Connecting smart lights via WIFI, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave, which is best?

It can be difficult knowing which wireless option to choose when buying smart lights, we go through them all.
Rob Green

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5 February, 2021
What to choose for smart lights

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You’re interested in smart lights but just a little unsure what this Zigbee is, why something is Z-Wave compatible and how a light can connect via bluetooth or wifi.

We’re going to be breaking down the main ways you can connect your smart lights, so you can make sure you’re buying the right lights. Let’s start with a popular connection you’ve probably heard of.

Bluetooth connected smart lights

When Bluetooth was created, smart lights didn’t even exist, so why did smart lighting companies start to adopt Bluetooth as a way to connect?

While Bluetooth has a few limitations like its short range, almost every modern laptop and more importantly phone, has Bluetooth built-in. So you can easily connect and control any Bluetooth enabled lights with your phone. That’s not to say lights that connect via Bluetooth are the best choice.

Benefits of Bluetooth connected lights

Bluetooth is a relatively stable wireless option, and it generally just “works”. For most people who only want to control their lights via a phone, or through a voice assistant like Alexa and Google Assistant – they can be a great option. Let’s sum up the benefits.

  1. Easy to connect to via app on your phone
  2. Will connect to most Google and Amazon smart speakers (if they have Bluetooth built-in) for voice control
  3. No additional hardware needed to work (like a hub)
  4. Setup of lights is pretty straight forward

Drawbacks of Bluetooth connected lights

Smart lights that connect through Bluetooth can’t take advantage of the more preferred wireless technologies like Zigbee or even WIFI. You’ll be giving up a lot of automation options, which really makes a home feel smart. In no order there are their drawbacks.

  1. No access to some really useful automations
  2. Short range, you’ll need to be close to the lights in order to control them
  3. Can’t control your lights while away from home
  4. Homekit (Siri) support isn’t available

Bluetooth Summary

If automation isn’t something you’re really into, you’d just like to control your lights through your voice or phone, with the added benefit of being able to dim or change the light colour – Bluetooth can be a good option.

Bluetooth isn’t a bad option – it just doesn’t have as many benefits as the next few options we’ll be talking about.

WIFI connected smart lights

Generally speaking, WIFI connected smart lights are an ok option for some people – namely anyone who isn’t looking to kit out their whole home.

The fact they connect straight to a WIFI router, which I’m willing to bet most people reading this article have, making them easy to set up and use.

Benefits of WIFI connected lights

Most people will be able to quite easily set up and control their lights without having to purchase additional hardware, making WIFI lights hard to beat, they also.

  • Easy to set up through a phone
  • No additional hardware required
  • Control lights remotely
  • Access to more advance automations

Drawbacks of WIFI connected lights

One of the major drawbacks, which makes them a non-starter for anyone looking to kit out their home is the interference. 

Introducing a bunch of WIFI connected devices into your home can not only cause interference issues with your phone and laptop – your router most likely won’t be able to handle all the devices.

  • Interference issues with your other WIFI devices like phone and laptop
  • Usually needs to connect to the “cloud” (internet) to be controlled
  • If your router goes down, you won’t be able to control them
  • WIFI is overkill for something that sends and receives so little data
  • Need WIFI extender to connect them if you have a large home

WIFI Summary

When looking more into it, WIFI just isn’t the best option for many people, even though so many brands are creating WIFI only smart lights.

Potential interference issues alone should make anyone thinking about going for WIFI connected lights to think twice.

For a lamp here and there, or if you have a small flat (maybe), WIFI bulbs can be a more cost effective alternative. While Zigbee connected lights are still our top choice, for small small uses like above, WIFI lights can work well.

Zigbee connected smart lights

A newer technology compared to WIFI and Bluetooth, Zigbee was created to be a low powered wireless option, which makes it the perfect for smart home devices.

It has a lot of upsides and few downsides, though it does require you to purchase additional hardware (Zigbee enabled hub).

Also seen as a direct competitor to Z-Wave (for good reason), you’ll find a lot of companies are creating Zigbee enabled devices.

Benefits of Zigbee connected lights

Mostly everything about Zigbee is positive when we talk about using it for smart lights, it’s low powered and allows you to control lights even when there’s no internet. 

