Some of you may have already heard about the Nanoleaf Aurora. These modular triangular light panels can be formed in any shape you like and are WiFi-enabled, allowing you to control them via your phone or Google Home and Alexa. But those of you who haven't will probably scroll down to see the high price tag and scoff in disbelief. $229.99 for a set of 9 light panels and a music module is a rather extravagant price to pay. But that's exactly what the Nanoleaf are: extravagant. They go a step beyond smart lights like Hue and LiFX and straight into "cool art deco" territory.
This isn't a smart home product, per se, it's a smart home design product and therein lies the difference. I paid nearly $200 for my floor lamp (without the bulb) because I liked the way it looked and thought it would fit with my living room's decor. In that context, $229.99 for smart lights that can take any shape and color isn't a stretch. It might even seem like a steal. So if you struggle to justify paying over $200 for a few light panels when you can buy a midrange Android phone for the same price, you're clearly not the target market for the Aurora. But if you're willing to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a furniture piece, and you love modern technology and colorful lights, then the Nanoleaf Aurora will be right up your alley. Plus it's so, so, so cool.
|Cool and unique||I can't stress how awesome these panels are. The lights are bright, the colors pop, and the effects are just gorgeous. Turn them on and they can add a lot of character and apply any mood to a room.|
|Thoughtful design||Everything about the panels is well done. The linkers, the way the panels fit with each other, the smart way Nanoleaf's app understands your layout, it's all very well executed.|
|Modularity||Add up to 30 panels to the same system and set them up in whichever layout you want, even across walls and ceilings.|
|Easy setup||Connecting the Aurora to the app and getting started is super quick.|
|Powerful app||The Nanoleaf app lets you customize everything about the layout, colors, effects, and music visualizations of your Aurora.|
|Rhythm module||Having your lights change with the music and follow every beat isn't just cool, it's downright mesmerizing.|
|Google Home||Turn on and off the Aurora with voice commands, and set any color or rhythm scene you want as well.|
|Too many cables||The wall plug connects to the adapter that relays to the controller module that plugs into the panels. There's a lot of cable to hide which can be cumbersome if you don't have a cabinet nearby.|
|Installation||You need to prepare your layout on a table, make sure you like it, then stick every panel to the wall without missing the pieces of linkers.|
|Rhythm module again||It could use some improvements in the way it deals with music. Maybe different animations would make some effects more pronounced.|
|App limitations||You can't do anything with the app if you're not on the same WiFi as the Aurora. So no creating or downloading of scenes when you're away.|
|Google Home again||This isn't Nanoleaf's fault, but every time you add a new scene, you will have to remove and re-add Nanoleaf to your Google Home. Oh, Google!|
Behold, my Christmas tree.
Setup and Installation
I've had the Nanoleaf Aurora for several months, but I'm only writing this review now because of one factor: I couldn't get myself to mount it. My husband and I recently moved into a new apartment and some rooms aren't done yet. I want to install the Aurora in our office, but that's an empty room now. The other options are the hallway (no place to hide the cable cluster), the bedroom (lost opportunity, this is better suited for rooms where we spend more time awake or with company), and the living/dining room (the former is already decorated and the latter is still empty). I could install it somewhere momentarily and move it later to the office when that's done, but to be honest, I'm worried about our wall painting... and terrified of our painter. The paint he used is fantastic to see and touch, but so sensitive. Even a dried drop of water makes it shine weirdly under indirect lights, which is what we have. So the thought of sticking 3M tape to it, to then remove it, makes me queasy. I'm not sure the paint won't become shiny underneath it.
That's why you won't see me installing the Aurora on my walls just yet. For now, it sits comfortably on the floor in our empty dining room. If you want to see how to stick the panels to your walls, check out Nanoleaf's very detailed tutorial page with videos here. While the product itself is plug-and-play, mounting it is a process that requires you prepare your layout first, align your panels correctly beforehand, and then stick everything to the wall. You will then have to figure out a place to hide all that extra cable you're left with: the Nanoleaf's controller goes through a bulky adapter and then the wall plug. Sure, that means you have enough cable to install it even far away from an outlet, but it also means the illusion will be lost if you don't have a nearby cabinet and have to keep everything on the floor.
