Cree raises its game, lowers prices with 4Flow bulb

Since I posted my Friday night topic and then a blog post about LED light bulbs, I've been quietly waiting for another chance to try out something new and interesting on the lighting front. I figured that chance would come with the introduction of the Finally Bulb, but that company's name is proving to be unintentionally uncomfortable. I'm now told they'll have samples ready next month.

Meanwhile, the folks Cree are making news today with the introduction of a new, cheaper consumer LED bulb. The firm's existing 60W replacement bulbs were already my favorites, and this new bulb further refines the formula. Have a look at, yes, our review sample:

As you can see, this puppy is shaped pretty much exactly like an Edison-style A19 light bulb. Cree has eliminated the external heatsink and replaced it with what the firm calls a 4Flow Filament Design. Without the heavy, bulky external heatsink, this LED bulb is shockingly lightweight—under two ounces—and costs quite a bit less to produce. As a result, the price for the 60W-equivalent bulbs is just $8.97, a dollar less than Cree's current 60W-equivalent offering.

Cree plans to offer 4Flow bulbs in 40W- and 60W-equivalent types, with a choice of "soft white" 2700K and "daylight" 5000K color temperatures. The new bulbs will be sold exclusively through The Home Depot, and they will add to Cree's lineup rather than replacing any existing products. Like other Cree LED bulbs, the 4Flow models are instant-on, compatible with dimmers, and rated for ridiculously long lifetimes.

One obvious competitive target for the 4Flow is Philips' nifty heatsink-free SlimStyle LED bulbs. The SlimStyle 60W equivalent sells for $8.97 at The Home Depot, and right now, my local power company is apparently subsidizing these bulbs in a deal that brings their price down to $5.97 in local stores. The SlimStyle offers excellent illumination that's almost indistinguishable from the Cree's. Its only major drawback is a funky, flat shape that may be a little wider than some fixtures will permit. The 4Flow matches the SlimStyle's base price and offers a more conventional shape.

Cree has managed to eliminate the need for a metal heatsink at the base of the bulb by combining several measures. Most obvious is the venting at the top and bottom of the plastic shroud covering the LEDs. Inside, the 4Flow bulb is divided into four chambers by the reflective metal substrates on which the LEDs are mounted. Each chamber contains two LEDs, for a total of eight in each bulb. The heat generated by the LEDs causes air to circulate, and the bulb is then cooled by convection.

Older Cree bulbs have 10 LEDs inside. Cree says it was able to reduce the LED count in the 4Flow thanks to its new Extreme High Power LEDs.

All of the LEDs inside the bulb are situated on the same plane, so the 4Flow retains the filament-like look familiar from Cree's earlier products. One could easily mistake it for an incandescent upon casual inspection. The 4Flow layout, however, eliminates the dark spot at the top of the bulb. Despite this dark area, the older Cree bulbs cast light in all directions pretty effectively, but I suspect some folks will consider the 4Flow an aesthetic improvement.

One downside of the new design is slightly higher power consumption: 11W versus 9.5W for Cree's earlier 60W equivalent. I got the chance to talk with Mike Watson, Cree's VP of Product Strategy, about the 4Flow, and I asked him about the added power draw. He said that the new bulb draws more power in part because of the different thermal process; it's driving the LEDs harder. He pointed out that the energy cost difference between the two bulbs over their lifetimes works out to about $4—$139 versus $135. Cree saw this tradeoff as acceptable so long as it could lower the price of entry without compromising light quality. He also noted that the 40W-equivalent version of the 4Flow has the same 6W power rating as its predecessor.

The 4Flow's open venting could make it susceptible to some problems that other LEDs wouldn't face, including damage from moisture and bugs. Watson told me the 4Flow isn't rated for use in damp settings, although it could go into outdoor fixtures that provide enough protection. As for bugs, Watson pointed out that the 4Flow's mostly indoor usage model should help stave off some problems. He also explained that LEDs do not emit light in the UV spectrum, so they don't tend to attract bugs like incandescents do. That's really interesting and somewhat reassuring, but I'll have to make it through a few Missouri summers with 4Flows in our indoor lamps before I'm entirely persuaded. I figure we're bound to have a cricket or spider fricassee itself on one of those LEDs eventually.

That worry aside, the Cree 4Flow looks to be the most compelling candidate yet to prompt a house-wide conversion from inefficient incandescents or nasty-looking CFLs. The extent to which it mimics the look and feel of a conventional light bulb is unprecedented. Before talking to Watson, I hadn't realized that Cree bulbs could be used in enclosed fixtures, but they can. The 4Flow's packaging warns only against combining LEDs with CFLs or incandescents in the same fixture. That fact opens up a new front at my house. I reckon having that knowledge will cost me some multiple of $8.97.

The one question Watson couldn't answer directly was whether Cree plans to introduce a TrueWhite version of the 4Flow. Thanks to a neodymium coating that reduces the yellow bias in the light produced by LEDs, Cree's TW Series bulbs produce the best color rendering I've seen this side of an incandescent. I'd flip out over an inexpensive TW Series bulb. Of course, Watson couldn't comment on unannounced products. He did say that Cree is committed to having TW Series bulbs available and that if a TrueWhite version of the 4Flow makes sense, "we'll do it." I suppose time will tell.

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