Nanoleaf’s Hexagons made me like being at home a little more

In 2016, I tested out Nanoleaf’s smart, color-changing LED wall panels at the CNET Smart Home. That was the original, triangular version, originally called Nanoleaf Aurora — two years later, I was testing out the square-shaped, touch-enabled Nanoleaf Canvas panels that followed them, this time at the CNET Smart Apartment in downtown Louisville.

LikeGreat-looking designDetachable mounting platesEndless options for animated effectsSmart lighting’s best music-syncing modeSupports screen mirroring effect via Razer SynapseSeamless integration with Apple HomeKit, supports Google Assistant, too

Don’t LikeOvercomplicated appUnreliable integration with Alexa

Now, Nanoleaf has another new set of wall panels set to launch online in early September, with retail availability expected by October. They’re six-sided this time — rebranded as “Nanoleaf Shapes – Hexagons” — and they sell in a seven-panel starter kit that costs $199. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, I’m finally testing them out in my own home. 

I say “finally” because, as much as I’ve come to appreciate the bold novelty of Nanoleaf’s lights, I’ve never quite been tempted to buy in myself. The Toronto-based company’s plucky panels make plenty of sense as a high-tech decoration for a kids room or a dorm room, or as a backdrop for a budding Twitch streamer perhaps — but outside of that, bringing them into your home feels like a Jetsons-esque commitment to a level of modernism that isn’t quite mainstream yet.

But with vivid, great-looking colors, easier mounting, and the same impressive list of features and integrations as before — including the excellent, music-syncing rhythm mode, touch sensitivity, and voice control via Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant — the Hexagons make the pitch better than any panels Nanoleaf has ever produced. A couple of unexpected kinks in those connections give me pause, particularly for Alexa users, but if you’ve spent the past five months or so staring at your walls and you’re itching to mix things up, then maybe these fantastic-looking light panels fit the bill.

Each Hexagon panel is a little bigger than an adult hand with fingers outstretched.

Ry Crist/CNET
Let’s hear it for hexagons

With cameo appearances in science and nature ranging from snowflakes to Saturn’s north pole to the molecular makeup of graphene, the six-sided regular polygon is an appropriately geeky choice for Nanoleaf. In architecture, hexagonal grids are about as efficient and structurally sound as it gets, which is why you see them turn up in everything from beehives to blast shielding. Grids like those are popular board game fodder, too, thanks to the multiple points of contact available from each space. At any rate, it’s late and I’m having fun looking up hexagon facts. 

Each Hexagon has connector sockets on all six sides, and each has its own, detachable mounting plate on the back. That makes it a lot easier to get your panels — and more importantly, their sticky tabs — off of your walls.

Ry Crist/CNET

Whether you prefer hexagons over triangles and squares is totally up to you, as Nanoleaf plans to keep on selling the previous panels alongside the new ones. Apart from the fact that the triangles aren’t touch sensitive and require a separate add-on accessory in order to enable the music-syncing Rhythm mode, the three are functionally identical. Still, there are a couple of subtle changes with the Hexagons that make them the best pick of the three.

The biggest change is the way you mount them. Nanoleaf used to ask you to apply sticky tabs to the back of each panel and stick them straight to your walls, which makes it a pain to rearrange them. With the Hexagons, each panel now pops in and out of its own little sticky-tab-equipped mounting plate. That means you can take a panel off the wall separate from the mounting plate; from there, the sticky tab is much easier to remove with the panel itself out of the way.

The connectors that link each panel together are different now, too. Before, they looked like dual-sided Lightning plugs that would slide straight into little slots on the edge of each panel, sort of like the pegs that hold Ikea furniture together. With the Hexagons, you get new, plug-style connectors that snap into the backs of the two panels they’re joining. 

The result is that setup feels sturdier. It’s still obviously more of a hands-on process than simply swapping a light bulb, but it’s leaps and bounds better than before, and less likely to rip up your walls when the panels come down. I’ll also add that the Nanoleaf app’s Layout Creator, which lets you arrange your panels in the app and then see how they’ll look on your wall using augmented reality, is a nice, helpful touch during setup.

Nanoleaf’s new connectors snap into the back of each panel.

Ry Crist/CNET

The other point of note with those new connectors is that they’re the new standard. Moving forward, Nanoleaf plans to add other “Shapes” to the collection, with plans to let you mix and match different shapes on your wall. The old triangles and squares don’t get to come along on that ride, since they each use the old, slot-style connectors.

The Hexagons are also Nanoleaf’s best-designed light panel yet. Each one is nice and big, enough so to fit your whole hand with fingers outstretched. That makes it easier to tessellate the things across your walls than it was with the smaller, square-shaped Canvas panels — and unlike those Canvas panels, the light isn’t sectioned off into odd-looking quadrants (although the corners are admittedly a little bit rounded). 

Speaking of those square-shaped predecessors, the Hexagons ditch the ugly touch buttons that marred the clean design and usability of the Canvas panels. Instead, you connect a tiny, unobtrusive control bar with physical buttons onto any side of any of the panels you like. That controller also houses the system’s Wi-Fi radio and the microphone it uses to sync the lights with whatever you’re listening to. It can support up to 500 panels at once.

Meanwhile, you connect a separate, 42W power supply into another side of the panels to keep up to 21 of them powered. At 2W per panel, the Hexagons hold to Nanoleaf’s tradition for efficiency, which dates back to its days selling 3D-printed, super-efficient LED light bulbs. In fact, if you ran all 7 panels in the Hexagon starter kit at full blast for a full year, 24/7/365, it would only add about $13.45 to your energy bill. For comparison, a single 60W incandescent light bulb would add a little under $60 to your bill over the same span.

