Z-Wave vs. ZigBee

Z-Wave and ZigBee are two networks that connect smart home devices to each other as well as a mobile application. Here are the key similarities and differences, as tested by our experts.

The two primary standards for smart home appliance controls are Z-Wave and ZigBee. Currently, the majority of smart home appliance makers use Z-Wave. Almost all home security companies, if they offer smart home appliance management, have Z-Wave modules in the control consoles. The one current exception is the relatively new home security company, Scout Alarm; to learn more, read about our testing of Scout Alarm.

These wireless technologies have been vying to become the industry standard for years. They have been around since the 1970s in the home security market and other markets. There are many other technologies too that hope to become the one used by all smart home appliance makers.

Z-Wave vs ZigBee

It is inevitable, given the rapid rate of smart home appliance use, that some standard will eventually be adopted by all. However, if past history regarding the time it takes for any industry to settle on a standard, this may take a decade or more.

Consumers and home security companies, in the interim, need to determine what type of equipment is most important to them or their business and then adopt that protocol.

Z-Wave

According to Z-Wave marketing material, over 35 million different devices sold today use Z-Wave wireless standards. It is a proprietary technology that requires a license for companies to incorporate in their products. Z-Wave has been in use for years and has gained wide-spread corporate acceptance.

Consumers are not as familiar with the concept. Users just expect devices to work.

Z-Wave operates on a low-frequency radio band, 908.4 MHz in the United States. Since it is so low 0n the frequency spectrum, Z-Wave does not interfere with any Wi-Fi network. It may, however, interfere with some cordless phones as they too work on low-frequency radio bands.

Z-Wave devices are not interchangeable outside the region where they are sold. American Z-Wave products will not work with European Z-Wave devices.

ZigBee

ZigBee is an open-source protocol and available to use for free. Some companies that use Z-Wave technology hedge their bets and also manufacture smart home appliances using ZigBee.

ZigBee uses the IEEE 802.15.4 radiofrequency. It also can use 915 MHz in the United States but the limitations on data, 40 kbps maximum, makes it inefficient at this frequency. The 2.4 GHz frequency is also available to ZigBee. However, using this frequency may cause interference with Wi-Fi networks.

Encryption

Each of the two major smart home appliance protocols uses AES-128 symmetric encryption. This sort of encryption is simple and effective and does not require any elaborate setup.

Speed

ZigBee is significantly faster than Z-Wave. ZigBee transmits data at 250 kbps compared to Z-Wave’s transmission rate of 100 kbps.

Compatibility

ZigBee and Z-Wave are not compatible since they use different frequencies. However, many smart home hubs can manage both protocols. Currently, no home security console incorporates both, however.

Range and Costs

Even though ZigBee is faster and cheaper, since it is not proprietary like Z-Wave, one of the drawbacks is the range. ZigBee has a range of 35 feet whereas Z-Wave can transmit and receive at up to 100 feet.

This is somewhat mitigated by the ability of both protocols to mesh. If you have more than one ZigBee or Z-Wave device within close proximity, it will act as a repeater or booster and allow the signal to go further.

Global Standard

Since ZigBee is an open-source protocol, which allows ZigBee products used in North America to be used in Australia or anywhere else in the world.

This does not necessarily mean interoperability. Any manufacturer can use ZigBee for free and when they do so, they often use software that is incompatible with another brand.

Z-Wave, since it is proprietary and only made by, or under license to, Sigma Designs, is made so that it can “talk” to any other Z-Wave component.

Final Thoughts

Both smart home device control protocols have certain advantages and disadvantages. It appears as though no one protocol has won the right to be called the standard. Z-Wave or ZigBee may ultimately win, but there are many other protocols developed or under development that may have more robust or attractive features that ultimately will push them to the top spot.

FAQs

Let's end this comparison of the Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols by answering some frequently asked questions.

  • Which is better, Zigbee or Z-Wave?

    Neither Zigbee or Z-Wave is better than the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages, so it all boils down to what you’re looking for in a smart home protocol. Below is a side-by-side comparison of Zigbee and Z-Wave.

    Features Zigbee Z-Wave Winner
    Encryption AES-128 symmetric encryption AES-128 symmetric encryption Tie
    Maximum speed 250 kbps 100 kbps Zigbee
    Range 35 feet 100 feet Z-Wave
    Mesh compatible? Yes Yes Tie
    Global compatibility Open-source, so manufacturers can write their own software that can make products incompatible with other Zigbee brands Proprietary, so Z-Wave devices can talk to other Z-Wave devices regardless of brand Z-Wave
    Wireless frequency IEEE 802.15.4, 915 MHz, and 2.4 GHz (may interfere with Wi-Fi) Low-frequency radio band that doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi Z-Wave
  • What’s the difference between Z-Wave and Zigbee?

    The main difference between Z-Wave and Zigbee is the radio frequency they use to talk to other Z-Wave or Zigbee devices. Z-Wave uses low-frequency radio bands that don’t interfere with Wi-Fi. On the other hand, Zigbee uses the IEEE 802.15.4. This frequency isn’t prone to interference, especially if you have a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network at home. Aside from their frequencies, Z-Wave and Zigbee differ in terms of data transmission speed, range, and compatibility with other Z-Wave or Zigbee devices.

    Differences Z-Wave Zigbee
    Maximum speed 100 kbps 250 kbps
    Range 100 feet 35 feet
    Compatibility Since it’s a proprietary protocol, a Z-Wave device is compatible with most Z-Wave devices, even from other manufacturers Since it’s an open-source protocol, manufacturers can write their own Zigbee software that can render their Zigbee devices incompatible with other Zigbee devices from other brands
  • Is Alexa Z-Wave or Zigbee?

    Alexa is neither a Z-Wave or Zigbee device, because it’s a voice assistant that communicates over the internet. However, there are Alexa speakers that use Zigbee, such as the 3rd gen Echo Show 10 and the Echo Plus. With Zigbee radios built-in, these Alexa speakers and smart displays can talk to compatible Zigbee devices.

  • Is SmartThings Zigbee or Z-Wave?

    SmartThings is both Zigbee and Z-Wave, since the SmartThings hub contains both Zigbee and Z-Wave radio antennae. However, most SmartThings devices, such as smart outlets, motion sensors, and water leak sensors, use Zigbee to communicate with the hub. The hub’s Z-Wave antenna makes it possible for the hub to connect with compatible Z-Wave devices from other brands.