First Look

TCP Connected Lighting: Almost the future of "smart" lighting

The TCP Connected Lighting System is well-priced and has some great features but it falls just short of being really good

light bulb
Credit: Wikimedia

“Smart” lighting is, undoubtedly, the way of the future. It’s based on the idea that lighting should be optimized for power use and effectiveness as well as being customizable for aesthetic purposes and it integrates what is a key environmental service into the Internet of Things. 

At its most sophisticated, this level of control extends down to individual lighting fixtures and the entire system should be not only command-driven but also responsive, tracking occupants and the environment and adjusting accordingly.

I’ve looked at a couple of these systems (for example, see my recent post The Lumen, a smart LED bulb that's more of a novelty and it’s follow-up, Turning the Tabü LED bulb into an open system and bringing it into the IoT) and today I have another lighting system that I’ve been testing for a few weeks. 

Now, I could have written about this product a day or two after installing it but one of the hardest things to do is to figure out where the warts are in a product. This is because problems with products don’t become obvious until you’ve worked and lived with them for some time and the length of time required is directly proportional to complexity. Thus, something like a keyboard is orders of magnitude easier to evaluate then, say, an operating system.

A good example of this was the Schlage Touchscreen Deadbolt I covered back in February, this year. It’s a good product but having lived with it for a while I realized that the device’s inability to detect when the door is shut is a real problem. The reason this matters is if the bolt is extended when the door is open then when you shut the door the bolt will hit the door frame; this is the reason I now have a noticeable dent on the doorframe next to the lock. 

I have a fix in mind for this that I’ve yet to try; disable auto-lock and have a home automation system trigger the lock 30 seconds after the separate door status detector reports "closed". Of course, this will require the HA system to be local because (obviously) the plan will not work if the Internet is down.

Anyway, back to lighting. My focus in this post is a smart lighting system called Connected manufactured by Technical Consumer Products, Inc. The system consists of a gateway, a remote control, and one or more Connected Lamps.

TCP Connected architecture Mark Gibbs

TCP Connected architecture

The gateway is a small box that plugs into your wired network and communicates with the bulbs using JenNet-IP  and open source protocol now owned by NXP Semiconductor. JenNet-IP is a 6LowPAN system which uses IPv6 over an IEEE802.15.4-based, low-powered, mesh wireless network. TCP’s JenNet-IP implementation allows for 500 devices to be controlled with a maximum distance between any two nodes of about 100 feet.

TCP Connected bulbs and controller TCP Connected

TCP Connected bulbs and controller

Connected Lamps are available as 11W or 13W LED bulbs (equivalent to 60W and 65W incandescent bulbs respectively) in Daylight (5000K) or Soft White (2700K) color temperatures or as 15W bulb (equivalent to a 90W incandescent bulb) in Soft White. A 65W equivalent Soft White downlight version is also available. The bulbs I received are also physically tough; far more so than regular bulbs.

Because Connected bulbs use the JenNet-IP standard they can also be integrated with automation systems such as Home Depot’s Wink.

Each remote control can be set up to control up to four lamps with both individual and alllamps on/off and dimming. You can also use multiple controllers so, for example, you could have a controller assigned to just the lights in each room of your house.

For no reason I can determine, my gateway isn’t locally accessible via my Mac or PC even though TCP’s FAQ says it should be. I can see the gateway has port 443 open (that’s the only open port and as it's the HTTP SSL port obviously something is going on) but the device won’t respond. This must be a fault with my review unit. Even so, a Web interface is a good idea because it allows for integration with premises automation systems. In fact, developers have fooled around with this and you can find a PHP-based API, a node.js control, and support in the the Ruby-Based thing system for controlling Connected lighting via the gateway.

TCP Connected app TCP Connected

TCP Connected app

I set up the Connected lighting system using the free iOS  app (a free Android app is also available but no other smartphone implementations are available or even proposed) and it was fairly simple even though I would argue that the user interface is not intuitive. 

There’s also no way to limit access to the configuration via the app other than not letting your family members have the password which means that a simple interface for people who don’t want or are just uncomfortable with the complexity of the existing apps isn’t available. The app can also apparently display configuration details except my app lists the parameters without any associated variables. 

You can define “Smart Controls”, collections of settings for multiple lights that other systems call “scenes”, and have them execute at specific times and days of the week. You can also use sunset and sunrise as triggers but you can’t define times relative to these events such as “one hour before sunset” which is important if you have rooms that are shaded and you’d like to see where you’re going even though it’s only 4PM.

Bulbs can be remotely controlled via the Connected Lighting Web site (no subscription required) or via the smartphone apps. Both methods let you trigger individual lights and run scheduled Smart Controls but you can’t make any configuration changes from a remote interface. 

TCP Connected web interface Mark Gibbs

TCP Connected web interface

The Web interface also includes a simple status panel (House Info) showing how many connected bulbs are active, how many are powered on, and the current power consumption in Watts. But to show the current stats you have to click on an update button! 

TCP Connected House Info Mark Gibbs

TCP Connected House Info

This is obviously a bug or, more likely, an oversight, because any time you turn on a specific light in Room Devices, the Weather Forecast panel updates. On the other hand, Weather Forecast doesn't update when you trigger a Smart Control.  Another issue is that I’ve never seen the Power stats read anything other then “0”. There are other, less important usability issues that are fixed simply by playing with the Web interface for long enough to figure out what can be done and these issues are all  due to the interface not being obvious.

I have to call all of this simply lame. Whenever I see this kind of lack of attention to detail I wonder what else is under the hood that is going to be a problem (you know the old adage: “When you find the first bug you know it’s not going to be the last”).

Here’s where living with a review product again comes in useful: Last night I noticed, at some time after midnight, that the three bulbs in my house controlled by the Connected Lighting system had failed to turn off on schedule. When I ran the app it couldn’t connect to the gateway and told me I needed to press the “Sync” button on the the gateway. While this was merely annoying (it’s not that long a walk from the bedroom upstairs  to my office on the ground floor) if I was using the remote Web or app I’d have been really annoyed because there would have been nothing I could do until I got home and the lights WOULD BE OFF. It would seem that the gateway can hang or loose connection, but I have no idea what the problem might be BECAUSE THERE ARE NO USEFUL ERROR MESSAGES, LOGS, OR DIAGNOSTICS I CAN FIND.

TCP Connected kit TCP Connected

TCP Connected kit

Pricing: 

  • 60W Equivalent Daylight (5000K) LED Light Bulb - $18.97
  • 60W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) LED Light Bulb - $19.97
  • 65W Equivalent Daylight (5000K) LED Light Bulb - $24.99
  • 65W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) LED Light Bulb - $24.97
  • 65W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) 5-6 in. Downlight LED Light Bulb - $29.97
  • TCP Connected Smart Gateway - $69.88
  • LED Light Bulb Kit with (2) LED Light Bulbs - $79.97

Those are actually very competitive prices and despite the problems I’ve encountered, I really like the hardware; it works well, it’s robust, and it’s easy to deploy but because of the weak GUI designs, not being able to locally connect to the gateway, and the gateway lockup (or whatever it is) I have to be tough: The TCP Connected Lighting System gets a Gearhead rating of 3.5 out of 5.

[mg]

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