More light bulbs? Yep, more light bulbs

The Internet is a strange and wonderful place. A couple of months ago, I posted a Friday night topic on light bulbs that incited a fair amount of discussion. Not long after that, I kid you not, I started receiving press releases and phone calls from the world's light-bulb brands, as if it made perfect sense for a website with the tagline "PC hardware explored" to be writing about LEDs versus CFLs.

This is a dangerous development.

As you may have gathered from my FNT post, I'm more than happy to geek out about lighting technologies. Quite a few of you are, too, apparently. Heck, I can even tie in my off-hours semi-obsession with my day job.

Watch and learn, kids.

After all, 2014 is already shaping up as the Year of the Display in PC hardware, with technologies like 4K and adaptive refresh rates hitting the market for the first time. There's huge overlap between lighting tech and displays. Backlight quality helps determine the temperature and color gamut of an LCD monitor. Beyond that, we're gonna need some serious candlepower (and efficiency) to make high-dynamic-range displays a reality. And one of the most promising display technologies, OLED, may also be the most promising lighting technology on the horizon. The fates of lighting technology and visual computing are deeply intertwined.

Hence, I've spent a silly amount of my free time lately screwing in various sorts of light bulbs for comparison, and here I am in the middle of a work day writing a blog post about it. It's educational, career-development type stuff.

I'm not sure any sane boss would buy that line, which is why it's great to be your own boss.

Anyhow, I've made a few new discoveries in my light bulb vision quest since last time out. Let me bring you up to date.

The Cree TW Series odyssey
First, I think it was one of you people, out there on the Internet, who posted in my Friday night topic and first made me aware of Cree's TW Series bulbs, a follow-up to the excellent LED lights selling across the U.S. at The Home Depot. Whoever you are, you cost me a fair chunk of change on light bulbs.

I was already a big fan of the Crees, which are superb in fixtures and other sorts of indirect lighting, but the stock Cree 60W replacements aren't quite up to replacing incandescents in every case. Above our kitchen table, for instance, in a triple-socket fixture with exposed bulbs, the regular Cree LEDs produce bright but somewhat harsh light. Under that light, the wood in our table and chairs looks kind of yellowy-green, more so than it does in daylight or with incandescents.

Cree cooked up the TW (or True White) Series in an attempt to rectify that shortcoming. The TW Series bulbs are rated for a Color Rendering Index of 93, substantially higher than the CRI rating of 80 for the regular Cree bulb. I'm not quite sure what all voodoo Cree put into the TW Series in order to achieve this improvement, but one component is a neodymium coating on the glass (similar to GE's Reveal bulbs) that filters out a portion of the light spectrum. I believe there may be a different mix of LED colors inside, as well.

There is a tradeoff involved: the TW Series 60W equivalent uses 13.5W to produce 800 lumens of illumination, while the regular Cree bulb requires only 9.5W to do the same. The TW Series bulb also has a somewhat larger base, so it may not fit into certain fixtures as easily as the stock Cree.

Anyhow, I ordered up some TW Series bulbs with a silly amount of anticipation, and I have to say: I was not disappointed.

Although the TW Series has the same 2700K color temperature rating as the regular Cree bulb, the light produced by the TW Series is much better balanced. When I installed the TWs in our kitchen fixture, the wood in our kitchen table regained its deep red and brown tones. No longer did it look sickly and yellow-green.

Under a lampshade, especially, the TW Series is virtually indistinguishable from an incandescent bulb. I look at it periodically and shake my head. Although there's surely more room for improvement, I think LED lighting technology has hit an important high-water mark here. I don't think most folks could tell the difference between this thing and a 60W incandescent in a casual, side-by-side "taste test."

The only downside of note is that the TW Series bulb doesn't appear to be quite as bright as the stock Cree 60W-equivalent, in spite of the matching lumen ratings. The TW Series illuminates as well as a 60W incandescent, but the stock Cree goes above and beyond that. Depending on the situation, you may find that you prefer the brighter but somewhat less balanced light from the regular bulb. For example, I wound up mixing two TW bulbs with one regular one in our kitchen fixture in order to get the right mix of brightness and quality.

I ordered my TW Series bulbs online, since they weren't available in stores locally, but that's since changed, as I learned from, ahem, an official Cree press release mailing. The TW Series is now available at The Home Depot stores across the U.S. The 60W-equivalent TW Series bulb goes for $15.97 a pop—four bucks more than the standard Cree offering. Since you're potentially looking at owning this thing for 10 years or more, I'd say the premium is worth paying.

My order of a six-pack of bulbs left me armed with a mix of regular and TW Series 60W equivalents. I thought I'd maybe use them to replace some of the remaining incandescents in my house, in places where CFLs just wouldn't cut it. Here's what happened instead: I found myself wandering through the house, swapping out a bunch of the CFLs for LEDs. Turns out, at the end of the day, my affinity for light quality trumps any pretensions of being green. For me, the advent of high-quality LED lighting means the death of CFLs, and I couldn't be happier about it.

Rosewill gets into the LED game
We've reviewed several of Rosewill's keyboards, so when I mentioned light bulbs in that Friday night topic, a keen-eyed PR person from Rosewill insisted on sending me some of their new LED bulbs. You can "see if you like ours better than Cree's!" she suggested perkily via email.

