Thread and Matter Are NOT The Same: Key Differences Explained – New Video

Smart homes are great, other than the fact that there are hundreds of devices from dozens of main manufacturers – leading to various incompatibilities and integration issues.

While ‘smart hubs’ can help with this problem, they can only do so much.

That’s why the Matter project is so important, which this video explains. I also cover what ‘Thread’ is, and why it’s technically completely different to Matter.

The individual timestamps are:

  • 0:00 Intro
  • 0:55 Communication Protocols
  • 2:00 The (Current) Flaw With Smart Homes
  • 2:45 CHOIP (Matter) To The Rescue..!
  • 3:34 The Elon Musk Speaker
  • 4:26 Enter Thread
  • 5:38 Downsides of Thread
  • 6:10 How Thread and Matter Are Linked
  • 7:04 Why Matter Won’t Matter (Much)
  • 8:00 Final Thoughts On Matter
  • 8:42 Wrapping Up

Video Transcript

Hello, I’m Tristan. When people talk about The Future Promised Land of smart homes, they sometimes say things like “Thread SLASH Matter”. Wait… let’s zoom in… yep, there’s a slash there. So, PSA time: Thread and Matter are NOT the same. That’s right, there’s actually a big difference – which today’s video will explain.

As we all know, Human beings speak many languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Welsh, Sign Language… the list goes on. These are all different ways that Humans can communicate information to each-other. If one Human only speaks English and another only speaks Spanish, a translator can come in and ‘bridge the gap’ between the two – allowing seamless communication between both parties. As a result, even if two people can’t directly speak to each-other, they can use a middle person to communicate.

The same is true of electronic devices. A smartphone mainly speaks Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, whereas a Philips Hue light speaks ZigBee and Bluetooth. The Ring Alarm system mainly speaks Z-Wave, and Nanoleaf products speak Wi-Fi and Thread. These different words aren’t marketing phrases – they are called communication protocols. They are like languages, because they allow our devices to speak to each other.

But of course, there’s a problem here: the sensors within the Ring Alarm system only speak Z-Wave, but this is a smart system – so they’ll need to connect to your internet router and send information to the cloud over Wi-Fi. In order to do this, a “translator” is brought in – known as a bridge. In this case, the Ring Base Station acts as a bridge and converts Z-Wave data into internet-based data. Equally Philips Hue bulbs can’t directly connect to your internet router, so a Hue Bridge is introduced that takes ZigBee commands and allows cloud-based control of your smart home… along with managing all the ZigBee stuff too.

So going back to our language example: Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, ZigBee and Bluetooth are all “languages”, and then sometimes a “translator” (a bridge or hub) is required. This works well… sort of. One big downside is that there’s… [counts] LOTS of different smart home companies out there. Each of them have slightly different ways of doing things – such as within their software. This means that not every smart device can ‘speak to’ other smart devices. For example, you won’t be able to control your Gosund Smart Bulb from your LIFX app – even though both are Wi-Fi based products. They both have different, proprietary software that currently don’t allow cross-control.

As a result of this, the Connected Home over IP project was announced in 2019. Backed by most of the big smart home companies, this project was designed to agree on a common way that smart devices CAN speak to each-other – so that (in theory) a Hue Dimmer Switch could be used to control my LIFX ceiling bulb. Whether this happens in practice remains to be seen, but that’s the idea behind it. CHOIP was renamed to Matter in 2021, but the goal remains the same: to introduce a connectivity standard to smart homes. “Connectivity standard” is just a fancy way of saying that big companies get together, talk a lot, and then write up a technical document spanning 100s of pages, and then their software developers go away and ensure that their products follow this standard. At the end of this exercise, if Elon Musk introduces a smart speaker that is Matter compatible, this can suddenly control your Philips Hue system – since Hue will support Matter too.

“The Musk Smart Speaker is awesome in every way. Control your Tesla, smart home and love life using your brainwaves… or maybe just your voice. Supports, Thread, Matter and the Martian atmosphere. Brainwave control requires a Neuralink Pro subscription. Martian support requires SpaceX Premium. Both available separately. The Musk Smart Speaker: here to take over the world.”

That makes sense, right? Well, not the Musk Speaker but the idea behind Matter – it’s a standard, a technical document, an agreement between companies – a handshake. That’s it. It’s NOT a new language. That brings us onto Thread.

