Insteon, Z-Wave, Zigbee & Wi-Fi: What’s The Difference?

If you’re new to home automation, you might find some of this jargon confusing. Communication protocols can be particularly intimidating, but why is that?

Well, despite the seismic advances in technology that bathes us with convenience at home, there’s still no real unification with smart home devices.

With so many disparate devices speaking different languages, it can be perplexing, but we’re here to help.

We’ll walk you through the following four communication protocols today so you can see which makes the best fit in your connected home.

Spoiler: It’s NOT Wi-Fi!

Although there’s a vast array of protocols from Bluetooth, infrared and Ethernet to X10, Thread, and KNX, we’ll be doubling down on the big four.

  • Insteon
  • Z-Wave
  • Zigbee
  • WiFi

An Overview Of Insteon

Insteon was founded in 2005 and it’s both an ecosystem and a
networking topology.

Originally known as a dual-band network, this is now normally referred to as a dual-mesh network, but what does any of this even mean?

Well, you’ll get signals that send through the Insteon wireless network, but also through the wiring in your home.

The Insteon ecosystem makes it easy to network devices using
either the radio or powerline. You’ll get signals sent much further than any
other technology can match.

Reliability is one of the primary benefits of Insteon, which has a layer of redundancy single-band communication protocols can’t live up to.

Core Features Of Insteon

  • Easy Installation: Communication with Insteon takes place over the existing power lines in your home and also through wireless signals. This means you won’t need to worry about ripping out the wiring in your home or calling in an electrician. With Insteon smart tech, you can get going right out of the box. Each device has a unique ID. All you need to do is power it up and it will automatically join the network.    
  • Dual-Mesh Network: While today’s connected homes are decreasingly reliant on wired connections, Insteon’s dual mesh can be a nifty ally in larger homes or anywhere you suffer from interference in the building. With multiple pathways available for messaging, you’ll get greater dependability when you use Insteon. Also, the more devices you add to your network, the more robust it becomes.
  • Devices Perform as Peers: All mains powered Insteon tech are peers. A device can act as a repeater, a controller or a receiver. By performing multiple functions, the signal can be routed around the network optimally. Battery-powered devices don’t have this functionality in order to preserve battery life
  • Rapid Response: With messages arriving in just 0.05 seconds, there’s no discernible delay in transmission with Insteon.
  • Rock-Solid Security: Messages are encrypted and all devices come with a unique ID preventing any outside interference at all.

Key Benefits Of Insteon

  • All devices are both backward-compatible and forward-compatible.
  • With a dual-mesh network, Insteon boasts inbuilt redundancy not offered by alternative communication protocols.
  • Insteon has been around for almost two decades, but compatibility is outstanding.
  • The choice of control is superb. You can take physical control of devices or use a controller. The vast bulk of users take the helm in-app on a smartphone or using voice commands.
  • The efficiency of devices functioning as repeaters means you can send messages with complete reliability to the far corners of even the largest home.

Overview Of Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a wireless single mesh network that is used almost exclusively for the purposes of home automation.

This communication protocol uses the frequency band 800-900 MHz.

A Z-Wave network can theoretically support 232 devices, but a practical limit kicks in with somewhere around 40 or 50 devices.

Messages hop between devices and up to four hops are allowed. This gives you a great deal of reach.

Z-Wave has been around since the late 90s and was founded by Zensys. The debut chipset launched in 2003 and succeeding generations brought about small tweaks in performance.

The Z-Wave Alliance was created in 2005.

Z-Wave Plus, the most recent iteration, has been an
established success since 2013.

With Z-Wave devices, you’ll need a smart home hub. Low-energy radio waves are used for the purposes of control.

Core Features Of Z-Wave

  • Single-Mesh Network: Z-Wave transits signals using wireless signals. The mesh network it forms ensures that signals are efficiently routed. Although you don’t get the backup of powerline transmission, Z-Wave still makes a reliable and robust communication protocol for home automation.
  • Security: AES 128 is a must for manufacturers seeking Z-Wave certification. With this level of security in place, you’re as safe as you could be.
  • Routing: Thanks to clearly set out routing tables, Z-Wave devices route messages optimally. Mains-powered devices perform as repeaters just like with Insteon.
  • Low-Power Radio: Z-Wave technology uses low-power radios much like WiFi. The range is roughly comparable at 300 feet. Unlike WiFi, data transmission is slow with small packets sent between devices.
  • Mesh Architecture: With a Z-Wave network, multiple devices can link together via a central home hub. With this simple mesh architecture in place, you can take charge of using your phone, a controller, wall controls or voice commands.

