Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Smart Bulb Rant: Avoid Bluetooth + Alexa Bulbs

Posted in Amazon, botch, business by commorancy on November 28, 2021

LED BulbHaving worked with a number of smart Internet of Things devices (IoT), mostly light bulbs and hubs, I’ve come to learn what works and what doesn’t. Let’s explore.

Smart Hubs

Overall, the smartest value for your money is the purchase of a smart hub with light bulbs, such as the Philips Hue system. Why? These smart hubs use a mesh network that is separate from your WiFi network. These systems also have their own custom iOS apps that allow for extreme customization of colors, scenes and grouping. These hub-based devices also don’t require or consume IP addresses, like WiFi bulbs, but there are drawbacks to using a smart hub based system.

The biggest drawback is that smart hubs require an active Internet connection be available 24×7. When the Internet goes down, the smart devices, including light bulbs, don’t work well or at all. This is where WiFi bulbs typically shine, though not always. Controlling WiFi bulbs almost always works even with the Internet down when the mobile app is written properly. However, some mobile apps must check in with the mothership before enabling remote control features. Which means… the lack of Internet connectivity makes it difficult to control your devices other than manually. The good news is that most of these light bulbs work correctly by using the light switch on the lamp. This means you can still turn lamps on and off the “old fashioned way” … assuming you have electric power, of course.

The second drawback is that these systems are subject to interference by certain types of wireless systems such as some Bluetooth devices, wireless routers and cordless phone systems.

However, to be able to utilize voice control, such as with Google Home, Alexa or Apple’s Siri, this requires the Internet. The same for most smart apps. Though, I have found that Hue’s iOS or Android app can sometimes control lighting even with the Internet offline. However, without the Internet, the hub may perform poorly, work intermittently or fail to take commands until the Internet is restored.

While the Internet is online and functional, however, control of lighting and devices is easy and seamless. Not always so with…

Bluetooth and Alexa

Recently, some IoT LED bulb manufacturers have begun designing and using smart LED light bulbs based strictly on Bluetooth combined with Alexa. These Bluetooth based lights also don’t require or consume IP addresses, unlike WiFi bulbs. After all, Echo devices do support Bluetooth to allow for connecting to and controlling remote Bluetooth devices. The problem is, the Echo’s Bluetooth can be spotty, at best. Mostly the reason that Bluetooth is spotty is that it uses the same frequency as many home cordless phone systems (as well as WiFi routers and other Bluetooth devices). Not cell phones, mind you, but those old 2.4Ghz cordless handsets that sit in a charging base. Because these phone systems burst data periodically to keep the remote handsets up-to-date, these bursts can interfere with Bluetooth devices. Note that this can be major a problem if you live in a condo or apartment where adjacent neighbors could have such cordless phone systems or routers. Unfortunately, these bulbs can end up being problematic not only because of cordless phones.

Likewise, if you live in a large house with a number of different Echo devices on multiple floors (and you also have these cordless phone handsets), the bulb randomly chooses an Echo device to connect to as its Bluetooth ‘hub’. Whenever a command is issued from any Echo to control that light bulb, these devices must contact this elected Echo ‘hub’ device to perform the action. This could mean that the light bulb has hubbed itself to the farthest device from the bulb with the worst connection. I’ve seen these bulbs connect to not the closest Echo device to the bulb, but the farthest. As an example, I have a small Echo dot in the basement and this is the unit that tends to be elected by these bulbs when upstairs. This is also likely to have the most spotty connection and the worst Bluetooth reception because of being in the basement. There’s no way to ensure that one of these bulbs chooses the best and closest device without first turning off every Echo device except the one you want it connected to… a major hassle.

In the end, because the bulb chooses randomly and poorly, you’ll end up seeing ‘Device Malfunction’ or ‘Device Not Responding’ frequently inside of the Alexa app. If you click the gear icon with the device selected, you can see which Echo device the bulb has chosen. Unfortunately, while you can see the elected device, you cannot change it. The ‘Device Malfunction’ or ‘Device Not Responding’ messages inside of the Alexa app mean that the Alexa device is having trouble contacting the remote device, which is likely because of interference from something else using that same frequency (i.e., cordless handsets or routers).

