Sigma unveils new Z-Wave chips, jumps to ARM, claims big improvements

In the midst of its acquisition by Silicon Labs, Sigma Designs has taken the wraps off of its new 700-Series Z-Wave chips. With heaps of smart home devices being unveiled at CES, Sigma is hoping to push its new silicon’s capabilities into a growing ecosystem that seems to finally be ready to take off. Z-Wave’s chief rival Zigbee shows no signs of going anywhere, but it has been a very notably quiet CES for Thread – though it might still be too early to pass judgment on the newest mesh networking rival, Bluetooth Mesh.

The most notable new Z-Wave feature is the claimed ten-year battery life, for devices sending up to ten messages per day, using a coin-cell battery. For things like door or window sensors, which might only have to wake a handful of times per day, a ten-year battery life is great. For devices that might be in hard-to-reach areas, things like damp or humidity sensors tucked away in basements, a longer battery life means that a customer gets to avoid the hassle of changing a battery for perhaps a decade.

In the smart homes of today, which have an average of just a handful of devices and very few battery-powered ones, the chore of changing a battery doesn’t sound arduous at all. But as device penetration increases, there will come a time when changing batteries in beeping smart home devices becomes a weekly chore – one that would become especially annoying after the honeymoon period of the new device and feature wears off. Imagine the smoke alarm experience but multiplied by 50x.

With a ten-year battery life, many home-owners will find themselves moving house before these batteries die, and for other devices that require more messages per day, the increased power budget opens up a lot more doors for the developers. In a similar vein, the extended range of up to 100-meters (300-feet) should provide outdoor garden and multi-story mesh coverage without too much difficulty. In-wall installations and designs for integrations into furniture are also possible.

On this topic, the other big change is the shift to an ARM Cortex-M3 design for the processor, moving away from the previous 8051 MCU. The new approach should help with integrations and developer experience in the ARM ecosystem, and the 700-Series chips will also enjoy increased memory and peripheral options.

The Intel MCS-51 on which the older 8051 designs were based was first launched in the 1980s, so a 32-bit ARM ecosystem is a very noticeable upgrade. It should enable some cross-pollination and skills overlap from the ARM community, and the 700-member Z-Wave Alliance is pretty keen to stress that the new approach should ensure minimum development costs.

Sigma says that there are now 700 companies using Z-Wave in their designs, representing some 2,400 certified Z-Wave products. Because of the protocol’s insistence on backwards compatibility, mandated within the standard, interoperability has been a big selling point for Z-Wave.

The other main selling point is security, and the new designs features the new S2 framework by default. A newer feature is SmartStart, an automatic wireless setup system that promises to remove any headaches from the consumer’s installation. The presentation claims that a device can wake and send encrypted messages in less than a second. Both are required to pass Z-Wave certification.

It has seemed like every CES since 2014 has been the one that finally set the stage for the smart home explosion – but that bang never took. Now, however, Amazon has primed the market, with its very aggressive promotion of its Echo range. Even Apple is lurking in the shadows, with its HomeKit-enabled HomePod, while Google tries to claw back ground lost to Amazon’s blitzkrieg.

Z-Wave is pretty confident about the opportunity in these new digital assistant speakers, and is banking on Z-Wave sensors helping to drive the transition from connected devices to a collectively context-aware smart home – one that uses sensor data to make its decisions. Currently, only a few such speakers have directly integrated Z-Wave, mostly in South Korea, with Johan Pedersen, Product Marketing Manager for Z-Wave, saying the best approach to tackling the issue of adding Z-Wave is through the smart home hubs – as he said almost all hub makers have integrations with the likes of Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The alliance says that battery-powered sensor devices will soon become the highest volume category of Z-Wave sales – with Pedersen saying that battery-powered devices account for around a third of current shipments, but will soon be two-thirds. Pedersen said that the 700-Series modules will be equal to or lower cost than the 500-Series, but said he couldn’t disclose those figures.

The Z-Wave Alliance claims a 70% market share in its smart home Command and Control sector, and says that 94m products have been sold since its inception. With annual sales of $1.2bn in 2017, and an associated services market revenue of $3.6bn, the alliance thinks there’s still lots of room for Z-Wave to grow – based on its research that says only 17% of US homes currently house a Z-Wave product.

In terms of smart home device categories, Z-Wave is most prevalent in the Command and Control sector, where the alliance research says there are some 34m total devices. Of these 34m, Z-Wave has around 70% market share (mostly in lighting, but a growing proportion of sensors), or about 24m devices per year – with Zigbee and smaller protocols taking the rest of the share.

As for sales channels, professional security accounts for 43% of Z-Wave’s business, with the telco sector in second-place on 36%. Retail and online shopping takes 19%, and the final 2% is attributed to CEDIA.

The number one reason for customers returning an item was the difficulty of installation, with 13% of Z-Wave’s survey respondents saying they had returned a smart home device in the past two years because they had had difficulty installing it. Some 92% of consumers say they’re more loyal to brands that help remove such headaches. The new SmartStart pre-purchase pairing should help with this concern, as it should provide out-of-the-box successes – requiring the customer to only place the device where they want, and not worry about pairing (assuming it works as specified).