Thread IS a new “language” – in other words, it’s a new communication protocol, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or ZigBee. But it’s designed to take the best bits of each, and leave the worst bits. For example, Wi-Fi is convenient because it’s IP (internet protocol) based – and everything is internet-based nowadays. However Wi-Fi can often be unreliable – especially if your internet router is overloaded with dozens of connected devices. Equally Wi-Fi uses more power than ZigBee. ZigBee fixes two of these problems – it is low-power, and it offers a networking mesh which means that each ZigBee device can connect to other devices to build a stronger and further-reaching network; a bit like a spider’s web. But ZigBee isn’t very common outside of smart homes. It is not IP based, meaning that you often need hubs or bridges to allow cloud-based (i.e. internet-based) control of your devices.

Enter Thread. This is a low-power protocol, and each device joins a secure, self-healing and fast mesh network. A smart home with dozens of Thread devices would tend to perform better than if you had loads of Wi-Fi devices and a single Wi-Fi router.

The one big downside of Thread is that your internet router won’t “speak” Thread, only Wi-Fi. Until this changes, you will need a Thread Border Router to control your Thread smart devices. Which sort of means that it’s the same as ZigBee and Z-Wave – all are low-power, all offer an encrypted networking mesh, and all require a hub, bridge, “border router”. Whatever you call it, the reality is that Thread is a “competitor” to ZigBee and Z-Wave.

But what’s important here is that Thread is the main communication protocol included in the Matter standard. Thread is basically mooted as a replacement for ZigBee (remember that Matter is CHOIP, and CHOIP was originally pushed by the ZigBee alliance… it’s confusing). So whilst Thread, ZigBee and Z-Wave are sort of competitors, Matter is the future and Thread (and Wi-Fi) are therefore also the future. ZigBee is basically legacy, and Z-Wave will remain a competitor but I think it’ll die a death of attrition. That sounded dark. Z-Wave will… go to a farm to live out its remaining days. Ahh…

And that basically wraps up the differences between Thread and Matter. One is a language, the other is an agreement between companies. Of course, the agreement (Matter) mentions the language (Thread) – but that’s the only real link.

I’m going to be controversial and say that I personally don’t think that Matter will… matter all that much for the big smart companies. Philips Hue will always support Amazon Echo, Google Home and HomeKit, and Ring will always support… well, Amazon Echo since Amazon own Ring. I don’t foresee a scenario whereby Ring becomes fully open to all of Amazon’s competitors. Equally I don’t think that you’ll be able to ‘mix and match’ smart thermostats and have ecobee sensors work seamlessly with the Nest Thermostat in the same home.

But I do think that Matter will be useful for more niche smart products and devices. Having a common standard should hopefully benefit smaller smart companies, along with awesome projects like Hubitat and Home Assistant which rely on open standards for supported devices.

I’ll leave you with one final thought: speaking as a software developer by trade, it’s rare that a new standard comes in and every device immediately follows this standard. XKCD said it best! There will always be rival standards (remember that Z-Wave are openly competing with CHOIP, Matter and Thread), there will always be software bugs that cause issues in one device working with another, there will always be hardware glitches and also some manufacturers will use cheap, low quality Thread radio chips in their products that don’t work too well – meaning that other Thread devices might struggle to work with them.

So in short: Thread is good. Matter is good. The future of smart homes look better with both of these. But it won’t be perfect, and there will be rivals to both Thread and Matter – so you’ll still need to do your research before buying loads of new smart devices going forward. I hope you enjoyed this video. If you did, please click the thumbs up button which will tell YouTube that more people should see this video. Please also consider subscribing to my channel and clicking the bell icon which will notify you when I release new videos. Thank you!

About Tristan Perry

Tristan Perry is a software developer who is passionate about tech gadgets, DIY and housing. He has therefore loved seeing smart homes hit the mainstream. Tristan also has an academic background (in Math & Computer Science), and so he enjoys digging into the technical ways that smart home devices work.

Tristan owns close to a dozen Amazon Echo devices, way too many Philips Hue bulbs and lightstrips, a boat-load of Ring Cameras and Doorbells... and a bunch of other smart home devices too (from Reolink, Google Nest, GLEDOPTO and others).

If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions about this article, please leave a comment below. Please note that all comments go into a moderation queue (to prevent blog spam). Your comment will be manually reviewed and approved by Tristan in less than a week. Thanks!

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