Twinkly LED Lights Review
We brightened up our holidays with a tree pre-lit with Twinkly brand lights. Here's my review after a few weeks in our living room.
With the holidays once again upon us, it was getting close to the time to get our Christmas tree out of storage, assembled, and decorated. There was just one problem: We had a nine-foot tree, but we moved this year and our new house doesn't have ceilings tall enough for it to fit.
Since I didn't really want to cut a hole in the ceiling, or skip one of the middle sections when assembling, it was time to go shopping for a new tree. Ideally, I had wanted to buy a nice, unlit artificial tree, and string up my own addressable LED pixels on it, using WLED to drive the whole thing (similar to the WLED-powered IKEA lamp I built earlier this year). After doing some hardware hacking on our old pre-lit tree to give it smarts (which I may yet blog about in the future, though my motivation is lower now that I'm not using that tree anymore), I wanted to keep the new tree smart and add some more excitement with different lighting effects.
However, wiring up a tree with addressable LEDs, connecting them to a controller, and putting the controller in a nice enclosure takes some time, time that would have been hard to find as we continue to unpack in our new house and chase two small children around. Instead, while we were at Lowe's, we came across the Evergreen Classics Twinkly 7.5-ft Norwood Spruce (currently on sale for $100 off but out of stock as of this writing). We decided to purchase for $420 after taxes.
Would it have been cheaper to buy an unlit tree, some LED pixels, and DIY it? Definitely, though at the current sale price, it would be a much closer call on that front. Still, even with the greater expense of the Twinkly tree, it has the advantage of being professionally wired up, which is especially good when the tree is being disassembled and stored away every year.
We got it home and got it set up, and it's been up a couple weeks now. How does it measure up?
Assembly and Setup
I'm mostly keeping this review to the Twinkly product, not the tree, but the tree was very nicely packaged and easy to assemble. The quality of the tree was also extremely good, looking even more lifelike than our previous artificial tree. I can't speak for other Twinkly pre-lit trees, but this one is a good one. As for the lights, they were neatly spaced and well-wired around the tree. Wired inline to the power-cord is the Twinkly controller, which controls the network connection and effects, as well as a foot pedal between the controller and the wall outlet that can be used to cut power to the system entirely.
Setup itself was very easy with the Twinkly app. When you first plug the controller in, there is a button that will cycle through a handful of built-in effects, but the fun really starts when you have it connected to your network and controllable with the app. I won't dive into the instructions too much in this post, since it's a review and not a tutorial, and instructions are always subject to change as the hardware or software get updated. Essentially, though, the app walks you through getting the controller into Wi-Fi pairing mode and connected to your local network, and then you can start controlling it through the app.
The App, Effects, and Mapping
The Twinkly app is fairly intuitive and easy to use, and you can put it on as many devices as you'd like. It does need to be on the local network, so you can't, for example, control your tree from somewhere outside of your home. The app itself is divided into five sections:
- Controls: Turn lights on/off, adjust the brightness, and set a timer. The timer functionality is fairly rudimentary, only allowing a single on time and off time per day.
- Gallery: View and apply available effects. There's also an option to download additional effects for free from Twinkly.
- FX Wizard: Create your own effect. In addition to using the FX Wizard to build from scratch, you can also take a pre-existing effect from the Gallery tab and modify it to meet your needs.
- Layout: Map the exact layout of your Twinkly lights so that you can create highly-customized, pixel-perfect effects.
- Devices: You can pair more than one Twinkly device with the app, so this tab will let you see all of your devices.
I've pretty much said all there is to say about the Controls tab already, so I'll dive into the effects next. On the Gallery tab, you can create or apply effects, and you can also add effects into a playlist. There are a variety of preset effect types available, and most of them look very nice on the tree. If you didn't catch the YouTube video at the start of the post, go back and watch, as that will give you a good sampling of some of the effects we've applied to our tree.
Each effect gives a nice visual preview right on the Gallery screen, which I think is a great touch. Tap the effect, and the tree will switch from the currently active effect to a preview of the effect you've chosen. Then, you can either opt to edit properties of the effect, or apply it as-is. The process of applying an effect here does irk me a bit, as it takes a few seconds for the tree to load the effect after you tap apply. The lights are off while this takes place, and it's not the nicest-looking transition.