This makes the purchase of any Bluetooth only LED light bulbs an exceedingly poor choice for Alexa remote control. Amazon can make this better by letting the user change the hub to a closer unit. As of now, the Alexa app doesn’t allow this.

Hub based Systems

Why don’t hub based systems suffer from this problem? Hub based systems setup and use a mesh network. What means is that the devices can all talk to one another. This means that instead of each device relying on directly connecting to the hub, the devices link to one another to determine which device in the mesh has the best connection to the hub. When the hub issues commands, it goes the other way. The command is sent down the mesh chain to a better connected device to issue the command to the destination bulb. This smart mesh network makes controlling lights via a hub + mesh system much more reliable than it would otherwise be without this mesh. The Philips Hue does use 2.4Ghz also to support the ZigBee protocol, but the smart mesh system prevents many connectivity problems, unlike these Sengled Bluetooth LED bulbs.

This is exactly why purchasing a Bluetooth-based light is a poor choice. Because these BT light bulbs don’t have enough intelligence to discover which Echo device is closest and has best connectivity and because it cannot talk to just any Echo device, this leaves the light bulb prone to problems and failure.

Sure, these BT bulbs may be less costly than a Hue bulb, but you get the quality you pay for. Alexa’s Bluetooth was not designed or intended for this type of remote control purpose. It’s being sledgehammered into this situation by these Chinese bulb manufacturers. Sure, it can work. For the most part, it fails to work frequently and often. It also depends on the bulb itself. Not all bulb electronics are manufactured equally, particularly when made in China.

If you find a specific bulb isn’t working as expected, the bulb is probably cheaply made of garbage parts and crappy electronics. You’ll want to return the bulb for replacement… or better, for a Hue system / bulb.

Color Rendition

These cheap bulb brands include such manufacturers as Sengled (shown in the photo) … a brand commonly found on Amazon. Because these bulbs are made cheaply all around, but separate from the BT issues already mentioned, you’ll also find the color rendition on these LED bulbs to be problematic. For example, asking for a Daylight color might yield something that ends up too blue. Asking for Soft White might end up with something too yellow (or a sorry shade of yellow). These are cheap bulbs made of exceedingly cheap parts through and through, including cheap LEDs that aren’t properly calibrated.

Asking for Yellow, for example, usually yields something more closely resembling orange or green. That would be fine if Alexa would allow you to create custom colors and name them. Unfortunately, the Alexa app doesn’t allow this.

Whatever colors are preset in Alexa are all the colors you can use. There are no such thing as custom colors inside of Alexa. If you don’t like the color rendition that the bulb produces, then you’re stuck. Or, you’ll need to replace the bulb with one that allows for custom color choices.

Bulbs purchased for a hub based system, like the Philips Hue bulbs, typically offer a custom iOS or Android app that allows for building not only custom colors and presets, but also custom scenes that allow for setting individual bulbs separately, but as a group. The Alexa app wasn’t designed for this granular lighting control purpose and is extremely lean of options. Everything that the Alexa app offers is set in stone and extremely rudimentary for lighting control. The Alexa app is designed as a can-opener, not as a specific tool. It does many things somewhat fine, but it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well.

Purchasing these BT Alexa-controlled LED lights is a poor choice overall. If you want the flexibility of color choices and color temperatures, you buy a bulb system like Philips Hue, which also offers a custom app. If you’re looking for something on-the-cheap but which allows quick control, then a Sengled or Cree or GE smart bulb might fit the bill. Don’t be surprised when the bulb fails to control at all or produces a color that is not what you were expecting. Worse, don’t be surprised when the bulb’s LED driver fails and begins to flash uncontrollably after a month’s use.

