Matter and Smart Homes In Detail

Jul 19, 2023 | Nexa DIY Initiative, Trends

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Brace yourself for a simplification revolution in the smart home universe. Picture this – a unified standard where any smart device can harmoniously coexist with any other, regardless of its creator. It’s called “Matter,” designed to streamline every aspect of smart home tech, spanning from purchase to setup and routine use.

Imagine a world where scanning for compatibility badges like “Works With” HomeKit, Google Home, or Alexa becomes obsolete. Matter makes this dream a reality, ensuring all devices work with each other irrespective of platforms and ecosystems. This implies you can take control of your smart lighting, locks, and more with a broad spectrum of virtual assistants, from Siri and Alexa to Google Assistant and, dare we say it, Bixby.

What if your family is a melting pot of device preferences? An iPhone for you, a Samsung for your spouse, a Fire tablet for the kiddo? Not a problem! Matter ensures seamless control of all devices, providing the reassurance that any new device under the Matter umbrella will function with every smart home platform you use.

Now imagine your internet goes down. No worries – Matter can also operate entirely on your local network, promising quick gadget responses. Just as flipping a switch lights up your room instantly, Matter strives to make operating your smart lights just as swift and reliable.

What on earth is Matter, you ask? Let’s dissect it. Matter is an interoperability standard built to resolve the headaches induced by today’s smart home devices. Orchestrated by the Connectivity Standards Alliance, Matter has an impressive array of backers. These range from behemoth platform owners like Apple, Google, and Amazon, to manufacturer giants such as Samsung and LG, all the way to accessory-focused players like Nanoleaf, Eve, and TP-Link.

Don’t misunderstand: Matter isn’t a new protocol. Rather, it’s a blueprint for how devices should interact, operating over existing protocols. For devices like light bulbs and sensors that require low-power and low-bandwidth, it uses Thread. For more data-hungry devices like streaming media players and cameras, it employs Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Matter has now burrowed into every major smart home platform, which means no more individual certification for each smart device. If it’s a Matter device, rest assured, it’s compatible with all platforms. However, some platforms might offer extra features or superior automation, and for that, a ‘Works With’ certification is still required.

Crucially, Matter allows all devices to be operated locally, and they don’t need an internet connection to function or cooperate. However, for control beyond the confines of your home and integration with cloud services, cloud connectivity is an option.

Matter officially launched in the fall of 2022, although Matter devices are still emerging. After numerous product announcements at CES 2023, we anticipate an influx of new products (and Matter updates for existing ones) in spring 2023.

So, what’s compatible with Matter? The initial specification, Matter 1.0, only supports a limited range of smart home devices, providing basic functions. Advanced features like dynamic lighting effects, shared access codes for door locks, and energy management for smart plugs aren’t yet supported. However, your chosen smart home platform should offer access to these features if they’re supported.

Matter supports a range of device categories: light bulbs and switches, plugs and outlets, locks, HVAC controllers, blinds, shades, sensors, TVs, streaming video players, bridges, and wireless access points. Come spring, the list will expand to include home appliances like fridges and washing machines, along with robot vacuums.

To navigate this world of Matter, you’ll need a Matter controller, a non-brand-specific device to add and control Matter devices. Remember, a Matter controller isn’t necessarily a Matter device, so don’t expect to control an Amazon Echo Show with your Google Nest Hub Max or a Samsung Family Hub fridge with your Apple TV. Every Matter controller will need a companion app on a smartphone or tablet for adding devices and setting up automations. But as phones are unlikely to be always on and in your home, a standalone Matter controller will probably be necessary, particularly for using Thread devices.

In this revolutionary age of smart home tech, it’s time for Matter to take the center stage. As we look forward to seeing the growth and impact of Matter, the potential for a truly interconnected smart home universe is truly exciting. The age of smart simplicity is upon us. Get ready for a game-changing shift in the world of smart home technology.

Delving into the Realm of Thread Border Routers

Immersed in an ocean of digital communication languages, Matter strives to stay afloat by utilizing Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and a somewhat less familiar protocol – Thread. Matter’s control extends to Wi-Fi and Ethernet devices, but when Thread devices make an entrance, a special guest – the Thread border router – is summoned to negotiate. A silver lining emerges when you realize that certain Matter controllers moonlight as Thread border routers; chances are, you’re already a proud owner of one.

Thread, the low-power, low-latency wireless protocol, weaves an intricate self-healing mesh network that thrives on community; as you add more devices, the range and reliability bolster. Imagine this: every Thread device simply needs to reach out and touch the closest neighboring Thread device. Thread operates within the same 2.4GHz spectrum as Zigbee, targeting similar low-power devices such as sensors, light bulbs, plugs, and shades.

