Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Home Tech Smart ceiling light showdown: Aqara T1M versus Nanoleaf Skylight

Smart ceiling light showdown: Aqara T1M versus Nanoleaf Skylight

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For too long, color-changing smart lighting has been stuck inside bulbs and light strips, limiting its use to table lamps, the occasional recessed can light, and maybe lighting up the underside of your cabinets. But with these two new smart ceiling lights from Aqara and Nanoleaf, we finally have more choices beyond Philips Hue’s line of ceiling lights for bringing connected, colorful light to our ceilings.

Smart fixtures — which are hardwired to your home’s electrical wiring — let you add tunable white and color-changing lighting to spaces where there are no lamps or recessed lighting for smart bulbs or easy spots to stick smart light strips. As with all smart lights, you can set schedules and connect them to motion sensors and other smart home devices to automatically turn them on and off.

These new lights from Nanoleaf and Aqara add dynamic lighting, something even Hue hasn’t offered in its ceiling fixtures to date. These are among the first smart ceiling fixtures to bring addressable lighting to the ceiling, allowing control of color, temperature, hue, and brightness, plus the ability to display multiple colors simultaneously. 

The $149.99 Aqara Ceiling Light T1M is a tunable white light fixture with a color-changing LED ring featuring 26 individually addressable zones. The $249.99 Nanoleaf Skylight are tunable white and full-color modular ceiling LED light panels, each capable of displaying different colors and tunable white light.

I put these two new ceiling lights to the test, pitting them against each other to see who came out on top. I assessed their design, cost, and options for smart home control, as well as how easy they were to install. I examined their light quality and how well they each executed their unique ability to produce dynamic lighting effects.

After testing them simultaneously for two weeks, I loved how each product lit up dark areas of my house where I previously relied on a single smart bulb in an ancient ceiling fixture. But this is a head-to-head, so there had to be a winner. Read on to find out which one came out on top.

Design: hospital chic vs. a traditional look

The Aqara T1M has a more traditional design — it looks like a nice, high-end ceiling light. But the Nanoleaf brings something very unique to the ceiling. Designed to feel like a physical skylight in your ceiling, the Nanoleaf has a flush-mounted square design. It’s modular so it can be as big as you want it to be — capable of lighting up anything from a small corridor to a ballroom.

The Nanoleaf comes in a starter kit with three panels for $249.99, and you can arrange these to your liking. Only one panel needs to be wired, and you can add up to 99 more panels to create a ceiling full of light. (Be warned: a single panel costs $70, so that could be a $7,000 ceiling.)

I had a three-pack to play with, so I created a geometric design with two panels side by side and the other centered in the middle. Initially, I wanted to put them in a row, like a skylight, but my paramedic husband said it would look like a hospital. 

The T1M (left) and the Skylight (right).

He wasn’t wrong. When tuned to full white, the hallway did resemble an OR. But when I changed it to one of the company’s lovely lighting effects, the Nanoleaf was beautiful, resembling an actual skylight. Still, when the light is off, the white plastic design of the panels isn’t attractive; each one is chunky and plain with definite hospital vibes. 

The Aqara Ceiling Light T1M is less colorful, smaller, and more traditional-looking than the Nanoleaf Skylight. It’s 20 inches round and 3 inches deep and sits flush to the ceiling. It’s comprised of two lights: a main light and a ring light, and its size makes it good for rooms up to about 200 square feet.

While the Nanoleaf makes a much bigger statement, the Aqara will fit in better in more spaces. 

Light quality: Nanoleaf is super bright, but Aqara is smoother 

Dark spots in the panels can be a bit distracting, although not as noticeable in the Skylight as they are in Nanoleaf’s wall panels.

Both lights give off 1400 lumens, but for the Nanoleaf, that’s per panel, meaning you’re getting 4200 lumens — that’s a lotta light.

The Nanoleaf also offers full color and tunable white light on each panel. Whereas the Aqara’s main light is limited to tunable white light, the color comes from the separately controllable ring light with 26 individually addressable zones featuring full-color LEDs (but no tunable white). 

Both lights dim down to almost imperceptible levels and ramp up to super-bright white light and acceptably bright colors. The Nanoleaf Skylight is noticeably brighter, thanks to its three panels, but the T1M gives off a softer, more diffuse light from its main and ring light. You don’t see any pinprick LEDs or shadows, whereas the Skylight has some visible darker areas that can look like black spots. (This is an issue with the company’s Shapes and Canvas panels, too.) 

Aqara’s light has a more traditional look but with high-tech features.

Aqara’s light also works with Apple’s HomeKit Adaptive lighting, a feature of Apple Home (so iPhone only) that automatically adjusts the white hue of compatible lights throughout the day, going from cool bluish whites in the early morning to warm orangey whites in the evening. (Only the main light responds to adaptive lighting; the ring light doesn’t have tunable white light.)

The Nanoleaf Skylight doesn’t work with adaptive lighting or even with the Nanoleaf app’s Circadian lighting feature (which is limited to its Essentials range). However, it does have the option of scheduling its various daylight-mimicking scenes, like “Blue Skies” and “Golden Hour,” to create a similar effect to Adaptive Lighting.

I set schedules in the Nanoleaf app to have these scenes ramp up brightness over an hour to simulate natural light, and this worked well. But it’s not as easy as using HomeKit’s option — where you just select adaptive lighting once, and it adjusts automatically throughout the day. Setting schedules in the Nanoleaf app is fiddly, with the app eating mine several times. The dynamic scenes are also more impactful than regular light bulbs adjusting their hue, and at times, I found them a bit distracting.

