Review: We flip the switch on MiPow's Playbulb Bluetooth LED bulbs

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Gizmag review for the MiPow Playbulb Studio(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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The number of LED bulbs on the market has exploded in recent years, and with them has come a dizzying array of so-called smart bulbs featuring wireless connectivity and control, allowing users to set options for colors, schedules, and remote on/off functions. Although most of these look and perform similarly, consumer experience still varies as it generally comes down to the execution of the companion app. So how do the devices in MiPow’s Playbulb Studio compare? We lit up these LED bulbs to see how well they shine.

Before getting into the review, it needs to be pointed out that at the time of publication, the MiPow Playbulb Studio pack is not actually available for consumer purchase and it's unclear when or of it ever will be. However, each unit described in this review is available individually and in multi-packs. Ok, onto the review.

Design & Connectivity

The MiPow Playbulb Studio box we received contained the MiPow Playbulb Color, Playbulb Rainbow, and Playbulb Candle. There’s also a small instruction booklet as well as a trio of scented discs that are meant to complement the Playbulb Candle. And that’s it, nothing fancy.

The MiPow Playbulb Candle, sized like a medium apple, is made to look like a tea light candle holder. Although it isn’t as fancy as some actual tea light holders, it’s far more durable and portable. Sure, real tea lights have that old-fashioned appeal, but the upside with the Playbulb Candle is that it can mimic a "real" flame with practically any color one could want. Plus, if you flip it over, the bottom has a tea light holder for anyone who wants the best of both worlds. A set of AA batteries is all you need for power.

If you’ve ever installed a standard E26/E27 light bulb into a lamp, then you’ll know what to do with the Playbulb Color and Playbulb Rainbow. Unscrew existing bulbs, replace them with the MiPow ones, and voila. (They can also be made compatible with E40, E14 and B22 screw sockets using an adapter.) If you have had the opportunity to handle some wireless LED bulbs, the MiPow Playbulbs feel just like other LED bulbs from reputable brands, down to the heft and material.

Rather than bulbs like the Philips Hue and LIFX, whose wireless connectivity comes courtesy of Wi-Fi, the MiPow devices feature Bluetooth wireless connectivity like the Lumen Smart Bulb, so there’s no need to hassle with routers, internet hubs, or a complex set-up process. As long as you’re in range of each bulb, you can control behavior with the Playbulb X app that is available for iOS and Android devices. This also means you can’t change anything once you’re out of range or out of the house, but the app does provide timers to automate the lights.

The Bluetooth range is indeed good for the listed 33-ft (10-m) range. While walls and floors will halve the distance, moving bodies and/or furniture has a minimal effect. Unfortunately, this is the Bluetooth high-point for each of the MiPow devices as there are connectivity-related issues, likely related to (i.e. blamed on) the Playbulb X app.

Playbulb X App (Android)

Typically, the MiPow Playbulb bulbs are discovered pretty quickly by the app. There are exceptions to this, which will be covered in just a bit. But once you’re in, you’ve got a color wheel and brightness slider bar to adjust to your heart’s content. It’s very easy to figure out with colors able to be toggled on/off. There's also a "shake" function that randomly chooses a color when a smartphone’s accelerometer is triggered, but it only works when you’re actively using the app. Tabbing to something else or locking your screen disables this feature.

There are some fun effects to choose from, each of which continue (even after exiting the app) until you interrupt the bulb by changing its power state, brightness, color, or switching to another effect. The lights can flash, pulse, cycle through a rainbow of colors, or fade through a rainbow of colors, each with adjustable speeds. The Playbulb Candle gets its own special effect of a candle flicker.

The Playbulb X app also provides timers and a security feature, each of which can be enabled and disabled individually. In a sense, this is a handy bit of automation that works even if your device is off. When enabled, the security feature sets the Playbulb LEDs to alternate power states, making it appear as if someone is home and switching lights about the house on and off. While not necessarily a deterrent, this adds an additional layer to home security if you happen to away on vacation.

Since the MiPow Playbulb Color has a built-in speaker, it makes sense for the Playbulb X app to have a built-in music player. While it's not the worst out there, it could benefit from a serious overhaul. All you get is a list of songs by title, ordered the way you’d find them in system directories without any of the folders. There’s no searching or sorting – just one very long list. If you know your artists and song titles well enough you can figure out where you are and go from there, but it’s not worth the trouble since it’s easier to use any other music player you have on your mobile device. However, the music portion of the app isn’t the only thing that needs improvement.

Sometimes the Playbulb X app will get stuck in a loading loop when you click on a device, or it might do absolutely nothing but sit there. And sometimes you won’t see a device and/or a device will just disappear from the list, even if you’re still in wireless range. While pulling down on the device list can refresh and make them all visible, sometimes it won't. Or the device will show just for a split second and then disappear again. Sometimes removing and reinserting a bulb makes things work properly again, but not always. Exiting and reopening the app rarely works, and expect it to crash often.

There are a few other quibbles with this app, but the crashing and connectivity issues are the major issues. It's not much consolation that the Playbulb X app is not much worse than other similar apps. When it comes to the internet of things, hardware (generally) works flawlessly and it’s the software that tends to be the weak link. Even big-name players struggle with the execution of the app’s user interface and overall performance. And when you check out app ratings all across the board, mediocrity seems to be the status quo. It's also worth noting that we used the Android app, so can't say whether similar problems can be found with the iOS version.

