Thread could revolutionize the smart home market this year

The dozens of new smart home product announcements rolling out of CES 2022 this week all seem to have one thing in common: support for the new Thread wireless standard. With such widespread support emerging, 2022 is shaping up to be the year the new normal finally enters the mainstream.

Yesterday we shared news of Schlage’s first Thread-enabled lock, which also includes support for Apple’s Home Key, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Belkin announced a new Wemo smart video doorbell designed exclusively for HomeKit, along with support for Thread and the new Matter cross-platform home automation standard for its most popular accessories, including the smart plug, smart light switch and smart dimmer.

Meanwhile, smart lighting panel maker Nanoleaf has announced that it is preparing a firmware update that will add Thread edge router support for HomeKit, making it the first non-Apple devices to include this ability.

Eve (formerly Elgato) also unveiled a new outdoor security camera, Smart Window Blinds, both of which include Thread support, which has been available in its room sensors since last summer. Aqara also announced plans to bring Thread support to all of its HomeKit-enabled sensors.

Why yarn is important

Until recently, HomeKit devices were limited to working over Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. These work well in their own way, but they also have serious limitations that Thread is designed to overcome.

Wi-Fi devices require a fair amount of power, which makes them impractical for items that will need to run on batteries, such as door locks and sensors. While this isn’t a huge issue for devices that require external power anyway, like light switches and garage door openers, having so many devices can still create congestion on your home Wi-Fi network, taking up bandwidth that could otherwise be used for more important things like gaming and streaming.

Bluetooth solves both of these problems, but has a few. For one, its relatively short range can create difficulties in larger homes, and the latency it adds detracts from a seamless home automation experience. There is a noticeable lag when controlling Bluetooth HomeKit devices, especially with lights.

Wiring all your smart home devices via Ethernet is obviously not practical, but all of these limitations are why some smart home accessories have resorted to bridges that drive other wireless protocols. Philips Hue uses a wired bridge that connects bulbs and other devices via ZigBee, while Lutron’s Caséta system runs on its proprietary ClearConnect RF protocol — which is probably why it’s also one of the most popular lighting systems. reliable that we have had the pleasure of using.

Thread, however, promises to solve all of these problems by bringing an open standard to the table that operates at the power levels of Bluetooth but with the low latency and extended range of Wi-Fi.

The secret to Thread’s greatness is that it’s designed to operate entirely like a mesh network, so it doesn’t require a central hub like the older ZigBee and Z-Wave protocols do. Instead, each Thread device can communicate directly with all other Thread devices. This provides extended range at much lower power levels.

Instead of a Wi-Fi signal needing enough strength to get back to your main router, a Thread device only has to connect with its nearest neighbor, which in turn connects to its next ones. neighboring devices, and so on, keeping everything connected. .

In a typical smart home setup made up of Thread devices, you’re unlikely to experience range issues, as Thread-based switches, outlets, sockets, and light bulbs will be scattered throughout your home. Of course, for this to be practical, the majority of your devices need to support Thread, and that’s why it’s great news that so many manufacturers are starting to embrace the new technology.

Wired Apple Products

Apple was ahead of the curve on this one, too. HomeKit is one of the first smart home systems to natively support Thread, and Apple added Thread support to the HomePod mini in late 2020, and brought it to the new Apple TV 4K in the spring. latest – even before there were mainstream smart home devices that support it. .

The 2021 Apple TV 4K and HomePod mini can already serve as Thread Border routers, and Nanoleaf will soon join the party. These devices act as gateways to connect all of your Thread devices to your Wi-Fi network.

So, in a sense, Thread still needs some kind of “hub” to unify it with the rest of your HomeKit network, but multiple devices can do this task, and Thread devices still don’t need to connect directly to the Border Router as they would a traditional hub.

Of course, this should also not be confused with an Apple Home Hub, which is an Apple TV, HomePod, or iPad that acts as a control center for your entire HomeKit system. It actually works more like a server than a hub, as it has nothing to do with establishing connections to individual HomeKit devices – it just runs automation routines and pushes commands to any communication protocol used, whether Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or Thread.

The problems with the yarn

Unfortunately, as great as Thread is, there’s bad news for those who have already built great HomeKit systems. Thread requires specific hardware, so it won’t be available as a firmware upgrade for devices that don’t already support it. Additional capabilities can be added to devices that already have Thread hardware, like Nanoleaf does by turning its lighting panels into Thread Border routers, but you won’t be able to add Thread to an accessory that doesn’t already have it.

The advantage, however, is that you don’t have to rush out and replace each of your devices. A Thread-based network can coexist peacefully with older Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. This means there’s no need to trade in your current accessories unless you’re having specific issues with certain devices that Thread can fix, such as poor reliability or lag.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Thread isn’t suitable for high-bandwidth devices such as security cameras, so you’ll have to stick with wired Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections for those.