Updated Dec 7th after Amazon Outage

Today, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had a severe outage that impacted many different services including Ring and, yes, Amazon’s Smart Home features, including Alexa + Sengled bulbs. In fact, the only system that seems to have remain unaffected (at least in my home) was the Philips Hue system. Alexa was able to properly control all of my Philips Hue lights all throughout the day.

However, Alexa failed to control Kasa, Wemo, Wyze and even its own Bluetooth bulbs like Sengled. Indeed, pretty much most of my lights were unable to be controlled by Alexa throughout the duration of the outage, which was pretty much all day.

Amazon was able to isolate the failure root cause, but it still took them hours to recover all of the equipment needed to regain those services. This failure meant that it was impossible to control smart lights or, indeed, even my Ring alarm system.

Smart lights are controllable by switch. Shutting the switch off and back on will illuminate the light. You can then switch it off like normal. However, that also means that if the switch is off, Alexa can’t control the light. You must leave all lamp fixtures in the on position for the lights to turn on, off and dim by Alexa. If you turn the light switch off, then the smart features are no longer available and the lamp will display “Device is Unresponsive” in the Alexa app.

Failures

In fact, this “Device is Unresponsive” error is the exact failure response I saw throughout the day in the Alexa app during the failure. How does this all work? Alexa is powered by Amazon Web Services servers. These servers store data about your lamps, about your routines, about your Alexa usage and, indeed, about how to control your devices. Almost nothing is really stored on any given Echo device itself. Some small amounts of settings and a small amount of cache are utilized, but only to keep track of limited things for short periods of time. For example, if you’re playing music and pause, Alexa will keep track of that pause pointer for maybe 10-20 minutes max. After that time, it purges that resume information so that the stream can no longer resume.

All information about Alexa’s Smart Home devices is stored in the cloud on AWS. It also seems that state information about the lights (on, off, not responding) is also stored in AWS. When the connectivity stopped earlier on the 7th, that prevented connectivity from Alexa to those servers to determine the state of the information. It also prevented Alexa from controlling those specific devices handled strictly by Alexa. Because Alexa skills seemed to be handled by those servers, Alexa skills were unavailable also.

However, some services, like Ring, are also hosted on AWS. These servers seemed to have been impacted not only affecting Alexa’s interface to those services, but also preventing the use of Ring’s very own app to control its own services. Yes, it was a big outage.

This outage also affected many other servers and services unrelated to Alexa’s Smart Home systems. So, yes, it was a wide ranging, long lasting outage. In fact, as I type in this update, the outage may still be affecting some services. However, it seems that the Smart Home services may now be back online as of this writing. If you’re reading this days later, it’s likely all working again.

Smart Home Devices and Local Management

Using a hub Smart Home system like the Philips Hue hub system can allow for local management of equipment without the need for continuous internet. This means that if the Internet is offline for a period of time, you can still control your lighting with the Philips Hue app using local control. While you can control your lights with your switch, it’s just as important to be able to control your lighting even if your Internet goes down temporarily.

What this all means is that investing into a system like a Philips Hue hub and Philips Hue lights allows your smart lighting system to remain functional even if your Internet services goes down. In this case, Philips Hue didn’t go down and neither did my Internet. Instead, what went down was part of Amazon’s infrastructure and systems. This had an impact on much of Alexa and Alexa’s control over Smart Home devices. However, even though this was true of Alexa skills and Alexa controlled devices, Philips Hue remained functional all throughout.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that investing in a Philips Hue system is the best choice, but clearly in this instance it was a better choice than investing in the cheaper Alexa-only bulbs, which remained nonfunctional throughout the outage.

If there’s any caveat here, it’s that Smart Home systems are still subject to outages when services like AWS go belly up for a time. If you’re really wanting to maintain the ability to control your lights during such outages, then investing in a system like Philips Hue, which seems to be able to weather such outage storms, is the best of all worlds. Unfortunately, the Alexa only Sengled Bluetooth bulbs were the absolute worst choice for this type of AWS outage.

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