LED Performance

While the Playbulb Candle is usable anywhere, anytime, it’s definitely meant for low-light or dusk/night conditions for ambiance. The LED is too small and weak to hold up against daylight or nearby bright lamps. Switch the Candle on and the LED starts off green, slowly shifting through colors by default. If it pulses a faint red instead of lively green, then you know it’s time to recharge the batteries.

One fun feature about the Playbulb Candle is that you can blow on it to "light" and "extinguish" the LED, but the physical switch has to be set to the on position in order for the sensor to detect breaths of air. If you’re worried about the battery life for keeping that switch on, the power drain is very minimal. You can leave the Playbulb Candle alone like that for weeks, and the batteries will still test green. In addition to the blowing feature, you can install one of the three included scented discs for an added fragrance effect. It's a clever concept, but be warned – there’s a good chance you won’t find the smell that appealing.

As for the MiPow Playbulb Color and Playbulb Rainbow, all you need to do is flip the light/wall switch to enjoy regular home lighting. What’s nice is that even if each bulb has been set to some other color beforehand, it always reverts to the traditional light output when turned back on. That way, you can enjoy a relaxing, mood-enhanced soak in the bathtub late at night and not have to worry about using your smartphone to set it back to default when you rise in the morning.

MiPow’s website lists 280 lumens for the Playbulb Rainbow and 200 lumens for the Playbulb Color. But by visual inspection, the bulbs appear to glow with similar temperature (3,000 K) and brightness as a Belkin WeMo LED (800 lumens), Cree Connected LED (815 lumens), TCP connected LED (800 lumens), and a typical CFL bulb. If there is any difference, it’s negligible, and the MiPow units look just as good as competitor offerings.

The standard light output of the MiPow LEDs is even, and they generate the same amount of heat to the touch as other LED bulbs. However, the MiPow bulbs are slower to light than TCP, Cree, and Belkin WeMo LEDs, which are all slower than a CFL. This is just an observation more than anything else, since the time difference is a fraction of a second. But if you mix and match brands in the home, it’s easy to notice.

Unlike the MiPow Playbulb Candle, the Playbulb Color and Playbulb Rainbow are bright enough to see during the day. Sure, colors are easier to appreciate when it’s darker indoors, but the bulbs don’t get as washed out by natural (or other) light as easily as the Playbulb Candle. Their color representation is also a lot more accurate than the Playbulb Candle. When wandering around on the color wheel for either the Playbulb Color or Playbulb Rainbow, the LED’s output on a white wall closely matches what’s chosen in the app. This accuracy loosens marginally when you opt for a hue (leaning white) instead of a shade (leaning black).

The Playbulb Candle is adept with the colors magenta, purple, blue, turquoise, and green. It struggles with yellow (there’s too much influence of green in it), orange is practically non-existent, and there’s only a sliver of an actual red before it starts to morph into magenta. So about a third of the color wheel is at a loss as far as accuracy is concerned. But you can tell the LEDs in the Playbulb Candle aren’t as powerful as those contained in the Playbulb Color and Rainbow, so a little leniency is ok here.

Audio Quality

The ability to connect to a device and play music pertains only to the Playbulb Color as it’s the only one with a built-in speaker. This is the main reason for the size difference versus the Playbulb Rainbow. As such, there can and will be lamps/fixtures too cramped to accommodate the Playbulb Color. Just keep that in mind.

Performance-wise, the Playbulb Color’s audio quality is as expected for the size of the speaker hardware. So don’t go tossing out any of your portable wireless Bluetooth speakers just yet. At a moderate volume level – just below the point where the audio starts to distort like crazy – the Playbulb Color adds an area of sound in one part of a room. Sort of like how a mid-range laptop speaker would. You’ll want to stay within a couple of meters of the Playbulb Color in order to make the most of the limited detail and unsurprisingly there’s no bass and an overabundance of treble.

The Playbulb Color works best for talk radio, audiobooks, or softly-playing background music to quash silence or city white noise. The reproduction quality is not even close to making the bulb a viable option for intent listening and/or audio appreciation. Flat, tinny, toy-like, muddy, and grainy are just a few descriptors for what you’ll hear if you pay too much attention to the music. The speaker itself does rather well if you consider the physical-size limitations of the hardware. It just can’t compare to an actual, dedicated speaker.

The Verdict

If you’re looking for an all-in-one box to brighten up and add color to your home, the MiPow Playbulb Studio would make for a great choice if it were available. You'd get a pair of bulbs to install in lamp sockets – one of which has a built-in speaker – as well as a portable light. Individually, the Playbulb Color and Playbulb Rainbow light up with a brightness and temperature comparable to other, quality LED bulbs out there. The Playbulb Candle, although not as bright, is a fun and easy way to add ambiance anywhere.

While the hardware is fantastic, the Playbulb X app and/or temperamental Bluetooth connectivity will require all the patience one can muster. When it all works, it’s great. But more often than not, users will be left staring at the Playbulb devices, wondering why the app can’t "see" each from only a couple of meters away. Devices that constantly require toggling switches, unscrewing bulbs, rebooting smartphones/tablets, or any combination thereof tend to quickly kill the joy associated with wireless "convenience".

If you want LED bulbs that are great for standard lighting and have the option for color-changing, the ones in the MiPow Playbulb Studio are not too bad. That is, if you can get past the app-related issues. Just be prepared to join the ranks of beta-testers leaving ratings and feedback on the Playbulb X app pages. Individually, the MiPow Playbulb Color can be purchased for US$79.99, the Playbulb Rainbow for $39.99, and Playbulb Candle for $19.99.

Product page: MiPow Playbulb

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