I've been writing about the electronic design industry for over 15 years and I’ve never seen an LED light bulb with a better combination of features than the Cree. At $13, it’s dimmable, has high quality color, is long lasting, has a 10-year warranty and makes as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. It’s my new favorite LED light bulb.
What do I know about LED bulbs?
I started DesigningwithLEDs.com to cover innovations in LED technology with an eye towards new applications. And by “cover” I mean tear brand new products apart, determine their components and design innovations, and interview the technology experts with leading-edge semiconductor and lighting companies to get their views on the directions this fast-moving industry may take. I’ve written about and analyzed the world of electronic design for the past fifteen years, working at publications like EDN and as program manager at live events like DesignCon. I have a BSEE and worked as a design engineer and engineering manager.
Why now is a great time to buy LED bulbs
LED light bulbs have come a long way in just a few years: The first bulb I opened up in 2010 was a 40W-equivalent that produced 560 lumens from 7W which it cast over a 120-degree angle, compared to the almost 360-degree throw of an incandescent or CFL bulb. It was non-dimmable, retailed for about $25, and came with a 1-year warranty. (A similar bulb died in my home after two years due to a lousy solder joint.)
Just three years later, you can buy a Cree’s 60W-equivalent that produces 800 lumens from 9.5W with a light pattern similar to an incandescent bulb. It dims flawlessly and costs just $13, and Cree backs the bulb with a 10-year warranty. The company is a technology innovator in solid-state lighting, having developed one of the first practical white LEDs which opened the door to energy-efficient solid-state lighting. You may not be familiar with Cree’s name, but its LED components light up such modern lighting projects as San Francisco’s airport, and the exterior skin of the Beijing Water Cube swim stadium. Other lighting manufacturers have tried to borrow some of Cree’s quality cachet by advertising their LED bulbs as using Cree LEDs: “Cree inside” instead of “Intel inside.”
Energy efficiency and the resulting cost savings are the reasons you should be considering switching to LED bulbs. Although the Cree bulb’s $13 initial cost seems pricey compared to an incandescent, its savings in energy costs over its lifetime of 23 years results in an energy savings of $139, assuming the bulb is on for 3 hrs/day and energy costs $.11/kWh. (And assuming it lasts that long).
Both the 40W and 60W Cree Soft White bulbs are Energy Star compliant as of October. Here’s a list of the requirements if you’d like to take a look.
The history of the Energy Star rating is that it was originally developed for large appliances to show that their energy savings were real and consumers would save in energy costs over the life of the product. Product quality or lifetime wasn’t really a factor – this is something put out by the Department of Energy (at the time, the EPA), not the Quality Police.
Lifetime became an issue with LED lights because of the horrible quality track record of CFLs (detailed in the next section). The lighting industry actually led the charge and demanded that the Energy Star listing include a lifetime warranty requirement so that the LED lights not repeat the same low-quality/performance debacle of early CFLs.
LEDs > CFLs
However, justifying the purchase of a bulb on how it stacks up next to an incandescent bulb’s energy efficiency is a bit of a straw-man: The real competition is CFLs due to the elimination in January 2014 of 60W incandescent lights which cannot meet the lighting efficiency standards of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. And CFLs do have some impressive numbers: A 60W-equivalent CFL can produce 800 lumens from 13W (vs. the Cree’s miserly 9.5W), can operate for as long as 10,000 hours, and you’ve probably seen them at big box stores for around $1.50. However, for a buck and a half you are not getting a light that compares favorably with either an old-style incandescent, or, more importantly, the Cree LED 60W-equivalent.
Low-end CFLs emit a warm white light and come on instantly. But they do not dim, nor will they operate in an enclosed fixture because the lack of air circulation causes their electronics to overheat and fail. In addition, “Instant-on” for such a CFL means it comes on quickly but not at full brightness, and dimming is often mediocre. They don’t like being turned on and off quickly (as happens in a closet or hallway), nor being operated upside down so that their heat cooks their power base. For an apples-to-apples comparison, a CFL with similar specs to the Cree–i.e. 800 lumen, 2700K–will run you $14. At which point, you might as well get the Cree.
Besides, it’s not just cost-savings that make LEDs a better choice, LEDs are much better for the environment as well. All CFL bulbs contain mercury, which means disposal and any breakage is a concern. This can be a deal-breaker for many people since mercury is a toxic heavy metal that persists in the environment
What I looked for
Some de facto standards have emerged for LED bulbs: The light output should be equivalent to a 60W incandescent bulb–both in amount of light produced (at least 800 lumens) and in area covered (it should emit light in all directions, not just cast a spotlight on one area); the light quality should be a warm white (2700K-3000K); it should be able to work in an enclosure such as a track light or fan light fixture without shortening its life; it should be dimmable (meaning no flickering, even at the lowest settings); it should preferably be silent (less common than you might think); it should have at least a 5-year guarantee (but the longer the better); and it should cost less than $15. (That last one is a groundbreaking new thing–last year’s best bulb that met that criteria cost over $25.)