Lighting effects: Nanoleaf dazzles, Aqara falls short

Aqara’s color lighting effects are limited to its Ring light, which is controlled separately from the main tunable white light.

Color is where the Skylight excels; each panel can display over 16 million colors and dynamic lighting effects that flow, flash, pulse, and melt in dizzying light dances.

Nanoleaf basically invented dynamic lighting effects, and it blows Aqara out of the water when it comes to the sheer number and impressiveness of its preset effects. Many of which can also sync in time to ambient music or sound, something Aqara’s can’t.

Nanoleaf launched some new Scenes with the Skylight, including “Gentle Rain,” “Sun Shower,” and “Blue Skies,” which are designed to mimic the outdoors and make the Skylight feel like a skylight. Most of these are dynamic in that they shift colors to different flows, and this can be a bit distracting. The panels don’t have addressable LEDS, so the entire panel changes color to create the effect.

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These press images from Nanoleaf show how the Skylight’s design becomes more impressive with more panels.
Image: Nanoleaf

In contrast, Aqara’s tunable white effects paired with the ring light and its six individually addressable zones were overall calmer and more suitable for a household not obsessed with RGB lighting. It also offers more functionality with the option to set up automations to use the ring light as a notification light — for example, flash red when an Aqara alarm system is triggered or when the Aqara G4 video doorbell rings.

Both apps let you design your own lighting effects, but Nanoleaf’s AI-powered Magic Scene creator made this really easy. I just typed in “Sunday Morning,” and it conjured up a soothing palette of warm pinks and beiges intermingled with white, and “Tropical Paradise” created a fun sea of turquoise, blues, and greens. Very Little Mermaid

Cost, connectivity, and compatibility: a hub adds to Aqara’s cost, but Nanoleaf is just expensive

The Aqara T1M is the more affordable option at $150. The Nanoleaf starts at $250, but you get three times the light compared to the T1M. The price escalates quickly — a four-pack costs $420, to a 12-pack that costs $880.

However, because the T1M uses the Zigbee wireless protocol, it requires an Aqara Hub. The cheapest compatible Aqara Hub is the $30 E1 — bringing the total price to $180. But the TM1 works with any Zigbee 3.0 Aqara Hub, including the upcoming Hub M3, which is also a Thread border router and Matter controller for Aqara’s platform. 

Nanoleaf uses 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, so it doesn’t need an additional hub. It may one day be a hub. It has a Thread radio on board and can be a Thread border router, which would allow Nanoleaf’s Thread products, such as its Essentials line, to connect to it. Nanoleaf hasn’t turned this capability on yet; the company tells me it will come in an update later this year. 

Wi-Fi can still be an unreliable protocol for lights, and in testing, while the Skylight never dropped offline, I had frequent trouble controlling it with the Nanoleaf app, which is slow and buggy and crashes constantly or requires restarts. In contrast, Aqara’s Zigbee connectivity was rock solid, and its app was crash-free.

Both lights are compatible with all major smart home platforms, including Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomeKit. Only the T1M supports Matter (with an Aqara hub). Nanoleaf says it plans to bring Matter support to all its panel products “soon.” 

Installation: hire an electrician (but Aqara is easier)

Anytime you’re messing with electricity in a ceiling, I would highly recommend hiring a pro. However, if you are going for it, then installing the T1M was the easiest.

It’s essentially the same as installing a standard ceiling fixture; after turning the power off at the breaker, I pulled the wires in my ceiling through a small hole in the main lamp and attached it to the ceiling with three screws using a drill. The three wires (live wire, ground, and neutral) then slot into an electrical connector in the lamp. Finally, I put the glass diffuser over the lamp, twisting it into place.  

Installing the Skylight was much more arduous; lining up the panels wasn’t easy — and there’s no template to follow. With four screws for each panel, I ended up with a lot of holes in my ceiling, and connecting the two wires required between each panel was really fiddly to do while standing on a ladder.

Control: Aqara successfully solves the dumb switch conundrum 

If you install a smart light fixture on a regular light switch, it will lose all functionality when that switch is off. While smart lights generally don’t play well with most smart switches, Aqara and Nanoleaf have both found ways around this.

The T1M can be paired with a $35 wired Aqara Smart Switch, set to its wireless switch mode. This keeps power flowing to the light even if someone turns the switch off, leaving it controllable in the app or with voice. However, it doesn’t allow for dimming; that has to be done in the app or with voice. Nanoleaf’s new Sense Plus smart switches will work with the Skylight and allow for dimming, but they aren’t available yet. (Nanoleaf says they’re coming later this year.) 

For both lights, a smart button or scene controller that works in your chosen platform is probably the easiest option for physical control, especially if you don’t want to mess with more wiring. But Aqara wins here for now because you can actually buy its physical controller.

The Aqara T1M will fit well in any room.

Which is best?

The Aqara is the winner if you’re looking for an affordable, easy-to-install smart ceiling light that works with all the major smart home platforms. Its reliability and physical control option also make it a better choice.

But the Nanoleaf is the splashier, fancier light, with hundreds of scenes, the option of music sync, and the ability to pair with Nanoleaf’s other dynamic lighting products to really RGB-up your life. (Aqara’s only other dynamic lighting product is its T1 Light Strip).

The Nanoleaf is also the better option for filling a large room with light, thanks to its modular, expandable design. While it would look great over a long dining table or kitchen counter, it’s not really a replacement for a traditional ceiling light — it has a very different aesthetic, one that might be too different for a lot of people. But if you like the look, you’ll love this light.

If you have a bigger space to illuminate or are looking for something more unique with brighter light and better dynamic color effects, go for the Nanoleaf Skylight. For every other use case, pick the Aqara T1M. 

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