Get Smart About Smart Home Technology

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Smart home technology can be confusing. We’re here to help!

Not so long ago, remotely controlling your home’s lights and other devices was strictly for electronics geeks and hobbyists. But the smart home has now entered the mainstream and there’s a boom in smart home devices as homeowners embrace the convenience of controlling lights, music, door locks, security cameras and more from a smartphone. 

But anyone who dives into the world of smart home technology quickly learns that it can get confusing fast! In short order you learn that there are competing technologies that allow smart devices to communicate with each other and once committed to one you’ll want to stick with it to be sure everything runs smoothly. But which to choose? To help sort it out, here’s an overview of the three main smart home technologies that allow you to control your home with nothing more than a tap on your phone. 

Z-Wave and Zigbee
We’ve grouped these two technologies together because they’re very similar, with some technical differences that won’t matter to the average homeowner. What’s more, the two are the most widely used wireless standards in smart homes today. Most important to know is that both of these technologies require the use of a smart home hub or controller. The hub is the brains of your smart home system, helping smart devices connect with each other, sending commands that make them work together, and providing the app that puts control of all your devices in a single place. 

Why do you want your smart devices to “talk” to each other? That’s what allows you to create “scenes” – grouping multiple devices and operations into a single command. For example, a “good night” scene might lock the doors, turn off the lights and turn down the thermostat. 

Many hubs support both Z-Wave and Zigbee, including Samsung SmartThings, Lowe’s Iris, and Wink. But others support only one or the other. And while both Z-Wave and Zigbee offer impressive interoperability (virtually all Z-Wave devices will work with other Z-Wave devices, and the same for Zigbee devices), some hub makers limit support to “approved” devices. So it’s always best to visit a hub maker’s website to check the list of supported products. 

So, if they’re so similar, is there any reason to choose one over the other? Yes, there are several! If you already own a device that you’d like to connect to a smart home system, check which technology it uses and that’s the one for you. For example, Honeywell, ADT, LG and Verizon use Z-Wave, while Comcast and Time Warner Cable use Zigbee in set top boxes. And, Amazon Echo Plus has a built-in Zigbee smart home hub, so if you bought one, Zigbee is your platform! 

As for other differences between the two, it used to be that Z-Wave devices offered better interoperability – any Z-Wave product will work with any other Z-Wave product – past, present and future. Zigbee historically couldn’t make the same claim, but recent improvement make that less of an issue than in the past. 

What’s important to remember in the Z-Wave/Zigbee debate is once you go with one, you’ll want to make sure that each smart home device you buy supports that same technology. 

HomeKit
HomeKit is Apple’s framework for home automation. In deciding whether it’s for you, there’s one question to answer first – do you use an iPhone? If not, read no further –HomeKit is not your smart home platform. If, however, you do use an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch, you’ll want to explore HomeKit to see if it meets your needs. 

A big difference between HomeKit and Z-Wave or Zigbee is that no hub is required, so that's one less device you need to purchase. However, to control HomeKit-enabled devices remotely requires the addition of an Apple TV (4th generation or later) or an iPad with iOS 10.3 or later set up as a home hub. And while that’s an additional purchase, an Apple TV serves other purposes, including streaming video, so if you’re a fan of the Apple ecosystem, this could be the way to go. 

HomeKit works via your home’s Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth and allows you to control HomeKit-enabled devices via the Home app on an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch, and with Siri voice commands. Some Z-Wave and Zigbee hubs and devices offer voice control using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, but they require the addition of Amazon Echo or Google Home devices, except for the Amazon Echo Plus, which, as noted, has a built-in Zigbee hub. 

The downside to HomeKit is that there aren't nearly as many HomeKit-enabled products as there are products that work with Z-Wave or Zigbee. But there are products in virtually every product category, and Apple is quickly catching up thanks to new certification standards from Apple that makes it easier for companies to develop HomeKit-enabled products. 

Nest
Nest, of course, is a brand, not a smart home technology, but Nest products use a combination of two technologies – Thread and Weave – that stand apart from what many other devices use. And odds are that you’ll come across Nest and its products once you start exploring smart home products and systems. In fact, you’ve very likely heard about the Nest Learning Thermostat, which “learns” a household’s living patterns and programs itself. 

The combination of Thread and Weave give Nest products some impressive capabilities. For example, while a Z-Wave, Zigbee or HomeKit smart home system allows devices to connect to each other and work together in ways the homeowner instructs (our “scenes”), Nest products can take action on their own, with no input from the homeowner. For example, if the Nest Protect, the company’s smoke/carbon monoxide detector detects a carbon monoxide leak, it can tell the Nest Thermostat to turn off the furnace, since that could be the leak’s source. Of if Nest Protect detects smoke, it can tell the thermostat to turn off the fan to slow the spread of smoke to other rooms. 

Nest also offers a DIY home security system – Nest Secure – that includes some unique integrations. When connected to the Nest x Yale Lock, for example, unlocking the front door can automatically disarm Nest Secure so you don’t have to. 

If you already own a Nest Thermostat it makes sense to explore other Nest products and the growing array of Works With Nest devices from other brands as you look to create your smart home. If you’re starting from scratch, Nest is definitely worth a look given the many unique capabilities it offers. One downside – while many popular smart devices from other brands work with Nest, including Philips Hue smart light bulbs, those devices must be controlled using their own dedicated app. The only exception is the Nest x Yale Lock, which can be controlled via the Nest app, the same app that controls other Nest brand products. 

Voice Control
Unless you’ve been living the life of a hermit this past year, you’ve heard about Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, voice-activated personal digital assistants that let you play music, check news and traffic, and manage a rapidly growing array of smart devices. 

They work well and are hugely convenient, but they’re not the foundation of a complete smart home system since they (with one exception) don’t allow different smart home devices to communicate with each other, only with your Amazon Echo or Google Home device. That means you can’t set them to perform actions together – the “scenes” mentioned earlier. And many smart devices can’t be full or finely controlled by voice, so Alexa or Google Assistant on their own don’t provide the same experience as a full-fledged smart home system. But you can connect these devices to a smart home hub, and so add the convenience of voice control. The one exception to this is Amazon’s newest Echo, the Echo Plus, which has a built-in Zigbee hub, so it’s a smart home control center with the convenience of voice control, all in one product! 

We hope this helps you sort through the smart home options available and find the system that’s right for you. Have fun building your smart home!