Controller (bottom) + adapter (middle) + plug (top) + lots of cable length.
But as I said, the process of setting up the Aurora is quite fast. You plug the main controller in the first time and link one panel, wait for it to initialize, then pair it with your phone through the app. Then link as many panels as you'd like. The starter kit comes with 9, but there are larger kits and 3-panel expansions as well. The small linkers slide into a slot in the middle of each side of the panel's triangle, and are reversible so you don't need to worry about which way you put them in. I should also note that the controller can be moved around your setup to any other panel: it doesn't matter which one it's connected to.
Left: Back of panel. Middle: 2 panels side by side. Right: Linker installed + extra linker.
The triangular shape of the panels lands itself well to customization and you can make plenty of designs with it. There are hundreds of cool ideas for inspiration on Nanoleaf's website and its Instagram page, and some are just way too gorgeous. I tried several setups, but my husband and I (mostly him) settled on a human-shaped form with our 12 panels that we dubbed "The Dude." I first tried making an Android Police logo but was 2 panels short, and the Android figurine is too rounded to be done with just 12 triangular panels, so "The Dude" became our go-to shape.
The Aurora's Rhythm Smarter Kit comes with one more add-on, a Rhythm module that can be plugged into any of the panels. It's quite small and turns the Aurora into a music-controlled light system that reacts to beats and notes and lyrics. There's a mic inside but also an AUX plug if you want a more direct input source. My husband took a kick out of installing the Rhythm in The Dude's ear, as if it was his Bluetooth earpiece. Now the illusion is almost complete: our guy dances to music.
Left: Controller with power and mode buttons. Right: Rhythm Module.
The Nanoleaf app
After signing up for an account and pairing your Aurora, the Nanoleaf app takes you through a bunch of tutorials to explain how everything works. It's a nice but crucial touch because the interface was unfamiliar to me, even though I've installed thousands of apps in my life prior. There's a bit of a learning curve before you get to grips with the different sections, but after a while, you get used to it and start navigating around it pretty quickly. Even if you forget something, the Help & Feedback section has all the tutorials for you to revisit whenever you want.
There are, however, two limitations to the app that I ran into. First is when I moved from my S7 Edge to my Nokia 8, I had to pair my Aurora again. It didn't carry through even though I signed up with my account on the Nokia 8. I'm not sure if this is a bug or really how things work. The second is that you can't do much with the app if you're not on the same WiFi network as your Aurora. Granted, it's better if you're in front of the panels to see how things work, but you should be able to download scenes or create new ones even when you're away.
Colors and Rhythm
The main interface shows your current Aurora (ie. "The Dude" for me) on the top with a background colored similar to your current scene, with a quick on/off toggle, a brightness level, and options for one color fill (paint bucket) and editing the scene. The bottom part is divided in 3 sections where you have your color scenes (paint and dynamic), your rhythm scenes (the ones that follow with the music), and group scenes if you have multiple Auroras you want to work in tandem. You can swipe any scene to delete it, share it (private or public), or edit it.
Everything is really well though-out in the app and each section is super well detailed. Take the color fill screen. Not only can you use a wheel, but you also have a slider for whites and exact RGB and HEX values. Neat.
If you want to make your own scene, you tap the floating + button and select the type first: color, rhythm, or group. Here, you have a choice of preset and custom palettes, colors (wheel and RGB), animations for dynamic scenes (multiple effects, speed slider, brightness slider, and transition style), and rhythm animations.
It's tough to explain in text but there are neat touches everywhere in the app's interface. A few examples are how tapping and holding a panel lets you quickly change its brightness, or how tapping and holding palette colors lets your re-arrange them.
