’t tell me how much it will cost, but he did say that it’s reasonable to assume that all LED bulbs will get slightly cheaper over the next year, as manufacturing expands. Bilbrough, of Switch, agreed—if today’s LED bulbs range from $20 to $50, he said, we can expect them to be about $15 to $45 next year.
Those promises—and yes, I’ve been burned by promises from LED manufacturers before—are enough for me to wait. The standard 60-watt bulb will go off the shelves in January 2014. Just before then, I’m hoping LED bulbs will be good enough and cheap enough to rank as credible alternatives. You can replace all your bulbs then—and then never think about them again for 20 years.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.