I purchased & tested 20 different sets of outdoor string lights in my own backyard to find the very best string lights.
You can’t go wrong with outdoor string lights! (Actually that’s not true… one of the brands I tested didn’t work straight out of the box). But my point is string lights are wildly popular for backyard lighting, and I don’t expect them to go anywhere anytime soon.
Now that they’ve been around for several years, there are many different products on the market, and it can be confusing to sift through all the features: incandescent vs. LED, glass vs. plastic, and now we’re even seeing app-controlled smart string lights.
I decided it was time to put the most popular string lights from popular retailers (Walmart, Amazon, Target, Costco, Home Depot, & Harbor Freight) to the test to separate the good stuff from the junk. Some of my findings were consistent with what I expected, and others, not so much!
Just for the record, this post is not sponsored, I actually purchased all of the lights I’m going to review at full price, and no one is paying me to say any of this. That said, I will earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you) if you order lights through the links on my website. This allows me to support my family and continue creating content like this. I really appreciate your support!
The Best String Lights
I’ll give you the details on my test results and observations below, but I suspect what you’re really here for is the winners, so here you go:
Overall Best String Lights
The overall winner was Feit Electric 48ft LED String Lights.
This brand has been the gold standard in string lights for a long time. They have the perfect warm white glow, the weather-resistant plastic bulbs will stand up to just about anything, and the sockets are spaced a pleasing 24″ apart.
I’ve actually had these lights for eight years now. They’ve survived a move, a couple of Winters during which I forgot to take them down for the season, and they’re still going strong.
I always assumed that other similar-looking lights would be just as sturdy, but not so. You can see and feel the difference immediately, from the thickness of the cord to the sockets themselves.
At around $50 for 48-foot cord, they’re not the cheapest lights on the market, but they’re well worth the price.
Home Depot’s Hampton Bay LED String Lights came in as a close second. The most noticeable difference is Hampton Bay’s cord doesn’t have a ground wire. Otherwise the two are very comparable in everything buy price. These ones run about $70 for a 48 foot string.
Best Budget String Lights
50 Foot G40 LED Globe String Lights, from Amazon are my top pick for high-quality inexpensive string lights. At 50′ and 50 sockets for about $25, this brand definitely gives you the most bang for your buck.
The cord and sockets are reasonably sturdy. The shatterproof plastic bulbs were packaged separately. I like that the bulbs are only 12 inches apart, and they have a nice warm white glow. Of the 6 different LED globe string lights I tested, these have the best quality, price, and light color.
And which lights performed the worst? I’ll start by saying that I’ve sworn off incandescent string lights after these tests, since I managed to shatter at least one bulb on every strand I tested while hanging them, and now I’m afraid to walk barefoot in my back yard!
The Mainstays lights from Walmart are more like glorified Christmas lights, except they didn’t work right out of the box.
The loser of the LED category was the Addlon string lights. These seem to be heavily promoted on Amazon right now, so beware! They worked just fine, but the lights have a bright white, almost blue cast, the sockets are spaced ridiculously far apart (38 inches!), and the “100 foot” cord I ordered actually came as two 50 foot cords. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that when you connect the two cords end-to-end, there is a huge gap between the lights. Two thumbs down.
Things to Consider
Here are the things I look for in string lights. Some are serious quality issues, while others are down to personal preference and your particular needs.
There are many different colored and color-changing string lights on the market now. But for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to focus on clear white lights, which are by far the most popular because of their Edison-style bulbs and classic vintage look.
Just as there are many, many different colors of “white” paint, there are many different colors of “white” light. You can see that some of the lights I tested have a much warmer glow, while others are bright white and everywhere in-between.
Standard lightbulbs often have a “Lighting Facts” diagram on the box showing where the light color falls on the spectrum from warm (orange/yellow) to cool (blue cast). See the diagram below:
While I’ve only ever seen one of these helpful little diagrams printed on a box of outdoor string lights, the concept is the same. Unless you’re going for a spaceship landing pad vibe in your backyard (and no judgment if you are!), I recommend that you look for string lights that fall on the warm side of the white light spectrum. These will have a nice warm glow similar to candlelight. Look for “soft white” or “warm white”.
Even so, the color of light from one brand to the next will vary significantly. You’ll probably be happiest with the look of your lights if you stick with the same type & brand of string lights.
I chose to order all the lights for this post in black, but many of them are also available in dark green, brown and sometimes white. If you want your light cords to blend into the darkness when you’re outside at night, I recommend black or green. However if you’re going to hang them on a white house or building, or inside a party tent, then go with white cords.
I was surprised to see how wildly the distance between bulb sockets varied from one brand to the next. The strands in my tests had bulbs spaced anywhere from 8 inches to 38 inches apart!