But the neatest of all is the preview of your Aurora. You don't have to align the panels in the app, the Aurora automatically guesses your shape based on how everything is linked and puts it in the app. In the second screenshot below, you'll see The Dude exactly like I pictured him above, with the Rhythm in his ear and the controller on his foot. The only thing it doesn't guess is the orientation: you use two fingers to rotate it so it's exactly how you set it up. It's a bit magical each time you see it, to be honest.
Beside the built-in scenes and the scene creator, there's a Discover tab for community-shared designs. Those are split into regular Color scenes and Rhythm ones. Each of them has a description and color palette, with options to either preview them on your Aurora or Download them to your app. That works very well and I was able to grab many cool setups I may have never thought about otherwise.
The one bug I kept running into is that toast error in the 4th screenshot. 19 times out of 20, it says it failed to get scene, whether I'm previewing or downloading, even though it does indeed preview/download. The toast message is just wrong.
There are a couple of other features nestled in the Nanoleaf app. One is a Layout Creator where I had fun imagining different setups for my panels and adding as many as I wanted. Check the different shapes I could think of for my 12 panels, including The Dude, a tree, a snowflake/star, a music note/saxophone, and a few others. The last screenshot is the Android Police logo, but unfortunately it needs 14 panels. Sad.
Another option are schedules for your Aurora(s), which is where you set them to a certain scene at a specific time of day. Unfortunately, there's no off function, so you can only turn them on with the schedule.
And finally, here are the app's side menu and settings. You can add multiple Auroras there, set them up in rooms and different homes, update their firmware, and enable Cloud Sync which is important if you want to enable Google Assistant control. The previously mentioned tutorials are found in the Help & Feedback section.
Using the Aurora and Rhythm
So you've set up your Aurora, you've created or downloaded scenes, and you're all set. How good is it, really? In one word: very.
You can turn it on/off and shuffle scenes with the controller's physical button, but you really want to use the app instead. It's instantaneous: you tap a new scene or choose a new color and it's on your Aurora in a blink. The panels light up uniformly and can get very bright or very dim. I've tried a range of colors on them and don't have any complaints with any hue. The only thing to keep in mind is that black and darker colors are the absence of light. So the illusion of darker colors will work in a dim setting, but in well-lit rooms, you will be able to see the panel and it won't look black/dark.
It's not clear in the pictures and videos below, because I'm using a camera to focus on the panels, but they can light up the entire space around them pretty well. I wouldn't rely on 9-12 panels solely for regular lighting, but for a cozy mood in a small to medium-sized room, they're perfect. You should be able to see where you're going and where things are without a hitch. They can also work in addition to your existing lights if you want a dash of color.
The colors are also very accurate between the app and the Aurora. You choose orange and you get nearly the same shade of orange. Of course things will depend on your phone's display more than anything, but on my Nokia 8's LCD, the two were pretty close.
A few Aurora setups I tried are in the images below. The first one will be our go-to during the 2018 World Cup (go Brazil!), the second is cutely dubbed Nemo, and the rest are various setups including Forest, Mint, some pastel colors, and some one-color fills at the end.
It's worth noting that, depending on the animation style and palette, all the panels will be lit up and change colors or some will switch from on to off (black color in the palette). Personally, I do enjoy the scenes where there's little to no black: I like bright and popping colors the most.
Below are a few GIFs of animated scenes. First, a Christmas tree (which incidentally reminds me of the Lebanese flag):
Then a snowfall effect on a snowflake:
And finally an Aurora Borealis emulation on a music note/saxophone. The name is befitting.
The Rhythm module adds even more charm to the Aurora. The first time I plugged it in, we spent about an hour mesmerized by the music and lights. The effects can go from calming to energy boosting so you can have your Aurora follow with whatever tunes you're playing. It's priceless to be able to come back home, put up some music, and relax in a dim room with the hypnotizing change of light and colors punctuating every note.
Below are a few videos of the Rhythm in action. First is a holiday-themed scene with Coldplay's Christmas Lights.
Now a classic visualizer with Fall Out Boy's Dance Dance.
And finally, my favorite effect with my current favorite song: soundbar with Disturbed's The Night. Notice how the guitar and drums influence the rise of the panel's lights from bottom to top.
