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Smart Home Devices Are Embracing Wi-Fi, and That’s Great

A tablet on a desk, displaying a smart home interface.
Wright Studio/Shutterstock

At CES 2020, it was hard not to notice something about most of the smart home products on the floor: they were Wi-Fi-powered. That’s an exciting move, because generally, Wi-Fi-powered smart devices are more accessible for the beginner to set up, learn, and use. And more accessibility is good news for the longterm viability of smart home tech.

A Trend That Started at CES 2019

C by GE switches in a variety of form factors.
These new Wi-Fi smart switches don’t even require neutral wires. GE

Wi-Fi-powered smart devices aren’t new, and the trend towards them isn’t new either. I first noticed it at CES2019, but back then the motivation was clearly an easy path to Alexa and Google integration. Last year nearly every smart home gadget touted that it worked with the voice assistants, almost as if that was the only feature anyone had to offer. This year was different, though.

Instead of Alexa or Google integration being THE feature that made a device smart, more devices this year stood on their own. Companies announced new smart locks, smart light switches, smart garage openerslight bulbs, and more with Wi-Fi integration. And barring some exceptions, most of these barely mentioned voice assistants at all.

CES 2020 saw the continuation of another trend from CES 2019—few Z-Wave or ZigBee products and smart hubs. If you looked hard, you’d eventually find them, but that’s a distinct difference from smart home tech just a few years ago. And that’s OK because the truth is most smart homes don’t even need a hub.

Most Basic Smart Homes Don’t Need a Smart Hub

A Hubitat hub with a green house logo.
The Hubitat hub is advanced and capable, but perhaps overkill for the average user. Hubitat

Some advanced smart home users will take issue with my premise here, but honestly, most smart homes don’t need a hub. Not anymore, at least. While it’s true that smart homes need a “brain” to control all the gadgets, more and more we’re moving away from the hub as that brain.

Wi-Fi gadgets connect directly to the internet and then use an app as the controlling brain. Over time, smart home device makers have improved apps to include most of the features found on a smart hub. These days you can schedule, add voice control, and control, all through a single app. More and more companies, like Wyze, are offering whole ecosystems of smart products. So you can stick with a single manufacturer, but that isn’t necessary.

While smart hubs used to be the easiest way to bring devices from different manufacturers together, Alexa and Google Assistant serve that function now. You can buy smart devices from a host of different manufacturers, and use your voice assistant app to control them all.

That’s not the only advantage smart hubs are losing. Local processing smart hubs used to beat Wi-Fi connected devices in terms of sheer speed, but that’s changing. When we attended a demonstration with LIFX at CES, we saw the company’s lightbulbs respond quickly to commands even in less than ideal situations.

Wi-Fi Devices Are Easier to Set Up and Get Going

If smart homes are ever going to become commonplace and a mainstream product, they need to be easy to set up and use. While setting up a Z-Wave or ZigBee powered home isn’t difficult for a tech-savvy person used to playing with gadgets, it can be for the average person.

Think about it: you need to start by choosing a smart hub. Depending on the smart hub you choose, you could have access to ZigBee, Z-Wave, or proprietary protocol devices (like Insteon). With some hubs you’ll almost have to build them from scratch (like HomeSeer), while others use router-like interfaces (like Hubitat). And we haven’t even touched pairing devices yet.

Wi-Fi devices skip all that and go straight to device setup. Open the app, plug the gadget in, and then pair. It’s not much more complicated than pairing your Bluetooth devices with a phone or tablet. If you rely on voice controls, you may never need to open the device’s app again.

Wi-Fi Smart Home Gadgets Won’t Kill Your Network

I have dozens of Wi-Fi smart home devices connected to my network.

It’s a common fear that buying tons of Wi-Fi smart home gadgets will slow your network to a crawl. But, with an exception for streaming devices like security cameras, that won’t happen for one simple reason: most smart home gadgets aren’t constantly communicating.

Smart bulbs, switches, plugs, and other similar devices spend the majority of the time “at rest.” They’re waiting to receive a signal from you, such as turn on or off. After your smart bulb sees an “on” signal, it turns on and sends out a quick confirmation.

In my home, I have sixty-three Wi-Fi-powered smart devices comprised of smart bulbs, led strips, switches, plugs, voice assistant speakers and displays, thermostats, locks, and a garage door opener. That’s to say nothing of my tablets, phones, computers, and security cameras. Despite my (ever-growing) list of Wi-Fi devices, my network runs fine. While I do use a MESH router, it’s overkill.  Due to the layout of my home, most of my Wi-Fi smart devices connect directly to the main router.

The fact that most smart home devices only use a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi radio is a small cause for concern, but Wi-Fi 6 will improve 2.4 GHz performance, and more manufacturers are making the jump to support 5 GHz radios.

Wi-Fi isn’t a Standard

A composite of logos for Amazon, Apple, Google, ZigBee, Ikea, Legrand, and more.
The strength and breadth of the companies behind CHIP is impressive.

Anyone knowledgeable in the smart home realm will rightly point out a difference in Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Insteaon’s protocols versus Wi-Fi. The former are standards, with agreed-upon conventions for implementation. Wi-Fi, at least in the smart home realm, is not a standard.

But that’s changing too. Newer emerging standards like Thread and CHIP are entering the fray. Thread and CHIP share a basic idea in common, connection over IP (though that’s not the same thing as Wi-Fi). Eventually, if Thread or CHIP become fully adopted, Wi-Fi devices can conform to those standards.

Ultimately, if smart home tech is ever to be viable and not a fad that fades away in the coming years, it needs to reach the mainstream. Manufacturers can only pour so much money into the dream before they pull out due to a lack of profits.

For the average users, Wi-Fi presents one potential solution to many of smart home’s great frustrations: the constant need to learn and relearn how to connect and use things. If more people are comfortable with the thought of installing smart home devices, that can lead to more sales, which can lead to more investment. That’s the best thing that can happen to smart homes, even if Wi-Fi sounded like an unlikely solution just a few short years ago.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »