It’s a big deal in the smart home space so get yourself clued up
Syncing up all the top smart home devices isn’t easy, and it requires a common language to bind together a wealth of tech from different manufacturers. That’s where Zigbee comes in – it is one of the leading protocols in helping tech talk to each other.
But how does Zigbee work, is it any good and, most importantly, should you even care? We attempt to answer those crucial questions below.
What is Zigbee?
Right, let’s start by trying to cover smart home protocols without dying of boredom. They’re how your sensors, bulbs, hubs, and cameras all talk to each other – and to you – quickly and securely. They’re necessary because the protocols you’re more familiar with, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, are rubbish for meshing together a lot of low power devices spread all around your home.
A better solution was required, and Zigbee – along with Z-Wave – is the answer.
What’s so good about Zigbee?
Zigbee uses the IEEE’s 802.15.4 personal-area network standard to communicate with other Zigbee devices between 32–65 feet depending on a few factors – and that’s why protocols like this are so important.
It creates a mesh, where each interoperable device becomes a sort of outpost, able to communicate with the next device. Because we’re going to end up having a lot of devices and sensors in our home, Zigbee needs to be able to support a lot of devices on the network, and luckily, it will cope with 65,000 at any given time. That should just about cover it.
Without the need for a centralized hub, it’s theoretically possible for devices to work over a huge area, passing on information around the mesh.
When bees are returning to their hive, they do a ‘waggle dance’ to communicate important information to other bees, such as where to find that high-grade pollen or where the new nest is located. This zigzag dance is how Zigbee got its name.
Now let’s get a bit more technical.
The current version, Zigbee 3.0, also benefits from 128-bit symmetric encryption – so data being shot around the mesh is pretty secure. However, if you’re really focused on top-notch security, there have been claims that there are Zigbee vulnerabilities around the way it handles encryption keys.
Zigbee works at 2.4GHz more often than not. This boosts transfer rates and Zigbee can fire round data at around 250kbps, which is pretty good – more than enough for simple signals like “hey the door just opened” or “lightbulb to 50% brightness”. However, 2.4GHz might sound familiar to you, and that’s because pretty much everything works on that spectrum – most notably your Wi-Fi enabled devices – and that means interference is a possibility.
Zigbee Alliance and Zigbee devices
So what kind of devices use Zigbee?
Well, the makers of Zigbee have started an alliance – this is how these things tend to work – of companies who essentially sign up to use Zigbee. There are over 400 members of the Zigbee Alliance, and they’ve racked up 2,500 devices between them.
The Zigbee Alliance recently announced that half a billion Zigbee chipsets have been sold to date and that Zigbee Alliance technologies will account for 3.8 billion IEEE 802.15.4 units expected to have shipped by 2023.
Partner brands that participate in the Alliance read like a who’s who of the industry, but try Centrica, ARM, Philips, Comcast and AT&T for size. You can get a full list here.
Zigbee devices to try
- Amazon Echo Plus
- Belkin WeMo
- Bosch Security Systems
- Hive Active Heating and accessories
- Honeywell thermostats
- Ikea Tradfli
- Philips Hue (Signify)
- Samsung SmartThings
- Samsung Comcast Xfinity box
- Yale smart locks
Zigbee hubs… and alternatives
If you’re bringing together a load of Zigbee devices, it’s not enough just to plug them in and start controlling. You’ll need some kind of hub to bring them together. Amazon Echo Plus works have a Zigbee hardware hub, which can scan your network for Zigbee devices, without you having to set up each one individually. There are also options like SmartThings and Wink, which are also hubs that can add and control Zigbee devices, all from within one single app.
But Zigbee isn’t the only standard out there, and there’s also Z-Wave, which has nuanced differences and has more companies signed up.
Z-Wave has a better range and the signal has a maximum theoretical distance of about 100m, making it suitable even for a home the size of Buckingham Palace. It also runs on a different spectrum, and won’t be interfered with by Wi-Fi.
Zigbee: Should you care?
The rise of agnostic hubs and devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home mean that, thankfully, you shouldn’t need to care too much about whether your devices are running Zigbee or a different protocol. It would make your life easier if all your devices run on the same protocol, but the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to manage.
The question did raise its ugly head around the launch of the Amazon Echo Plus with its built-in smart home hub, which uses Zigbee but not Z-Wave. That was a black mark against the Echo Plus as a hardware hub, but the reality is that thanks to the Works with Alexa program, workarounds are already in place, and a lot of third-party hubs boast both standards anyway.