The never ending debate, Zigbee vs ZWave, what is right for your home? When you’re building out a fully connected smart home with more ambition than a couple of random, standalone devices, there’s one thing you need to consider above all…
How well do the devices you have in mind communicate with one another?
One of the prime potential stumbling blocks is the fact different devices use different protocols. There is, as yet, nothing approaching a unified standard for smart home devices. There’s Bluetooth andWiFi, the original X10
Today, we’ll focus purely on Zigbee and Z-Wave so we can help you understand which would be best for you or if you even need to choose at all.
What Is Zigbee?
Zigbee is a mesh network. All this means is that signals can easily hop from one Zigbee device to the next without each individual device needing to connect to your WiFi network. Instead, there’s normally a central hub.
There’s no limit to the amount of hops between devices making it a highly flexible option, especially in larger and more ambitious smart homes. Communication between Zigbee devices is possible up to a distance of 20 meters.
The Institute of Electrical andElectronics Engineers (IEEE) developed a personal area network standard – 802.15.4 – with the stated intention of serving up cost-effective, low-speed communication between devices. Zigbee devices make use of this IEEE standard.
Zigbee can technically cope with a remarkable 65000 devices but in reality, not only would no smart home come close to this, you’d also run into bandwidth issues before hitting this hypothetical number. Nevertheless, it shows the robustness of Zigbee as a communication protocol.
AES-128 encryption means you shouldn’t need to worry about secure communication with Zigbee devices.This standard is used by online banks.
In terms of frequency, Zigbee 3.0 operates on 2.4Ghz with rapid transfer rates. This has an inbuilt problem, though… This frequency is shared by WiFi devices so you can run into a lot of interference. In the US, Zigbee can also run on 915MHz. The snag here is that data transmission dips from 250 kbps to 40 kbps so it’s a trade-off you might not be happy with.
What Is Z-Wave?
Z-Wave is also a mesh network which uses low-energy radio waves to help devices and appliances in your smart home communicate.
Aimed at both commercial and residential smart buildings, you’ll need a central hub. You can then control your devices using your smartphone, a keypad or a wireless key fob.
A Danish company, Zensys, developed z-Wave back in 2001, as a cheaper and easier alternative to Zigbee.
Unlike Zigbee, only 4 hops between Z-Wave devices are supported by the network making it more restrictive. The network itself is also limited to 232 devices, but this is still more than sufficient for most residential smart homes.
On the security front, Z-Wave uses the same AES-128 standard as Zigbee. While not 100% hack-proof, it really is not an issue you shouldn’t overly concern yourself with. Beyond that, if you’re truly bothered about the security side of smart technology, our considered advice is to resist the temptation of automating your home completely. After all, it’s senseless to add a layer of convenience and safety if you’ll spend time worrying about your devices or network being compromised.
Z-Wave devices operate on the 800-900 MHz range of radio frequencies. This is one of its key selling points since you won’t get any interference.
We’ve with that basic overview of Zigbee and Z-Wave in place, we’ll take a look at these mesh networks head-to-head.
Before that, though, is it a case of choosing one protocol over the other, or can you use both?
Is It Necessary To Stick To A Single Communication Protocol?
Firstly, it is perfectly possible to use both Zigbee and Z-Wave devices in your smart home.
A decent spread of devices will work with both protocols, even if they don’t communicate directly. Samsung’s SmartThings hub, like the Wink hub, support both Zigbee and Z-Wave. GE appliances, Yale smart locks and Honey thermostats also play nicely with both the big Zs.
So, while it’s not mandatory to stick to a single communication protocol, if you plan to build a connected home with devices from both stables, it’s worth doubling down on a hub that supports both or you’ll end up running into problems.
Zigbee vs ZWave: Head-to-Head
Now it’s time for us to examine these wireless communication protocols across 7 key categories. We will include the smart home recommended winner of each category as the tale of the tape continues; Zigbee vs Zwave.
- Range of Signal
- Power Usage
- Configuration of Network
No smart home device, appliance or communication protocol is any use at all unless it’s dependable. Whether you’re trying to control a single smart lock or a wide-reaching security system, you need a reliable signal. While with a thermostat or lighting, a lack of reliability is frustrating, with home security, it can be downright dangerous.
As we mentioned, Z-Wave operates on the 800-900 MHz range of frequencies. Sidestepping that 2.4GHz congestion that Zigbee needs to negotiate means there’s much less chance of lost or dodgy signals with Z-Wave. Without the competition for resources, a Z-Wave mesh network is able to forge better and stronger connections.
Despite these problems with possible interference, it’s not to say that a well-designed Zigbee network is unreliable, simply that Z-Wave in general is more reliable.
Convenience is one of the twin pillars of a successful smarthome, security being the other. Let’s face it, if you end up needing multiple hubs and apps, it defeats the very purpose of a streamlined, automated hub.
Zigbee is an open wireless standard carefully maintained by the Zigbee Alliance. The 400 member companies are responsible for a staggering 2500 Zigbee devices between them and a half-billion chipsets sold. You can check out the full list of these companies right here.