I’ve seen all the major bulbs out there and the Cree light fulfills all these specifications and is the only bulb that meets the sub-$15 price point. It’s available in three versions: The 60W-equivalent version at a warm 2700K light that uses 9.5W and costs $12.97; a 40W-equivalent version, also at 2700K that uses 6W and costs $9.97; and a 60W-equivalent version that has a “daylight” white light at 5000K and uses 9W and costs $13.97; all from Home Depot, at present the exclusive seller.
As you can see in these pictures from DesigningWithLEDs.com, the Cree does a great job of providing full coverage comparable to that of an incandescent.
In my review of the Cree on DesigningWithLEDs.com, I noted that the Cree was easily dimmable with no visibile flickering effects across all ranges of light output when using a variety of different dimmer switches. This is uncanny for an LED bulb of this price. It was also completely noiseless, even with my ear only 12 inches away. I concluded my review saying, “The light is warm and pleasant, the dimming excellent, there is no annoying noise, and it costs less than $13. Go buy one – it’s a great value and supplants my previous favorite LED replacement bulb, the Best Buy Insignia.”
If you want to know more about the specifics of what makes the Cree work from an engineering perspective, I’ll point you to my review, where I go in depth into the guts and construction of the bulb. I also put up this subsequent Q&A with Cree that goes into even more detail about specific aspects like circuit design. But you don’t necessarily need to know why or how it works to know that this is one seriously impressive bulb.
The only downside of the Cree is that it has a reported coloring rendering index (CRI) of 80, which is acceptable, but not great. For reference Popular Mechanics conducted extensive independent tests and found that incandescent bulbs score about 100, which means you see all the colors of the rainbow, and most CFLs and LEDs fall somewhere between the 80-90 range. It’s similar to listening to music in lossless versus MP3 formats–the incandescent provides you with the uncompressed light spectrum, but it uses a lot of energy, whereas the LED will give you enough to to think you’re seeing the full spectrum, but uses 1/6th of the power. Most people will be perfectly fine with the LED and the energy savings, but for some people the difference is noticeable and it’s worth paying extra to get better colors (museums and art galleries, for example).
It’s worth noting however, that the Cree’s CRI is Cree’s own reported figure and that independent testing may show it to be higher or lower. But if we’re going off of independent reviews, I’d bet my money on the over. Every reviewer who’s laid eyes on it has reported seeing light that looks much better than CFLs (CRI ~83) and similar to incandescents (CRI~99). Basically, even if it has a lower CRI, you’re unlikely to notice the difference.
Who else likes it?
The Cree bulb meets with near-universal acclaim from reviewers: Sal Cangeloso, managing editor at ExtremeTech, Geek.com, and the author of LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future, says, “I think it’s the best choice overall, and it’s a sure-thing at the three price points. Testing for the past few weeks has just reinforced my opinion that it’s a nice bulb and something that is going to win a lot of people over.”
Bloomberg’s Rich Jaraslovski says, “…unlike some compact fluorescents, the light is very comparable to what you’re used to. I replaced the bulb in the lamp on my nightstand with one of Cree’s warm-white 60-watt equivalents and couldn’t tell the difference. And unlike a conventional bulb, it stays cool enough to touch even when it’s been on.”
Sean Hollister of The Verge also tested the bulb and says, “Not only does Cree’s bulb look like a traditional incandescent, with a nice warm glow, but it throws light in almost every direction as well. Many existing LED light bulbs have a fairly narrow configuration of diodes that can cast a rather uneven pattern, but Cree’s is better than most, with an “LED filament tower” of LEDs that hits almost every spot evenly except the very top of the bulb. They turn on immediately with no perceivable delay.”
Andrew Tarantola at Gizmodo agrees, “The Cree LED goes out of its way to ape the look and feel of a traditional A19 incandescent. The “Cree LED Filament Tower” (read: the light source) emulates the concentrated light source that filament bulbs produce and covers it in a real glass dome to distribute light evenly. Unlike, say, the turtle-necked Philps dimmable LED or the Samsung LED, with its go-fast fins, the Cree bulb actually looks like a lightbulb.”
Philips has recently introduced two new bulbs that come in at a lower price than the L-Prize bulb, although neither matches the Cree’s price. The $20 Philips 11W dimmable bulb is slightly brighter than the Cree at 830 lumens but requires 11W of energy, making it slightly less efficient. If you want the Philips-shaped bulb but without the L-Prize bulb’s yellow-when-off bulb cover, this bulb may appeal to you.
