What is Zigbee and What Can It Do?

Introduction

In This Guide
You'll Learn:
  • What Zigbee Is
Zigbee

1 What is Zigbee

What is Zigbee?

Zigbee is a communications protocol, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It's designed to create a personal network of small, simple devices. This makes it ideal for home automation devices.

Zigbee isn't a 'product' in the traditional sense; you can't "buy a Zigbee". Rather, you'd purchase a device that uses Zigbee to communicate.

Zigbee is very low-power, and the radios are designed to be inexpensive to produce, which has caused companies to add Zigbee to a huge range of products, to allow them to become easily computer controlled.

On top of that, it allows for what's known as a "mesh network". Each device will relay the control signals they receive, even if it's not for them if they're on the same network. So, while each device has a maximum range of about 30 feet, the signal can be carried along, like a bucket brigade from one device to another in 30-foot hops, to reach quite a long way.

The downside to the Zigbee protocol is the data rate is extremely low by today's standards. Usually no more than 250 kbit/s, and often much less. This is much, much too slow to 'surf the web' over, but because the commands being sent to Zigbee devices are simple and small, it does not affect them. Remember, Zigbee is designed so simple devices can take short commands and respond with simple status messages to another computer, not for humans to view content.

Zigbee Network Information

Since Zigbee isn't the same as Wi-Fi, it requires its own special 'hub' or 'router'. This is usually a small box that plugs into your current home Wi-Fi router, and acts as a 'bridge' between the Zigbee network of lights and appliances, and your computers, smartphones, and tablets. This is the Zigbee Coordinator, and keeps track of all the security information, what devices are on the network, their status, etc., and relays that information in a simple, easy to use format to a program or app on your computer or smartphone.

There are also Zigbee Routers, but this name is a bit different than what most people are used to. In many cases, devices themselves are Zigbee Routers; both doing something, and relaying information for the rest of the mesh network. A Zigbee Router device needs a bit more power (to actively listen and relay information), so they don't tend to run on batteries.

Finally, there are Zigbee End Devices. These tend to be extremely low power; items such as switches and sensors. They will send commands, sometimes even receive commands, but can't relay information. It allows you a convenient way to interact with your Zigbee devices, even if they can't do much else. In many cases, a battery in a Zigbee End Device will last months, if not years, or may not even need a battery at all.

Examples

Smart Lighting

The most common place you'll encounter Zigbee right now is smart home lighting. Philips Hue and Ikea TRÅDFRI lines of products are two such examples, both use the Zigbee protocol to talk to the lights and sensors.

Smart Outlets

Another common use is in controlling small appliances plugged into outlets with small outlet adapters. Samsung's SmartThings and, again, Ikea TRÅDFRI offer smart plugs based on Zigbee.

Smart Locks

Yale and ADT have both started offering locks that use Zigbee to communicate.

Monolithic vs. Open

One thing to consider is that, in many cases, while a product may use Zigbee, that does not mean it is 'open' to being mixed and matched with other, similar products.

An example is Philips Hue lights. In some cases, the various bulbs and lamps will work fine with other Zigbee controllers, but there are sometimes limitations and problems. Also, it can be difficult to connect a non-Hue light to a Hue hub sometimes. Another example is door locks; given the secure nature of these products, some companies tend to 'lock down' how their locks work; meaning they will have their own special dedicated hub.

Hue is an example of a 'monolithic' architecture; meaning that the concept and design behind it is everything it deals with is made by Philips under the Hue brand, rather than offering easy intercompatibility with products from other companies.

This isn't a problem if you intend to stick with a certain brand, but if you choose to expand into multiple different aspects, outside of the 'focus' of a brand, getting some of these products to work well with a more generic hub so you can simplify later can be challenging, with little help or information being offered outside of discussion forums online.

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In This Guide
You'll Learn:
  • What Zigbee Is
Zigbee

What is Zigbee?

Zigbee is a communications protocol, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It's designed to create a personal network of small, simple devices. This makes it ideal for home automation devices.

Zigbee isn't a 'product' in the traditional sense; you can't "buy a Zigbee". Rather, you'd purchase a device that uses Zigbee to communicate.

Zigbee is very low-power, and the radios are designed to be inexpensive to produce, which has caused companies to add Zigbee to a huge range of products, to allow them to become easily computer controlled.

On top of that, it allows for what's known as a "mesh network". Each device will relay the control signals they receive, even if it's not for them if they're on the same network. So, while each device has a maximum range of about 30 feet, the signal can be carried along, like a bucket brigade from one device to another in 30-foot hops, to reach quite a long way.

The downside to the Zigbee protocol is the data rate is extremely low by today's standards. Usually no more than 250 kbit/s, and often much less. This is much, much too slow to 'surf the web' over, but because the commands being sent to Zigbee devices are simple and small, it does not affect them. Remember, Zigbee is designed so simple devices can take short commands and respond with simple status messages to another computer, not for humans to view content.

Zigbee Network Information

Since Zigbee isn't the same as Wi-Fi, it requires its own special 'hub' or 'router'. This is usually a small box that plugs into your current home Wi-Fi router, and acts as a 'bridge' between the Zigbee network of lights and appliances, and your computers, smartphones, and tablets. This is the Zigbee Coordinator, and keeps track of all the security information, what devices are on the network, their status, etc., and relays that information in a simple, easy to use format to a program or app on your computer or smartphone.

There are also Zigbee Routers, but this name is a bit different than what most people are used to. In many cases, devices themselves are Zigbee Routers; both doing something, and relaying information for the rest of the mesh network. A Zigbee Router device needs a bit more power (to actively listen and relay information), so they don't tend to run on batteries.

Finally, there are Zigbee End Devices. These tend to be extremely low power; items such as switches and sensors. They will send commands, sometimes even receive commands, but can't relay information. It allows you a convenient way to interact with your Zigbee devices, even if they can't do much else. In many cases, a battery in a Zigbee End Device will last months, if not years, or may not even need a battery at all.

Examples

Smart Lighting

The most common place you'll encounter Zigbee right now is smart home lighting. Philips Hue and Ikea TRÅDFRI lines of products are two such examples, both use the Zigbee protocol to talk to the lights and sensors.

Smart Outlets

Another common use is in controlling small appliances plugged into outlets with small outlet adapters. Samsung's SmartThings and, again, Ikea TRÅDFRI offer smart plugs based on Zigbee.

Smart Locks

Yale and ADT have both started offering locks that use Zigbee to communicate.

Monolithic vs. Open

One thing to consider is that, in many cases, while a product may use Zigbee, that does not mean it is 'open' to being mixed and matched with other, similar products.

An example is Philips Hue lights. In some cases, the various bulbs and lamps will work fine with other Zigbee controllers, but there are sometimes limitations and problems. Also, it can be difficult to connect a non-Hue light to a Hue hub sometimes. Another example is door locks; given the secure nature of these products, some companies tend to 'lock down' how their locks work; meaning they will have their own special dedicated hub.

Hue is an example of a 'monolithic' architecture; meaning that the concept and design behind it is everything it deals with is made by Philips under the Hue brand, rather than offering easy intercompatibility with products from other companies.

This isn't a problem if you intend to stick with a certain brand, but if you choose to expand into multiple different aspects, outside of the 'focus' of a brand, getting some of these products to work well with a more generic hub so you can simplify later can be challenging, with little help or information being offered outside of discussion forums online.

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