Smart Home products are quickly taking over the buzz around consumer tech, and so are their proprietary home automation protocols. Every Smart Home product comes with a protocol for control and use. What are these home automation protocols? Which one is the best?
More devices than people
2014 was the first year in which mobile devices surpassed the number of people on Earth, and they are multiplying five times faster than we are. IDC (International Data Corporation) and Ericsson predict there will be at least 28 billion Internet of Things enabled devices by 2020.
That’s a lot. There’s also no arguing that mobile devices like smartphones are ubiquitous in a smarter future. Read more about Smart Home products in our previous post.
With a sleuth of IoT connected devices, there are also multiple protocols that control them. There is no single standard when it comes to home automation protocols. Luckily, there are only five major protocols that guarantee control of most Smart Home products. The best part is, you already own two of these home automation protocols.
Every major Smart Home product has Wi-Fi capability. Wi-Fi was never intended to be a home automation protocol, but because it’s so widely available and everyone has access to it, companies quickly adopted it for home use. Wi-Fi is not particularly power-efficient nor is it very strong when a lot of devices are connected (unless you have range extenders throughout the house). But it does have a big advantage: Smart Home devices connected via Wi-Fi do not require a smart hub for control. It’s easy to set up Smart Home devices with a quick connection to the home’s Internet.
Wi-Fi is one of the best home automation protocols. It’s ease of use and ease of connectivity makes it user-friendly and provides device control from anywhere in the world (with the respective app).
Every smartphone available on the market today comes with Bluetooth. It’s a low-energy home automation protocol that allows control of smart devices by using a phone or tablet. Bluetooth is power-efficient, and a single charge on a Bluetooth device can provide standby times of a month or even a year. Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth devices have a short range (usually 10m indoors). So, if you want to dim the lights using your smartphone or tablet, you must be in physical range to do so.
Master & Slave
Master & Slave is one of the most useful connection types for Bluetooth. Bluetooth acts as the master and connected devices are slaves. One master can connect to multiple slaves, and the slaves can only connect to one master. For example, your mobile phone’s Bluetooth can connect to your thermostat, lightbulbs and your car’s audio system. As you walk through your home, the thermostat automatically sends a message via Bluetooth about the current temperature and efficiency; lightbulbs automatically turn on/off as you walk in/out of a room and your car plays music from your phone as soon as it turns on.
Z-Wave is currently the most popular home automation protocol. Over a thousand devices and a hundred companies make Z-Wave compatible products, and the numbers continue to grow. It uses a proprietary method for home automation that all manufacturers of Smart Home products must abide by. If a company wants to make a Z-Wave compatible product, it must license the use of chips from Sigma Designs. These chips simplify software and hardware development, ensuring that all Z-Wave devices can work together.
Z-Wave products must also be certified before they can use the official logo. It’s all very similar to Apple’s MFi Certified program.
Unlike Wi-Fi, Z-Wave requires the use of a smart hub to send signals and control devices. Built using sub-1Ghz frequencies, it doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (~2.4Ghz) signals. A useful feature is Z-Wave’s repeater function. Each additional product in the home repeats signals, extending the network reach so your entire home is covered and nothing is out of range.
ZigBee is the first wireless home automation protocol for the Internet of Things. It offers low-power use and mesh networking – making each connected device act as a repeater. Mesh networking allows home automation networks to grow with each device added. If one ZigBee device only provides 10m of range, adding five more devices can theoretically increase the range to 50m. This ensures operating range is never blocked by big objects like tables and sofas or walls or anything else.
ZigBee may have been first on the scene, but it’s popularity and use is declining. Bluetooth is better at power-efficiency and Z-Wave also offers mesh networking. Is ZigBee here to stay? Time will tell.
Thread is a home automation protocol created by Google Nest, in collaboration with major players such as Samsung, ARM, Qualcomm and others. It aims to become the sole home automation protocol of the future by uniting existing protocols. It creates a dedicated network (IPv6 address) that doesn’t rely on an Internet connection/Wi-Fi. Running on its own IPv6 address means it’s easier to connect to the Cloud.
Thread also runs on the same IEEE 802.15.4 physical radio standard as ZigBee and Z-Wave. The advantage of this is huge. By using the same radio standard, Thread is compatible with ZigBee and Z-Wave devices. ZigBee and the Thread Group have already started working on interoperable products between the two standards.
Which home automation protocol is the protocol for me?
Even with these five major home automation protocols summed up, it’s still a tough decision. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are must-haves in any Smart Home product. Having one or both ensures your devices will remain compatible with their respective app on your smartphone. But what about Thread, ZigBee and Z-Wave? Thread is still very new and there’s not many devices that use this protocol, but collaborating with ZigBee may prove to bring about worthwhile products.
As for ZigBee, it’s an older standard that is losing the Smart Home market every year to Z-Wave. Z-Wave does everything ZigBee does, but better. Mesh networking (additional products acting as repeaters) ensures a Smart Home network never goes down. Using a sub-1Ghz frequency means no interference with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. There are also more Z-Wave compatible products on the market than any other home automation protocol.
Whichever home automation protocol you decide to choose, remember that any additional Smart Home products you purchase down the road will need to be compatible with what you already have.
It also helps to think about the category of products you will buy to better narrow your decision on home automation protocols. Our previous blog post covers a few Smart Home product categories.