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GE’s new Sol lamp is an Amazon Alexa device. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

It is becoming more common to control smart lights around the home or office with voice commands, by connecting those lights to devices using Amazon’s Alexa or other virtual assistants. But this new Sol lamp from GE is different.

Sol is an Alexa device unto itself, letting users turn on and adjust the light by giving Alexa voice commands without requiring a separate Echo device. (“Alexa, turn Sol on” or “Alexa, set Sol to to warm white,” for example.) Sol plays music and flash briefings, controls other lights and smart devices, and basically does everything other Alexa devices do, plus a few tricks of its own.

Sol by GE. (GE Photo)

The lamp, officially known as “C by GE Sol,” is touted by the tech and electronics giants as the first lamp with Alexa inside. It goes on sale starting Monday for $199.99. We’ve been testing out a preview unit in the GeekWire offices and studios for the past week. Despite some shortcomings, it’s an interesting glimpse into where the technology world is headed, as more devices start arriving with intelligent features built-in.

Watch our hands-on video below and continue reading for takeaways.

Hardware basics: The ring-shaped lamp sits on top of a cylindrical base, with an outer ring serving as the light and an inner notification ring that lights up in blue, orange and other colors and configurations in response to voice commands. The top of the base offers touch controls for turning up the volume, turning Alexa’s microphone on and off, and adjusting the intensity of the light.

The inner ring showing 6:25 on the clock. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

The inner ring offers additional features: First, it doubles as a virtual clock with a blue light representing the hour hand and a red light representing the minute hand. Second, when you use Alexa to set a timer, the inner ring gives a visual representation of how much time is left, with the blue light initially filling the entire ring and disappearing step by step as the clock counts down.

The light: Sol’s outer ring is the main source of illumination. It’s very eye-catching, created in partnership with Richard Clarkson, the designer known for the interactive Cloud lamp and speaker system. With the Sol on our conference room table this past week, people in the office kept asking me what the heck it was. It’s definitely a conversation-starter and a fun piece to have around.

But here’s the first Sol drawback that many people will notice: The outer ring is not a multicolor light, but instead offers five different forms of white light, including a warm light and a cooler, vibrant light. No dazzling your visitors with a fun purple or green light when they walk in the room.

In addition, based on my experience, Sol is not going to serve all of your lighting needs in a particular room. I found the bare white light to be relatively stark and harsh on its own without other lights turned on in the room — a little hard on the eyes at full illumination, but still not enough to completely light up a room or read comfortably for long periods.

When I asked about the possibility of a lamp shade, a GE representative said, “We look forward to future versions of Sol but don’t have details at this point as to what those may look like or include.”

Setting up the Sol. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Setup: Although this is an Alexa device unto itself, it still requires using a separate C by GE app for setup and control in addition to the Amazon Alexa app for integration with the voice assistant. The process will be very familiar to anyone who has set up other smart lights or devices via Alexa, including connecting to the device’s special WiFi network, enabling the related skill in the Alexa app, and discovering the Sol device on the network.

I ran into a couple complications setting up on our preview Sol device, but part of that was user error, as I somehow missed the step to connect to Alexa from the C by GE app. But once I got up and running everything was smooth. One tip for anyone who gets the Sol: if you run into problems connecting, press the small dot on top of the base, opposite the microphone button, to reactivate the setup mode.

Unboxing the Sol. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Alexa integration: Sol works with third-party Alexa skills, just like an Amazon Echo device, and I found it seamless to start using it based on the setup I’d already done for multiple Echo devices in the office. Sol picked up all of my existing settings and skills via the Alexa app.

GE touts the ability to control its other “C Life” and “C Sleep” bulbs using Sol, but in reality it’s better than that. I had already connected a bunch of different lights and smart plugs from other brands to Alexa via our existing Echo devices, and it was no problem to use the Sol to control those devices, as well, as you’ll see in the video above.In my experience, Sol works exactly like any other Alexa-powered speaker.

Sound quality: I’d compare the audio from the speakers to the smaller Echo Dot vs. the higher-quality sound from the original Amazon Echo or more recent Echo Show. The music from the speakers is passable, but not great. This certainly won’t be enough to satisfy audiophiles. But it’s perfectly fine for listening to flash briefings or podcasts.

Bottom line: This is one of the smartest lamps you can buy, not perfect, but a great example of where voice technology seems to be headed — embedded natively into more and more of the devices around us.

Sol is available for purchase starting Monday at Amazon.com and CbyGE.com.

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