What’s the Difference between Z-Wave and ZigBee­, and Should You Care?

Two wireless protocols fight for mindshare in the home control space, but how much should they matter to consumers?


When selecting a home control system, should you care if it’s compatible with Z-Wave or ZigBee?

It depends.

Both technologies enable two-way wireless control of various electronic devices including remote controls, dimmers and thermostats.

Both employ mesh networking, which means that the more devices that are on the network, the more powerful the network becomes.

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ZigBee has a higher bandwidth, so it can accommodate richer information, such as metadata from your music library.

Z-Wave has the benefit of being a real “standard,” meaning Z-Wave products from one manufacturer are interoperable with those from other vendors (with a few exceptions).

ZigBee is trying to get there, but currently you cannot mix-and-max ZigBee products from multiple vendors. The latest version, ZigBee 3.0, promises better interoperability between devices and versions.

Proponents from both camps claim they will own the market for “smart meters” and therefore will become the de facto standard. We’ll see.

Price-wise, the common perception is that Z-Wave is cheaper than ZigBee, but that really is not the case. It just so happens that most of the ZigBee implementers in the home-control space (AMX, Crestron, Colorado vNet, for example) serve higher-end markets.

Yet a ZigBee dimmer from Control4 can cost less than a Z-Wave dimmer from Leviton.

Bottom line is this:
For do-it-yourselfers, there are more Z-Wave products, but some very popular Zigbee products, such as the Philips Hue, are also available.

For higher-performance systems, it doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t use Z-Wave or ZigBee as a litmus test for choosing a home-control system. I’d go with the system that had the best features for my needs.

In any case, it’s tough to make a mistake on this one since a variety of adapter products exist.

Don’t Forget the Other Wireless Guys
If you’re in the market for retrofit solutions, also consider Insteon from SmartLabs. Insteon-compatible products are available for both wireless (RF) and powerline control (powerline products communicate over the home’s existing electrical wiring.) Insteon products are inexpensive and reviews on the technology are generally positive.

Universal Powerline Bus (UPB) from Powerline Control Systems is arguably the best technology for powerline-based automation gear.

And HomePlug, the organization that brought us high-speed powerline networking, has a new automation protocol called Command and Control. Like the Z-Wave and ZigBee advocates, the HomePlug Alliance believes its protocol will be selected by utilities for their smart-energy initiatives.

This article was originally published on May 7, 2009 and was updated on May 24, 2015.


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