At this point, Nanoleaf is pretty well known — if not by name, at least from the geometric shapes in the background of countless YouTube videos and Twitch streams. We've all seen them, curiously Googled them up, and been shocked at the price tag. But these aren't some cheap Assistant-compatible smart bulb; they're wall-mounted art pieces with smart home functionality. So, are they worth it? If you can stomach the cost and the bad app, we think so.

Specs

Shapes Hexagons, Triangles, and mini-tringles.
Lifetime 25,000 hours
Connectivity 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (b/g/n)
Smart home compatibility Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, Razer synapse, SmartThings, Homey
Dimensions vary by shape, but 0.6cm thick (1cm thick when mounted)
Color Yes, RGBW (1200-6500K white, 16 million+ colors)
Warranty 2-year

The Good

Bright A decent-sized setup can light up a small room.
Smart home integrated Shows up as a controllable device in the Assistant.
No flicker Unlike older Nanoleaf lights, these won't flash at a frequency you might pick up on, though a camera can see it.
Easy to mount So long as you prepare, these are very simple to put up.
Extensively customizable You can design both their layout on your wall, wrap around corners, harness three different shapes, and set custom colors and patterns.

The Not So Good

App UX The Nanoleaf app is powerful, but also a dumpster fire.
Uneven lighting You might like the sort of "swirl" pattern, but it just looks like uneven backlighting to me.
Transitions Some color changes are less smooth than they could be.
Jank Home app often reports incorrect light state, pairing and setup can be obnoxious, and even first-party app controls randomly break.

Hardware, design, what's in the box

Nanoleaf makes several versions of its popular lighting panels, including the new Shapes series. The Nanoleaf Shapes come in a handful of different configurations: hexagon, triangle, and mini triangle. They fit together and can be mixed and matched, and if configured correctly, they can smoothly tessellate for larger patterns. We only checked out the hexagons, but the others likely perform similarly.

Although the rounded-off corners just barely prevent fully edge-to-edge lighting, they're still very big and bright. They also don't flicker to the naked eye, even at lower dimming settings, like some earlier Nanoleaf lights did. Even trying to get them to flicker — shaking my head, blowing raspberries — I can't see it. Whatever PWM is present operates at a high enough frequency to be unnoticeable.

The uneven illumination makes a sort of swirl pattern — I think it looks cheap. 

That said, there are two issues I have with the performance of the lights themselves. For one, the illumination is uneven, with an almost radial pattern spiraling from the corners. It makes them look dirty from a distance, and I'm not a fan. Second (and much more minor), the steps between color transitions aren't always completely smooth. Moving between certain shades, especially between darker colors and blues, often stutters slightly in a way that can be just barely distracting out of the corner of your eye.

In addition to the panels themselves, you have a handful of accessories. There are "linkers" that connect panels to their neighbors, a control panel that plugs into a linker connection, and a rather beefy power adapter. Attached to the back of each panel is a mounting plate with pre-applied adhesive tape. Contents vary, but you can expect some combination of panels and linkers in the "kit" boxes, together with a control panel and power adapter. Expansion packs, however, will only contain panels and linkers.

Installation, setup, and use

 

Installing the lights is mechanically simple, but I'd recommend you prepare extensively for it. Read Nanoleaf's instructions in full and make sure you understand the steps involved. Sure, the lights are just stuck on the wall with adhesive pads, but if you put the first few up and they're out of alignment, it's curtains for the whole arrangement. I went all-out with a laser level (which might be overkill), but I'd still urge you to find some way to align things, whether that's a pencil line, or a level, or even just a careful eye with a measuring tape. As they say, measure twice, cut (in this case: stick) once.

Attach the linkers for neighboring shapes before you stick it to the wall.

The recommended workflow is to come up with your design first, whether that's in the app's designer, on paper, or even just in your head. The built-in Layout Assistant can help with that and even map it into your room via AR, though it is a little buggy. Once you've got it worked out, decide which module in the pattern you'll "start" assembly from, connecting it to both the remote panel and the power adapter. I think it's a good idea to work up or over from either one side or the bottom.