One last note on power usage: Running the things at 100% is absolute overkill. Each panel offers an impressive blast of brightness at top settings, enough so that I have a hard time imagining many instances where you’d actually want that much light radiating out from your walls. In my tests, the ambient sweet spot was a lot closer to 25% brightness — bright enough that the colors still look great, but dim enough that the panels aren’t distracting or uncomfortable to look at.

There’s a lot to play with in Nanoleaf’s app, but it’s overcrowded with options and unintuitive to use.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET
Killer features and a clumsy app

The first thing I did after sticking a total of 10 hexagonal panels onto my bedroom wall was to make sure that Rhythm mode, my favorite Nanoleaf feature, still worked as well as before. The feature uses a microphone built into the controller bar to translate sound into light patterns that dance across the panels in different ways depending on what preset scene you’re using. The processing all happens right there at the wall, with no need to send audio to the cloud — that keeps latency nice and low, and it’s good for your privacy, too.

Sure enough, the feature still works like a charm, particularly if you’ve got a stereo or a smart speaker parked nearby. Ask for your favorite playlist with one of those Rhythm presets running, and presto, you’ve got your own little disco going. I cranked some Bowie and had a field day trying out different presets to find the ones I liked best — and if you want, you can create your own presets with the exact colors and animations you prefer.

Rhythm Mode, where the panels use an onboard microphone to sync up with your music, remains my favorite Nanoleaf feature. Here’s an especially over-the-top scene set to David Bowie. Great latency, because it processes the sound locally in real-time. pic.twitter.com/OXeIqlg9UI

— Ry Crist (@rycrist) August 4, 2020

You’ll do all of that using the Nanoleaf app on your Android or iOS device. The app’s home screen offers basic controls for power and brightness, along with multiple lists of scenes to try out, including a wide variety of animated scenes, Rhythm scenes that use the microphone, and makeshift game modes that make use of the fact that each panel is touch sensitive. If you head to the Discover tab, you’ll find an extensive catalog of user-created scenes that you can tap to try. If you find one you like, you can download it for free, rename it, and even tweak its settings. Want to create your own scene from scratch? The app lets you do that, too.

Nanoleaf hides some of its best features in the device settings, including auto-brightness, Touch Gestures and Apple HomeKit Touch Actions.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Tap the three dots in the upper right corner of the home screen to navigate to the device settings for your panels, and you’ll find some more good features to play with, including an auto-brightness mode that uses an ambient light sensor in the control bar to automatically adjust the brightness of the panels within a custom range based on how bright the room is to begin with. I set mine to automatically adjust between 10 and 50% brightness, and it worked flawlessly. You can also customize touch controls on the panel — e.g., swiping up on a panel to increase the brightness, double-tapping to power it on and off, or swiping right to move to a new scene.

If you’re an Apple HomeKit user, you can also activate “Touch Actions,” which let you trigger other HomeKit-compatible gadgets with a tap, a double tap, or a long press. That’s up to three automations per panel, something smart home geeks can have a lot of fun with. The only rub is that you’ll need a HomeKit hub (an Apple TV, an Apple HomePod, or a dedicated, always-on iPad) in order to use them.

All of that helps to keep the panels feeling fresh and highly customizable, but it isn’t nearly as intuitive as I’d like. Each screen in the Nanoleaf app seems to cram more information into frame than is necessary, and common tasks like adjusting the mix of colors in a scene feel needlessly tedious. Simplified, step-by-step tools for easy scene creation would be a big help.

Fortunately, Nanoleaf’s integrations with voice assistants and third-party smart home platforms mean that you don’t need to be totally reliant on the app to control these things. A quick voice command to Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant will work, and it’s easy to schedule them to turn on and off or switch between scenes at specific times.

I encountered a few hiccups with Nanoleaf’s third-party integrations, including a few unresponsive moments in the Google Home app and an entire day with a wonky Alexa connection.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

But those connections weren’t always seamless. At one point, the panels stopped responding in the Google Home app, and I had to wait a few minutes before the connection started working again. Then, there was Alexa. Not long after establishing the connection, Amazon’s assistant seemed to forget how to control the panels altogether. I’d ask to change the brightness or jump to a new scene, and I’d hear that my command wasn’t supported. A similar message showed up in the Alexa app, where controls for the Hexagons failed as well. 

After about a day, things just started working again, but it was definitely strange given that the panels (and my home Wi-Fi network) were working perfectly otherwise. By the end of my tests, the connection with Apple HomeKit and with Siri was the only one that never gave me any issues.

Maybe those issues were simply a result of the fact that the Hexagons are still in prelaunch for another month or so. There are always lots of little bugs to iron out with integrations like these. But the Hexagons are functionally identical to other Nanoleaf panels that have supported these integrations for years now, so I was definitely surprised that things didn’t go more smoothly here. A hiccup, perhaps, but one worth noting.

Ry Crist/CNET
The verdict

I can’t tell you how many times I walked into my bedroom having forgotten that I’d put these panels up, noticed them shining on the wall, and thought, “Huh. Those look really nice.” Whether I set them to a gentle color cycle while typing in bed (don’t judge), set them to gradually wake me up in the morning with an artificial sunrise or just set them to a new and random scene as I went about my day, I was always glad that they were there.

In other words, I’m sold. Between the improved design and the excellent brightness, color quality and efficiency, Nanoleaf’s Shapes are a high-quality smart home novelty that you’ll use and appreciate every day. Even with a few kinks in the Alexa controls, they made me like being in my home a little more — and these days, that’s worth something. Whether or not it’s worth $200 is up to you, but if you like the way these things look, then I say go for it.



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