For the home user, the range of smart home automation radio systems provides a major source of confusion and a challenge to anyone planning their smarter property. So many devices use this protocol, or that WiFi – why couldn’t they all just get along?
Given that the number of protocols is increasing, rather than shrinking with WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy becoming increasingly popular alongside the established names, we’re comparing them to give you a better sense of the market.
In this article, we compare Z-Wave against Insteon. Z-Wave is one of the most popular protocols, often fighting alongside ZigBee for recognition, but Insteon is still used by some major brands to power huge numbers of devices, keeping it present in the market for over a decade.
Background on Both Protocols
Insteon came about in 2005, helping to move the older X10 standard away from wired smart home connectivity into the wireless era. Developed by SmartLabs it has provided many users with a useful stepping stone from older smart home technology.
Z-Wave was founded around the same time by the Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of some 300 companies, all gathered around the one smart home standard.
There are over 1,300 Z-Wave products on the market and both technologies have changed to keep up with the times and compete head on with BLE, ZigBee and other relative newcomers.
Key Attributes of the Insteon Protocol
- Wireless Mesh Network: Insteon uses a wireless mesh network to communicate with wireline support (if you need them) which makes for a useful redundant control system, if your network goes down. While few smart homes these days worry about wired connections, it can work better on large properties and help work around issues with building or radio interference.
- Ad-Hoc Management Possible: Insteon devices can be managed ad-hoc, without the need for a hub which is great if you’re just starting out.
- Works with Hubs: More realistically, your range of devices can be managed through Insteon’s Hub or other controllers. These give control over the smart property from home or away, via a smartphone app. You can check out my full review of the Insteon Hub right here.
- Fresh and Current: Capable of helping users create scenes, schedules and provide alerts, it can be just as modern as the newer standards.
- Compatible with the Latest Smart Devices: It is also compatible with the cutting edge range of devices including Nest, Apple Watch and Amazon Echo. So, just because it is based on older technology, don’t dismiss it as past its use-by date.
Key Attributes of the Z-Wave ProtocolNo products found.
- Low Power Radio (Similar to WiFi): Z-Wave technology is based around low-power radios with a range of around 100 meters. It sends slow, small data packets between devices, so is not designed to compete with WiFi. The Z-Wave chip can fit in low-power and battery operated devices like home lighting and other smart home systems.
- Mesh Architecture: It uses a mesh network architecture to link many devices together, with each device paired to the hub or network to add it. After that any device can be managed by a controlling device, from a smartphone app to wall or other controller.
Pros and Cons of Using Insteon
- Pro – Dual Mesh Peer-to-Peer: One of the primary benefits of Insteon is its dual-mesh peer-to-peer network that gives it a level of redundancy. Compared to X10, it is also a lot faster to communicate with devices and is still compatible with the latest and future smart home technologies. Insteon’s own huge range of smart home products are relatively low cost, guaranteed to work with the system and all have a common white look to them, simplifying design choices.
- Pro – Backwards Compatible: Being X10 backward compatible also makes it a positive upgrade and stepping stone for those users, even if Insteon kit can be more expensive than X10, and just as costly, if not more than some modern smart hub home solutions. It can also address tens of thousands of devices, making it highly future proof for even the most inventive smart home tinkerer.
- Pro – Customization: Insteon can also be used in some niche cases that other systems don’t support including adjustable ramp rates and on levels for for dimmer switches, low voltage devices and customizable devices.
- Con – Can Suffer from High Data Loads: However, its backward compatibility stances means that Insteon can struggle with high data loads, and was never really designed with services like HD video in mind.
Pros and Cons of the Z-Wave Protocol
- Con – Can Interfere with Other Cordless Electronics: Using the 900MHz radio space, Z-Wave can interfere with some consumer products like cordless phones and baby monitors.
- Con – Can Struggle with High Data Loads: Also, like Insteon it was never really designed with some modern smart devices like NestCam in mind, so will struggle with high quality video broadcasts.
- Pro – Best Compatibility on the Market: With such a huge range of partners, there are a massive range of Z-Wave devices available that all work to the same standard, but the product styling, apps and interfaces from these many devices can all vary wildly.
- Pro and Con – Slightly More Complex Than Insteon: Z-Wave devices are slightly more complicated in their networking than Insteon. They can be controllers, slaves or slave routers, limiting the flexibility of the mesh network. That means that on large networks, things may be slower than you’d expect or if there’s an issue with a device, it may be harder to work around.