To be honest though, I'd like more out of the Rhythm module. It depends vastly on the animations available, but none except the soundbar above really show what's happening with the music. The rest do seem quite random. And there are often times where the song hits a peak, either in volume or rhythm, but that's not clearly visible on the panels: they continue doing the same thing. More control over the animations or better preset ones where you distinctly see specific panels follow vocals and others follow drums and guitars would be amazing. As it is, the Rhythm is a cool add-on, but with a ton of potential for further improvement.
Google Home and other integrations
Google Home and Assistant treat the Nanoleaf Aurora as any other Home Control light partner, ie. just like Hue and LiFX. After adding it to my Home app, I am able to turn on and off "The Dude," set any color I want, brighten and dim it, or choose a specific brightness level with voice commands. The step-by-step guide is here if you're interested. It always draws a smile on my face when I come home and say, "Hey Google, turn on Snowfall," and see the Aurora come to life with the scene I chose.
I even set up a shortcut for "turn on Christmas" that replaces two voice commands on the Home, one for playing a Christmas playlist on Spotify and the other for starting a Rhythm scene with Christmas colors. It's so awesome to just say a few words and have holiday music start playing and the lights change accordingly and in tandem with the music.
The two issues I faced with this integration aren't Nanoleaf's fault but Google's. See, when I added Nanoleaf to my list of devices in the Google Home app, I found out that not only will it add "The Dude" but also every color and rhythm scene as well. That's because when you connect a new partner, Google Home still doesn't let you pick and choose which devices or scenes to import, so everything gets lumped in together. Witness the horror.
The good thing is that it does give you voice control over your device and all your scenes, but it's a mess. I only want to voice control a few scenes, not everything. The rest I can use the Nanoleaf app for. And to add insult to injury, this is still a one-way process: link your devices with Google now and it imports your Aurora scenes now. If you add another scene to your Aurora later, you will have to unlink and relink it from Assistant.
Google, please get your shit together. This isn't a good customer experience and I can imagine that Nanoleaf has to field feedback from many annoyed users who think this is the company's fault. It's not. But I had to include this in the review, because it still affects the usability of the Aurora and it's worth considering if you buy one.
Echo, IFTTT, and more
Beside Google Assistant, the Aurora can be connected to Alexa if you have an Echo or Alexa-enabled speaker, and to IFTTT. The latter has many applets to notify you (quick blinks), turn on or off, brighten or dim, change the color or brightness, and set a specific scene. You can't use Nanoleaf as a trigger in IFTTT (if Nanoleaf is on, do that), but at least the actions are varied.
The one thing that annoyed me is that Nanoleaf isn't supported in SmartThings. There doesn't even seem to be a decent community-created device handler, even though there's an open API for it. I don't expect to be able to choose intricate panel layouts in the SmartThings app, but an on/off integration with scene selection and color fill would be more than enough. Sure, we can do these things through IFTTT, but a faster and direct integration with SmartThings would be leaps better. Devs, make it happen.
While part of me finds it a bit difficult to justify the price of the Nanoleaf Aurora, the other keeps flipping through mental images of every setup I've seen with it and thinks of how cool it is and how much more elegance and style it adds to any room it's in. It's a gorgeous design and deco product that can take a regular room and transform it into something special. Make no mistake, this is a superfluous item in any smart home setup, but as far as superfluous items go, this is one of the best I've seen and used.
Sure, there are a few hiccups here and there, and some bugs and limitations, but they aren't deal-breakers at all. And with frequent software and app updates, odds are some of these will be fixed soon.
The Aurora's execution is near flawless on the hardware side, its application is quite robust, and its modular and customizable design make sure it fits with any setup, style, or mood you want. The Rhythm add-on injects even more "wow" into the equation and the Google Home/Alexa/IFTTT integrations push the "cool" factor several steps higher. I've had my eye on connected home products for a few years now and I have yet to see anything that even resembles the idea of the Aurora. It truly is unique.