LED Light Tiles: Can you make a Nanoleaf for less money?

September 25, 2019

Today on the hookup we’re going to take a look at two different brands of LED light panels, the original name in light panels, nanoleaf, and the brand new, and significantly less expensive nanoleaf clone from zemismart.  I’m going to tear them down to show you how they work, do some demonstrations, and give you my very honest opinion of both.

Zemismart just released their version of the nanoleaf light panel and it addresses the main concern that I’ve heard about the nanoleaf, the price tag.  This seemed like a great time for me to get my hands on both products for an in depth review and comparison.

In this video going to pick apart basically every aspect of these LED light panels, but if you want the quick and dirty version, here it is:

The nanoleaf is unquestionably better than the zemismart tiles in a few important areas: First, the nanoleaf is about twice as bright while consuming significantly less power.  Second, the nanoleaf’s color transitions are much smoother and changes in brightness are extremely subtle compared to the zemismart which has noticeable degrees of brightness. And third the color accuracy for the white spectrum on the Nanoleaf is significantly better than the zemismart due to the presence of both RGB LEDs and pure white LEDs, instead of RGB only like you’ll find on the zemismart tiles.

There are however, two major reasons you may decide to buy the Zemismart tiles.  The first obviously being the price.  The zemismart tiles come in around $135 which is $65 cheaper, or 33% less than the nanoleaf.  And Second, and most importantly for me, the zemismart tiles are definitely more hackable.  The nanoleaf uses a proprietary control protocol that communicates over RS232 serial, so creating a custom controller would be quite a task, but the zemismart tiles are using a standard individually addressable LED chip to control their tiles.  That means I can write my own Arduino programs for them using the fastLED or Neopixel library, and I can also port some of my previous projects to these tiles like my sunrise alarm clock, and my E131 wireless holiday light show code.

Bottom line, as much as these new light tiles have been touted as an alternative to the nanoleaf, I don’t think you’re going to be happy with the zemismart tiles if you are looking for the full nanoleaf experience at a cheaper price. Instead I think the Zemismart light tiles open up a completely different set of possibilities that have only a small amount of overlap with the nanoleaf.

So that’s the brief version, lets get into the details and tear these things apart.

We’ll start by comparing the physical construction of these panels.  Both panel types are equilateral triangles that measure around 24.5cm per side. Each corner of the nanoleaf has 6 RGB LEDs and 6 Cool White LEDS that shine toward the inside of the triangle.  The corners themselves are covered in an opaque foil to prevent lighting hotspots that would be distracting to the otherwise extremely well diffused light that results from both a defusing acrylic panel and a frosted top covering.  In contrast the zemismart panels have LEDs lining each of the three sides and instead of the bezels in the corners there is a thin bezel around the entire perimeter of the triangle.  Despite the zemismart tiles having a defusing layer and opaque bezel you CAN still see individual bright spots around each LED giving away the configuration of the LEDs, which happens to be 5 RGB LEDs per side.

The surface of the nanoleaf has more of a matte finish compared to the zemismart, which is a bit more glossy… Interestingly the glossy finish on the zemismart tiles is a result of a decorative top layer and the diffusing layer below has a matte surface, while the diffusing layer of the nanoleaf is glossy and the top layer is matte.

I tend to prefer the overall look of the nanoleaf with the corner bezel since it lets the colors of the individual tiles get much closer together and makes them blend together better.  This is of course purely subjective, and I hesitated to even include this since my wife said she actually preferred the look of the zemismart tiles because she liked that each one was a complete triangle. My daughter loves them both and has already claimed both of them for her room, but what it’s worth, she says she does like the nanoleaf design a little more.

Both brands connect together using small PCBs that send power and data to the next tile.  This allows the tiles to be configured into lots of different unique shapes without having to modify the programming.  Unfortunately the zemismart programming uses a standard individually addressable LED protocol transfer the data to the next tile, which means if you branch two tiles from a single tile those two branches have to display the exact same color data.  The nanoleaf uses a far more complex system which allows it to assign each tile a unique ID no matter how the tiles are connected.

The power of each variety is also different, the nanoleaf also uses a 24V power supply compared to the Zemismart which runs off of 5 volts.  This means the voltage drop after each panel will be significantly less with the nanoleaf.  The documentation shows that the nanoleaf can have a maximum of 30 panels connected together while the zemismart tiles can have a maximum of 1024, but I suspect these are limitations of the communication protocol, not the voltage, and on full brightness white you can even start to see a slight degradation in color accuracy in the 8th and 9th tile in series on the zemismart tiles. Not only would connecting 1024 panels in series be infesable due to voltage drop issues, but it would also consume almost 9000 watts of power… You heard me right.

