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Lifx Tile review: Lifx Tiles are nifty, but the glitchy software drove us up the wall – CNET

If you're itching to cover your walls in color-changing light -- and hey, who isn't -- then 2018 is the year you've been waiting for. You've already got one decent option with Nanoleaf's triangular LED light panels, and the company has square-shaped, touch-sensitive versions coming in December, too.

Then there's Lifx, an upstart Philips Hue rival that saw what Nanoleaf was doing and muscled its way in with square-shaped "Lifx Tiles" of its own. Like Nanoleaf, the company has a lot of loyal fans in the lighting geek community, and its products work well with a number of important names in the smart home -- IFTTT, Apple HomeKit, Amazon's Alexa, and the Google Assistant just to name a few. A five-Tile starter kit retails for $250, which is only slightly higher the Nanoleaf asking price -- and unlike Nanoleaf, which only supports one color per panel, you can paint dozens of shades across the 64 zones of light in each Lifx Tile.

All of that makes Lifx Tile a reasonable option if you're looking to add a smart pop of connected color to your walls, and in general, I think it's a pretty appealing pick for aforementioned lighting geeks who already have some skin in the Lifx ecosystem. But the Tiles come with some notable compromises, too -- namely, the complete lack of physical controls, the tedious setup process, the near-constant connection hiccups and the fact that you can't connect more than five Tiles to a single power supply. Lifx is a very solid smart-home brand overall, but the Tiles leave a lot to be desired. For now, I say stick with Nanoleaf (or with, you know, regular old light bulbs).

Chris Monroe/CNET

Novelty by design

Each Lifx Tile starter kit comes with five Tiles that connect together via Micro-USB cables. Each is about 8 inches squared and roughly an inch and a half thick. You plug the first one in and connect the other four, then stick them up to your walls using the Velcro sticky tabs that come preapplied on the back. 

You'll connect the Lifx Tiles to each other using Micro-USB cables, then hang them up on the wall using 3M Velcro tabs that come preattached.

Ry Crist/CNET

Each Tile has two Micro-USB inputs, which means that each Tile can only have two Tiles connected to it. You can arrange them in a straight line or zig-zag them into your most of your favorite Tetris shapes, but you can't, for instance, arrange them in a "+" shape with one Tile in the middle and the other four connected on each of its sides. A minor limitation, but a noteworthy one.

Once you've got them up on your wall in the arrangement of your choice, you pair them with your iOS or Android device using the Lifx app. In addition to changing their brightness and color, the app lets you choose from a number of colorful presets and effects. For instance, you can tap the "Powerful" preset for a random allotment of fiery orange and red hues, then animate that preset to dance and shift around like a lava lamp at the speed and brightness of your choice. Other effects include a music visualizer that relies on the mic in your phone, a strobe light and a "morph" effect that melts waves of color across the Tiles.

You can also use the app to "paint" on the Tiles by picking a color and dragging your finger across little icons representing your setup. It's a cool feature, but also rather clumsy and imprecise. Even worse, there's no "undo" button, so you'll need to manually reset your Tile back to its unaltered state whenever you don't like what you've drawn, which will happen often. A "Stamp" effect for placing quick, crisp symbols and letters across the Tiles would be a big help. Some tech-savvy users have gone further and hacked their Tiles to show things like Pac-Man animations -- a mechanism for creating advanced animations like these and sharing them with other users would be a nice addition, too.

'Pretty neat'

That's how Chance Lane, one of my more taciturn co-workers, summed up his reaction to the Lifx Tiles I put up in the CNET Smart Home. Chance is a jack-of-all-trades who helps run tech support for our test facilities, and he has a keen eye for home improvement. I asked if he could imagine ever putting the Tiles up in his own home.

"Eh... probably not."

You can animate randomized, color-changing presets across your Tiles in the Lifx app, or save your hand-drawn designs as scenes and call them up later with a voice command.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I suspect that a lot of folks can probably relate to Chance here. As futuristic novelties, Lifx Tiles and other products like them might feel a little out of place in your present-day living space. That said, it isn't hard to imagine them lighting up a gaming nook or a teen's bedroom -- and if you're an out-and-proud smart home enthusiast, then you might be looking to make a statement in your living room, too.