Key Benefits Of Z-Wave

  • You’ll get almost no flat spots with a Z-Wave network
  • Since the 800-900 MHz band used by Z-Wave is not congested like the 2.4GHz frequency WiFi and many other smart devices use, you’ll get almost no interference either
  • All Z-Wave devices work with all controllers
  • Interoperability is first-rate with a choice of over 2,000 devices from the 600-strong Z-Wave Alliance
  • With up to 232 devices feasible, Z-Wave makes a great choice for larger connected homes
  • Z-Wave signals can travel up to 50 feet indoors with obstructions and up to 100 feet with nothing impeding them

Overview Of Zigbee

Zigbee is another communication protocol that serves as a mesh network.

In its simplest sense, this means each Zigbee device has no need to connect to your WiFi network since they communicate through a central hub.

Signals move (or hop) from one device to the next efficiently. A device can communicate with another at ranges to 65 feet. There’s no limit to the number of hops allowed so Zigbee makes a smart solution for larger connected homes.

Zigbee uses the IEEE’s 802.15.5 standard. This allows for the creation of PANs (personal area networks) with digital radios and has been harnessed wonderfully by Zigbee for home automation

Zigbee operates on the following frequencies:

  • 2.4GHz
  • 90MHz
  • 868MHz

Transmission rate is underwhelming at 250kbps, but it serves the purpose within the context of home automation.

Core Features Of Zigbee

  • Single-Mesh Network: Each device in a Zigbee network acts as a repeater. This allows the signal to be passed from device to device and slashes the need for communication with the hub. You’ll enjoy unlimited hops between the devices in your ecosystem. You can include 65,000 devices in a Zigbee network making it a class-leading communication protocol in that respect.
  • Security: Secured by 128-bit symmetric keys, Zigbee networks are highly secure. The encryption standard used is also used by banks and government agencies.
  • Low Power Requirements: Unlike WiFi or Bluetooth, Zigbee runs lean. This becomes increasingly important the more battery-powered smart devices you build into your ecosystem. Zigbee requires even less power than Z-Wave making it the strongest performer for smart door locks and other devices where an outage could be disastrous.
  • Signal: Do you have an office outside in the garden of your smart home? Maybe you have a garage or outbuilding where you need a signal. You’ll get an indoor signal range of perhaps 40 feet from Zigbee radio. This can be dramatically impacted by walls, ceilings, and other commonplace household obstructions. In the worst scenario, the range can be reduced to a paltry 10 feet.
  • Reliability: You can expect a dependable signal with Zigbee devices and the mesh network they form.

Zigbee: Key Benefits

  • You get a strong and solid network with Zigbee, even if the range is slightly limited
  • Include 65,000 Zigbee devices into your ecosystem
  • Over 2,500 devices come to Zigbee-ready, but you should look out for the Zigbee Home Automation Certificate which indicates both software and hardware come Zigbee-certified
  • Of all communication protocols, Zigbee is perhaps the most economical of all in terms of power consumption
  • Highly secure and encrypted for your peace of mind

Overview Of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi gives you Internet access as part of a LAN (local area network).

Unlike the mesh networks of Insteon, Z-Wave, and Zigbee, Wi-Fi is a star network.

With a star
network, all devices connect to a central hub, normally a router.

Wi-Fi is remarkably effective for the purposes of web access, but how does it perform when it comes to home automation?

Well, unfortunately, this is where things don’t work out well for Wi-Fi.

So, rather than outlining the key benefits of WiFi for the IoT, instead we’ll round out with why Wi-Fi doesn’t make sense as a home automation protocol.

Although the high bandwidth of Wi-Fi makes it a great tool if you’re looking to undertake any particularly heavy lifting, this is achieved at the expense of power consumption. Since you get no more than about ten hours of battery life from a Wi-Fi device, that renders the communication protocol significantly less than ideal for security-sensitive tech.

Interference also blights Wi-Fi. Since it uses the same 2.4GHz frequency that’s used by so many devices, you can expect disappointing performance at times due to congestion. This can result in poor response times, drained batteries and lowered throughput.

Our Verdict On Communication Protocols

So, we’ve tried to display these communication protocols in such a way that you can easily see at a glance which would work best for your needs.

As long as you’re committed to going all-in on the
ecosystem, Insteon is a standalone leader in terms of network reliability and overall
performance.

If you prefer to mix-and-match your devices, either Z-Wave
or Zigbee make solid choices. Think closely about your requirements and any
existing devices and you’re in safe hands with either protocol.

For all but limited and very basic IoT application, Wi-Fi is best left for your Internet access rather than home automation.

Final Word

Well, you should have a solid overview now of all the main
communication protocols with a clear understanding of where each stands and
falls.

By properly planning a new automated home, you can eliminate
the issue of tech that doesn’t play nicely together.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing a smart home protocol and ecosystem, it is simply a case of what’s right for you.

Bookmark our blog and come back soon for more of the latest smart home news. We update our content daily through the week, so we always have plenty lined up for you.

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Reference: Smart Home