Although this might sound impressive, there’s a problem due to the way certification and labeling works…
It’s possible for a manufacturer to have their hardware Zigbee-certified even if the software does not yet comply. This allows the manufacturer to proclaim the device Zigbee-ready. While this won’t fool old hands at the smart home game, many an unwitting customer has come unstuck here so buyer, beware. What you need to look out for is the Zigbee Home Automation certificate which signifies full compliance.
As with reliability, this does not mean interoperability is a huge issue with Zigbee, merely that you need to keep your eyes peeled and conduct proper due diligence.
Comparing Zigbee vs Zwave, Z-Wave is a proprietary technology owned by Sigma Design. They also license Z-Wave technology and run the Z-Wave Alliance which oversees certification. This group makes certain that every single Z-Wave device adheres to a rigid set of standards. By this, we mean that every certified Z-Wave device will work with every Z-Wave controller.
With over 600 manufacturers responsible for over 2000 devices between them, interoperability is one of the primary benefits of Z-Wave and the reason it’s a standout winner over Zigbee in this category.
3) Range of Signal
Smart homes today are not just limited to the inside of the house but often extend out into the garage and garden. It goes unsaid that you’ll need excellent coverage, the extent of which depends entirely on the dimensions of your house and the scope of your system.
The figures you’ll encounter when exploring the range of these mesh networks will vary but Z-Wave wins out by some distance.
Zigbee devices have a range of up to 40 feet indoors but this can dip to as little as 10 feet depending on line of sight and the materials your walls are made from. While this is generally fit for purpose, it might not be the best solution for sprawling smart homes. It’s the higher frequency Zigbee operates on that’s largely responsible for this poor range.While that allows for the transmission of more data, it negatively impacts range. To salt the wound, high frequency signals also struggle to penetrate walls or other obstructions as efficiently as lower frequency signals.
Left unchecked outdoors, Z-Wave devices can send signals between two nodes up to distances in excess of 300 feet. Inside your smarthome, interference and obstructions dramatically reduce this range but Z-Wave signals are still capable of traveling up to 50 feet with walls in the way and 100 feet unobstructed.
4) Power Usage
The good news is that both Zigbee and Z-Wave use remarkably little power, far less than WiFi demands. This comes in handy since many smart home devices run on batteries rather than hard wiring so you don’t want a power-hungry communication protocol.
This is another area where both protocols perform very strongly but, this time, Zigbee has the edge. It uses marginally less power although this gap is certainly closing. The newer Z-Wave Plus devices are improving on this front.
If you plan to use a number of sensitive devices like smart locks and sensors, you’re better off with Zigbee.
5) Configuration of Network
Unlike WiFi networks which are star networks, both Zigbee and Z-Wave, as we’ve already mentioned are mesh networks. With a star network, the devices communicate with a central hub and the moment the device is out of range, it ceases to be a part of that network.
With mesh networks, although the signal starts off from the central hub, there’s no need for direct communication. In effect, each device acts as a repeater that passes on the signal to the next device in the network.
Z-Wave networks allow for up to 4 hops between devices while Zigbee, as we stated earlier, has no effective limit. Z-Wave networks are capable of supporting 232 devices, Zigbee networks an incredible 65000.
Although technically Zigbee wins out here, we are declaring a dead heat since neither the device limit not hop limit have any meaningful impact for normal residential applications.
Winner: Dead heat
Both Zigbee and Z-Wave use the AES 128 standard of encryption favored by online banks and government agencies. That should tell you all you need to know about security.
While no smart home is completely safe from any foul play since some devices can be vulnerable, you won’t run into any problems with the signal encryption being hacked whichever protocol you choose.
In the early days, Z-Wave acquired an unwarranted reputation for security lapses which was actually the fault of some companies electing not to make use of high-level encryption. Frustrated by this, Z-Wave now makes AES128 a requirement for certification. Taking this one step further, once certified, it’s now compulsory for manufacturers to implement the newer Security 2 (S2) framework rendering any security breach a practical impossibility. This interview outlines Z-Wave security in more detail if you’re interested in learning more.
So, although Z-Wave has taken things to new levels, since both protocols virtually eliminate the chance of the signal being hacked, it’s only fair to declare them evens on this score just like with network configuration.
Winner: Dead heat
This can be rapidly dealt with since there’s no meaningful gap between Zigbee and Z-Wave devices when it comes to cost. As with all smart home devices, you can buy in at a number of price points but neither Zigbee norZ-Wave, despite their many differences, is intrinsically cheaper.
Winner: Dead heat
In the head to head battle of Zigbee vs Zwave, you must figure which protocol is most important to your home. From a price point perspective all of the 7 key categories listed above. With Z-Wave, the clear winner in terms of reliability, interoperability, and range of signal while Zigbee emerges ahead purely in terms of power usage, the head-to-head puts Z-Wave firmly on top.
As with all elements of building out a successful smart home, though, your decision should be entirely personal. We hope you use this guide in the way it’s intended: simply as a guide. It’s not a direction to go rushing out and buy Z-Wave products because they are better.
The decision is on you
If you’re just starting out down the home automation route, Z-Wave networks are a little easier to put together. With less interference, greater range and an impressive range of products, Z-Wave makes sense for the majority of smart home consumers.
But don’t ignore Zigbee either and don’t forget…