Review: Lutron Caséta Wireless HomeKit Smart Bridge, In-Wall Dimmer + Plug-In Lamp Dimmer Kits
Apple's HomeKit platform has brought together an interesting array of products and manufacturers of varying backgrounds, ranging from newer companies taking their first adventurous steps into home automation to veterans in the field expanding their existing solutions to bring in HomeKit support. Among this group, Lutron sits as one of the oldest and most established players — the company's founder, Joel Spira, was in fact responsible for inventing the original solid state lighting dimmer back in the late 1950s — so it's not much of a surprise that Lutron's Caséta Wireless System was one of the first HomeKit products to hit retail store shelves. Focused primarily on lighting solutions, Lutron's Caséta Wireless solution provides in-wall dimmers and switches, as well as a plug-in lamp dimmer, all of which can be controlled via Lutron's own iOS and watchOS apps. The products can also be controlled through Apple's HomeKit platform via the company's Smart Bridge, which also provides support for shades and popular Wi-Fi thermostats by companies such as Nest, Honeywell, Ecobee, and more.
Much like Philips’ Hue system, Lutron’s Caséta Wireless system pre-dates HomeKit, and was originally sold as a popular but proprietary lighting system that could be controlled only with the company’s own iOS app. Much as Philips did with its Hue Bridge, Lutron simply updated the Caséta Wireless Smart Bridge to add HomeKit compatibility, basically interfacing with Apple’s system and translating requests into its own wireless Clear Connect protocol.
Users who already have Caséta Wireless dimmers and switches in place simply need to update to the latest Smart Bridge, but if you’re getting started with Caséta and HomeKit, you’ll get everything you need in one of the company’s three Starter Kits, which all include the Smart Bridge, along with either one or two sets of dimmers and remotes. From there, additional in-wall dimmers and plug-in lamp dimmers can be purchased individually, usually as kits that also include one of the company’s Pico remotes, along with matching wallplates in the case of the in-wall dimmers.
In the Smart Lighting Dimmer Kit for wall & ceiling lights, for example, you’ll find the Smart Bridge with power adapter and Ethernet cable, two in-wall light dimmers with wallplates, and two Pico remotes with tabletop pedestals, and while we don’t usually comment on packaging, it’s worth noting here that Lutron lays out the kits quite nicely, with a box that folds open in the middle and is laid out inside to illustrate what each component is for.
To get up and running with Caséta Wireless you’ll first need to connect the Smart Bridge to your router — like other home automation products we’ve seen, the Smart Bridge uses a wired Ethernet connection rather than Wi-Fi, so you’ll need to keep it with your router. However, this has the advantage of not consuming Wi-Fi bandwidth needlessly, and the Smart Bridge itself uses Lutron’s own well-established (Clear Connect technology to communicate with other Caséta Wireless devices. Clear Connect has sufficient enough range that placement of the Smart Bridge doesn’t appear to be a critical factor.
Once the Smart Bridge is up and running, it can be added to HomeKit using Lutron’s Caséta Wireless app by following the standard HomeKit pairing procedure of entering or scanning the HomeKit code found on the bottom of the bridge. As with Philips Hue, only the Bridge gets paired to HomeKit; additional Caséta devices are detected and added to the system using Lutron’s own app — a process that normally involves holding a button down on the dimmer for a few seconds to place the device into a “discoverable” mode and then simply assigning a name and icon to the device from within the app.
Installation of the plug-in lamp dimmer is obviously straightforward, and simply requires inserting it into an electrical outlet and then plugging one or two lamps into the outlets on either side. The in-wall dimmer, on the other hand, requires a small amount of “handyman” skill, mostly requiring that you be willing to pull out a screwdriver, turn off the power at your fuse or breaker panel, and then simply replace the existing switch or dimmer. Detailed instructions are provided, and the process is actually quite straightforward — Lutron says it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, but if you’re experienced with such things, you should easily get the in-wall dimmer installed in under five minutes. We were also quite impressed to discover that the in-wall dimmer only uses two wires, unlike many other home automation switches we’ve seen over the years which often require a third (and somewhat rare) “neutral” wire be connected to power the switch when the light is off. Many older homes won’t have neutral wires running inside your light switch boxes, so the fact that Lutron’s dimmers don’t need it is a definite bonus that makes these accessories usable in a much wider variety of homes and apartments.
The only real compatibility problem you may run into with Lutron’s Caséta dimmers is really a common dimmer problem based on the type of bulbs you use in your lamps and light fixtures. While all incandescent bulbs should work fine, many users are switching to more energy-efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED lighting, and most solid-state dimmers have long had issues with CFL bulbs. Lutron’s are no exception in that regard, and while some “dimmable” CFL bulbs will work, it’s not uncommon to have minor issues such as buzzing noises or flickering. You can adjust for some of these, but ultimately if you’re looking to equip your home with Caséta Wireless dimmers, changing to a more compatible type of bulb — of which there are many — is likely the best option. Lutron maintains a Bulb Compatibility list at http://www.casetawireless.com/bulblist, reflecting those bulbs the company has specifically tested with its products. In our own experience, we found most of our built-in LED lighting worked completely fine with the Caséta Wireless dimmers, although we had some issues with GU24 base LED bulbs in one fixture; ironically the significantly less expensive standard E26 socket version of the same LED bulb worked without any issues, prompting us to simply replace the light fixture involved with a standard one. Most users with standard lighting fixtures should not have any problems finding compatible bulbs, however, although we did note that the part numbers on Lutron’s compatibility list may be U.S.-centric, so users outside of the U.S. might have a harder time finding exact matches without resorting to a bit more guesswork.