The fascinating thing about Thread is that it’s built on IPv6, enabling Thread devices to directly engage with the internet, unlike their Zigbee counterparts, which are tethered to a hub – often a proprietary one. Thread boasts lower latency and is built as an open protocol, contrary to Zigbee, which has descended into a labyrinth of fragmentation. Thread border routers, akin to Matter controllers, are platform-agnostic, potentially accepting any Thread device into their folds.

Thread border routers uphold their independence by not requiring a hardwired internet connection; their needs are modest – continuous power and Wi-Fi. This allows them the freedom to morph into almost anything – a smart light, speaker, or even a fridge, television, or thermostat. It’s plausible that your future Wi-Fi router will harbor a Thread border router within.

A Window into Smart Home Platforms Supporting Matter

The tech titans – Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple Home, and Samsung SmartThings – all pledge allegiance to Matter. This opens the gates for their apps, smart speakers, hubs, and smart voice assistants to manage your Matter devices. A delightful feature of Matter, termed Multi-Admin, allows you to wield control over the same Matter devices across multiple platforms. You’re not limited to the Big Four; other contenders such as Home Assistant also endorse Matter, and many companies, including TP-Link Tapo, Aqara, and Wiser, have announced plans to upgrade their apps to Matter controllers. The landscape is fertile for more options to sprout soon.

However, you can’t sidestep the need for a smart home platform. Despite Matter’s versatility, it lacks an app and doesn’t constitute a platform in itself; it’s merely a language for devices to converse in. This necessitates a platform to oversee this language, assigning tasks like instructing your smart thermostat to lower its guard, or your lights to dim when your door is locked. Matter facilitates these types of automations across devices from distinct companies, breaking down previous compatibility barriers.

This opens up an exciting possibility: imagine controlling the new Nest Thermostat using Apple’s Siri, or a Eve smart plug via Amazon Alexa. Maybe you want to use the Apple Home app on your iPhone to illuminate the living room, while your partner employs the Google Home app on their Android phone to plunge it back into darkness.

Here’s a quick glance at the various smart home platforms’ Matter support:

  1. Amazon Alexa Matter support: Amazon Echo’s repertoire of 17 devices, including its entire current lineup, extended its arm to Matter in December 2022, albeit only supporting Matter-over-Wi-Fi and three of the first Matter device types: smart plugs, bulbs, and switches. Spring 2023 brings promise of an upgrade to the Echo 4th-Gen smart speaker to serve as a Thread border router and an expansion of its Matter support to thermostats, blinds, sensors, light bulbs, plugs, and switches. Eero Wi-Fi devices, Echo devices, and the iOS Alexa app are also expected to join the Matter compatibility club.
  2. Google Nest and Google Home Matter support: Google’s Nest smart speakers and displays are equipped to act as Matter controllers. Thread-enabled newer products like Nest Wi-Fi, Nest Wi-Fi Pro, Nest Hub Max, and the second-gen Nest Hub also double up as Thread border routers. Android devices and the Google Home app have embraced Matter, adding Matter devices to Google Home smart homes.
  3. Apple Home Matter support: As of iOS 16.1, Apple’s HomePod, HomePod Mini, and 2021 and 2022 Apple TV 4K models have evolved into Matter controllers. The HomePod Mini, Apple TV 4K Wi-Fi + Ethernet (2022), and Apple TV 4K (2021) also function as Thread border routers. All Apple operating systems, including the Apple Home app and Siri voice assistant, have earned the Matter certification. The existing HomeKit APIs are expected to seamlessly integrate with Matter-enabled accessories.
  4. Samsung SmartThings Matter support: The SmartThings apps for iOS and Android have warmed up to Matter. Samsung’s v2 and v3 SmartThings hubs have been upgraded to Matter controllers, and the v3 hub and Aeotec SmartThings hub are now also Thread border routers.

SmartThings hubs won’t act as a bridge for existing devices into Matter, restricting your Zigbee and Z-Wave devices to the SmartThings ecosystem. Samsung has clarified that its appliances and TVs will not transform into Matter devices, eliminating the possibility of controlling a Samsung TV or washing machine through Matter. But the future looks bright with new Samsung products, including TVs, monitors, and smart fridges, promising to natively support Matter, Zigbee, and Thread.

Pondering whether your present arsenal of smart devices can sync with the paradigm of Matter?

Matter—crafted with a vision to embrace the myriad devices we’ve cozied up with in our domestic settings—may not extend its arms to certain devices, despite prior inklings from their manufacturers. Yet, for other gizmos, gateways to Matter could be opened.

Remarkably, several Wi-Fi devices could be introduced to the Matter realm through firmware updates dispatched over the airwaves. We’ve seen such transformations in a roster of devices—Amazon Echo’s smart speakers, the illumination solutions from Wiz, and Lockly’s smart locks have stepped into this echelon.