The newest Philips bulb is the 10.5W 800 lumen non-dimmable bulb that sells for just $14.97, the first of these Philips bulbs to break the $15 price point. Philips cut costs by not including dimming — as Philips Lighting CEO Ed Crawford points out, only one in ten installed light bulbs are connected to a dimmer. However, the Cree bulb dims very well and still sells for $2 less.
Cree has introduced a new LED bulb, the TW series, that offers a higher-quality light. The bulb’s (CRI) of 93 makes the light quality almost the same as an incandescent bulb: Reds in particular will appear truer to their actual color in sunlight. However, the bulb’s higher cost — $20 for the 800 lumen version — coupled with its slightly higher power appetite of 13.5W makes the bulb a runner-up to the original Cree bulb. For most bulb shoppers, the original bulb’s CRI of 80 will be fine. There is one exception: if you live in California, run, don’t walk, to the nearest Home Depot and get one of these for $10 while the subsidy is still in place. It’s a great price for a great bulb.
The new Walmart Great Value 60W-equivalent, 800 lumen dimmable LED bulb sells for $9.88. The price is good, but it doesn’t quite have all the features we look for in a 60W incandescent replacement bulb: Light color temperature of 2700-3000K, instant full-brightness on, smooth dimming, omni-directional light, color quality (CRI) of at least 80, quiet operation, and a strong warranty of at least 5 years.
The Walmart bulb meets several of these: Its light is pleasant, and Walmart specifies it at 2700K. The bulb doesn’t list its CRI, but it is quiet with no annoying loud humming and comes with a 3-year warranty. However, dimming is a problem. My first test of the dimming was with a widely-used wall dimming switch, consisting of a quick run up and down from full-on to off and then back again, and the bulb dimmed fine. However, when I left the bulb on for several minutes and then started “hunting” for flickers or flashing, I found both. The flickering at low power was noticeable, and at higher power I also saw flashing.
The bulb is a sno-cone design, meaning that the LEDs sit on a flat plate and project their light out like a spotlight or flashlight beam. This means that the bulb is not omnidirectional like an incandescent light or even like a CFL. Although omni-directionality is a requirement for Energy Star qualification, there are uses where a spotlight pattern is practical. For example, if you have track lights, you really want a spotlight bulb – an omnidirectional bulb isn’t as efficient.
That’s the only use that I can recommend it for – a non-dimming enclosed light fixture. The Great Value’s poor dimming isn’t a factor, it’s inexpensive, and the sno-cone design is actually a plus. It’s good to see a dimmable 800 lumen LED bulb for under $10, but the performance isn’t there. Just pay the extra $3 for a Cree bulb and get a reasonable dimming performance and a 10-year warranty.
The rest of the bulbs that are in this price/performance range but are not worth considering are:
Best Buy’s Insignia bulb, 13W, 800 lumens; $18. A nice bulb, but the price is still too high.
The 3M bulb,13W, 850 lumens; $24.88. It dims poorly and is much larger and heavier than competing bulbs.
The 12W Zenaro, 810 lumens; $25. Another sno-cone shaped bulb.
It’s also worth noting that all of these models are less efficient than the Cree, taking 12W or more to produce the same 800 lumens of the 9.5W Cree.
Some long term test notes (and what to do if yours breaks)
Instapaper creator Marco Arment installed several Cree LED 60W-replacement bulbs in his home. After 3 months of running about an hour a day, one of the bulb covers became loose to the point he thought it would fall completely off. Marco is happy with his Cree bulbs overall, but suggests you keep an eye on them.
So what should someone do if there’s an issue with their Cree bulbs and is there a quality control problem with them? To find out more, I got in touch with Mike Watson, Cree VP of corporate marketing and asked him. His response: Home Depot has sold more Cree LED bulbs than all other LED bulbs combined, so anecdotally, Cree failures may seem to be more noticeable. He claims that their failure rates for the Cree bulb are less than half the rate of any other light within its category sold by Home Depot. However, if any buyer experiences a problem of any kind with their Cree bulb, they should take it back to Home Depot for a replacement, no questions asked. If they prefer they can send it back to Cree. From their support page and warranty page:
For support of all Cree products, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call: US Toll Free: 866-924-3645 Outside the US: +1-919-287-7888
Send proof of purchase, register receipt and your name and address to Cree, Inc. (Consumer Warranty), 4600 Silicon Drive, Durham, NC 27703 USA.
Your best bet if you don’t have your receipt is to walk into a Home Depot, though.
Cree’s intent in offering the 10-year warranty — the industry’s best — is to ease buyers concerns about going with a new technology, especially after the problems, at least initially, that CFL purchasers experienced.
On a side note, Marco mentioned that that he had swapped the Cree bulb with the missing bulb cover with an intact Cree bulb that was with a light enclosure. This is a bad idea. The electronics in the Cree bulb are non-isolated: The cover serves to keep consumers away from the 120V ac line voltage. If you touch the electronics portion of the bulb with the cover off and the power on you risk electrocution. (I’ve gone into more details about non-isolated LED bulb design here.)