The Pico remotes are also worth a brief mention here, since pretty much every Caséta Wireless accessory includes one. By themselves, the remotes can be directly paired with a corresponding in-wall dimmer or plug-in lamp dimmer to provide remote control, and in fact the Pico remote is used as a second wall switch in a three-way switch configuration. When combined with the Smart Bridge, however, the Pico remotes can be assigned to control multiple Caséta Wireless dimmers, and multiple remotes can control a single dimmer as well. In addition to the standard on, off, and dim controls, the Pico remote also provides a “favorite” button that can be used to adjust the lighting to a pre-set level. Pico remotes can also be wall-mounted as primary switches for plug-in dimmers, or even secondary switches for in-wall dimmers. These little remotes are a seemingly small but significant bonus to the Caséta experience, and it’s nice to see them bundled so ubiquitously with Lutron’s Caséta Wireless devices, rather than only sold separately as many other vendors do.
Once up and running, Caséta Wireless worked very well, with lights turning on, off, and dimming as required. Light names set in the Lutron app translated directly to Siri-referenceable names without any additional effort, although an additional step is required if you want to assign your lighting to specific rooms to be able to control them as a group. This can be done through the Lutron app or any other HomeKit app that supports lighting and rooms, such as Elgato’s Eve app or the iDevices Connected app.
Rather than being a true “HomeKit” app, Lutron’s own app is mostly limited to controlling Caséta Wireless devices and pushing that information out to HomeKit. For the most part, other HomeKit accessories don’t appear in the app, with the notable exception of HomeKit-enabled thermostats. Lutron’s “Scenes” feature also works independently of HomeKit scenes, as do features like timers and geolocation. That said, the Lutron app is a good app if you’re using mostly Caséta Wireless devices, but if you’re working in a larger, multi-vendor HomeKit environment, you’ll probably want to spend most of your time in a more HomeKit-compatible app and ignore Lutron’s scenes, timers, and geolocation features, at least for the most part. While we were a bit disappointed to see that the app didn’t provide full HomeKit support, as it’s otherwise a pretty nice app, we also weren’t entirely surprised by the omission, since the app was originally developed to support Lutron’s own Caséta Wireless ecosystem, with HomeKit support added on later.
The Lutron app does have a couple of useful tricks up its sleeve that still make it worth keeping around, however, not the least of which is an Apple Watch app, which also includes a “glance” that will tell you quickly which of your lights have been left on. The Apple Watch app can be used to trigger scenes as well as control lights individually, and you can pick which lights and scenes are available to the Apple Watch app if you want to keep it down to a manageable list. The Lutron app’s geofencing features also not only provide the ability to trigger scenes when arriving at or leaving from home, but can also limit the scene triggers to only occurring after sunset, and most interestingly provide a push notification on your iPhone or Apple Watch if you leave home and forget to turn off the lights (although again, this is limited to Caséta Wireless lights only — other HomeKit-enabled lights aren’t included). In our case, we primarily use Siri along with Elgato Eve on our iPhone and iDevices Connected on our Apple Watch to provide primary HomeKit control, and use the Lutron app for some of its geofencing and Apple Watch features. It’s also worth adding that Lutron has just added support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, so voice control is also available through Amazon Echo and Fire TV devices, which can be a handy option for controlling lights with your voice if you’re not using a “Hey Siri”-equipped iOS device (sadly, HomeKit support remains mysteriously, and disappointingly, absent from Siri on the fourth-generation Apple TV).
Although the cost of entry into a Caséta Wireless HomeKit system is certainly higher than simply grabbing a single HomeKit-enabled plug for your living room floor lamp — and there’s more work involved, too — there’s little doubt that if you’re looking to equip your home with HomeKit-enabled lighting on a larger scale, Lutron’s Caséta Wireless is the system to go with at this point. As one would expect from the company that basically invented the solid-state dimmer, the hardware is top-notch and worked flawlessly in all of our testing, with no range or interference issues from the Smart Bridge and straightforward installation with great wiring compatibility. The included Pico remotes are a great bonus that provides additional flexibility, the Starter Kits provide great value, and while the individual dimmers are considerably pricier than non-smart alternatives, the pricing is very competitive when compared with other HomeKit and Home Automation solutions — consider that HomeKit-enabled plugs start at $40 and don’t include a remote, while a pair of plain white Philips Hue bulbs and remote dimmer will run at least $50.
Further, with the overwhelming number of lighting standards and light bulb manufacturers out there, no system is going to be compatible with every possible lighting system, but Lutron has provided very well-documented light bulb support that exceeds that of most other solid-state dimmers we’ve seen. On the software side, while the Lutron app isn’t as HomeKit-compatible as we’d like, it handles Lutron’s own lighting very well, and with the number of great free HomeKit apps out there, the app is not a serious limitation at all.