ZigBee and Z-Wave are the two main wireless protocols used in SmartHome products. But they are not related to each other and, for all their similarities, have key differences, advantages and disadvantages. Knowing what to use when is the key to running a smooth smart home.

If you haven’t purchased your first SmartHome product yet, there are a few decisions you need to make about which path to take. Which hub should you buy? Which Voice Assistant Should You Use? ZigBee or Z-Wave? As with the first two, we can boil down the choice between ZigBee and Z-Wave to a few key differences and specific scenarios. No one answer fits all because, unfortunately, the smart home industry is a mess. Here are some differences and similarities between the two protocols to help you decide which one to choose.

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ZigBee is an open standard; Z-Wave is not

You are even more likely to see a ZigBee product in action than if you weren’t aware of it. One of the strengths and weaknesses of ZigBee is that it is an open protocol and nobody owns it. This is good because the code is verifiable and it probably won’t go anywhere. It’s also bad because anyone can take the code and change it to suit their needs. This is exactly what happened with Philips Hue, the first ZigBee product that most people encounter. Due to changes made by Philips to the protocol, Hue products require their own hub, even if you already have a ZigBee compatible hub. But if you’re a big believer in open source, ZigBee is the winner here.

Unlike ZigBee, Z-Wave is a closed standard owned by Silicon Labs. Now it has changed hands several times, which can be considered an unstable factor. But, as a closed system, in general, the protocol should not be changed, and special device hubs are not required. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Z-Wave adds extra security by requiring each device to use unique identifiers to communicate with your hub, providing easy identification. Every Z-Wave device must meet strict standards, avoiding the problems that some «ready for ZigBee» products had when they didn’t talk to each other as expected. If you think closed systems are more secure, Z-Wave will beat ZigBee.

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Z-Wave mesh has a long range

Both Z-Wave and ZigBee create a mesh network between the various devices you have in your home. Of course they are not compatible with each other. Z-Wave will only work with other Z-Wave devices and ZigBee will only work with other ZigBee devices.

One clear advantage of Z-Wave is how far apart these devices can be. Z-Wave can connect devices up to 550 feet while ZigBee peaks at about 60 feet. You will especially notice the shorter distance for ZigBee if you don’t have a ZigBee device in every room. You may need to move your device or hub closer for a stable connection. If you have a big house and don’t want to have a smart device in every room, Z-Wave might be a good choice to shorten the distance without spending so much money.

ZigBee network networks let you hop over more devices

With their mesh networks, instead of each device connecting directly to a hub, each device can connect to the device closest to it, forming a kind of chain to the hub. The signal then travels from one device to another until it reaches the hub.

Z-wave can only make four jumps. If it and the next three closest devices are too far out of range to reach the hub, the circuit will break and lose connection.

However, ZigBee can hop over as many devices as needed to reach the hub. While Z-Wave eliminates this problem to some extent due to its greater range, you can extend the signal to the furthest corners of your home by adding more ZigBee devices. If you’re planning to decorate your home with sensors, lights, locks and more, then ZigBee can provide an easier solution for every device to reach the hub.

ZigBee requires less power

ZigBee devices require less power and therefore last longer between battery changes. However, this gap is being closed as Z-Wave Plus devices require less power to operate than previous devices. ZigBee is still ahead in the power game. If you know you’ll be using a lot of sensors, locks, and other battery-hungry devices, then ZigBee is a more reliable choice.

Z-Wave has fewer congestion problems

In the United States, Z-Wave operates on the less used radio frequency of 908.42 MHz, while ZigBee operates on 2.4 GHz and can compete with Wi-Fi. Congestion can quickly build up between a host of ZigBee devices that you may need to maintain a reliable mesh network, your Wi-Fi, your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, and any other devices operating on the same frequency.

Z-Wave doesn’t face the same contention for resources, so it potentially makes stronger and more reliable connections depending on your environment.

Amazon Key only works with ZigBee devices

Amazon Key is a service that allows strangers to deliver packages to your home while you are away. Requires a smart lock and a connected camera. But the only smart locks that work with this are ZigBee devices. Amazon has made a similar decision with its Echo Plus device, a ZigBee-only voice assistant and hub. While this may seem like an odd choice, it likely stems from the other strength of ZigBee.

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ZigBee is better when you move to other countries

If you are in Europe or the US, ZigBee uses the 2.4GHz frequency. While you may need a power adapter, the ZigBee device will probably work just as well wherever you are.

Z-Wave, however, uses different radio frequencies depending on the country. Therefore, if you move abroad, you will most likely have to buy Z-Wave devices again. This is an advantage for Amazon, for example, because they can create one Echo Plus device that works everywhere.

So what should I choose?

Since both standards have their advantages and disadvantages, there are two factors to consider when making your decision: how many devices you plan to have and how far apart they will be.

Another important factor is that while many popular devices support both ZigBee and Z-Wave, some only support one standard.

So, if you have already invested in some of these products, it may influence your decision. However, there is one more thing you should know.

You can use both standards if you get the right hub

Your best bet is to get a hub like SmartThings or Wink that can handle both protocols. So if you chose Z-Wave and you need a device that only comes in ZigBee (or vice versa), they can talk to a hub, and the hub can help them work together.

Devices using one standard won’t get any of the mesh networking benefits of the other standard, but at least you’ll be able to control those devices. And you will be able to do things like use an Amazon Echo Plus (a ZigBee device) to control your Z-Wave products.

It’s still a good idea to pick one standard and stick to it as much as possible. But using a hub that supports both protocols at least expands your options a bit. And this is important, because nothing is guaranteed in the world of smart homes right now.

Image credit: Alexey Lishchishin / Shutterstock, Amazon.com

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