What is Zigbee and why is it important for your smart home?

Key Takeaways

  • The smart home industry has seen exponential growth with the emergence of various devices and platforms that enable connectivity and automation.
  • Zigbee is a wireless networking standard that allows different devices from various manufacturers to communicate with each other in a smart home system.
  • While Zigbee faces competition from the newer Matter standard, it is still widely used and supported by major companies in the smart home industry, including Amazon, Philips, Samsung, and more.

There’s been an explosion in smart home devices over the past few years. What was once referred to as “home automation” and still referred to as “Internet of Things” has now settled into a more friendly category we call smart home. We’ve got heating, lighting, cameras, sensors for just about everything, as well as new devices popping up every week to drag your home into a connected future.

Over the past few years, we’ve moved from a position of disconnected systems into a world with emerging hubs, with big devices like the Amazon Echo and Nest Audio acting as hubs to tie all your connected services together, along with platforms like Apple HomeKit and Samsung SmartThings. The introduction of the new Amazon Echo Hub shows that the battle to be your smart home system of choice is far from over. So what role does Zigbee have to play in this brave new world of the smart home? Pocket-lint is here to supply all the answers.

Why the smart home benefits from Zigbee

The smart home is centered around integration. Essentially, everything is in constant communication, so that you, as well as your devices, are always informed as to the goings-on of your smart home. For example, your lighting “talks” to your security camera or that your smart coffee machine turns on when you get out of bed. The Internet of Things might be a fairly useless term, but essentially, that’s what’s happening – everything is connected, meaning that information can be shared, and your life can be controlled without the need to visit each thing individually.

All of these connected devices are being handled by automatic systems over a single network. The result is a capable app and device-powered smart home. However, to get apps and devices to work together under a single network, you have to use a single common language. That’s where Zigbee comes in.

What is Zigbee?

Zigbee is based on the IEEE’s 802.15.4 personal-area network standard. If literally none of that makes any sense, all you need to know is that Zigbee is a specification that’s been around for more than a decade, and it’s widely considered as an excellent alternative to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for some applications including low-powered devices that don’t require a lot of bandwidth – like your smart home sensors.

A typical example is when you have a Zigbee-enabled light bulb and a Zigbee-enabled light switch and you want the light switch to control the light bulb. With Zigbee, the two devices – even if they’re from different manufacturers – speak a common language, so there’s no barrier to communication.

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Zigbee does not focus on point-to-point communication, such as Bluetooth, but it operates in a mesh network (which we’ll learn more about later) which is why it’s great for the smart home.

In reality, for a customer building a smart home, a device that supports the Zigbee protocol may still be siloed, but as we move forward, with more devices wanting to act as the central controller, having fewer wireless protocols for your smart devices has a distinct advantage – especially if it means you can avoid having a huge collection of hubs connected to your router.

Zigbee has been slightly disrupted by the emergence of Matter, the latest standard wanting to unify devices in your smart home and play the role that Zigbee initially wanted to. The company behind Zigbee rebranded to the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) and is driving the adoption of Matter, which has some technical advantages over the older Zigbee protocol.

What is mesh networking, and where does Zigbee come in?

A mesh network is when a network connection is spread out among wireless nodes that can communicate with each other and share a network connection across a large area. Think of nodes as small transmitters that function in the same way as a wireless router. Zigbee’s ability to support mesh networking means it can boost data transmission range and provide greater stability (even when a single connected node fails and doesn’t work).

With Zigbee, you will likely have a master coordinator node that controls other connected nodes – for example, the latest version of the Echo Show 10. If one node fails for some reason and cannot communicate with a second node on the mesh network, the master node and second node may communicate by linking to a third node within range. Every node acts as a repeater of sorts, and all nodes cooperate in the distribution of data – hence mesh network. Zigbee supports up to 65,000 nodes on a single network.

All of this means that you can use smart home devices or sensors that are far away from your smart home hub, without losing connectivity. The data gets passed from node to node, so as long as you have enough nodes, you can communicate with devices that are on the opposite side of your home from your smart home hub.

What devices use Zigbee?

