​Zigbee explained: Hubs, devices and everything you need to know

It's a big deal in the smart home space so get yourself clued up

What the hell is Zigbee? We explain all
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Syncing up all the top smart home devices isn’t easy, and it requires a common language to bind together a wealth of tech from different manufacturers.

That’s where Zigbee comes in – it is one of the leading protocols in helping smart home hubs control the tech in your home. If the name is familiar, it's because it's been in the news, as the Zigbee Alliance is teaming up with the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon on a new smart home standard... but more on that in a bit.

If it's even more familiar it's because Amazon is starting to add a Zigbee hub into the mix on more and more of its devices, such as the all new 4th-gen Amazon Echo.

But how does Zigbee work, what are the best Zigbee devices, is it any good and, most importantly, should you even care? We attempt to answer those crucial questions below.

What is Zigbee?

Right, let’s start by trying to cover smart home protocols without dying of boredom. They're how your smart sensors, bulbs, hubs and cameras all talk to each other – and to you – quickly and securely.

They’re necessary because the protocols you’re more familiar with, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, are rubbish for meshing together a lot of low power devices spread all around your home.

A better solution was required, and Zigbee – along with Z-Wave – is the answer.

What’s so good about Zigbee?

Zigbee uses the IEEE's 802.15.4 personal-area network standard to communicate with other Zigbee devices. These can talk up to a maximum range of 300+ meters with a clear line of sight, which works out to between 75-100 meters indoors.

What is Zigbee

Zigbee creates a mesh, where each interoperable device becomes a sort of outpost, able to communicate with the next device.

Because we’re going to end up having a lot of devices and sensors in our home, Zigbee needs to be able to support a lot of devices on the network, and luckily, it will cope with 65,000 at any given time. That should just about cover it.

Showdown: Zigbee versus Z-Wave, what's the difference?

Without the need for a centralised hub, it’s theoretically possible for devices to work over a huge area, passing on information around the mesh. However, not all Zigbee devices act as repeaters. It's not a rule set in stone, but essentially, if a device is wired-in such as a smart plug, light switch, or indeed a smart light bulb from the likes of lnnr, it will act as a repeater.

Battery-powered devices, such as motion and light sensors, don't tend to act as Zigbee signal repeaters - they can simply send messages to a repeater or hub.

Now let’s get a bit more technical.

The current version, Zigbee 3.0, also benefits from 128 bit symmetric encryption – so data being shot around the mesh is pretty secure. However, if you’re really focused on top-notch security, there have been claims that there are Zigbee vulnerabilities around the way it handles encryption keys.

Zigbee works at 2.4GHz more often than not. This boosts transfer rates and Zigbee can fire round data at around 250kbps, which is pretty good – more than enough for simple signals like “hey the door just opened” or “lightbulb to 50% brightness”.

However, 2.4GHz might sound familiar to you, and that’s because pretty much everything works on that spectrum – most notably your Wi-Fi enabled devices – and that means interference is a possibility.


Zigbee devices and products

Zigbee devices

So what kind of devices use Zigbee?

Well, the makers of Zigbee have started an alliance – this is how these things tend to work – of companies who essentially sign up to use Zigbee. There are over 400 members of the Zigbee Alliance, and they’ve racked up 2,500 devices between them.

The Zigbee Alliance recently announced that half a billion Zigbee chipsets have been sold to date and that Zigbee Alliance technologies will account for 3.8 billion IEEE 802.15.4 units expected to have shipped by 2023.

Partner brands that participate in the Alliance read like a who’s who of the industry, but try Centrica, ARM, Philips, Comcast and AT&T for size. You can get a full list here.

Project CHIP

In December 2019, Apple, Google and Amazon announced, alongside the Zigbee Alliance, the creation of the Connected Home over IP project; an initiative to simplify development for manufacturers and increase compatibility for consumers in the smart home world.

The project has been set up to make it simpler for brands and manufacturers to build devices that are compatible with the likes Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant.

In September 2020 the group announced that it was "on track to deliver a draft specification by late 2020, and continue to drive towards our goal of releasing the standard in 2021."

Zigbee products

  • Amazon Echo Plus
  • Abode smart security system
  • Belkin WeMo
  • Bosch Security Systems
  • Hive Active Heating and accessories
  • Honeywell thermostats
  • Ikea Trådfli
  • Innr smart lights
  • Philips Hue (Signify)
  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Samsung Comcast Xfinity box
  • Yale smart locks

echo smart speaker is a zigbee hub

Zigbee hubs… and alternatives

If you're bringing together a load of Zigbee devices, it's not enough just to plug them in and start controlling. You'll need some kind of hub to bring them together.

The Amazon Echo Plus, as well as the 2020 Echo and the newest Echo Show 10, all work as Zigbee hardware hub, which can scan your network for Zigbee devices, without you having to set up each one individually.

There are also options like SmartThings, Abode and Wink, which are hubs that can add and control Zigbee devices, all from within one single app.

No more dead spots: The best Wi-Fi mesh systems

But Zigbee isn't the only standard out there, and there's also Z-Wave, which has nuanced differences and has more companies signed up.

Z-Wave has a better range and the signal has a maximum theoretical distance of about 100m, making it suitable even for a home the size of Buckingham Palace. It also runs on a different spectrum, and won't be interfered with by Wi-Fi.

Zigbee: Should you care?

The rise of agnostic hubs and devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home mean that, thankfully, you shouldn’t need to care too much about whether your devices are running Zigbee, or a different protocol. It would make your life easier if all your devices ran on the same protocol, but the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to manage.

The question did raise its ugly head around the launch of the Amazon Echo Plus with its built-in smart home hub, which uses Zigbee but not Z-Wave. That was a black mark against the Echo Plus as a hardware hub, but the reality is that thanks to the Works with Alexa program, workarounds are already in place, and a lot of third-party hubs boast both standards anyway.

TAGGED    smart home

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