What is Zigbee?

The demand for smart home devices has exploded over the past few years. The market that was once upon a time referred to as “home automation”, or “internet of things”, has now settled on “smart home”. There’s a multitude of different devices, such as smart thermostats, smart lighting, various sensors, remote controls, and even robot vacuum cleaners. New devices pop up every other week, and it’s difficult to keep track of.

You might already have some of these devices. If you do, you’ll notice that not every device works in the same way, through the same wireless technology. That’s because there are different technologies that work better with all of these unique devices. Zigbee is one of these smart home technologies.

If you are into smart home automation, you’ve undoubtedly come across the term “Zigbee”. And for good reason: it’s a big player in smart home technologies.

One of the biggest issues in the current landscape of smart devices is connectivity. It’s hard to make all your products work together and, like other wireless technologies, it takes a unified protocol to make different stuff from different manufacturers work together. That’s why Zigbee was invented. Next to Z-Wave, it’s one of the leading protocols in smart home technology.

What does it do?

Before you want to spend any amount of money on Zigbee devices, you obviously want to know if it’s any good, how it works and if it’s useful in your particular situation. So let’s see what Zigbee actually does, without diving too much into technicalities and details.

It’s a smart home protocol, meaning it’s a way of smart home products to communicate to each other - and to you. More specifically, it’s a way to let your sensor report to your Zigbee controller to let it know a light should be turned on, because it detected movement. In essence, it allows your sensors, lights and other devices talk to your Zigbee hub and to you.

zigbee smart lighting

Zigbee is a necessary protocol in the context of smart home. You’re probably well aware of wireless technologies such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. So, why not use those? They seem to do the same thing Zigbee does? Well, yes and no. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth both are great technologies, but neither of them really suit the goal of Zigbee very well. Zigbee is the low-energy variant of Wi-Fi, with a few extra’s for home automation. It’s all about meshing together low power devices that are spread around your home, quickly and safely.

Mesh networking and safety

Now that we’ve established why the technology exists, let’s check out some of the features.

Zigbee uses a personal-area network standard to communicate with other nearby Zigbee devices. Usually between 10 and 20 metres, depending on a few factors, such as signal strength, or factors that might interfere with the signal.

The devices work together to create a mesh network. A mesh network is a network where each device is able to communicate with the next device. Normally with wireless signals, there is one sender and one receiver. When they are out of range of one another, there’s no communication possible. Devices in a mesh network actually work together. Rather than just sending or receiving, devices in a mesh network repeat signals, creating one big, you guessed it, mesh. These networks can handle the support for a lot of devices. So all your Zigbee devices and sensors can join in on the action.

And it’s extremely safe. It’s got 128 bit symmetric encryption - the same encryption banks use to secure your online banking. That means the data that’s being sent around your mesh is in safe hands.

Zigbee hubs

There are loads of manufacturers of smart home devices. And they all have their own individual idea of what the ideal smart home product should look like. Usually, devices that come from a certain manufacturer will work with a smartphone app provided by said manufacturer. That way you can control your Zigbee device with your smartphone. Great, right?!

Yes and no. Yes, if you have just a few devices by a certain brand. Take IKEA Trådfri for instance, the Zigbee lighting range by IKEA. You’ll be just fine with their smartphone app to control a handful of smart bulbs. However, if you’re bringing together a ton of different devices from different brands, you’re doomed to install all the apps on your smartphone in order to control all of them. It’ll get harder and harder to just plug them in and play.

If this is the case, you’ll need some kind of controller to bring them together. A Zigbee hub might be the ideal solution for this situation. There are plenty of hubs that allow you to scan for and control the Zigbee devices in your home.

Many different smart home hubs control one technology. They might help you to use your Zigbee lamps, but not Z-Wave. Or infrared, or 433MHz, or BLE. You have to figure out workarounds to get everything to work, or install a controller for each technology.

smart home hub

Sounds pretty counterproductive, right? You shouldn’t need to care about whether your devices are running Zigbee or a different protocol. Smart home should make your life easy. And it would actually make your life easier if all your devices ran on the same protocol, or at least could be controlled and managed from one central place.

No worries, if you’re planning on involving products that work through different technologies (such as Z-Wave), try a smart home hub such as Homey. It controls all wireless technologies out there. No multiple apps, everything just together in one functional app: the Homey Smartphone App. You’re reading this right. Smart home hubs offer a way to let your Z-Wave sensor activate your Zigbee lights. Now, tell me that doesn’t sound like something that actually makes life a lot easier?

Alternatives: Zigbee vs. Z-Wave

Like with anything, there are alternatives to the technologies you’re using at home. And, like always with alternatives, each has their pros and cons. In the case of Zigbee, the most notable alternative is Z-Wave.

Z-Wave is a technology that is in some cases comparable to Zigbee. For example, they both feature mesh networking to improve the network and range of the technology. Next to that, all communications are two-way for both standards. And both technologies are equally low-power-hungry.

However, Zigbee, as opposed to Z-Wave, is loosely standardized: manufacturers can use the standard commands, but can also opt not to use them, or to modify it to suit their specific wishes. In other words, Zigbee devices can choose not to completely follow the standard. In Z-Wave, this is not possible. This means with Zigbee, manufacturers have more freedom. However, it also means it’s often harder to have Zigbee devices from different brands to talk with each other.

The other difference is the band used. Z-Wave uses the 868MHz band (Europe) or the 900MHz band (US/ASIA), while Zigbee is on the 2.4GHz band. This makes Zigbee easier to deploy across countries, as all legislation allow free sending on the 2.4GHz band. At the same time, however, Zigbee can experience interference from Wi-Fi networks, who also run on the 2.4GHz band. Also, lower frequency bands penetrate walls better. This means Z-Wave has a better range compared to Zigbee.

Zigbee chips are also cheaper than Z-wave modules. This makes Zigbee popular at large vendors. For instance, the IKEA Trådfri series of lightbulbs uses Zigbee, as does Philips Hue. Z-Wave, on the other hand, is implemented in a wider variety of different devices and brands, due to the further standardization and range.

ikea tradfri lights work with zigbee

At the moment, both technologies have their clear advantages and disadvantages. More importantly, both have interesting brands and products that uses them. That is why it’s hard to denounce a winner or even recommend one above the other. Z-Wave clearly offers a way better experience, reliability and range when it comes to sensors. On the other hand, in lighting Zigbee clearly has the most attractive products at the best prices. And in most use cases, you will want to combine the both. Choosing is hard, almost impossible. Luckily, Homey features both!