With the added benefit of creating its own “mesh” network – fancy way to say the lights talk to each other. So you don’t need to buy multiple Zigbee hub extenders around the home (unlike WIFI)/

  • Low power consumption
  • Take advantage of more advanced automations
  • Mesh network, lights talk to each other, so they stay connected
  • Control devices even with no internet
  • Strong and robust wireless security
  • Remotely activate your lights while away from home (needs internet)
  • Connect hundreds of Zigbee devices
  • Access to lots of low-powered accessories like motion sensors, so you only need to change the battery yearly, not monthly

Drawbacks of Zigbee connected lights

While nothing is perfect, Zigbee does require you to purchase additional hardware before you can use your Zigbee lights. Most the drawbacks around Zigbee don’t directly affect smart lights, for example it has low data transfer – which honestly isn’t even an issue for a smart light.

  • Zigbee hubs tend to have a limit number of devices that can connect (still more than typical WIFI routers), requiring more hubs to be purchased for large smart home installations 
  • Requires internet if you want to control lights while away from home
  • If you don’t have multiple Zigbee devices around the home, you could run into an issue with lights being “out of range” if too far from the hub / other Zigbee device

Zigbee Summary

Without sounding bias, Zigbee is the option we recommend to most people who are semi-serious about smart homes.

Amazon (and possibly soon Google) have incorporated Zigbee into their smart speakers. Leaders in the smart light space, like Philips Hue, opt to only support Zigbee and Bluetooth for their lights – as the benefits can’t be overstated.

Z-Wave connected smart lights

An alternative to Zigbee, Z-Wave connect lights have many of the same benefits such as being low powered . (Z-Wave Plus)

Z-Wave Plus was also introduced as a major upgrade, providing better range and extended battery life for devices, which all new devices now include by default.

Benefits of Z-Wave connected lights

Similar to Zigbee, lots of the same benefits transfer over – resulting in a better option than say WIFI and Bluetooth for a lot of people. Here’s some of the top reasons to go with Z-Wave.

  • Won’t interfere with WIFI devices at all
  • All Z-Wave devices will link together forming a wireless mesh
  • Strong wireless security
  • Devices are low powered
  • Setup advanced automations with hubs
  • Control devices even when the internet drops out
  • Secure wireless protocol
  • Connect low-powered accessories like motion sensors

Drawbacks of Z-Wave connected lights

Similar to Zigbee you’ll need a hub to connect all your Z-Wave devices together and ultimately “control them”. This is certainly an added cost, but one that isn’t too expensive when weighed up against the cost of other smart home products.

  • Requires a Z-Wave enabled hub
  • Slow data transfer speeds
  • Hasn’t been adopted by larger companies, like Philips Hue

Z-Wave Summary

A strong alternative to Zigbee that has similar advantages, which puts it ahead of both WIFI and Bluetooth connected lights. While Z-Wave supports more devices than Zigbee, it still appears mainstream brands are choosing to adopt Zigbee as their preferred choice.

Other connection options

Aside from bespoke and brand specific protocols, like the Lutron integration protocol there’s really only the above 4 main wireless options – that you need to know about.

That said be on the lookout for the new “Connected Home over IP” also called Project CHIP wireless option.

With an ambitious aim to create a better connected smart home experience, one where all your devices connect together in a simple plug-and-play manner. It’s shaping up to be the new gold standard for smart homes, with a lot of big players having input into its development.

Some of the companies that are helping shape Project CHIP

Verdict: Which is best?

Anyone looking for a recommendation on which option to choose will find Zigbee has an edge over Z-Wave, WIFI and Bluetooth. 

That’s not to say you can’t install different smart lights with different connectivity options in your home, but you’ll run into problems like getting them to work together. 

This is where some smart home hubs and software like IFTTT can help – to make everything “play nicely”, but we’d highly recommend sticking with one brand where possible. 

Zigbee has been adopted by the leading smart lighting brand, Philips Hue. You can even purchase an Amazon Echo Plus, which incorporates a Zigbee hub directly into it, in order to control other Zigbee devices without the need for a separate hub.

Once you have a Zigbee enabled Hub, like Samsung SmartThings you’ll be able to add most other mainstream Zigbee devices, not just lights.

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