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The Matter smart home protocol: What is it, and why is it a big deal?

Smart home device makers are rushing to support Matter and a companion technology, Thread. Read all about it.
By
August 25, 2022
Nanoleaf Essentials Bulbs and Lightstrips in a living room
Nanoleaf

If you’re following the smart home space, you may be seeing the name Matter crop up in relation to big brands like Amazon, Apple, and Google. Matter may even sound like a feature you need if you’re hoping to future-proof your purchases. But what is Matter, exactly, and why does it matter in a smart home?

What is Matter?

A smart lock with the Matter protocol logo
Connectivity Standards Alliance

Matter is an upcoming universal networking protocol that will let accessories work across all major smart home platforms. It’s not out yet, but once it is, you won’t have to check if products like smart bulbs are compatible with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple HomeKit — if the Matter label’s there, you’ll be good to go.

More than this, Matter devices can form a mesh network in which connecting to the cloud is optional, rather than mandatory. Matter is an IP-based technology, but essential smart home functions (say, turning lights on and off) should work regardless of whether accessories can reach the internet, or even whether you have a dedicated hub or bridge. You do need the internet and a Matter hub to control a home remotely, but if you’re physically present, you should be able to control and update Matter accessories with as little as your phone.

Matter is an upcoming universal networking protocol that lets devices work across all major smart home platforms.

Mesh functions are possible because Matter operates as an application layer on top of technologies like Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Thread. Of these, Thread is the most important. It’s a relatively new Zigbee-based wireless protocol that smart home devices must specifically support, but it’s less power-hungry than Wi-Fi, and every Thread product operates as its own “border router” to which other Thread accessories connect without burdening your Wi-Fi network. Thanks to its low power consumption, it can be used in just about anything.

Some products are already offering Thread without Matter, like Eero routers, Nanoleaf light panels, and the HomePod mini. In fact, while many Thread products are expected to gain Matter support, don’t make any assumptions — look for promises from manufacturers.

Also read: How to use Amazon Alexa

Why is Matter a big deal?

The Wyze Cam V3 mounted outdoors
Wyze

The smart home world can be fractured and confusing, especially if you’re a newcomer. Many accessories that support Alexa also support Google Assistant, or vice versa, but that’s not always the case, and HomeKit has fewer compatible options than either. It may not be clear why you should choose one platform over another, and even once you’ve made a decision, you’re limited to a slice of the accessory market rather than whatever has the looks or specs you’re after.

Once it becomes widely adopted, Matter should be a win-win for both the public and the smart home industry. The public will get a broader range of options, not to mention more reliable connectivity. Device makers should be able to expand their audience and spend less time enabling support, while the platform holders themselves will have to worry less about drumming up partners.

Once it becomes widely adopted, Matter should be a win-win for both the public and the smart home industry.

The importance of reliable connections shouldn’t be undersold. Smart home accessories are often scattered across multiple rooms or outside, and they can periodically drop off your network if they don’t have a solid signal. Dropouts can be a particular problem for people who have dozens of Wi-Fi devices, since routers can only handle so many simultaneous connections. Overload is less likely with Wi-Fi 6, but accessories with Matter over Thread can remove that threat entirely.

Related: Wi-Fi 6 explained

Which manufacturers are supporting Matter?

The Schlage Encode Plus and Apple Home Key
Schlage

Matter’s organizing body is the Connectivity Standards Alliance, formerly the Zigbee Alliance. The CSA’s core members are a who’s-who of the smart home world, including not just Amazon, Apple, and Google but also Samsung and its less popular SmartThings platform. Some other participating brands include:

  • ADT
  • Assa Abloy/Yale
  • Belkin
  • Bosch
  • D-Link
  • Ecobee
  • Eve
  • Facebook
  • Haier
  • Honor
  • Huawei
  • Ikea
  • iRobot
  • Kwikset
  • Leviton
  • LG
  • Lifx
  • Logitech
  • Lutron
  • Nanoleaf
  • Netatmo
  • Oppo
  • Panasonic
  • Schlage
  • Sengled
  • Signify (Philips Hue)
  • Somfy
  • Tesla
  • Velux
  • Vivint
  • Wyze Labs
  • Xiaomi

When is Matter coming out?

Amazon Echo 4th gen desk
Adam Molina / Android Authority

A completed Matter specification and SDK (software development kit) are due by fall 2022. You’ll see Matter-certified devices ship by the end of the year, and some compatible products are already on the market, such as Amazon’s fourth-generation Echo. They’re just waiting for someone to flip a switch, figuratively speaking.

Not every Matter device will include Thread, at least at first. Expect the two to go increasingly hand-in-hand, though, and for some products (like the Echo) to get Thread enabled post-launch.

What are some Matter alternatives?

A sample Amazon Sidewalk household
Amazon

There’s nothing fully equivalent to Matter, but Zigbee and Z-Wave are both low-power like Thread and (relatively) platform-agnostic. That is, if you pair supported accessories to a Zigbee or Z-Wave hub, it’s only that hub that needs to be compatible with something like Alexa or HomeKit.

Amazon has a technology called Sidewalk, which can help extend the range and reliability of smart home devices. Only select Amazon products can serve as Sidewalk bridges, however, and a small portion of your bandwidth may be shared with neighbors if they have Sidewalk too. While Amazon swears that the protocol is secure, the notion of involuntary bandwidth sharing has prompted some people to disable it via the Alexa app, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Amazon abandoned the protocol once Matter over Thread takes off.

Should I wait to buy Matter devices?

Nanoleaf Essentials Bulbs and Lightstrips in a home office
Nanoleaf

Probably, at this stage. If you have existing smart home accessories and they’re plagued by shaky or oversaturated Wi-Fi connections, adopting Matter over Thread could (in theory) make a huge difference. The catch is that you’ll probably have to upgrade multiple products at once to see the benefits, including anything you’re using as a hub if it can’t get Matter as a software update.

If you’re not concerned about Wi-Fi coverage or occasionally operating without internet access, Matter is really just a nice perk. A device that supports Alexa, HomeKit, or Google Assistant will continue to support those platforms once Matter is available, so if you’re already committed to one of them, you can pull the trigger on any compatible accessory. It’s just better future-proofing to choose products slated for the Matter transition.

Read more: The best budget devices for building a starter smart home