Zigbee or Z-wave instead of Wi-Fi for smart home

Alex Alex 12 July 2020
Zigbee or Z-wave instead of Wi-Fi for smart home

So that smartphone in your pocket or the smartphone you're using to watch this video right now almost certainly supports WiFi, Bluetooth and some kind of cellular connection. And seeing as how modern phones are designed to be do it all devices, you might think that it has every important wireless protocol covered.

But wait, there are a couple others with similar names that are actually quite widespread in the consumer space, Zigbee and z-wave. But what exactly are they and why do they exist? Is the tech industry just trying to fleece us because they think consumers perceive anything with the letter Z in it to be edgy and cool? Not quite, it's like this Zigbee and Z-wave are primarily focused on smart home applications rather than other kinds of data transmission. But hold on a sec. I have smart WiFi controlled lights and Bluetooth speakers that work just fine. Why do we need totally different protocols just so I can unlock my front door from my phone.

It turns out that Zigbee and Z-wave have real technical advantage that make them better performing and more reliable for home automation.

A big one is power consumption. You see, although WiFi is incredibly versatile, it hogs a lot of power, which makes sense considering WiFi is used for bandwidth heavy applications like streaming video and gaming, but you simply don't need a whole lot of bandwidth to tell your front door to lock, your garage to shut or your smart light bulb to turn pink. And even something like a Smart Home Security sensor can trigger an alarm simply by telling the base station Hey, this door is open.

This means that you don't need very much speed, which results in huge power savings. Very important for a smart home devices which are often small and designed to be placed anywhere without the need to be plugged in.

Both Zigbee and Z-wave operate speeds well below 300 kilobytes per second, meaning that they aren't much faster than an old dial up modem. But the result in power savings mean that many smart home devices can last for over two years without needing a battery swap.

But hold on again, you might be saying Bluetooth is also quite low power. So why don't we just use that? Well, as anyone who's ever gotten too far from the Bluetooth speaker knows most Bluetooth revisions are quite range limited, which can be a huge problem if you're trying to deploy Smart Home tech in something other than a small apartment.

Zigbee and Z-wave however, work as mesh networks where each device acts as a node to send the signal on to the target device. So even if your Smart Home hub is downstairs and the thermostat you're trying to control is on the third floor, your signal can be routed through your smart light fixture and your smoke detector to get there. Zigbee or Z-wave instead of Wi-Fi for smart homeAnd if we're talking about Z-wave specifically, it operates on a lower frequency than WiFi, meaning longer ranges between nodes.

Zigbee operates on the more congested 2.4 gigahertz bandwidth, which is often used by WiFi, though it makes up for this limitation somewhat by being able to hop through as many devices as they needs, whereas Z-wave is limited to just four hops. And remember that whichever protocol you use many battery only smart home devices aren't designed to be used as hops since this would drain the battery faster.

On the subject of limitations. The biggest drawback for most people with either Zigbee or Z-wave is the need for a central hub to control your gadgets. Since neither typical routers nor smartphones or tablets come with Zigbee or Z-wave support built in, you'll need a hub of some sort which connects to your router. So your phone, tablet or computer can talk to it via WiFi, it will then send a Zigbee or Z-wave signal to the devices you're trying to control. So in this way they're not as straightforward as WiFi but seeing us so many IOT devices have adopted Zigbee and Z-wave. It appears that the market has decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

And although there are competing standards out there like Insteon and Bluetooth Mesh, Zigbee and Z-wave remain the most common. So is one protocol better than the other? Well, Z-waves longer range and better interoperability as a proprietary standard with more rigorous testing requirements have led many smart home enthusiasts to deem it the superior choice. But that doesn't mean Zigbee is bad. Just do your research for the specific product ecosystem you're buying into and make sure any gadget that you're thinking about getting doesn't have a ton of reports of buggy software. You don't want your smart solid shooter to start acting up at 3:00 in the morning.

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