Upon reading that statement, I actually sat back in my chair, inhaled, and said to myself, "That is a bold statement."

But hey, the folks at Rosewill have done a nice job with their mechanical keyboards, so who knows?

These LED bulbs are apparently brand-new products that have just become available at Newegg. Rosewill sent me two different models of LED lights to try out, the warm-white 6.5W bulb rated for 560 lumens and the warm-white 8.2W bulb rated for 660 lumens. The firm doesn't provide an incandescent wattage equivalent for these things. Both of them fall somewhere in between the usual output of 40W and 60W incandescents.

My first impression of the Rosewill LEDs was quite positive. As you can see in the picture above, these bulbs have a compact ceramic base that's less bulky than the Cree's, and they're somewhat shorter in terms of total height, too—very much the size and shape of a traditional incandescent light bulb.

Rosewill rates its soft-white products at a color temperature of 3000K, slightly cooler than the 2700K rating for most soft-white bulbs. In theory, at least, I like the idea of a slightly cooler everyday bulb. So many of the 2700K CFLs I've been using for years at 2700K are too yellowy and seem "off." (There's also a 5000K "cool white" version of each bulb, but I told them not to bother sending those. Ugh. I don't need a grow lamp.)

After screwing the Rosewill 8.2W LED into a lamp and firing it up, I decided maybe 3000K wasn't a great idea. Perhaps this is emitted spectrum instead of just color temperature, but my first thought was that the Rosewill soft-white bulbs emit light that's just a little too Walmart-esque for my tastes. Too much blue to the hue, in my view.

Sorry about that.

I will say Rosewill has one-upped Cree on another front, though. The light produced by this bulb is distributed evenly in a broad, nearly spherical area limited only by the presence of that ceramic base. There aren't any obvious hotspots or dark areas. The Cree's LED tower is more compact and more closely resembles an incandescent filament, but it doesn't emit as much light straight up.

I was torn on whether the Rosewill lights really produced better illumination quality than a CFL when I first tested them in several shaded lamps. The bluish light seemed pretty similar overall. Any doubts on that front were squelched when I subbed in the Rosewill 8.2W bulbs for 13W CFLs in a couple of those three-light open fixtures. The Rosewills performed surprisingly well in direct lighting situations, producing brighter and subjectively higher-quality light than the CFLs they replaced. I also found that the 6.5W bulbs were a nice upgrade in lumen output from a 40W incandescent.

Still, the light quality doesn't really come close to Cree's regular offerings, let alone the TW Series.

The biggest drawback to the Rosewill LEDs, though, is probably the delay on start-up. Like most LEDs, these bulbs reach peak brightness pretty much as soon as they ignite. Trouble is, there's a pretty pronounced delay of a half-second or so (it seems to vary) between flipping the switch and ignition. Seriously, that is a long time. Even CFLs, which take several minutes to reach peak brightness, start producing some light almost instantly. The Crees LEDs are nearly instant-on, too. You can decide how annoying you find this quirk, but personally, I want a faster response when I flip the light switch.

Add in the fact that the Rosewill LEDs aren't compatible with dimmers and only come with a two-year warranty (versus Cree's decade-long pledge,) and it's clear this isn't quite the same caliber of product. That means the Rosewill bulb needs to be cheaper than the Cree, and right now, the 8.2W version is selling for $12.45 at Newegg. This thing needs to cost less, not more, than the market leader.

I suspect Rosewill knows that, and I suspect they'll run discounts and promotions that effectively drop the price of these bulbs over time. At a bit of a discount, these Rosewill bulbs could be a nice value, particularly for use in fixtures where their compact bases, conventional height, and well-distributed illumination would be appreciated.

A new contender emerges
LEDs are getting to be mighty good, but they're not the only lighting technology vying for a spot in sockets after the incandescent ban. The folks at a new start-up company have refined and miniaturized a form of induction lighting in order to create the Finally Bulb, whose story was told at length in this New York Times write-up.

Induction lighting has been used in commercial settings for ages, apparently, but was too large to be practical elsewhere. Finally calls its version of induction tech "Acandescent" lighting, which isn't bad as marketing names go.

The Finally Bulb is set for release this summer, and it looks to be almost exactly the same size as a 60W incandescent. The rest of the specs look pretty decent, too. It requires 14.5W and produces 800 lumens, and the company claims the bulb turns on instantly, with a rated life of 15,000 hours and a warranty spanning 10 years.

Two things could possibly set this bulb apart. One is light quality. The 2700K bulb has a CRI rating of 83, which is higher than the standard Cree LED's rating. The Finally marketing materials focus quite a bit on light quality, claiming this is "the first bulb to truly replicate the look, reassuring warmth and omnidirectional light of the incandescent bulbs you love."

That's a strong claim for a bulb with an 83 CRI. Still, CRI is an imperfect measure, so I'm eager to have a look at one of these things in operation as soon as possible.

The other big deal with the Finally Bulb is its projected price of about $8. That's cheap. If this bulb produces truly appealing light, meets its specs, and undercuts quality LEDs by a few bucks per bucks per socket, it might become yet another a viable alternative option.

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