It never fails. Every few years or so, a new "game-changing" wireless protocol or standard comes along in the wide world of the Internet of Things (IoT) that promises to bring unity to a fragmented market. Unfortunately, things never really quite pan out, and users are ultimately left with yet another hub and locked down to vendor-specific hardware that doesn't end up playing nicely with others.
However, this dubious cycle may finally be coming to an end soon thanks to the recent introduction of two key technologies: Thread and Matter. While both have grand unification as the end-game, these nascent technologies vary as one focuses on software while the other focuses on hardware.
As of now, Matter is still in development, so the jury is still out on it, but Thread, on the other hand, is actually available in some smart home accessories today — and it truly lives up to the hype. So what exactly is Thread, how does it relate to HomeKit, and how can you take advantage of it now? There's a lot to unpack in the relatively new technology, so here's everything you to know about Thread.
What is Thread?
Thread is a low-power, hub-free wireless mesh networking protocol built for the Internet of Things. Similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Thread allows your smart home accessories to communicate with the internet, apps, or each other, giving you convenient controls and the ability to automate your home over an IP-based network.
According to the Thread Group — which oversees the development of the protocol, Thread was developed to solve some of the smart home's biggest connectivity challenges:
Thread solves the complexities of the IoT, addressing challenges such as interoperability, security, power, and architecture requirements. It is a low-power wireless mesh networking protocol based on the universally supported Internet Protocol (IP), and built using open and proven standards. Thread networks have no single point of failure and include the ability to self-heal. They are simple to set up and use and auto-reconfigure when a device is added or removed. And Thread ensures end-to-end communication — device-to-device, device-to-mobile, and device-to-cloud -— reliably and securely connecting hundreds, and even thousands, of products.
With mesh networking technology, Thread accessories create a secure, robust, self-healing, wireless network inside your home. Instead of every device communicating directly with your mobile device or Wi-Fi router, Thread accessories relay commands and data through each other and can automatically reroute if one device happens to fall off of the network.
Thread also enables a seamless, configuration-free setup for smart home accessories. Essentially, Thread's configuration process happens entirely behind the scenes — just like we see now with Apple's HomeKit. With Thread, users will not have to worry about entering in a lengthy Wi-Fi password or trying to disable the 5Ghz radio on a router to get an accessory with particular requirements connected. Thread just works.
How does Thread stack up against other wireless technology?
When compared to Bluetooth, Thread offers several significant advantages. Bluetooth is often associated with painfully slow response times and bouts of frustrating reliability — both of which are solved with Thread. Toggling a light or smart plug over Thread is pretty much instant, and with greater range, accessories have rock-solid reliability. Like Bluetooth, Thread is also energy-efficient and easy to set up with a local connection, so you still get the same great battery life and can be up and running in minutes.
Thread also compares well against Wi-Fi, which is the go-to standard for most smart accessories. Response times for Thread accessories are neck and neck with Wi-Fi and overall are just as reliable — all without needing to run commands through a random server in the cloud just to operate. Wi-Fi does have increased range, but if you plan to build out your smart home with Thread, the mesh networking technology may extend beyond your router's reach. Wi-Fi also requires significantly more power versus Thread, which translates to longer battery life for wireless Thread devices.
Standards like Zigbee, Z-Wave, or RF are known for offering the best smart home accessory experiences. These standards all provide great coverage, excellent reliability, and lightning-fast response times, but also all come with the same downside — needing a hub to get everything connected. Hubs usually require a free Ethernet port on your home's Wi-Fi router, which isn't always a given, and additional setup through a vendor's app before adding to HomeKit. However, Thread also requires a "hub-like" device to connect your smart home accessories to the internet, but you may already have one in your home.
Wait, I thought you said that Thread was "hub-free"?
Despite needing a "hub-like" device, Thread is still technically "hub-free." Thread networking doesn't require a vendor-specific hub to get up and running. However, accessories do require a Border Router to make all of the magic happen. So at the end of the day, you will need a "hub-like" device to do all of the heavy-lifting, but it doesn't have to come from one specific vendor.
Thread means that you can potentially have just one Border Router for all of your accessories. This promise contrasts with the mess we have now, where you need four or five hubs to control all of the various light sources in the home.
Ok, so what exactly does a Border Router do?
A Border Router is like a gatekeeper of sorts for your Thread network. A Border Router provides the proper credentials for your Thread Network to new accessories during the initial setup process, and it also assigns roles for the device once connected. Depending on the accessory, Thread devices may act as Leaders/Routers or Endpoints/Child Devices.
Accessories that function as Leaders or Routers (not to be confused with Border Routers), relay commands and data to other Thread devices on the network. Endpoints or Child Devices are limited to more straightforward tasks like updating status either on set intervals or when a triggering event occurs.
Examples of Leaders or Routers include "always-on" devices like smart plugs and light bulbs with a constant power source. Battery-powered devices like motion sensors or temperature sensors will typically function as Endpoints or Child Devices in order to conserve energy.
Which Border Routers are available today?
