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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.
By
July 10, 2022
echo plus
Amazon

If you’re a smart home owner, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the terms Zigbee or Z-Wave on devices you’ve purchased. It may not be clear what either of them mean though, and even if you are familiar, you may not be sure how the technologies differ. 

For newcomers, Zigbee and Z-Wave are wireless protocols that allow smart home devices to talk to each other. Rather than power-hungry Wi-Fi or short-range Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave rely on distinct forms of low-energy radio. You won’t find the protocols outside of the smart home sphere.

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

Although they’re not required to set up a smart home, they are favored by a lot of people, and it’s possible that one is better suited for your 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) in the near future?

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Basic specs

Philips Hue Hub and Bulb
Both Zigbee and Z-Wave are capable of “mesh” networks. This means that while both turn to a central Wi-Fi hub if they need 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 operates over the 2.4GHz band, which is generally good, but could lead to interference from the many Wi-Fi devices sharing that band. In any case data speeds are about 250kbps, so it should respond pretty well to commands.

Z-Wave shares AES 128-bit symmetric encryption, but its 800-900MHz radio frequency range can be an advantage over 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 perhaps you want to connect with the shed in your backyard, or for some reason you have widely-spaced devices inside a large house. Even if that is 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. It 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 range 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, but it shouldn’t really affect your choice, since relatively few people have over 232 smart home accessories. Then again, given the pace of the tech world, you may want that much capacity within a few years.

Zigbee vs Z-Wave: Devices

Philips SmartSleep Light daylight sunset zigbee
Kris Carlon / Android Authority
In terms of raw numbers, Zigbee and Z-Wave are roughly equal in compatibility, with over 4,000 devices each. Knowing the number of supported devices is less helpful than specific brands, however, as what matters most is what a device can do, how well it does it, and the other products it works with.

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 comes down to personal preferences. It depends on the range you need, the number of accessories you expect to install, and the brands you prefer. Zigbee wins when it comes to brand names and capacity, but Z-Wave could be an easy pick if you’re worried about range or interference.

The matter of Matter (and Thread)

Nanoleaf Essentials Bulbs and Lightstrips Purple
Nanoleaf

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 as long as it has that Matter branding.

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