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ZigBee vs. Z-Wave: Choosing Between Two Big Smarthome Standards

ZigBee and Z-Wave are two of the main wireless protocols used in smarthome products. But they don’t connect together and for all their similarities, they have key differences, advantages, and disadvantages. Knowing what to use when is key to running a smooth smarthome.

If you haven’t purchased your first smarthome product yet, you need to make several decisions on which way to go. Which hub should you buy? What Voice Assistant should you use? ZigBee or Z-Wave?  As with the first two, we can boil down the choice between ZigBee and Z-Wave to a few key differences and specific scenarios. No one answer is right for everyone, because unfortunately, the smarthome industry is a mess.  Here are some differences and similarities between the two protocols to help decide which to chose.

RELATED: The Smarthome Industry Has Reached a Plateau. Here's What's Holding It Back

ZigBee Is an Open Standard; Z-Wave Is Not

There’s a better than even chance you’ve seen a ZigBee product in action, even if you didn’t realize it.  One of the strengths and weaknesses of ZigBee is that it’s an open protocol and nobody owns it. This is good in that the code can be checked and it’s probably not going anywhere. This is also bad in that anyone can take the code and change it to suit their needs. This is exactly what happened with Philips Hue, the first ZigBee product most people encounter. Because of changes Philips made to the protocol, Hue products need their hub even if you already have a ZigBee-compatible hub. But if you’re a big believer in open source, ZigBee is the winner here.

Unlike ZigBee, Z-Wave is a closed standard, owned by Silicon Labs. It has changed hands multiple times now, which could be considered an unstable factor. But as a closed system, generally the protocol shouldn’t be changed and specific device hubs shouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Z-Wave adds additional security by requiring every device to use a unique IDs to communicate with your hub providing for easy identification. Every Z-Wave device must meet exacting standards, avoiding problems that some “ready for ZigBee” products have seen when they won’t talk to each other as expected. If your general feeling is that closed systems are more secure, Z-Wave takes the win over ZigBee.

RELATED: Enough With All the Smarthome Hubs Already

Z-Wave’s Mesh Network Has a Longer Range

Both Z-Wave and ZigBee create a mesh network between the different devices you have in your home. Of course, they aren’t compatible with one another. Z-Wave will only mesh with other Z-Wave devices and ZigBee will only mesh with other ZigBee devices.

One distinct advantage for Z-Wave is how far apart these devices can be. Z-Wave can connect devices as far as 550 feet away, while ZigBee maxes out at about 60 feet. You’ll especially notice the smaller distance for ZigBee if you don’t have a ZigBee device in every room. You might need to move a device or hub closer for a stable connection. If you have a large home and don’t want a smart device in every room, Z-Wave can be a good choice to close the distance without spending as much money.

ZigBee’s Mesh Networks Allow Hopping Through More Devices

With their mesh networks, instead of every device connecting directly to a hub, each device can connect to the closest device to it forming a sort of chain to the hub. The signal then hops from one device to the next until it reaches the hub.

Z-wave can only make four hops. If it and the next three closest devices are too far out of range to reach the hub, the chain is broken and will lose connection.

ZigBee, however, can hop through as many devices as necessary to reach the hub. While Z-Wave does mitigate this problem some with its greater range, you can extend the signal to the farthest reaches of your home by adding more ZigBee devices. If you are planning on decking out your house in sensors, light bulbs, locks, and more, then ZigBee may present an easier solution for getting every device to reach the hub.

ZigBee Requires Less Power

ZigBee devices require less power and so last longer between battery changes. This is a gap that is closing, however, as Z-Wave Plus devices require less power to operate than the devices that came before. ZigBee is still ahead in the power game, though. If you know you will be using a lot of sensors, locks, and other devices that require battery power, then ZigBee is the stronger choice.

Z-Wave Has Fewer Congestion Problems

In the United States, Z-Wave works on a lesser used radio frequency—908.42 MHz—whereas ZigBee runs at 2.4ghz and can compete with Wi-Fi. Congestion can quickly add up between the host of ZigBee devices you might need to maintain a reliable mesh network, your Wi-Fi, your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, and any other devices operating at the same frequency.

Z-Wave doesn’t face this same resource competition, so it potentially establishes stronger and more reliable connections, depending on your surroundings.

Amazon Key Only Works with ZigBee devices

Amazon Key is a service that lets strangers deliver packages into your home while you’re away. It requires a smart lock and a connected camera. But the only smart locks that work with this are ZigBee devices. Amazon made a similar decision with its Echo Plus device, a voice assistant and hub that only supports ZigBee. While this may seem a curious choice, it probably comes out of another strength of ZigBee.

RELATED: The Amazon Echo Plus Is a Horrible Smarthome Hub

ZigBee Is Better When You Move to Other Countries

Whether you are in Europe or the U.S., ZigBee uses a 2.4ghz radio frequency. While you might need a power adapter, a ZigBee device will probably work just as well wherever you are.

Z-Wave, however, uses different radio frequencies depending on the country. So if you move abroad, you will likely have to buy Z-Wave devices all over again. This is an advantage for Amazon, for example, as they can make one Echo Plus device that works everywhere.

So, Which Should I Choose?

Since both standards have their advantages and disadvantages, two factors in your decision should be how many devices you plan to have and how far apart they are going to be.

  • ZigBee: If the distance between devices is short or you plan on having a lot of devices (or both), ZigBee is probably the better choice.
  • Z-Wave: The fewer the devices and the farther apart they are, the better off you are with Z-Wave.

The other important factor is that while many popular devices support both ZigBee and Z-Wave, some support only one standard.

  • ZigBee: ZigBee supports Philips Hue, Amazon Echo Plus, Belkin WeMo Link, and Hive Active Heating products.
  • Z-Wave: Z-Wave supports August smart locks, Kwikset smart locks, and the Logitech Harmony Hub Extender.

So, if you have already invested in some of those products, that might sway your decision. However, there’s one other thing you ought to know.

You Can Use Both Standards If You Get the Right Hub

The best option is to get a hub like SmartThings or Wink that can work with both protocols. This way if you have chosen Z-Wave and need a device that only comes in ZigBee (or visa versa), they can talk to the hub, and the hub can help them work together.

Devices using one standard won’t gain any mesh network benefits provided by the other standard, but you at least will be able to control those devices. And you’ll be able to do things like use your Amazon Echo Plus (a ZigBee device) to control your Z-Wave products.

It’s still a good idea to pick one standard and adhere to that as much as possible. But, using a hub that supports both protocols at least opens up your options a bit. And that’s important because right now nothing is guaranteed in the smarthome world.

Image Credit: Oleksii Lishchyshyn/Shutterstock, Amazon.com

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code.
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