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Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Which is best for your smart home?

We compare Zigbee vs Z-Wave, the two biggest smart home protocols that help support thousands of smart home devices and apps.
April 1, 2022
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If you’re a smart home owner, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the words Zigbee or Z-Wave on devices you’ve purchased. That doesn’t mean you know what either of them are, of course, and even if you do, it could be unclear how they differ. 

In short, Zigbee and Z-Wave are wireless protocols that allow your connected devices to “talk” to each other. Rather than using power-hungry Wi-Fi or short-range Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave connect smart home accessories using low-energy radio waves. You won’t find the technologies outside of the smart home sphere.

Read more: What is a smart home and why you should want one

You may find that one is better suited for your smart home needs than the other. So let’s get to it — in the Zigbee vs Z-Wave showdown, which is the best for your money? Will they even matter (spoiler alert) in the near future?

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Basic specs

Philips Hue Hub and Bulb
Both Zigbee and Z-Wave run on “mesh” networks. This means that while both rely on a central Wi-Fi hub to connect to the internet, a signal can be shared across devices without that Wi-Fi point.

Zigbee uses the IEEE’s 802.15.4 personal-area network standard to keep compatible devices connected. With AES 128-bit symmetric encryption, it keeps your data (shared from device to device) relatively secure. It runs at 2.4GHz, which is pretty good, but could lead to interference from the many Wi-Fi devices sharing that band. At data speeds of 250kbps, it also responds pretty well to your commands.

Z-Wave shares AES 128-bit symmetric encryption, but its 800-900MHz radio frequency range puts it slightly ahead of Zigbee, as it’s less likely to encounter interference.

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Range and compatibility

Z-Wave has a range of 100m (328ft) between points of contact. That’s a good distance that should work fine in the average home — unless you want to connect with the shed in your backyard perhaps, or for some reason you have widely-spaced devices inside a large house. Even if that’s the case, Z-Wave’s SoCs (systems-on-chip) let you place additional devices in buffer zones to boost your signal.

Zigbee’s range, in contrast, can be as low as 10m (33ft), so you’ll need your devices to be a little closer together. That range can extend as far as 30m (98ft) if wall materials and line of sight cooperate. So it’s still in the running, you’ll just want to keep that in mind for bigger spaces.

Z-Wave capacity taps out at 232 simultaneous devices, while Zigbee allows for 65,000 or more. That’s a huge difference. It shouldn’t really affect your choice however, unless you’re among the sliver of smart home owners who somehow have over 232 accessories. Then again, given the pace of the tech world, you may want that much connectivity within a few years.

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Devices

Philips SmartSleep Light daylight sunset zigbee
Kris Carlon / Android Authority
Device compatibility could hypothetically decide the battle, since Z-Wave is in over 3,900 products versus Zigbee’s 2,500 (at last check). The number of devices is less helpful than specific brands, however, as the thing that matters most is what an accessory can do and how well it does it.

So what does each company support? You can check out updated lists of Zigbee and Z-Wave devices via official links below.

You’ll find more of the major smart home brands using Zigbee, like Philips Hue lights and Amazon Echo speakers. Having said that, the best choice will depend entirely on the specific devices you prefer.

Read more: How to set up Amazon Echo speakers

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Final champion?

Zigbee and Z-Wave have become some of the most ubiquitous wireless protocols for smart home connectivity. Which is better? As with so many product showdowns, the answer isn’t simple. Hopefully, we’ve given you enough details to pick your own champion, specifically suited to your home’s needs. The answer will largely depend on the range you need, the number of accessories you expect to install, and the brands you prefer.

The matter of Matter (and Thread)

Nanoleaf Essentials Bulbs and Lightstrips Purple

The competition might not last much longer. Amazon, Apple, Google, and other major smart home companies are preparing to roll out Matter, a universal networking protocol that could render old compatibility issues moot — if a device works with Amazon Alexa, for example, it should have no problems with Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit.

More importantly, Matter is closely linked (but not exclusive) to Thread, a protocol based on Zigbee with many of the same benefits. Every Thread product acts as its own “border router” to which other Thread devices connect, extending range and reducing dependence on Wi-Fi or the internet. Matter and Thread have so much industry force behind them that within a few years, asking if something supports Z-Wave could be akin to asking if you have a Betamax player.

Some Matter and/or Thread-compatible hardware is already on the market, such as the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. The completed Matter specification and SDK (software development kit) are only due in late 2022, though, so it’s going to take a while before you can build a completely Matter- and Thread-driven system. Even then, it will be possible to bridge Zigbee and Z-Wave products for as long as they stay relevant.

Continue: The Matter smart home protocol and why it’s a big deal