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Sunday, October 6, 2019

Wi-Fi vs. ZigBee and Z-Wave: Which Is Better?

A digital smarthome control screen on a wall.
zhu difeng/Shutterstock

For most of the modern smarthome era, ZigBee and Z-Wave have been the dominant communication protocols. But now, Wi-Fi is a strong contender, and more Wi-Fi smart gadgets arrive every day. So, which should you use? The answer is complicated.

Wi-Fi Is Taking Over the World

We’ve written a great deal about Z-Wave and Zigbee, what each protocol does, and why you would pick one over the other. But in the past, Wi-Fi as a total smarthome solution wasn’t a serious consideration. We even warned that Google and Amazon were trying to kill the smarthome hub and covered the difficulties you might encounter with dozens of Wi-Fi devices.

Until recently, if you wanted a smarthome, either Z-wave or ZigBee was your best bet. You picked a protocol and tried to stick with it. And most smart hubs support both, so, when necessary, you could use both in your home. Wi-Fi devices didn’t have much support or centralized hubs to tie all the gadgets together.

But that changed this year—a fact that was evident at CES. It seemed that every smarthome manufacturer touted Google and Alexa integration, and focused on Wi-Fi radios instead of Z-Wave or ZigBee. Now, for every Z-Wave Lock on the market, there’s a Wi-Fi alternative, often from the same manufacturer. But not all things are equal between the protocols.

Z-Wave and ZigBee: The Kings of Local Processing

The Hubitat Hub.

When you build a smarthome, you have to ask yourself how much you want the cloud involved. All Wi-Fi smarthome gadgets depend on the cloud to work. You need dedicated apps, and the closest you can get to a centralized experience is syncing your devices with Alexa or Google.

But with the right hub, like Hubitat, Homeseer, or OpenHab, you can create a smarthome that doesn’t rely on the cloud. This means that even when the internet is down, you can still control your smarthome. And when you control your smarthome locally, it also works faster. You’ll notice a dramatic difference between the time you send a command and it happens, like turning on the lights.

Z-Wave Has Fewer Congestion Problems

Z-Wave devices in the U.S. are less prone to interference issues than either Wi-Fi or ZigBee. That’s because Z-Wave runs on a different radio frequency—908.42 MHz—while both ZigBee and most Wi-Fi smarthome devices communicate over 2.4 GHz. It’s easy for the 2.4 GHz spectrum to get crowded and suffer issues.

Z-Wave avoids this problem entirely as it only has to contend with itself, even if you add more and more Z-wave devices.

Z-Wave and ZigBee Are Single Points of Failure

A man's hands using a tablet to control smarthome devices in an app.
Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock

Even when you use a cloud-dependent hub, like Wink or SmartThings, Z-Wave and ZigBee products benefit from company clouds involved in the process. Your hub does all the work, so if the company that manufactures your Z-Wave lightbulbs or ZigBee smart locks quits, your devices will keep working.

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