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Ikea’s smart lights are as stylish and breakable as its furniture

Ikea’s smart lights are as stylish and breakable as its furniture

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The best part of Ikea’s new smart light system is its dimmer. The dimmer doesn’t work very well, and its battery ran out in under a month, but it’s cute and yellow, and my cat absolutely loves it. It’s a tiny little disk that he can bat around almost endlessly. There’s a magnet in it; and at one point, it got stuck to his collar and he had to paw it off and it was absolutely adorable. Eventually, he hid the thing under my radiator, and I lost track of it for a month.

Ikea’s entry into the smart light business earlier this year seemed like it could have been a turning point. Unlike other smart lights, Ikea’s are relatively affordable, at only $12 for a dimmable bulb, and $18 for a bulb that can change between warm and cool tones of white. And like other Ikea products, they look friendly and come with cute assembly instructions that make them only slightly frustrating to put together.

Those two factors could have helped Ikea’s smart bulbs reach a wider audience than products like LIFX and Philips Hue, which still appeal primarily to a nerdier crowd. But after testing them in my apartment for a month, I hope that Ikea’s lights don’t catch on with the typical Ikea shopper, as they have a good chance of turning people off of connected bulbs for a while to come.

Cat gif
My cat struggling with the detachable bottom half of the dimmer.

Ikea’s smart light system, called Trådfri, works perfectly if you set it up once and never touch it again. I hooked it up to two lamps and two wireless remotes — including the yellow puck my cat loved. All four of them stayed connected throughout my testing (at least, until the one dimmer’s battery ran out). I also set up some scheduling, so that my lights would turn on at 7PM and off at 7AM, and they did that without fail (though, oddly, always one minute early) for the entire month.

But these are smart lights, after all, and sometimes you want to change a setting or show them off to a guest. And Ikea’s system is too buggy to let you do that. Nearly without fail, the Trådfri app would disconnect from Ikea’s smart light hub every time I opened it. To reconnect, I’d have to pull the hub out from under my TV stand, scan a QR code on the bottom, and wait for it to load. I tested the app on both iOS and Android, and the issue happened on both platforms.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Last time I checked, my Android phone couldn’t reconnect at all. Ikea told me that doing a factory reset of the hub should fix the problems I’ve been having — but when I found a pin and pressed the tiny factory reset button, the hub didn’t even perform a factory reset, just a regular reset, and nothing changed. Customer reviews of the app suggest I’m not the only one with these problems.

On one of the rare occasions that the Trådfri app was working correctly, I also discovered that you can’t use it from outside the house. You have to be connected to your own Wi-Fi network to control the bulbs, which takes a lot of the utility out of this thing. It means that you can’t open up the app to make sure that you turned off the lights before you left home, or to turn on the lights early so that the house is bright when you return.

I suspect the situation could get better when Ikea eventually adds support for Apple’s HomeKit platform. In theory, that should let people connect to their lights from outside the home. It’ll also add a ton of functionality that’s currently missing inside the Trådfri app, like the ability to set your lights to turn on and off when the sun rises and sets, to sync them up with other smart devices, and to pair more than a single controller to a set of lights.

At least, I think it should do all of that — so long as the hub issues get resolved. Pretty much all of the problems here appear to be on the software side, which means Ikea could still improve the Trådfri system into something that’s worth buying into. But as of today, Trådfri isn’t there. And, as someone who’s been using an Ikea dresser with a broken lower drawer for years now, I have to tell you: this is not a situation where it’s worth buying the cheaper thing just because the nice option is way outside your price range. Save your money, and buy some of those cheap chocolates Ikea keeps by the register instead. They’re actually pretty good.