Twinkly Smart LED Reviewed

Waaaay back in Christmas 2018 when going to the shops was still cool, I picked up a set of Twinkly’s Gen 1 LEDs in a dangly 25×8 matrix. Ostensibly Christmas lights I had been drawn to them by their WiFi-connected smarts and hoped to do cool things with them using a Raspberry Pi.

That never happened. Yet I’ve bought two additional Gen 2 sets since (one which I gifted to a family member) in John Lewis clearance sales and even managed to snag a free “Twinkly Music” – a microphone equipped dongle that syncs the lights to music – when they were offered to customers with multiple sets of lights.

So why no Pi? Well… even back in 2018 Twinkly’s first party app was just too good and their diverse variety of tweakable LED patterns left my desire for blinky LEDs thoroughly sated. And their app has only got better since.

Twinkly’s products are expensive- I always managed to snag mine on sale, usually with a beat up box I could get an extra discount on – but there’s no doubt they’re ploughing some of that cash back into continuously improving their app. Since 2018, improvements have been significant and shallow UI changes have been minimal. While the app still has some UX warts – that manifest as small, hard to understand, hard to click or simply misbehaving UI elements – it is, on the whole, very, very good.

Perhaps key to the experience – and central to the accurate display of the many, many different effects and animations – is the visual LED mapping. This isn’t a concept unique to Twinkly and even has homebrew solutions, but the basic idea is as follows: you point a camera (your phone in this case) at the LEDs, flash a specific sequence of patterns and then process the result to figure out exactly where each LED is in relation to every other. Armed with this knowledge effects can then map accurately no matter how hap-hazardly you string them up. It doesn’t end there, though. Twinkly’s LEDs can be wrapped around a tree and mapped spatially in 3D using the phone’s camera, sensors and flashy LED patterns. This permits some amazing effects, albeit in practise Twinkly haven’t made as much use of it as they could just yet. Generally 2D mapping works fine and – specially with the LEDs configured as a matrix (you can fold strings back and forth over themselves to accomplish this) – yield some stunning results.

Built around this mapping technique is a selection of patterns – with more available free via the Twinkly “store” – which can usually be tweaked in a handful of limited ways. I have about 60 installed in my app at the moment. A pattern will generally have pre-set light colours and a pre-set animation sequence and allow you to configure the speed, intensity, scale or other relevant facets of the effect. Sometimes you can even pick your own colour swatch, or opt to sync the effect to music via your phone’s microphone. There’s a lot to explore, albeit I find myself narrowing it down to a couple of favourites I use 99% of the time.

Alongside the pre-made effects is a real-time paint option. You see a rough layout of your LEDs on the phone screen that – depending on how successfully you mapped them – corresponds to the physical layout of your LEDs. You can pick a colour and just paint away. This is great for dialling in a particular static shade to capture the your lighting mood for the evening, but also has very, very basic options for animation.

Alongside the more advanced features are the usual sundry set of simple ones, from switching the lights on/off, controlling brightness, changing them to be driven by Twinkly Music, updating firmware, and setting up WiFi on new or existing sets. There’s even an off timer if you don’t want a disco living room attracting attention in the wee hours.

App aside the LEDs themselves are- as you might imagine- fairly unassuming. At a glance you would be hard pressed to tell them apart from a good set of generic Christmas lights and… well…. that’s sort of what they are. But they fare pretty well all year ‘round. My original set – the Gen 1 matrix- has been going strong since 2018 and used as a night light/bedroom light for much of that time taped to a curtain rail with electrical tape.

They’re now attached to the back of a Kallax (IKEA shelving unit) in the kitchen where they are – admittedly – a little neglected since none of the awesome 2D effects they’re capable of reproducing are really visible back there. Hopefully I can replace them with a Philips Hue strip or a custom solution and free them up to do something bigger and bolder in the home office.

My Gen 2 Twinkly spent a good deal of time in baby’s bedroom which was also briefly my office. They are technically a string of some 250 LEDs separated as two strands of 125. I had figured out that this folded handily into (you’ll never guess) a 20×12 matrix.

I used good ol’ classic curtain clips to hang them over the metal bracket for the bedroom blinds, snaking them back and forth into a glorious low-resolution effects display, and they stayed up for a good year or so before we moved. When we first moved in to our new place I just tossed them over the curtain poles, but since I took them down to loan the power supply to a family member (read on for why) I’ve taken the opportunity (once the replacement arrived) to fix them around the window frames more permanently, creating an impressive display of light that peeks around the curtains.

Both the Gen 1 and Gen 2 in my possession have seen a heck of a lot of runtime and are still going strong. The set I gifted was plugged into a remote on/off switch- however- and had seen a lot of on/off cycles. This eventually caused the power supply to fail. Or maybe it was just a flaky supply. I’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that Twinkly were as quick to replace it as they could be giving these exceptional times. They asked for some photos to confirm which supply I needed and – once they had some units to send out – got one on its way to me promptly.

If I haven’t already shouted you into submission via my tweets about Twinkly I’ve got to double down and say: I love their products. This is one of the few things I’ve had the cash to buy for myself rather than beg ‘n’ borrow to feed my insatiable tech habit. Money well spent, and this review – and show of support – for Twinkly is well overdue!

And I haven’t touched upon how cool they are when reacting to music…