Also, all your so-called "linkers" for adjacent panels should be in place before you stick it to the wall — as in, always plan one panel ahead with your linkers — as it's kind of hard to put them on after it's up. Once you've got all that worked out, stick that first panel onto your wall. The adhesive is attached to a freely-rotating mounting plate on the back, which means you can fine-tune your alignment with that first panel, but once a second one is connected, you're locked in.

Set up and waiting to pair — sorry, I took these setup photos from my phone and it caught the PWM. 

Once all your panels are up, it's time to pair your lights to the app, and this is where things can start to get really frustrating. Anecdotally, I had run through the pairing procedure twice to get mine to work, and I also had to hard-reset my lights and completely wipe app data to prevent the Nanoleaf app from repeatedly crashing after that first failed setup attempt. Pairing issues are common with smart home gadgets, but this is by a large margin worse than I expected, and probably something Nanoleaf should look into, together with general app and connectivity issues.

The pairing process (when it works) isn't too hard, though some of the options aren't in the most intuitive spot, and Nanoleaf's instructions at its site still refer to an old version of the app. (This kind of seems to be a trend, software isn't the company's forte.) You'll need to go into the More tab, tap Devices, and tap the plus sign floating action button at the bottom right. Select your product, and the app will walk you through the process.

I recommend you pair with the QR code method, conveniently printed on your power adapter, or Manual Input, which pulls an 8-digit code from your included manual, power adapter, or controller. NFC was unreliable for me.

Once it's all set up, the last thing you'll want to do is connect your lights to your Google account, which means firing up the Home app and adding them as an external Works with Google service. Although the service claims some ridiculous number of connected devices, I think they're mostly the "scenes," or lighting modes, that you've saved as favorites. This part should be simple, though, and your named light setup will appear in the Home app for you to place in whichever room you like.

 

The state (i.e., on/off) of your Nanoleaf lights will frequently be incorrect in the Home app, and Assistant-based controls are very limited. Nanoleaf claims you can set scenes with the Assistant, but the related commands never once worked for me, whether they were saved/favorited or not. A search tells me this is a common issue, and it could randomly start working at some point.

Excluding that, even basic Assistant-based lighting controls fail to work something like one in five times. That's not too surprising, because the controls will also fail to work from even inside the Nanoleaf app itself sometimes. Randomly it will claim it can't connect to my lights, which are roughly six feet from my router and always appear as a connected device in its management page.

The Nanoleaf app is frustrating to use, whether it's simple things like basic navigation (a single back from any tab root tab directory closes the app with no warning), to more complex things like configuring settings. Some actions are unintuitively hidden behind a long-press, like devices settings on the Dashboard; others don't give sufficient visual feedback to indicate if your input was accepted, like with tapping scenes in Discover. The UI is "pretty" in the sense that it has nice fonts and layouts, but the UX is abysmal, and the interactive experience is just the tip of that iceberg.

My custom schedules and circadian lighting didn't seem to work. I tried to configure different brightness levels for different times of day, but the settings just never applied, and the general interface when it comes to these kinds of more advanced features is also pretty frustrating to work with, compounding any troubleshooting you might try. I've also found that playing with the settings too much at once tends to break things.

On the other hand, making custom scenes is pretty easy, and the editor is quite powerful. But making good ones is difficult, and at that point the app isn't to blame. There are a lot of settings and options, and making something that actually looks good is difficult. Forcing a limited color palette can be both a blessing and a curse, as is trying to work out how you want to animate it. All my creations were either bland or garish. (More app bugbears: When using the Color Picker, the app doesn't properly update your view when you swap between colors on your palette, and when a palette for a scene is modified, you have reapply it to your layout, it isn't automatic as you might expect.)

 

More app wonk: Colors in the Picker don't update correctly.

