February 29, 2024

Brighton Journal

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I was wrong to ignore Zigbee and Z-Wave. They are the best part of my smart home.

I was wrong to ignore Zigbee and Z-Wave.  They are the best part of my smart home.
Zoom in / Where it all began for the author, even if he didn't know it at the time.

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I've set up dozens of smart home gadgets in two houses and two apartments over the past five years. I have a mental list of brands that I respect and brands that I will never buy anything from again. In my current housing, you can stand in one place and have six different types of signals bounce around you, keeping chatter between devices at bay.

What can I say? I'm obsessed with a certain kind of preparation and creativity. The kind that is completely irrelevant in the event of a power outage.

When I started at Ars in the summer of 2022, the next generation of smart home standards was on the way. Matter, an interoperable device setup and management system, and Thread, a radio network that will provide secure, long-range communication optimized for small batteries. Together, they will provide a home that, although well connected, can also operate entirely within a home network and switch between controlled ecosystems with ease. I knew this technology wouldn't appear right away, but I thought it was the right time to start looking to the future, to leave the old standards behind and delve into something new.

Instead, the material and filament are a big mess, and I'm writing now to tell you that I was wrong, or at least ignorant, when I ignored the good things that actually exist: Zigbee and Z-Wave. I've spent my time with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and various combinations of the two. They are useful for data-rich devices and for things that can remain plugged in. Zigbee and Z-Wave have been around, but they've always looked stuffy, fuzzy, and vaguely European at a glance. But here, in 2024, I now admire both, and believe they still have a place in our homes.

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Hue Bulbs hit me with a Trojan horse, and I'm grateful

Two brands did a smart job of merging ZigBee In their own technology without making a huge amount of it: Philips Hue and Ikea. Hue lights were, for me and many others, a first step towards home automation. At the time, in 2018, looking at the receipts, I knew Hue bulbs worked on their own kind of ad hoc network, but I didn't know exactly how. All I know is that over time, Hue bulbs have proven to be the most reliable devices anywhere I've set them up.

If the Hue Bridge has power and Ethernet, and the LEDs are a house-like distance from each other, it works. It didn't, like the Nest camera above a former garage, lose signal midway through the update and require a 6-foot ladder and multiple support phone calls to reset. They did not, like the two Tuya devices I purchased, require registration as a Canadian IoT developer to get local control (long story). I've never tried to turn on a Hue bulb, if it malfunctions, and then I start wondering if it's my router, an Amazon Web Services outage, or just a lousy little antenna inside the thing.

Yes, Hue stuff isn't cheap, and the Hue app would occasionally send me an alert about new features and holiday sales, but I could turn off notifications. There was never an important notification because nothing ever went wrong. And while I didn't know it at the time, there was always the option to reset the bulbs and turn them on straight Zigbee, even if some of the finer details were lost, like fade schemes and multiple bulbs.

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When I had the opportunity to review the Homey Pro, I had to research and work more directly with Zigbee and its more obscure cousin (at least in the US), Z-Wave. The Homey team sent me some devices to test out their hub, including a motion sensor and a magnetic door or window sensor. I procrastinated a bit on setting it up, vaguely nervous about everything I'd read about hubs, mentoring, and “self-healing” networks.