Currently, Apple's HomePod mini and the latest generation Apple TV 4K are the only active Thread Border Routers, at least in the HomeKit world, that you can buy today. Of course, there are other Border Routers in the works, with some requiring firmware updates to enable the feature. Depending on the hardware, your existing smart home accessories may be able to serve as Border Routers via future updates (more on that later).
Outside of HomeKit, Google has been utilizing Thread in conjunction with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in various smart home products for the past several years. Most notably, Google's Nest line has relied on Thread to communicate status updates between devices and provide notifications. The company has even included the technology in some of its smart home speakers and wireless routers — although they don't work as Border Routers for HomeKit.
What types of accessories work with Thread?
Like Bluetooth, Thread is suited-toward low-power smart accessories. These include sensors that cover motion, temperature, humidity, or light — either battery-powered or plugged-in. Thread is also great for other accessories like smart plugs, light switches, door locks, and light bulbs.
Since security cameras and doorbells require higher amounts of bandwidth to stream live video or perform image analysis, Thread isn't exactly a great fit. While we would love to see it in the future, cameras and video doorbells will more than likely be limited to Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or proprietary wireless communications for the time being.
Can existing accessories be updated to support Thread?
It is certainly possible, but it depends on your hardware. Existing accessories must have a Thread radio built-in to support the latest connectivity standard, which isn't something that can be added via a firmware update.
The good news is that some manufacturers have been preparing for Thread for the past couple of years, and some recent releases include the hardware already. Eve has already enabled Thread for its latest Door and Window sensor and Aqua Smart Water Controller via free updates, and it plans to update its Eve Thermo Radiator Thermostat later this year.
When in doubt, check with your device's manufacturer to see if they have Thread support in the works. Eve Systems provides a handy guide for identifying which of its accessories support the necessary hardware for Thread, making it easy to know what to look for when you are ready to purchase.
Which smart home accessories support Thread currently?
With Thread being relatively new still, there are only a handful of accessories on the market today. As of now, there are seven HomeKit-compatible accessories available, most covering the smart home essentials:
- Eve Door and Window Sensor
- Eve Aqua Smart Water Controller
- Eve Weather
- Eve Energy Smart Plug
- Eve Light Switch (EU model only)
- Nanoleaf Essentials A19 Light Bulb
- Nanoleaf Essentials Lightstrip
If you expand beyond HomeKit, certain models of Google's Nest Thermostat also currently run on Thread. The Nest Thermostat, Protect, Guard, and the Nest x Yale lock communicates status updates via the Nest service using Thread.
Of course, new products are always in the works. If you want to keep up to date on all of the Thread accessory releases, be sure to check out our guide, Every HomeKit-enabled Thread accessory that you can buy today.
Which accessories will support Thread in the future?
While most vendors like to keep their cards close to their chest, some — like Nanoleaf and Eve Systems, appear to be all-in on the Thread hype-train and have already spilled the beans on some upcoming products.
Eve Systems has announced that it intends to release updates to all of its existing products to support Thread. Since the company has already made good on promises to update a few of its products with the necessary hardware already, we expect to see refreshed models for older devices — like the US model of the Eve Light Switch, to hit the market relatively soon.
Nanoleaf, on the other hand, is taking a slightly different approach. Instead of enabling its existing Shapes Hexagons, and Shapes Triangles light panel systems to connect via Thread, Nanoleaf is turning them into full-fledged Border Routers. By going this route, Nanoleaf is providing customers with a way to enjoy the benefits of Thread found on its Essentials line without shelling out for a Border Router like the HomePod mini.
eero, the vendor behind the popular mesh Wi-Fi networking trend, plans to add Thread shortly. eero's second-generation mesh router and its latest WiFi 6 line already include Thread radios inside, and all that is needed is a firmware update to activate them. eero's routers will provide users with another Border Router option when the functionality is enabled.
How do I manage or see my Thread network?
Currently, the only way to see your Thread network is through third-party apps. The Eve for HomeKit app — available for free, provides users with a brief overview of the Thread network consisting of routes, capabilities, and Border Router assignments.
Apps like Home+5 can show Thread capabilities and status for unique accessories, and an update coming soon to the Nanoleaf app will enable Thread networking viewing as well.
However, it should be noted that you can only view your Thread network through these apps — you cannot make any actual changes to the network at this time.
If I can't manage my Thread network, then how do I troubleshoot issues?
If you happen to encounter any issues with your Thread accessories or network, you can potentially take a few simple steps to fix the problem. Try reviewing your network in the Eve for HomeKit app to see if your accessory is connected via Thread or if it has fallen back to Bluetooth. If it says Bluetooth, then reboot your accessory by unplugging it or by removing its battery.
If rebooting your accessory doesn't work, then you may need to restart your Border Router. For the HomePod mini, you can simply unplug it for a few seconds and then plug it back in. You can also restart the HomePod mini via the Home app, but if you are not paying close attention, you may remove it altogether. Check out our guide: How to restart or reset your HomePod or HomePod mini for a complete walkthrough.
What else do you want to know about Thread?
Have some burning questions about Thread that we didn't cover? Want to share your experiences with Thread so far? Let us know in the comments below!