One typical advantage of 5V LEDs is greater efficiency, and therefore lower power usage, however this doesn’t seem to apply to these light tiles.  On full brightness white the zemismart tiles consumed a massive 79 watts of power, while the nanoleaf only consumed 45 watts at full brightness, and when I adjusted the brightness on the nanoleaf to match the brightness of the zemismart tiles, the nanoleaf drew only 18 watts, over 60 watts less than the zemismart for the same light output.  In my tests  this not only applied to the white channel, but was consistent for each individual color as well.

To control the color and brightness each product has its own phone app, and while the nanoleaf app is far superior to the zemismart variety, it’s not without its faults.  The nanoleaf uses wifi to communictate, but even though there is a nano leaf cloud that it can connect to for firmware updates, it does not offer cloud based communication, so you won’t be able to control it from outside your network, and you’ll need to be careful when blocking ports and restricting your nanoleaf’s local access because it may prevent you from from connecting.  There are amazon echo and google home skills to on integrate with your voice assistants, and cloud based control is possible using those platforms, but homekit and the nanoleaf app will only work on the same network.  Other than that, the app is really easy to use and has some pre-configured patterns as well as the ability to create custom patterns.  This version of the nanoleaf which is called the rhythm edition also includes a module that allows it to be music reactive.

The zemismart panels on the other hand have two different controllers and two different apps based on what you want them to do and how you want to control them.  There is a Bluetooth controller that allows them to be music reactive and a wifi controller that allows them to be controlled with amazon echo and google home.  You can’t have both music reactivity and wifi control at the same time.  Additionally, I found wifi controller extremely frustrating to use, not only did the app want me to create an account using my phone number, but after attempting to pair the tiles for over 30 minutes I jumped on the internet only to find amazon reviews for that particular LED controller that mention that even though there is an iOS app, the pairing process only works on android.  Sure enough I grabbed an old android tablet, installed the app and the pairing process completed on the first try.  I double checked the documentation, but couldn’t find anything about not using iOS in the instructions.

The Bluetooth music controller connects much more easily, but the music reactivity is not as user friendly as the nanoleaf.  The nanoleaf can either use a microphone to pick up sound in the room or a 3.5mm audio jack for direct connection, but the zemismart is limited to only a 3.5 mm audio jack.  The engineer in me tells me that the direct 3.5mm input should produce a better experience since it won’t pick up ambient noises and can correctly respond to each different frequency, but in practice the nanoleaf produces a more pleasing effect with both the microphone and the audio jack, probably due to more elegant coding rather than more accurate spectrum analysis.  Again, completely subjectively, I also prefer the microphone integration because it has no wires, requires less setup, and can respond to music from multiple sources.

So far the nanoleaf appears to be superior in almost every way, HOWEVER, there are lots of things you can do with the Zemismart tiles that you can’t do with the nanoleaf.

As I mentioned before, the zemismart tiles are using a standard individually addressable LED protocol, I’m not 100% sure which chip it has because they are using a thin LED package that I’m not familiar with, but I’d guess it’s either an SK6812 or a WS2812B.  Either way, both control protocols are similar enough that they can be easily controlled with standard Arduino libraries like FastLED and Adafruit Neopixel.  The small PCB connectors on the zemismart tiles have 4 pads on each end, but only 3 of them are connected on each side and the 4th pad is used to ensure that the correct signals are passed between connecting tiles.  This is the pinout for the connectors that you can use to make your own control unit.

Once you’ve got your tiles connected you can use them like you would any individually addressable LED with the unfortunate limitation that even though each tile contains 15 LEDS, they are controlled as if they are a single LED.  That means you don’t have the ability to light up one side of the triangle by itself, or make individual lights within the panel light up alone, of all the problems with the zemismart tiles, this is the aspect I’m most disappointed in.  I suspect the reason for this design was to make them work with generic LED pixel controllers without having the animations look strange, but it seriously limits the customizability and it makes me a bit sad.

Still, I was able to easily port my sunrise alarm clock to the tiles, which makes for a pretty interesting effect, and loading e131 DMX controller software combined with some 3d printing lets you create interesting LED props for a holiday light show.

I know it’s maybe not the most helpful conclusion for me to come to, but overall I’d say if you want a nanoleaf, you should get a nanoleaf.  If you buy the zemismart tiles expecting a nanoleaf for a cheaper price, I think you’re going to be disappointed.  However,  If you want something sort of like a nanoleaf that you can tinker with, and make your own programs for, then the zemismart tiles are a fun alternative. If you aren’t interested in either of them, I’m amazed that you stuck around this long!

As I mentioned before, the largest complaint about the nanoleaf tiles is always the price, and these days I have a lot of financial freedom to make reviews of expensive products due in large part to the support of my patrons.  They let me do crazy things like buy every battery powered outdoor camera on the market to compare their security, and test out the home assistant integrations of all the top performing robotic vacuums.  I definitely couldn’t afford to make videos like those without your support, so thank you again.  If you’re interested in supporting my channel please check out the links down in the description.

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In this video I tear down the Nanoleaf LED tiles and the new alternative from Zemismart to see what’s inside and whether the Zemismart tiles get you the same product for less money.

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