You can add effects into a playlist, which will loop over and over again as long as it is active. This is a relatively simple process, as you just go to the Playlist section of the Gallery tab, tap edit, and then add, remove, and edit effects in your playlist. Once you have a handful of effects you like, this makes it really easy to put the tree into "set it and forget it" mode.
There are a few drawbacks to the playlist system; for starters, you can only have one playlist built, so there's no way to have multiple that you switch between. Worse than that, though, you can't apply a one-off effect without completely deleting the existing playlist you have created. That seems like a pretty big oversight, as sometimes I would like to apply a specific effect for a few hours before returning to the playlist I've built. I was able to hack around this by adding the effect I wanted to the playlist, making it the first item in the playlist, starting the playlist, and then immediately stopping it. When you stop a playlist, the currently active effect remains active indefinitely. This is not a great workaround, though, and it seems like the playlist experience could be improved a ton here.
There are a few other negatives I'll touch on with regards to playlists. When you add an effect to a playlist, the default duration is 30 seconds. This seems like an odd default to me, as it would be jarring to have the tree change effects every 30 seconds in my opinion. Personally, I've set all of my effects in the playlist to run for 5 minutes, but there's no way to make that a default, so you have to tap each effect you add and scroll through the timer to modify it. The UX here could certainly be better. Note also that effects and playlists are stored on the device, so you do need to be mindful of available space when downloading or creating new effects. Playlists can also only contain up to 15 effects, so if you have additional effects you really like, you're going to have to modify the playlist every so often to give them a turn.
I'll touch on the mapping briefly as well. One of the big selling points of Twinkly is the ability to draw with your finger in the app and create a custom effect that mirrors what you've drawn perfectly. Honestly, I haven't dove into this too much as the defaults have worked well for me. Essentially, though, you need to have the app map the location of your lights on the tree, so it knows what to light up to draw a particular path. This is done by taking a picture (or multiple, in "advanced" mode) of your tree. Different pixels are lit up while the picture is taken and the app is supposed to be able to use this to tell which pixels are where. In practice, I tried this twice and was never able to get it quite right; the mapping looked worse than the default. And I wanted to get the tree decorated, but there wasn't much point to trying to map again when having ornaments on it would likely throw off the process. I may try again next year, but my initial impression of this functionality was mixed.
One other thing to note, that I find a bit of a drawback, is the fact that you do need to register and login with a Twinkly account to use the app, even though everything is taking place over the local network. Remote dependencies for smart devices always concern me a little bit, so hopefully the tree won't remain in good condition for longer than Twinkly remains a financially solvent company.
As an avowed fan of locally-controlled smart home gear, the cloud account dependency was a tough pill to swallow for me with these Twinkly lights. There is some ability for third-party integration and control, but it's highly-limited.
There is an undocumented API that a few people have written code to work with, namely the XLED Python library. It's also been used to create a Home Assistant integration. However, due to the way effects are applied, there is no way to apply them without the app. Integrations are limited to on/off and brightness control. It's still handy to be able to set up Home Assistant to turn the tree off when we go to bed or leave the house, and on when we get up in the morning or get home from being out. And if a playlist was running, that playlist will still pick back up. Still, it would be nice to see some more potential for API control, as the free and open-source WLED project absolutely runs circles around Twinkly here. At the very least, the API seems to be all local, so if you have a device set up and a playlist applied, it should still remain somewhat useable even if the Twinkly servers ever go away and you can no longer authenticate with the app.
Overall, I'm very happy with this purchase. Sure, it has a few flaws, but they are largely minor. Especially for something that only comes out of storage one month of the year, it gets the job done from a software and performance perspective, and it's robust enough to withstand long-term use and storage from a hardware perspective compared to a possible DIY alternative. If you're in the market for a pre-lit tree with some seriously lit effects, I'd recommend checking it out, especially if you can snag it for the current $100 discount.
- Easy installation
- App is easy to use
- Hardware quality is good
- Nice variety of effects
- Rough transition when applying new effect
- Mapping lights didn't work particularly well
- Poor UX for creating and managing playlists
- Limited API for external integration
Overall Rating: 4/5
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