Everything You Need to Know About the Thread Protocol for Smart Home Devices

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol

Ever wondered about the magic that allows your smart bulbs, thermostat, and other connected devices to communicate with each other? It’s smart home wireless protocols that tie everything together. Until now, these have included options with some limitations, like Wi-Fi networks, Zigbee, and Z-Wave. Thread could change all that.

What Is Thread Protocol?

Thread is a wireless protocol that makes a mesh network out of your smart home devices. Yes, Z-Wave and Zigbee already do that, but it’s actually more advanced than both of them.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol What
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Those two protocols work with a central hub or access point. Each smart home device communicates with the hub, and those communications are then relayed from the hub to other devices as needed. Not all devices on the network can act as repeaters.

On the other hand, Thread turns every connected device into an access point. Instead of needing a central device to connect everything, Thread lets every device communicate directly with any other device on the network. It really is a true mesh.

How Does Thread Solve Problems?

If there’s already ways for smart devices to connect, why do we need the Thread protocol? Yes, Zigbee and Z-Wave create mesh networks in a way, but Thread solves several major problems:

  • You don’t need an extra hub to connect things: all you need is a Thread border router, which is already built into some smart home devices.
  • No single failure point: since devices connect to each other, and if one fails or the connection is suddenly spotty, the network will automatically adjust to ensure everything else continues working as normal until the problem is solved.
Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Lock
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  • Lower energy consumption: thanks to the use of the IEEE 802.15.4 MAC/PHY protocol, connections between Thread-based devices use far less energy. This lets your battery-powered devices, such as cameras and doorbells, run longer per charge.
  • Reduced latency: much like with Zigbee and Z-Wave, you’ll enjoy faster responses when giving smart home commands.
  • All devices can communicate together: instead of having to worry about manufacturer compatibility, devices talk to each other without needing a hub or third-party service, like IFTTT or a voice assistant, to handle communications. This can also lead to faster response times.
Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Apple
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  • Plays nice with Apple: since Thread is compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, it can help connect HomeKit-enabled smart home devices with products from other manufacturers and ecosystems.

Currently, smart devices have you lock yourself into a shared ecosystem or deal with managing those gadgets individually. For example, if you want to use Zigbee-connected devices, you’d need to ensure all devices are compatible with the Zigbee protocol and buy a Zigbee smart home hub to make them one big happy family.

But if you bought a device that’s only compatible with Z-Wave versus Zigbee, then you’d have a separate ecosystem to deal with. Thread is being added to devices in all ecosystems. As long as a device has Thread support, it doesn’t matter which protocol it was originally designed to work with. A Thread border router will let them all communicate in harmony.

Thread is designed to simplify the increasingly complex smart home. In a world where technology doesn’t always play nice together, that’s a major win for smart homes and IoT.

Thread May Already Be in Your Home

You’re probably groaning right now thinking about having to add even more gadgets to your home to take advantage of all that the Thread protocol offers. But many current devices already have Thread support built in, and you may already own some. You need a Thread border router to create the network, though. The good news is that some devices that were already functioning as hubs are being updated with Thread support, giving you the router you need.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Google

Plus, any devices that support IEEE 802.15.4 can be upgraded with a firmware update to support Thread. Your current router and some smart home devices could easily become Thread-enabled with just a quick update without buying any extra devices. If you have an older router, though, now might be the time to upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router with WPA3 security.

A few of the more popular devices that already have Thread support built in include:

  • Apple HomePod Mini
  • Amazon Echo 4th Generation
  • Google Nest WiFi & Google Nest Hub Max
  • Eve Aqua, Eve Energy Smart Plug, and Eve’s window and door sensors
  • Eero Pro, Eero Beacon, Eero 6, and Eero 6 Pro
  • Nanoleaf Essentials A19 smart bulb & smart light strip

Amazon has stated that other Echo devices should be updated later on to support Thread. Of course, as Thread and Matter become more prevalent, you’ll see it become the standard among smart home devices.

How Does Thread Affect Matter?

