A Beginners Guide To The Smart Home

Zigbee versus Zwave Versus Wif Versus RF versus Infrared (IR)
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to which protocol to go for.  Zigbee, Zwave, Wifi or RF.  It really depends on what you consider to be most important, and inevitably you’ll find yourself buying more than one hub to fill a gap left by the other:  

‘Protocols’ are all just wireless communication methods to allow two or more devices to talk to each other.  It’s kind of like how you can tune a radio to different frequencies to listen to different radio stations, and just like a radio has AM and FM there are wireless protocols on different frequency bands.  The main protocols are as follows:


1. Wifi: This protocol is the same one that your mobile phone uses to talk to your router.  It’s great for home automation as devices can communicate with each other fully e.g. a switch can turn a bulb on, and the bulb can tell the switch it was successful, you could query the bulb to ask what brightness level it is at, or ask your Wifi camera if it is recording.


Advantages: No hub required as your router does all the work, easiest solution to implement, and is a good all rounder for cheapness and reliability


Disadvantages: Too many devices will eventually cause a standard Wifi router to struggle to cope with the amount of traffic and you may need to upgrade your router if you buy A LOT of devices.  Because there’s no hub it is reliant on a working Internet connection and a server on the Internet (usually in China) to operate.  People worry about their Internet going down, or the Chinese company going bust rendering all their Smart Home equipment useless.  Some people worry about privacy and security, but their concerns are largely theoretical and mostly unfounded.

Wifi devices don’t require a hub, but rely on a server on the Internet


2. RF:  Operates on 433Mhz or 315Mhz depending on what country you are in and communication is one way (The switch can turn the bulb off but the bulb isn’t intelligent enough to reply to say it was successful)  The Broadlink RM pro is probably the best hub in this category as it supports almost any RF device, whereas much of it’s competition will only control certain RF devices.

Advantages: RF devices tend to be one of the cheapest options because of the 1 way communication and it is fairly reliable as long as your devices aren’t too far away from the hub.  

Disadvantages:  1 way communication only; This can cause issues if you want  for example a touch screen panel that will tell you what is and isn’t turned on as there’s no way to ask the devices.  Similarly if you turn a light off in another room but the frequency didn’t reach then there is no way to know if it worked without going to the room to check.  Similar to Wifi most of these solutions (but not all) will rely on an Internet connection and a server in China; for example Broadlink requires a server in China, but LightwaveRF works locally without an Internet connection.  That said the Broadlink RM Pro can be controlled without an Internet connection if you have a permanently powered Android device to act as a bridge.

The Broadlink RM pro is still the king of RF control


3. Zigbee: Is just like RF but on a different frequency band but has the advantage that just like Wifi the communication is 2 way, so the bulbs and other devices can reply to say “I’m on” or “I’m off”, or even “I am at 50% brightness”.  Ikea is a really good option for Zigbee because it’s insanely cheap (at least as cheap as Zigbee gets), once you get past the poor setup process it’s a great product and easy to use.

Advantages: Reliable and works without Internet, it is renowned as being secure and private and so it tends to be the protocol of choice for enthusiasts.  My personal opinion is that it’s great, but overrated.  

Disadvantages: It’s far more expensive to buy the bulbs and other devices than Wifi or RF, and it always requires a hub such as Philip’s Hue or Samsung Smartthings.  Probably it’s worst failing in my opinion though is that you have to move the devices very close to the hub to pair them which can be a pain if the hub is in the living room and you’re trying to pair a curtain rail in the bedroom. I once had to put my Philips Hue hub on an extension reel, and a VERY long Ethernet cable and dangle it out of my upstairs window in order to pair it with my outside LED strip!!

Zigbee is a growing market and focuses on Privacy and security, but comes at a price

4. Z-Wave: Basically identical to Zigbee; they are rivals similar to Betamax and VHS.  There are less Zwave hubs around compared to Zigbee so the choices are more limited, but smartthings does both Zigbee and Zwave which makes it a really good choice if you’re thinking of going down the enthusiast route.  There are also more complicated enthusiast products that do both in the form of Hubitat’s elevation product and Athom’s Homey product.

Advantages: Same as Zigbee

Disadvantages: Same as Zigbee

Hubitat and Homey aim to control both Zwave and Zigbee protocols under one roof


5. Infrared: This is the protocol your old school TV remote uses to talk to your TV. 

Advantages: Very cheap and has been used in most TV’s and set top boxes for years.  Having an Infrared sending device in your home automation setup allows you to control TV’s and Set top boxes, and old LED strips.  The Broadlink RM pro will actually give you BOTH Infrared and RF control, so well worth considering even if you chose Zigbee as your main hub.

Disadvantages: It is only ‘one way’ the same as RF is and relies on line of sight (if you cover your TV’s infrared receiver your remote can no longer control the TV)  Infrared smart home devices are the same and are therefore the very cheapest option.

Broadlink’s Blackbean and RM pro can both control Infrared devices such as your TV and Set top boxes and for very little money!

Which Smart Home Hub should I get?:
Most devices and hubs come with an antenna capable of only 1 or 2 of the above lines of communication, though device manufacturers are starting to capitalise on this gap in the market by producing hubs with both Zigbee and Zwave antennas in them, and some really expensive hubs are finally being released that contain 3 or 4 different antennas to control almost any product.  Homey is one such product that does Zigbee, Zwave, RF, and Infrared to varying degrees of success.

The problem with buying from different suppliers:
The problem is if you buy a few wifi devices, a zigbee hub and a Broadlink RM pro to control RF then you will have 3 separate apps to control it all.  Smartthings does a very good job of controlling a lot of 3rd party equipment via their app so some of that can be worked around, but sadly not Tuya Wifi (The most popular Wifi Smart Home device manufacturer), and I think it’s also really awkward to get Broadlink to work via Smartthings app too.

  
IFTTT will help with both Broadlink and Tuya as all three companies have IFTTT support which will tie them together over the Internet.  IFTTT is a 3rd party company that allows manufacturers to connect their products to it to allow different suppliers products to talk to one another.  It is an awesome way to plug gaps in your smart home, but does of course rely on the Internet connection to work.  Ultimately there’s no perfect solution, but I did come up with one idea to get all smart home solutions on one touch screen and that is this

Conclusion
It is inevitable that you will buy from more than one company, because there isn’t one company that will solve all of your problems.  As nice as it is to have everything in one place it also means you have all your eggs in one basket.  I personally have Zigbee solutions, Wifi solutions, RF solutions and more than one Infrared controller and all from various companies.  They’re tied together for Voice by Alexa and Google Home, and for a touch panel I recommend either the above linked method, or a Homey hub for beginners or a Hubitat for more seasoned automaters.


If you want to have lights come on when doors are opened or motion is detected, or have your fish tank regulate itself then Smartthings, Homey and Hubitat will all listen to a number of Zigbee sensors and act accordingly.  If you’re looking for a cheaper less complex way to achieve things then Tuya based Wifi devices and sensors are the way forwards, you just have to remember they are reliant on a constant Internet connection and a server in China.

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