I noticed that some of the cheaper brands spaced their lights much farther apart than higher priced brands, so even though it’s a 50′ cord, it only has 15 bulbs. Is this a big deal? It depends on how much light you need in your outdoor space. But in my opinion, 38″ is way too far.
Incandescent vs. LED
Incandescent lightbulbs have mostly been phased out in the United States, but there are still many incandescent string lights on the market, and I even tested a few. And while their initial purchase price is generally less than that of otherwise similar LED’s, they use far more electricity, and thus cost at least twice as much to operate.
Incandescent string lights also require glass bulbs because they produce a lot of heat, while LED string lights can (and almost always do) have plastic bulbs. We’ll discuss bulb materials next.
When outdoor cafe lights first became popular, most of the bulbs were made of glass. And the bulbs often needed to be screwed into the sockets after the cord was hung to prevent them from bumping into each other and shattering. It was really easy to accidentally crunch a bulb or two while stringing them up. I broke one glass bulb during my test just getting the bulbs out of the box and hanging them up, and then had to scour the grass for broken glass.
And it turns out that backyards, bare feet, and shards of broken glass aren’t a great combo. So most of the string light bulbs available now are made of shatterproof plastic.
Honestly I’m just going to throw the glass bulb lights away when I’m done with my reviews. They’re too much of a pain and way too easy to break.
Overall, I think this is a great improvement. The only down side is that exposure to UV rays can cause the bulbs to yellow over time. This doesn’t affect the color of the light and probably won’t really be noticeable during the day, and you definitely won’t notice it when it’s dark outside.
These two bulbs are from the same strand of lights (which I’ve had for seven years). As you can see, the bulb on the right has yellowed slightly, while the one on the left has been in the shade. Overall I don’t think the down side to plastic bulbs outweighs the convenience and safety they bring to the table.
During my test, one of the strands of lights was a little too close to Fozzy’s pen and he got hold of it. It still works, but as you can see below, it’s been chewed (Please note: no dogs were harmed during the testing of these string lights).
Light Clips & Hooks
Most of the lights in my tests have either a clip attached to each socket or a reinforced hole above each bulb. These make it easier to hang the lights using hooks or even nails.
Some industrial string lights have three-prong plugs and outlets, while the smaller lights tend to come with two-prong cords. Here’s why this matters: One, you’ll want to be sure your outlet and/or extension cord power source is compatible with your string lights. And two, if you intend to connect two or more strands of lights (of different brands or types) together, you’ll need to ensure that you won’t need to plug a three-prong plug into a two-prong cord end.
My dad and I ran into this when we were trying to connect Feit Electric’s three-prong lights with Harbour Freight’s two-prong ones over his deck, and we ended up having to take all the lights down and completely reconfigure them.
If you’ve ever hung Christmas lights, you’ll be familiar with the need to connect two or more strands of lights end-to-end. Ideally, you want to be able to connect two strands and have the spacing of the bulbs continue without a noticeable break. Most of the string lights I tested were able to connect seamlessly, but I was surprised to find that a few of them did not.
This was especially frustrating on one “100-foot cord” I ordered from Amazon, which actually came as two 50-foot cords. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but when I connected the two strands together there was a huge gap between the bulbs.
That said, every brand in my tests can be connected end-to-end.
Waterproof IP Rating
How did the string lights hold up to inclement weather?
IP stands for “ingress protection”, so an IP rating is the degree to which the bulbs are water- and dust-proof. For our purposes, we want to find string lights with a rating of IP65, IP66, or IP67, which is generally considered waterproof.
In addition, I left all of the lights out in the rain for multiple days to ensure they really stand up to their claims.
All that said, outdoor string lights are not intended to be submerged in water or left out during heavy winds or severe freezing temperatures. I recommend taking them down for the Winter if you live in a harsh climate.
Solar-Powered String Lights
I left solar string lights out of my tests because here in Western Washington we don’t usually get enough hours of direct sunlight to give them a full charge. So whenever I see them, they’re just barely lit up, and their light often has a cool blue cast. If you live somewhere sunny, then by all means try solar lights.
Phew that was a lot! Here are the things I look for in quality outdoor string lights:
- thick cord and sturdy sockets
- lights spaced between 12-24″ apart
- shatterproof plastic LED bulbs
- warm white light
- ability to seamlessly connect multiple strands
And here are the winners again:
Best overall: Feit Electric 48ft LED String Lights.
Runner Up: Hampton Bay LED String Lights
Best Budget Option: 50 Foot G40 LED Globe String Lights
I hope you found this helpful. Be sure to pin it!