If you’ve followed any smart home or IoT news in the past year, you’ve likely heard Matter mentioned. Matter began as Project Connected Home Over IP, or CHIP. It was designed to ensure all smart home gadgets work together no matter the brand or type. This means it won’t matter if it’s Amazon, Google, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or anything else – it’ll all be compatible, as they’ll all eventually use the same wireless standard.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Matter

On top of this, you may not even need an Internet connection to keep your devices connected on the same network. Plus, Matter makes security a priority, something most smart devices don’t do on their own.

How does Thread fit in? We’ve already talked about how Thread will enable any devices that support the Thread protocol to communicate, even if they’re from competing brands.

Since Matter uses Bluetooth for setup, Wi-Fi for streaming, and Thread for your lower bandwidth devices (to save energy and batteries), Thread’s part of the trifecta necessary for Matter to fully unify smart homes. With the Thread protocol offering better compatibility already, better connectivity with a self-healing network, and a lower energy consumption than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, it’s become the optimal choice for Matter to use.

Matter is already being incorporated into smart home devices. The transition will definitely take time. And while some devices may get left behind, others may only need a firmware upgrade to be compatible.

Creating a Secure Network

While Zigbee and Z-Wave both use AES encryption, Thread builds on this by providing bank-level security as well. Thread authenticates every device before it’s allowed to join the network, which further prevents breaches. For any data transmitted on the network, Thread uses MAC encryption.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Secure
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Another benefit is that signals are sent between individual devices instead of communications having to go through every single device. This is another way to reduce the chance of your network being hacked.

Finding Thread Certified Products

While you shouldn’t feel rushed to upgrade to Thread certified products, especially since some of your existing devices may get the necessary firmware upgrade to support the protocol, you should consider buying Thread certified products when you need to add something new to your setup. Just as with any other protocols and standards, you’ll see an icon on the product’s box or in the description stating “Built on Thread” or “Thread Certified Component.” The same is true for Matter-enabled devices.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Certitifed

Outside of looking for those words on the next product you buy, you can check the regularly updated list directly from the Thread Group.

What Is the Thread Group?

Thread Group is the official name given to the organization overseeing the development of Thread. The not-for-profit group will handle certification of devices and help educate developers on how to better unify smart homes. While the group doesn’t seek to solve all problems related to smart devices, it does want to provide a better foundation for developers to work together to simplify how smart homes work.

Everything You Need To Know About The Thread Protocol Group

Members of the group represent some of the top names in tech, such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Qualcomm, LG, Eero, Siemens, and Yale.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will Zigbee and Z-Wave go away as Thread becomes more prevalent?

It’s doubtful that either will fully go away. In fact, Thread and Matter may just make them work together. But, for older devices that can’t be upgraded with firmware, you may still need one of these protocols to get those devices to communicate.

The great thing is that Matter may use Thread, but it won’t stop you from using another ecosystem in your home or different apps. If you have some devices that will never be compatible with Thread or Matter, you’re still able to add them to your network and manage them with a separate app. And if you prefer a device’s individual app over a single app to rule them all, you can still do that.

How will I know if a device can be upgraded?

That tricky. While some brands have already started laying out plans for which devices will be upgraded, others are sticking with just saying “some devices.” If you’re not sure, search for the exact name of your device along with “Thread compatible” or “Matter compatible” to learn more.

Most devices that can be upgraded should have updates released over the next couple of years.

If you are looking for a Thread-enabled smart thermostat or want to upgrade your old one, see if you’re eligible for a free one through your energy provider. Otherwise, be sure to choose the right smart thermostat for your home.

How many devices can I have on a Thread network?

Thread protocol supports over 250 devices on a single network. For most homes, that’s more than enough. Usually, smart homes have around a few dozen devices at most, including security cameras, doorbells, speakers, and more.

Image credit: geralt via Pixabay

Crystal Crowder
Crystal Crowder

Crystal Crowder has spent over 15 years working in the tech industry, first as an IT technician and then as a writer. She works to help teach others how to get the most from their devices, systems, and apps. She stays on top of the latest trends and is always finding solutions to common tech problems.

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