Commonalities that Apply to Both Protocols
Both systems use AES-256 networking security for user protection and there’s no sign yet of any major intrusions into either network.
All hubs and products from both camps are generally well furnished with firmware updates for the latest products. A recent Insteon Hub update adds greater Sonos support, and both should be well supported for years to come.
Both products also have keen user communities that can hack, tweak or modify tools and code to get things working together better.
Final Recommendation – Is There a Clear Winner?
The typical user can take their pick between these two standards, based on the products they expect to use. Many newer devices support Z-Wave but there’s a huge army of equally smart devices that run happily on Insteon.
Insteon is the slightly more robust network when it comes to communications, but both have enough mileage under them to be highly reliable.
Perhaps the variety of Z-Wave devices may cause some issues for users, but there are probably only a few situations where there isn’t a fix or workaround.
If you do have a host of X-10 equipment to support, then Insteon is clearly the way to go, otherwise Z-Wave may be for the more forward looking user.
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“…Insteon is clearly the way to go…”
BTW here’s a 10% off link at Insteon that I most likely get a kickback from.
That link invalidates the entire article. It goes from a kinda thought-out article with minimal substance and a clear Insteon slant to sponsored content for Insteon.
I have yet to decide what technology I should install and biased articles like this across the internet, for both Z-wave and Insteon, are not making the decision any easier.
Patrick Sinclair says
Ryan – The full quote is: “If you do have a host of X-10 equipment to support, then Insteon is clearly the way to go, otherwise Z-Wave may be for the more forward looking user.”
There are clear use cases for either option, depending on your goals as a homeowner.
The discount code is real and it does save users money and – yes – helps pay for the thousands of hours and dollars I’ve spent testing out equipment.
I use both in my home, had the ISY994 and now HomeSeer. To be honest both technologies work just as well I have no issues with either. Insteon hardware is nice but it’s proprietary meaning only Insteon hardware works together where Z-Wave is in many different brands. My door locks and thermostats with some lights are Z-Wave, but my switches and motion sensors are Insteon. They are both just as reliable and work just as well but I find Z-Wave is a bit beter as the devices seem more intelligent. Insteon ones seem to generally show On or Off, or Dimming etc. The Z-Wave ones always have more devices that get added with extra features, like On, Off, “On to previous level”, with the door locks showing user codes, if it’s jammed, things like that.
I use mostly Insteon with some legacy X-10 that is being slowly upgraded, and recently tested a Z-wave dimmer, hoping to reduce the cost of building out my home automation system. My controller is an ISY 994i.
I found the Z-wave communication range disappointing – with intervening walls, I had problems at 50 feet (17 meters) , not the 100 meters quoted by the author. I have heard that Z-wave works well when there are multiple devices, so a mesh network of closely spaced devices seems to be needed.
I had some startup communication problems with Insteon and added a phase coupler. Since then it just works every time, including to the pool pump about 120 feet from ISY.
Feature implementation seems inconsistent with Z-wave, and it can be difficult to determine which devices support what features. The Z-wave dimmer I tested did not report on/off switch presses to ISY, which is a big limitation. In several cases, I use the fact that ISY is aware of Insteon on/off switch presses to control other circuits; for example turn off additional lights when leaving a room or to turn off the pool lights with a second off click of the deck lights dimmer switch. The Z-wave dimmer did recall the last on level, but did not have the ability to turn full on with a double on click. I could not find a way to program a preset on level as is supported by ISY with Insteon dimmers. These are significant drawbacks compared to my Lutron (non-networked) and Insteon dimmers, which all have two available light levels – a programmable one click level and two clicks for full on. I was not able to determine these limitations existed from the available Z-wave device documentation before making my purchase.
I hoped Z-wave would be less costly, but the more capable devices cost as much or more than comparable Insteon devices. I personally found no reason to use Z-wave in my system at this time.
Patrick Sinclair says
Great information, thank you Ernst! This will be very valuable to other readers.
Michael Babcock says
Insteon direct controls without a hub mean that you can buy three light switches and reprogram one to control the other two with just a few button presses and no extra hardware. You can also guarantee that they’ll ‘see’ each other over the power line instead of hoping the wireless bridge is strong enough.