Wi-Fi vs. ZigBee and Z-Wave: Which Is Better?

A digital smarthome control screen on a wall.
zhu difeng / Shutterstock

For most of the modern era of smarthome, ZigBee and Z-Wave were the dominant communication protocols. But now, Wi-Fi is a serious contender, and more smart Wi-Fi gadgets arrive everyday. So which one should you use? The answer is complicated.

Wi-Fi invades the world

We wrote a lot about Z-Wave and Zigbeewhat does each protocol do and why choose one over the other. But in the past, Wi-Fi as a total Smarthome solution has not been a serious consideration. We even warned that Google and Amazon were trying to kill the Smarthome hub and covered on difficulties you might encounter with dozens of Wi-Fi devices.

Until recently, if you wanted a smarthome, Z-Wave or ZigBee was your best choice. You chose a protocol and tried to stick to it. And most smart hubs support both, so if at all you can use both in your home. Wi-Fi devices do not have a lot of support or centralized hubs to tie all the gadgets together.

But this has changed this year, a fact evident in CES. It seems that all smartphone manufacturers have touted the integration of Google and Alexa and have focused on Wi-Fi radios instead of Z-Wave or ZigBee. Now for each Z-Wave Lock on the market, there is a Alternative Wi-Fi, often from the same manufacturer. But not all things are equal between protocols.

Z-Wave and ZigBee: The Kings of Local Processing

Hubitat hub.

When building a Smarthome, you have to wonder how you want the cloud involved. All smarthome Wi-Fi gadgets depend on the cloud to work. You need dedicated applications, and the closest to a centralized experience is the synchronization of your devices with Alexa or Google.

But with the right hub, like Hubitat, Homeseer, or OpenHab, you can create a smarthome that does not rely on the cloud. This means that even if the Internet is down, you can still control your Smarthome. And when you control your smarthome locally, it also works faster. You will notice a dramatic difference between the time you send an order and it happens, like turning on the lights.

Z-Wave has less congestion problems

Z-Wave devices in the United States are less prone to interference problems than Wi-Fi or ZigBee. This is because Z-Wave operates on a different radio frequency, namely 908.42 MHz, while ZigBee and most Wi-Fi smarthome devices communicate on a 2.4 GHz frequency. It is easy for the 2.4 GHz spectrum to become cluttered and suffer from problems.

Z-Wave completely avoids this problem because it only has to fight against itself, even if you add more and more Z-wave devices.

Z-Wave and ZigBee are single points of failure

The hands of a man using a tablet to control multiple devices in an application.
Alexander Kirch / Shutterstock

Even when you're using a cloud-dependent hub, like Wink or SmartThingsZ-Wave and ZigBee products benefit from enterprise clouds involved in the process. Your hub does all the work. Therefore, if the company that manufactures your Z-Wave bulbs or your ZigBee smart locks closes, your devices will continue to operate.

Wi-Fi devices, on the other hand, depend on several clouds. The maker of the gadget provides a cloud and a dedicated application. And if you control your Smarthome with Alexa or Google, their cloud is involved too. However, unlike a medium-sized hub, Alexa and Google Assistant do not directly control Wi-Fi devices: different clouds speak to each other.

This means that if one or the other of the calls calls for closing, your device will also do so. We saw this recently when Best Buy chose to leave the company smarthome. The candles, light bulbs and even a smart freezer brand Insignia have all lost their abilities. With Wi-Fi, everything in your Smarthome can break which, in turn, can lead to all in your smarthome break.

ZigBee and Z-Wave, however, have a giant and singular point of failure: the hub you use to control them. If that fails, either because the company leaves the company, or it breaks, everyone goes with it.

Wi-Fi devices have a lower entrance barrier

Smart Hubs can be a challenge to learn how to use. Unfortunately, it is inevitable because they are incredibly powerful and capable of advanced automation. But that's not necessarily the case with Wi-Fi devices. You can pair them with Alexa or Google Assistant that are designed to be as user-friendly as possible.

Although the Google Assistant and Alexa routines are not as powerful as some smart hubs, they are good enough for an average player. When you need something more complicated, IFTTT and Yonomi works well with Alexa (but not Google, Sadly).

It's more likely that your family and friends have met the Google Assistant or Alexa app than a smarter Smart Hub app. This familiarity gives them a leg by learning to interact with your Smarthome.

Wi-Fi devices are generally less expensive

A TP-Link Wi-Fi bulb hanging over an open book and a cell phone on a desk.

Due to the low entry barrier, Wi-Fi devices are often cheaper than their Z-Wave and ZigBee counterparts. When you compare directly Wi-Fi jacks with Z-wave plugs, Wi-Fi bulbs with ZigBee bulbs, and Wi-Fi switches with Z-Wave light switches, you see a noticeable price difference.

That does not mean that Z-Wave and ZigBee are always more expensive –Z-Wave by Schlage lock really costs less than its Wi-Fi lock. But often, it's because the Wi-Fi variant is newer: when the Schlage Z-Wave lock was released, it was sold at the price that the Wi-Fi lock is selling for the moment.

Building a smarthome is not necessarily expensive, but it can add up. If you spread out your purchases over time, this lessens the effects. But choosing Wi-Fi because of its reduced cost is also logical.

Z-Wave and ZigBee devices do not work with all hubs

Just buying a Z-Wave or ZigBee device and having a smart hub that works with both systems does not mean they'll work together. That's why hubs are constantly posting updates for new device compatibility.

But if your hub does not add new devices (like Wink), or is just slow to post updates, you might not have a chance. You can try to program the device as a generic device, but it will not always work.

With Wi-Fi devices, you do not have to wait or check if it works with your favorite voice assistant. Instead, the compatibility effort goes from the "hub" (assistant Alexa or Google) to the device manufacturer.

Manufacturers of Wi-Fi devices can rely on the APIs provided by Google and Amazon for everything to work together. This is less of a work together because, at most, they do not have to consider both scenarios. The Z-Wave and ZigBee hubs are often very different, and the amount of work needed to sync everything varies from hub to hub.

If you want to make sure that the devices you own will always work in your environment, Wi-Fi now has an undeniable advantage, thanks to Google and Alexa.

So, Wi-Fi or Z-Wave and ZigBee?

Whether you need to use Z-wave and ZigBee or Wi-Fi depends on what is most important to you when it comes to your complete experience. If you want everything to work with Google or Alexa and you do not want to add complications related to the smart hub, Wi-Fi devices are the best option.

But if you want a local and cloudless control – and a perfect database, you can adjust the most advanced specifications – ZigBee and Z-Wave.

Once you know what you want in your smarthome, the choice becomes obvious.

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