With Thread, a new technology is in the starting blocks that could iron out the previous patchwork of the smart home landscape. It also offers many advantages. We tried out the first compatible devices.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has now arrived in almost all areas of society. There are more and more devices in your own home that have their own IP address and can communicate wirelessly with other devices or even with the Internet. The way in which they do this varies greatly: Very few devices today are connected to the router with a network cable. Instead, they rely on one of the numerous wireless standards: the best known are WLAN or Bluetooth, but there are a few more.
However, these are hardly suitable for many smart home devices: They consume a comparatively high amount of electricity and are designed for high data throughput and constant contact. For small sensors that check whether the window is open or closed, for example, that report when they detect water, but this is not necessary for smart lights and a number of other devices.
Instead, manufacturers often rely on economical wireless standards such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and others. The disadvantage here: the home router or smartphone do not understand this – that’s why you still need your own bridge, which serves as a translator into the normal home network. Sometimes smart speakers try like Amazons Echo To take on this role is still not a real solution to the standard confusion at home. Here, however, thread could be an important part of an overarching solution.
What is thread and what are the benefits?
Thread is the name of a wireless network technology that was developed for IoT. In the meantime, most of the important partners in the Thread group are already talking to each other, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Ikea, LG, Samsung, Signify and many more. In the medium term, the technology is to become part of a uniform smart home standard: CHIP. The acronym stands for “Connected Home over IP” – and is an approach to connect all devices with one another via IP protocol.
This logo can be found on devices that support thread (source: Thread-Group)
Depending on the needs of the respective device, either WLAN, Bluetooth or thread should be used. In addition to the Zigbee Alliance, Amazon, Apple and Google are also involved – and thus the most important parties in this field. However, the standard has not yet been adopted.
But back to Thread: The system transmits in the 2.4 GHz band, i.e. the same frequency range as Bluetooth or Zigbee, for example. It is based on IPv6, the same address standard that is also used in large parts of the Internet, and is designed as a so-called mesh network. These very technical-sounding descriptions mean two things in particular: Firstly, thread devices can be integrated into existing networks very easily because the same “language” is already spoken here,
Home users shouldn’t care. The second point is more important here: Thread is a mesh network: This means that individual devices in the network can not only receive signals, but also pass them through.
Typically, commands, for example to smart lightbulbs, always come from the bridge. If a bulb is too far away from the bridge, it cannot receive the signal, and users may have to install repeaters or other bridges. With Thread, each device is also a node in the network and can forward appropriate commands. The network organizes itself – so if a transmission point fails, the thread organizes a different route to the individual devices.
In addition, unlike Bluetooth or WLAN, Thread is designed for IoT from the start: This means that it is very economical, so that even battery-operated sensors do not run out of power as quickly.
Thread in the everyday test: Apple and Eve
In fact, you can try Thread today – but the choice of devices is still limited. The pioneer here is the German smart home company Eve, which is currently the world’s largest supplier of thread-compatible smart home devices. At the same time, only Apple’s HomePod Mini can currently be used as a thread edge router – it establishes the connection to the Internet if necessary. However, Google is already in the starting blocks with compatible devices. Our review of the HomePod Mini read here.
For our test we used three products from Eve (den Door / window contact, switchable socket and the brand new weather station) as well as a smart light from Nanoleaf together with a Home Pod Mini.
As is typical for Apple, the setup is simple, as all devices are home kit compatible. All you have to do here is scan a QR code with the home app, the rest will run automatically. The mesh network is set up in the background. The Apple Home app does not even tell you whether the devices connect to the Home Pod Mini in the classic way via Bluetooth or via a thread network. However, most users shouldn’t care as long as it works.
Eve app: a close-up view of the thread network
If you still want to know more, you can have a look in the Eve app. The entry “Thread network” has recently been found under “Settings”. Here you can see exactly which device is integrated into the thread network and which device is connected to which one. Because most thread devices serve as repeaters themselves in the network world. So that a window sensor that is far away does not need a direct connection to the Home Pod Mini, but only to the next member of the thread network.
If a device fails in the network, the devices are automatically rearranged. In our test, that worked out very well with the Nanoleaf Essentials A19 Test a light bulb (20 euros) that was screwed into a normal ceiling lamp socket – and that was regularly disconnected from the power circuit via the light switch.
What was noticeable about the devices operated via Thread was how inconspicuously reliable they do their job. With home kit devices that are otherwise only controlled via Bluetooth, there are occasional minor delays or interruptions in the transmission. The Thread devices were always accessible via the HomePod Mini in the test.
Also noticeable: thread is fast. According to information, a switching command on the cell phone is carried out in less than 100 milliseconds. The relay in the switchable socket Eve Energy (40 euros) clicks almost at the same time with the tap of a finger on the mobile phone. With other transmission methods, switching a smart device can take noticeably longer.
Passive sensors also benefit
With passive sensors such as the window sensor Eve Door & Window (from 37 euros) or the recently introduced outdoor weather station Eve Weather (from 70 euros) speed is less important than stability and range.
These devices in particular benefit from the Thread network. because it significantly increases the range for use and thus also enables the sensor on the cellar door or the weather station in the garden – which otherwise might have been too far away from the smart home router.
In our test, the new weather station Eve Weather was very popular: The device is elegant and of high quality, and is designed for outdoor use. In contrast to the old weather station from Eve, the new one has a display so that the sensor also works in the classic way as an outdoor thermometer, which you can look at through the window without having to pull out your smartphone or ask Siri.
Eve Weather in Homekit: Rather narrow information view (Source: Jan Mölleken)
In addition to the temperature, humidity and a weather trend based on the air pressure are also displayed. The data display in Apple’s home app is also rather economical. However, if you want to see the exact data, you have to open the Eve app.
Eve app: the exact weather data can be viewed here (source: Jan Mölleken)
Here you can also look at the trends in all the data recorded so far – a value for temperature, humidity and air pressure is automatically saved every ten minutes. As usual with Homekit, no data is stored on an external cloud. Everything only ends up on iPhone or iPad.
Chic and future-proof – but expensive
The new or updated Eve products with thread support show once again how well a smart home can be implemented, but also what restrictions this – at least – brings with it.
Smart Home cannot currently be implemented faster, more easily and, above all, more securely than Eve is doing with the Home Pod mini and Apple Homekit.
But this is exactly where the downside lies at the moment – in addition to the comparatively high prices overall: the devices can currently only be operated with an iPhone or iPad. Without a thread, they also work without a Home Pod mini via Bluetooth – but Android users are left out here.
At least there is a glimmer of hope here, as Lars Felber from Eve t-online explains: “Thread is our ticket for CHIP. And CHIP promises that devices will no longer communicate with the control centers of Google and Amazon via a cloud-to-cloud architecture but also be able to do this locally and via the Internet protocol IP. This local, cloud-free operation on a large, secure and privacy-preserving platform was the knock-out criterion, because of which we only ever considered Homekit – until Now. How and when exactly this CHIP vision will become reality can only be said after a specification of the protocol has been published – but CHIP is working on it at full speed and we expect more details this year. ”
In fact, Google offers with the new Nest Hub from March 30th a smart home center, which is also already thread-capable. It is therefore possible that users will be able to use the Nest devices – perhaps even later this year – outside of the Apple sphere. But one thing is clear: With CHIP, the widely ramified IoT world finally moving closer together – and that’s good news for everyone.