If you happen to have a problem getting Cree or Home Depot to notice your claim, email us.
What to look forward to
Cree introduced a 75W replacement bulb in December. It’s brighter than our current pick and also quite a bit pricier at an MSRP of $24. CNET’s Ry Crist, for one, likes the 75W bulb a lot: “[A]fter spending some time with one, I’m convinced that Cree has yet another winner on its hands. The bulb carries the familiar design of other Cree lights, with a white plastic body, ridged heat sinks, and a tacky, rubbery-to-the-touch finish on the glass bulb. The difference comes when you flip the thing on. With 1,100 lumens — an extra 300 lumens’ worth of light output over Cree’s 60-watt replacements — this bulb helps put to rest any lingering concerns about LEDs being too dim.” For even higher light-output bulbs, the Philips 75W- and 100W-equivalent replacement bulbs are now Energy Star certified.
A little later in December, Philips introduced a new design with the 60W replacement SlimStyle LED. The flattened design is intended to lower costs by arraying the LEDs in a way that distributes heat better and removes the need for a heatsink. While it’s a clever design, there are a few drawbacks that make it unlikely to displace the Cree Soft White as our top pick: it can’t dim with the U.S.’s most popular programmable dimmer switch, the Maestro; it buzzes noticeably when on a dimmer circuit; and it has a 3-year warranty compared to Cree’s 10-year promise. The price, however, is an attractive $9.97 per bulb, so this could possibly end up as a budget option.
In January 2014, the Switch Infinia 60W replacement LED bulb arrived in retail stores. The Infinia is very similar to the Cree 60W-replacement; it’s also 800 lumens and Energy Star-certified. Cree’s bulb is omnidirectional while the Infinia’s directionality is 300 degrees, but Cree also costs a bit more: about $13 each compared to $12. CNET says they both “offer a remarkably similar quality of light,” but we’ll have to test it out ourselves to see how it compares to our current pick. Switch is offering a lifetime warranty, besting Cree’s 10-year offer.
We’ll update the guide once we’ve had a chance to test all of these new entries.
Have LED bulb prices gone as low as they can go? Not at all. Virtually all of the major CFL manufacturers have LED divisions, and competition has only just begun to heat up in the replacement bulb market.
However, pricing in this market is a race to the bottom. Lighting companies have been at pains to offer LED bulbs that replicate the performance of incandescent bulbs and are compatible with legacy fixtures and switches. Innovative designs and applications – with greater profit margins — will become the norm when lighting companies go beyond designing commodity incandescent replacement bulbs and begin to exploit the advantages of LEDs, such as color control, or integrated sensors and microcontrollers for room occupancy detection and daylight harvesting. As a preview of things to come, consider the Philips Hue system, where the LED bulbs’ color and brightness are controlled by your network router. ($200.)
Wrapping it up
In the meantime, at $13 with a 10-year warranty, the Cree bulb has emerged as the clear winner for LED 60W-replacement bulbs. For the first time, there’s little doubt you should consider these for all your home lighting needs.
Cree 60W LED replacement bulb review and tear down, Designing With LEDs, March 12, 2013,"The color temperature of 2700K – a standard color temperature for LED replacement bulbs –is warm and pleasant. Cree does offer the bulb in a much cooler 5000K temperature and prices it a bit higher, most likely because at the cooler temperatures the bulb is more efficient at producing light. The 5000K bulb requires only 9W to produce 800 lumens compared to the 9.5W of the 2700K tested. In addition, people tend to think of the cooler temperature light as being inherently brighter because of the stark contrast with shadows. However, to live with on a daily basis, stick with the 2700K version."
New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs, The New York Times, March 20, 2013,"You know how hot incandescent bulbs become. That’s because they convert only 5 to 10 percent of your electricity into light; they waste the rest as heat. LED bulbs are far more efficient. They convert 60 percent of their electricity into light, so they consume far less electricity. You pay less, you pollute less."
Cree’s LED bulb looks like an incandescent and lights like one, for under $10, Geek.com, March 5, 2013,"The bulb is lightweight, starts up quickly, is responsible about power (my meter put it at 8W), and it runs at a cozy, incandescent-like 2700K. The light pattern seems right on target for an omnidirectional design. The bulb, which is able to run in an enclosure and in any orientation — just like an incandescent — remains cool to the touch (very much unlike an incandescent)."
Cree's $13 LED light bulb is the best yet, looks and feels incandescent (hands-on), The Verge, March 5, 2013,"Today, LED manufacturer Cree has announced a series of light bulbs that start at just $10, cutting the going rate in half with one fell swoop. What's more, these LEDs don't seem to have a catch. They're as bright, efficient, and long-lasting as practically anything on the market, and they look like incandescent light bulbs to boot."