Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Two big smart home standards explored

What are they and why are we talking about them?

Zigbee vs Z-Wave explored

Go down the rabbit hole of smart home sites and forums as a complete beginner and you'll quickly get entangled in a web of wild words that you've not heard before.

Two of those jargony words are Zigbee and Z-Wave. Essentially, these wireless standards are both alternative ways for your home gadgets to communicate with each other, rather than using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. And they bring specific benefits too, so for instance Z-Wave is lower power than Wi-Fi and has a bigger range than Bluetooth.

Lots of home tech names you'll recognise, making lightbulbs, cameras, hubs, sensors and more, work with Zigbee, Z-Wave or both. You might see them mentioned in news stories on The Ambient and elsewhere, or even see a sticker or badge on the boxes.

Want more? Zigbee essential guide | Z-Wave essential guide

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: The tech specs

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Two big smart home standards explored

First up, Zigbee is an open standard run by the Zigbee Alliance whereas Z-Wave is run by Silicon Labs, which has stricter controls to make sure every Z-Wave device works with every Z-Wave controller.

Zigbee and Z-Wave are both mesh networks – this just means signals can hop from gadget to gadget round the home and each device or sensor doesn't need to connect to Wi-Fi. But they usually have a central hub which connects to the internet. Z-Wave allows up to four 'hops' between the controller and the device, Zigbee doesn't have a limit.

Zigbee operates on the 915MHz frequency (in the US) and the 2.4GHz frequency, which might look familiar as that's a major frequency for Wi-Fi too.

One major caveat on Zigbee is that its broken up into several protocols. There's Home Automation, Smart Energy Profile, SEP energy management, Light Link, digital health, home hospital care, and more. Unfortunately, Zigbee devices of different protocols can't exactly talk to each other well.

Zigbee 3.0, however, unifies all these protocols so that they can work together. Lux recently showed off the first thermostat to win Zigbee 3.0 approval, allowing it to talk to any device that has a Zigbee badge on it. This is how Z-Wave actually works - it's a unified standard.

Z-Wave, meanwhile, operates at the low frequency 918/960 MHz band, meaning interference is minimal for Z-Wave and possible on Zigbee. Still, Zigbee is faster with data rates at 40-250 kbps versus Z-Wave's 9.6-100kbps.

Zigbee can also support way, way more devices – 65,000+ devices, or nodes on the mesh network, in fact. Z-Wave on the other hand caps out at 232 devices, which let's face is still plenty for most households.

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Back to the benefits of Z-Wave for a minute though: it has a larger range – at 30m (100 feet) – than Zigbee's 10-20 metres (33-66 feet) so it might work better for larger houses and buildings. Z-Wave's latest platform, the 700 Series, can connect even further, at up to 100m from point to point.

A quick note on security: both Zigbee and Z-Wave use the same AES-128 symmetric encryption and claim that they are safe and secure from hacking. Well, nothing is 100% secure, but it's worth knowing that these two big standards are taking the same, robust approach.

Z-Wave vs Zigbee: Compatible devices

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Two big smart home standards explored

There are slightly more devices compatible with Zigbee – around 2,500 products from 400 members of the Zigbee Alliance. It supports battery operated devices and light switches.

Z-Wave is doing a mean job of catching up though with 2,400 supported devices and more companies signed up – 700 members.

Some well known smart home brands and devices that support Zigbee (otherwise known as Zigbee certified products) include:

  • Philips Hue
  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Amazon Echo Plus (with Alexa for voice controls)
  • Hive Active Heating and accessories
  • Honeywell thermostats
  • Ikea Tradfri
  • Belkin WeMo Link
  • Yale smart locks
  • Sengled smart lights
  • ADT Security Hub
  • Wink hub
  • Somfy blinds and drapery motors
  • GE Appliances
  • LG SmartThinq
  • Lux Konoz

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Two big smart home standards explored

And some smart home brands and devices that support Z-Wave include:

  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Wink hub
  • Honeywell thermostats
  • Hogar Milo (with Google Assistant for voice controls)
  • ADT Security Hub
  • August smart locks
  • Yale smart locks
  • Logitech Home Harmony Hub Extender
  • Somfy
  • GE Appliances
  • LG SmartThinq
  • Kwikset smart locks

When considering the popular, premium smart home brands and products, we'd say Zigbee slightly has the edge – but which one is best for you depends on what smart home kit you already own and what you're looking to add.

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Decisions, decisions

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Two big smart home standards explored

It's not clear yet whether Zigbee and Z-Wave will grow side by side as the smart home grows or whether one will win out. It's certainly a quieter battle than the flashy Amazon vs Google vs Apple fight for the smart home interface.

We're only just starting to see smart speakers with Zigbee and Z-Wave built in, but expect to see more. For now, home hubs like Wink and Samsung SmartThings support both standards. You don't actually have to pick either Zigbee and Z-Wave then, but if you're trying to keep things simple and reliable, you might want to choose a side - at least for now.

If you're planning to stick to the big names in smart home (perhaps you already have some) and you want a faster connection, Zigbee might be worth considering.

For a larger range, potentially more reliable connections and a better chance that all the compatible devices will work with each other, go for Z-Wave.

Are you planning to dive into the world of Zigbee or Z-Wave? Or do you already have a mesh set up at home? Let us know your tips, tricks and complaints in the comments below.

TAGGED   smart home

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