Now you know what Zigbee is, it’s worth running through devices that work with Zigbee. Just because they use this standard of wireless networking doesn’t immediately mean that things will work in harmony, after all, you might not have a controlling application that knows what all these devices are. Here are some of the big users of Zigbee in the smart home:

  • Amazon
  • Comcast
  • Honeywell
  • Huawei
  • Philips
  • SmartThings
  • Texas Instruments
  • Amazon
  • Belkin
  • Ikea
  • Lutron
  • Nokia
  • Osram
  • Bosch
  • Indesit
  • Samsung
  • Velux
  • Humax
  • Panasonic
  • Miele

Just because a company uses the protocol, doesn’t mean it will instantly play nice, however. Philips Hue uses Zigbee to connect its bulbs, but that doesn’t always mean you can add in additional bulbs from a different manufacturer. However, with devices such as the Amazon Echo (4th gen), there’s a change in how we can approach Zigbee because you can have Alexa controlling all these different types of devices, without needing the hubs or apps from each manufacturer. The Echo can be told to search for devices and would, for example, find a Philips Hue bulb and be able to control it, without needing any input from Philips at all.

Where the Amazon Echo devices are interesting (and Google Home or Apple HomeKit), as that they are smart AI devices that will control a lot more. For example, the Echo can control Zigbee devices directly, but will also let you enable skills to control devices running on other standards, like a Ring Video Doorbell. The biggest question when it comes to using Zigbee is whether it’s going to meet your needs, because there are also Wi-Fi connections and manufacturer-specific hubs, depending on what you want to do and how you want to achieve it. The downside of using Zigbee control from a third-party device is that you can lose functionality – for example with Philips Hue, you have fewer controls when you’re not using Philips’ app, so it’s questionable whether you want to do that.

A popular use of Zigbee is for smart sensors; these small low-power devices can monitor things like the temperature or humidity in your home, or detect motion. They’re ideally suited to Zigbee as the mesh network capabilities mean you can run off battery power but still be able to communicate with a smart home hub on the other side of your home.

Do all smart home hubs support Zigbee?

The simplest way to control your smart home is through a smart home hub. This is one central device that can communicate with all the smart home devices in your home and pass on your commands. It means that you don’t need to use eight different apps to turn off the different brands of smart light bulbs you have around your home; one command to the smart home hub will control them all.

However, not all smart home hubs can speak Zigbee. If you’re using an Echo Show 8 to control your smart home devices, for example, it doesn’t have Zigbee built in, so you won’t be able to control any Zigbee devices directly, although you may still be able to through a hub. You can control Zigbee Philips Hue lights, for example, with your Echo Show 8, provided that you have the Philips Hue Bridge to send out the Zigbee signals for you.

Having a smart home hub that does have Zigbee built in is definitely preferable, as it opens up a world of Zigbee smart home devices that you control directly without the need for any additional hubs. Amazon appears to be aware of this, as the Echo Show 10 does come with Zigbee built in, as does the new Echo Hub which is the first Echo devices that’s designed primarily for controlling your smart home.

Other smart home hubs that are Zigbee compatible include the Amazon Echo (4th gen), the Samsung SmartThings Station, and the Aqara Smart Hub M2.

What was the Zigbee Alliance?

Since its inception in 2002, the Zigbee Alliance – made up of hundreds of different companies utilising Zigbee’s technology, such as Amazon, Samsung and Ikea – aimed to maintain and publish the standard. However, since the formation of the more unified smart home standard, Matter, in 2021, the Zigbee Alliance has been rebranded to the Connectivity Standards Alliance, as we mentioned above. The idea is that the CSA will essentially do for Matter what the Zigbee Alliance did for Zigbee.

Zigbee devices and Zigbee technology won’t just disappear overnight, however, due to this recent shift. It’s likely that Zigbee will continue to develop alongside Matter, and, in all likelihood, create a pathway to the new standard over time. Zigbee and Matter cover many of the same ideas, and as Matter is developing, many manufacturers are finding ways to bridge between older Zigbee devices to newer Matter standards. Philips Hue (to continue our example brand), do this via an update to the Hub.

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