On the other hand, Zigbee devices bear the capacity to build bridges to Matter through their pre-existing hubs—commitments for such shifts have emanated from the likes of Philips Hue and Aqara. Hypothetically, a few Zigbee devices could gain the ability to support Matter-over-Thread at the device level, although the reality of such updates hasn’t materialized as yet.

Certain devices that find themselves unable to adapt to the Matter ecosystem will, nonetheless, carry on functioning within their current platforms. They’ll coexist with Matter devices on the same platforms, and can be seamlessly incorporated into routines and automations.

Alas, Bluetooth-only devices that aren’t dependent on bridges—consider Eve’s earlier security and sensor product line or GE Cync’s Bluetooth mesh bulbs—are hindered from embracing Matter due to its support limited to Bluetooth for device setup. Eve has launched a new brigade of Thread-enabled iterations of virtually its entire gamut of Bluetooth products.

Unforeseen delays in finalizing the Matter specifications in late 2022 led a host of manufacturers—including the likes of Nanoleaf, Belkin WeMo, and Schlage—to dispatch Thread products in anticipation of Matter upgrades. Alas, the hardware proved inadequate in meeting the software demands of Matter’s finalized version.

Reinventing themselves, these companies have announced intentions to unveil a new wave of Matter-friendly devices in 2023. Prudence suggests refraining from Thread product purchases, unless Matter compatibility is assured.

And what of Z-Wave and Zigbee?

Presently, no Z-Wave hubs are equipped to expose their Z-Wave devices to Matter. Homey’s forthcoming Homey Pro hub, priced at $399 and projected for a February 2023 release, promises to act as a liaison to bring any non-Matter devices into Matter’s ambit, conditional upon the device type’s compatibility with Matter.

However, the conversion process is far from trivial, according to Jaeyeon Jung, SmartThings’ chief at Samsung Electronics. She highlights the mammoth task of analyzing each legacy device for potential Matter conversion and its technical feasibility.

The Z-Wave Alliance has been advocating solutions to bridge existing Z-Wave devices to Matter. Silicon Labs, a semiconductor manufacturer, has engineered both software and hardware resolutions for this objective. Yet, none of these have permeated into purchasable products.

Consequently, for those wielding Z-Wave or Zigbee devices, it would be judicious to remain committed to their current hubs, or consider a switch to SmartThings or Home Assistant, if Matter compatibility is sought after, and their existing platform falls short.

Do we need hubs and bridges to operate our smart homes?

Indeed. Devices functioning via a bridge presently would necessitate the maintenance of these bridges and hubs. This holds true for a spectrum of products—Philips Hue lighting fixtures, Aqara sensors, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices operating through a hub like Samsung SmartThings or Hubitat, or Ikea’s older Trådfri gateway compatible smart home devices. (Ikea has launched a new hub reportedly Matter compatible).

According to Chris LaPré, head of technology for the CSA, in the long run, Matter is slated to reign supreme, and bridges will become a thing of the past. He suggests that the cost-effectiveness of IP-based bulbs will deter lighting companies from bridge construction. However, Signify—owners of Philips Hue—has expressed its continued use of a bridge with its Zigbee-based lighting products, with no plans to render any other products directly Matter compatible.

Is Matter private and secure?

Security apprehensions and privacy concerns have throttled the pace of smart home adoption. According to the CSA, Matter’s privacy principles outline data privacy protections, including minimizing data sharing in any Matter interaction and defining the purpose of data sharing when requested. The CSA assures that Matter embeds industry-standard encryption technology, secures every message on the network, and supports secure over-the-air updates.

The advantage of Matter devices—direct IP control that permits them to communicate directly with the internet—is viewed with caution from a security perspective. Tobin Richardson, CSA’s president and CEO, asserts that Matter’s security approach delivers “strong, agile, and proactive” security that is resilient while enjoying the benefits of an IP-connected world.

Which smart home device categories don’t work with Matter?

At present, smart security cameras aren’t Matter compatible, though the CSA has hinted at their inclusion in future updates. How this integration would pan out in practicality remains enigmatic.

While smart sensors are integrated into Matter, home security systems have not joined the league—yet. Certain smart homes function with an alarm system at the core, so a lack of integration could potentially be a deal-breaker for some.

Mitch Klein, executive director of the Z-Wave Alliance, describes the potential challenges Matter faces with regard to obtaining UL approval for security devices, given the UL’s stringent standards and insurance requirements.

Regarding cameras and alarm systems, Ring—one of the leading smart home companies in these spheres—hasn’t offered any hints of Matter support, despite its parent company Amazon’s involvement in the standard.

Whole home audio streaming technology, from speaker companies like Sonos and Bose, isn’t currently supported, leaving questions around the integration of Alexa, Apple, and Google’s current multiroom music streaming solutions with Matter. Although a casting feature has been included in Matter’s specifications, no implementations have been revealed to date.

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