When you see the Wi-Fi label on a box in the electronics section of your local big box store, you know what it means. We’ve had years to watch wireless internet spread to college campuses, libraries, airports, and every corner of our homes.
But some devices have a different label: Z-Wave. What’s that all about?
The two have something in common. Wi-Fi and Z-Wave are both wireless networks, and they both enable your devices to communicate with one another. They just happen to do so in different ways. So which should you use, and where? Let’s break this down.
What Is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology introduced in 1998. It creates a local area network without the need for cables. When you hear the phrase wireless internet, most often it’s in reference to a Wi-Fi network created by a router. The actual internet connection, however, doesn’t come from Wi-Fi or the router, but from a modem. A modem either relies on a physical connection, such as a fiber optic cable or telephone line, or a wireless connection to a cellular tower.
When you connect your device to a Wi-Fi network, you’re connecting it to a router, which connects to a modem, which connects to the vast network of cables, servers, and buildings we think of as the internet. Laptops, phones, tablets, smart TVs, video consoles, and other gadgets connected to the same Wi-Fi network can “see” one another. This allows people using separate computers in the same room to exchange files or play a multiplayer game.
Wi-Fi Aware is a more recent development that enables devices to automatically discover and communicate with one another based on proximity. The innovation here isn’t that devices know they’re on the same network, but their ability to sense that they’re physically close together. Devices can work as publishers, subscribers, or both. All connections happen internally over Wi-Fi, with no cellular data or internet bandwidth required.
Possible uses for Wi-Fi Aware include alerting someone that they just passed by a friend on a crowded city street or signalling to passersby that a store in the mall is having a sale. Wi-Fi Aware can also help encourage the creation of Internet of Things products that all constantly communicate with one another.
What Is Z-Wave?
Z-Wave came from a company called Zensys in 2001. Seven years later, the proprietary technology was acquired by its current owner, Sigma Designs.
Z-Wave is a mesh system that connects devices using low-energy radio waves. A mesh network is decentralized. With the internet, your connection goes down if your modem fails, your ISP suffers an outage, or something happens to the submarine cables that can manage most of a country’s traffic.
In a mesh network, devices communicate directly to one another without a middleman. If the two gadgets (e.g. phones) are out of range of each other, they may utilize a third phone between the two of them without the third phone properly receiving or having access to what’s being communicated.
The more devices, the stronger the network. If there are a hundred phones in one building, there are many more possible routes for a message to travel than if there were only five. As long as there are enough devices within range of each other, the system stays online. This is the idea behind systems like Z-Wave.
Automatic lights, garage door openers, security systems, and other smart gadgets have long made use of Z-Wave. While it may not be a household name, there are 600 companies taking part as members of the Z-Wave Alliance, with over 2,000 certified products. Many of them can be controlled remotely or via a hub.
Which Is Better?
As usual, the answer to that question is it depends. Let’s take a look at a few key areas.
Wi-Fi is centralized, depending on the presence of a router to provide a network. Wi-Fi Aware doesn’t need a router, but it’s only for connecting one device to another at a time, and it only works within a limited range. As a mesh system, Z-Wave is a more resilient option, which is why it’s commonplace in security systems.
The more Z-Wave compatible devices you have, the better off all of them are (though a Z-Wave network maxes out at 232 nodes). This is the opposite of Wi-Fi, where your connection gets slower when more devices are connected.
Wi-Fi can be a huge battery drain. Connecting to a network is energy consuming on both laptops and smartphones. The non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance’s president has claimed that Wi-Fi Aware is more power efficient than traditional Wi-Fi, but it will still use more energy than a device without Wi-Fi Aware. Many people are hesitant to wear a watch, fitness band, or any other wearable that they have to charge frequently. Even those who are willing to charge one device may not be able to keep up with charging two or three. Z-Wave requires little power, partly because the protocol only supports data transmission rates up to 100 Kbps.
The importance of battery life is less relevant around the home, where many gadgets plug directly into a power source.
Security and Privacy
Wi-Fi is vulnerable to a wide range of security exploits and attacks. As a closed system, Sigma Designs is able to provide some extra layers of protection. Every Z-Wave network and its products have unique IDs for communicating with your hub, in addition to the AES-128 encryption.
This is worth repeating: Z-Wave is proprietary technology. Sigma Designs could decide to stop investing in the protocol and take it off the market, leaving customers with outdated and supported products. Though with hundreds of companies and thousands of products depending on Z-Wave, this doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Nonetheless, Z-Wave has the potential to disappear in a way that an open standard like Wi-Fi doesn’t.
Carrying around devices that constantly broadcast their location also isn’t a particularly good way to stay private. Companies already use the Wi-Fi connectivity in our phones to track where we are. Here Z-Wave has the advantage of not being integrated into nearly as many devices.
It’s Not Necessarily Either-Or
Many devices that can connect to Z-Wave also connect to Wi-Fi. This is how they connect to the internet so that you can control them remotely with a phone. Wi-Fi and Z-Wave can be used to solve the same problem, but more often, they go after different ones.
Z-Wave’s primary competitor isn’t necessarily Wi-Fi, it’s Zigbee. Like Z-Wave, Zigbee is a mesh system, but it’s an open standard, meaning you can use Zigbee without fear of it disappearing from the market.
Wi-Fi has the advantage of being more ubiquitous. There’s a good chance you’re reading this on a Wi-Fi enabled device. That makes connecting all the things via Wi-Fi pretty enticing, even if that’s not the situation the technology was originally meant to address.
Which technology would you trust to manage your smart products? Which do you hope to see attract more device manufacturers? Do you even like the idea of an Internet of Things? You’re welcome to share your thoughts with others in the comments below!