I was also frustrated by some of the "motion" settings (or animations) and how they interact in a given scene. Some of them, like the Wheel, didn't look as expected on my physical layout, with the hole in the middle seemingly confusing it and showing a border in the pattern's animation between two adjacent hexagons that shouldn't have been there. It's hard to describe (and difficult to capture), but it seems it wasn't fully aware of my layout's shape when spatially mapping that particular animation, though others worked fine.

Unless you're willing to spend a whole lot of time tweaking a custom pattern to make things just right, you're better off loading up one of the many very good presets, or at least basing your own design on a preset. There appear to be hundreds of presets shared, and many are quite good.

Left: The app counts 10 tiles, I count 9. Right: I crashed using the layout editor's AR feature quite a few times.

In more app-related angst, when playing with the layout editor prior to installation, the Nanoleaf app would consistently show one less panel than the number in the layout assistant— set 10 panels and you'd see 9, for example. The AR feature was also a little hard to get working in my house and was prone to crashing while adjusting its position. The full-screen view the app uses during the setup process also places the "next" button at the very top of the screen, where a tap also triggers the status bar in a full-screen view — not the best design.

In short, the Nanoleaf app is powerful but sloppily assembled. It's attractive but inconsistent and a stark contrast to the very high price of the lights themselves. I think Nanoleaf may need to cool down on releasing new shapes to take some time to work on the app's UX a little, make the controls and connectivity a little more reliable, and improve smart assistant integrations.

Should you buy it?

Nanoleaf Shapes
6.5/10

Maybe. The lights are good, and the app has a lot of advanced features, but it can also be frustrating. Controls for the lights also aren't always reliable, even beyond the usual spotty smart home experience. However, the Nanoleaf offers unique functionality in a well-engineered and attractive package with some great features. Even with my many complaints, I have to point out: I still enjoy the lights. I'd use them even in the face of the issues I've run into, but I'm also the sort of person that can troubleshoot when things go wrong. If you need everything to work the first time and work consistently, or if the app's many issues would be serious concerns, then you might want to think twice. But I've made peace with the fact that these looks come with a cost beyond simple money.

There are a lot of fun features, like setting your lights to a scene that syncs with the mic for music-appropriate ambiance. There's also an interactive mode for things like touch-based light games, and while they get old fast (a common opinion, given their low rating on the popularity list), it's still sort of fun, and something kids might enjoy — if you aren't worried about them ripping your lights off the wall or dirtying them up. Either way, these are way more than just a normal smart light, with tons more features than RGB. But the biggest issue is how much better these features could be if they worked with the Assistant better. Although Nanoleaf claims you can set scenes with your voice, that didn't work at all for me. All I could do was on/off, full colors, brightness controls, and white temperatures. For any other light, that would be enough, but these aren't just any lights.

The price for the Nanoleaf shape kits is objectively a little steep. The cheapest kit comes with just 5 mini triangles, and that's insufficient. The kits you'd do best to start with, which come with either 7 hexagons or larger triangles, are both $200, which is on the expensive side, and I think you'd still need to pick up a few more expansion sets to make a nice setup. Just my ten-panel pattern would cost $260 to recreate, and it's still on the minimal side.

Ultimately, value is your call. I don't think anyone can claim with a straight face that the Nanoleaf shapes are a bargain, but they kind of don't need to be. This isn't just a smart light, it's home decor, bordering on an art piece. If you're worrying about the cost compared to your average RGB smart light, you're shopping in the wrong department.

Buy it if:

  • You want a smart light as an art piece.
  • Cost isn't a big concern.

Don't buy it if:

  • You're on a budget — these get expensive.
  • App and connectivity issues will frustrate you. This is a little more aggravating than the normal smart home experience.

Where to buy:

Nanoleaf shapes are available in multiple kits at the retailers listed below:

Nanoleaf Shapes Hexagons

Nanoleaf Shapes Triangles

Nanoleaf shapes Mini Triangles