Finally light bulb's Tesla tech gives LEDs a worthy rival

— 12:37 AM on November 20, 2014

Ever since I improbably started blogging occasionally about light bulbs, I've been waiting impatiently to get a look at the first product from The Finally Light Bulb Company. This start-up company from Cambridge, Massachusetts has decided to bring a Tesla-era lighting technology into the consumer space.

The tech is known as induction or electrodeless lighting. Induction tech is pretty closely related to fluorescent lighting: a magnetic field excites gases in an enclosed tube. Those gases generate UV light, which strikes the phosphor coating on the tube, causing it to glow. (I'm probably butchering the details, so go here for more info.) Induction lighting has been used for years in industrial and commercial settings, where its reliability and efficiency are appealing, but the fixtures have been much too large for use in the home. The folks at Finally have worked to miniaturize induction lighting radically, so an entire assembly will fit into the space of a conventional A19 light bulb.

Finally calls its miniaturized version of induction lighting "acandescent technology" in an obvious play on "incandescent"—and a tip of the hat to the firm's goal, which is to replicate the warm, welcoming light of an incandescent bulb with very few compromises.

Now, I have almost no specific details about how Finally's implementation of inductive lighting works. All I have is presumably a finished product packaged neatly in retail garb. Heck, I'm not entirely sure why I have this bulb apparently before just about anyone else. Probably they sent me one since I kept bugging them about it.

That said, I suspect Finally may have deployed a couple of important tools in pursuit of their goal. One such tool could be a very fast cycle time. Old-school fluorescents cycle at 60Hz, and I believe CFLs generally run at 2KHz. Some induction lights cycle as quickly as two and a half megahertz. Finally may have chosen a relatively high operating frequency in order to ensure solid, steady illumination. Also, Finally was undoubtedly very particular when selecting the mix of phosphors to use, since those determine the spectrum of light emitted by the bulb.

The yellow-striped Finally bulb next to a Cree 4Flow and a conventional 60W incandescent

Whatever else is going on, there's no question that Finally's miniaturization efforts have succeeded. The payoff is a bulb whose shape closely mimics the teardrop profile of a traditional 60W incandescent.

The rest of the Finally Bulb's specs are competitive with the incumbent LED offerings, as well. It generates 800 lumens of light output using only 14.5W, just a touch above the 13.5W power consumption of Cree's TW-Series LED. The bulb's color temperature is rated at 2700K, the same as other "soft white" bulbs, and its $9.99 list price is in the neighborhood of the best LEDs, even if it is a couple of bucks higher than Finally initially projected. The bulb is EPA rated for 13.7 years of operation at three hours per day, which Finally backs with a 10-year limited warranty.

This bulb can go places some LEDs can't, too. It's rated for use in damp environments like bathrooms (though not in direct contact with water), and it can also be used in enclosed fixtures. For most intents and purposes, the Finally bulb can be used just like an incandescent. There is one place where it falls a bit short: it's not compatible with dimmer switches. Finally has said that future "acandescent" bulbs could be made to work with dimmers, but this first product doesn't go there.

The biggest question, of course, is about the quality of the illumination it produces. Finally makes a big claim about how its bulb reproduces that familiar, warm incandescent glow: "Finally, it is the same." That's a tall order since even the best LEDs don't measure up to the full-spectrum illumination produced by incandescent lights.

The Finally bulb's spec sheet says it has a color rendering index (CRI) of 83. That's short of the perfect 100 produced by incandescent bulbs, but it surpasses the 80 rating of the excellent Cree 60W Soft White LED. (Cree's TW Series claims a CRI of 93.) That said, CRI is an imperfect measure, so I wouldn't get too hung up on those numbers.

When I installed the Finally bulb in a lamp and flipped the switch, I was greeted with a bit of a surprise. The product's packaging says it's "instant on and instant re-start," but that summation misses an important reality. The bulb does light up immediately when you flip the power switch, but it only begins at about 50% of peak brightness. The light then ramps up to full brightness over the course of the next five or six seconds, so quickly that the change in luminance is easy to observe. The ramp up is faster than any CFL I've ever seen, but it doesn't match the immediacy of LEDs or incandescents.

In fact, it's hard to tell for sure, but I suspect the Finally bulb may not reach its absolute peak brightness until several minutes have passed. If I'm right about that, though, the effect is pretty subtle.

Get past that one quirk, and the rest of the story is quite good. As you can probably tell from the picture above, the bulb offers pretty much perfect omnidirectional light distribution, with none of the challenges LEDs sometimes face on this front.

The illumination from the Finally bulb is, as promised, warm and inviting. In my view, it's easily superior to any CFL. Each one of my poor friends and family members who I've accosted for an opinion have agreed with that assessment without reservation. The difference is not hard to see.

Stare at a room lit by this bulb a little longer, and you'll notice something unexpected: the light it produces is noticeably pink in tone. If you've experimented with CFL and LEDs, you may have noticed that not every 2700K light source produces the same mix of colors. Many CFLs tend to be predominantly green, and they can cast a sickly pallor across a living space. LEDs aren't quite so skewed, but they tend to be relatively yellow in tone.

Finally appears to have chosen a phosphor mix that emphasizes red. That's an intriguing aesthetic choice. The rosy pink light from this bulb runs counter to the cooler, flatter, and more antiseptic feel of many CFLs and even LEDs. This emphasis on the red portion of the spectrum makes the Finally bulb more appealing in certain ways. Wood tones appear deeper and more pronounced. Skin tones look healthier, too. I haven't yet combined three of them in the fixture above our kitchen table, but I suspect food presentation will be more pleasing, as well.

That said, the green walls of my bedroom take on more of a gray cast in this light, so it's not perfect. If you compare them side by side, the Finally bulb actually looks somewhat pinker than a 60W incandescent, kind of like GE's original Reveal bulbs with the neodymium coating. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (Happily, this product doesn't make the mistake of providing noticeably less illumination than a regular 60W bulb, either.)

Overall, I'd say the Finally bulb's light quality nearly rivals that of my favorite LED, Cree's 13.5W TW Series. I'm not sure I could say one is clearly superior to the other in every way. I do think the light from the TW Series is probably a little more balanced. If I were installing lamps in a room full of wood paneling, though, I'd pick the Finally bulb for that mission.

All in all, then, this is a spectacular start for an alternative lighting technology that's new to the consumer space—and an auspicious beginning for the young company that produced it. If you're into this stuff, you should grab one and try it out. The bulb is worth seeing in action, and you'll surely get some use out of it.

Unfortunately, I don't yet know where you can purchase one beyond the pre-order form on Finally's website. The firm hasn't yet announced a final availability date for its first product or a list of retailers that will carry it. I expect we'll be hearing more on that front soon.  I may have to snag a few more of these bulbs for myself once they become available.

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