You may have heard about this new smart home standard Matter and how it will make it easier to buy and set up connected gadgets. Not only that, but those gadgets should now work with any phone, voice assistant, or smart speaker, using any smart home platform — Apple Home, Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, or any other Matter-compatible option. If you got excited and went out and bought a new smart plug or smart light bulb to give this a whirl, you may have picked up one that uses Thread, one of the two wireless protocols Matter uses (the other is Wi-Fi). So, now what?
While Matter is supposed to make everything about the smart home easier, there are still some growing pains, especially regarding Thread — hey, the smart home wasn’t built in a day! So, to help you make sure you get your new Matter-over-Thread smart plug, smart shades, or smart light switch set up properly the first time, here’s a rundown on what you need to set up a Matter-over-Thread device and how to do it.
What is Thread?
No, it’s not a new social networking platform from Meta. Thread is a wireless mesh networking protocol originally developed alongside the first Nest thermostat. It’s designed to offer faster, more reliable connectivity for smart home devices than other options, with better range and longer battery life. It’s found in some of the most popular smart home accessories, including door locks, light bulbs, sensors, shades, switches, plugs, buttons, and thermostats.
Since the launch of Matter, we’ve seen a number of new Thread devices (although not as many as we’d like), and while setting them up is not difficult, you do need the right equipment. Otherwise, it’s kind of like trying to connect your TV to Wi-Fi without a Wi-Fi router.
What you need: a Matter controller and a Thread border router
To set up any Matter-over-Thread device on a Matter-compatible smart home platform, you need both a Matter controller and a Thread border router. The controller and border router can be contained in one combined device or set up as two separate devices.
While these sound and largely act like traditional smart home hubs and bridges you may have hooked up to your router in the past, the unique thing about Matter controllers and Thread border routers is they can be built into virtually any device — including smart speakers, TVs, fridges, streaming boxes, smart home hubs, thermostats, and light switches.
So, what exactly are a Matter controller and a Thread border router? Here’s a breakdown.
Important note: Not all Thread devices work with Matter. Some use HomeKit-over-Thread, including older Nanoleaf Essentials light bulbs and Belkin Wemo’s Thread line. These require an Apple Home-compatible Thread border router and will only connect to Apple Home, not any Matter platform. Matter-over-Thread devices will connect to Apple Home, but through Matter, not through HomeKit. The easiest way to know if a Thread device works with Matter is to look for the Matter logo on the box.
What is a Matter controller?
A Matter controller connects your new Thread gadget to a Matter platform over your home network. It should be a device that’s always plugged in and has a permanent internet connection, and is most commonly a smart speaker like an Amazon Echo, Google Nest Mini, or Apple HomePod.
Matter controllers are platform-specific, so you need an Apple Home Matter controller (a HomePod or Apple TV) if you want to use a Matter device with Apple Home or a Google Matter controller (a Nest Mini smart speaker or Nest Hub) to use a device with Google Home, and so on.
Plenty of Matter controllers are now available; you can get one for as little as $40. These tend to be cheaper than combined Matter / Thread devices (more on these in a bit) and might be something you already have. Lots of smart speakers have been upgraded to Matter controllers through over-the-air updates. Here is a complete list of Matter controllers.
What is a Thread border router?
A Thread border router connects your Thread device to the internet and helps create a Thread mesh network in your home. Any powered device that’s part of the mesh — like a smart plug or light bulb — can extend it, providing a stronger, more reliable network. This helps devices that might be further from your router — like door locks or sensors — stay connected.
Thread border routers are also most commonly smart speakers, but can also be in light fixtures, wireless chargers, and Wi-Fi routers. You can have multiple Thread border routers in the same mesh network, providing a failsafe in case someone unplugs one. (Be aware there are still some issues with border routers from different manufacturers joining the same network.)
Like a Matter controller, a Thread border router needs to be plugged into power and have an internet connection, plus it also needs a Thread radio. They are platform agnostic, so can be from any manufacturer and don’t need to be made by the company whose smart home platform you’re using. In fact, even if a border router is inside a controller from one platform, you can still use it to add your Thread device to a different platform. Here’s a list of devices that are Thread border routers.
What is a combination Thread border router / Matter controller?
One device can do double duty as both a Matter controller and Thread border router. The advantage here is you only need one gadget, and you’ve got everything you need to set up your Thread device.
The disadvantage is these tend to be a bit more expensive. The cheapest one you can get right now is Samsung’s SmartThings Station ($60), but most start at around $100.
The following devices are combination Thread border routers and Matter controllers:
How to set up a Matter-over-Thread device
Once you have your Thread border router and Matter controller sorted, you can add your Thread device using the app of your smart home platform. Just follow the platform’s standard pairing process. Here are links to those steps for each of the four main Matter-supported platforms:
Important note: if you use an Apple Thread border router, you must use an iPhone to use the Apple Thread network. If you’re using an Android phone, you can’t use an Apple border router unless you also have an iPhone, so choose a border router from any of the other platforms.
How to share your Matter-over-Thread device with other platforms
Once your Thread device is set up on your primary Matter smart home platform, you can use it with any other Matter smart home platform using Matter’s multi-admin feature. This means your device can also work with any Matter-compatible ecosystem and with its app and voice assistant. However, because Matter controllers are platform-specific, you’ll need a separate Matter controller from that platform if you want to do this.
For example, if you set up a device in Apple Home using a HomePod (which is a combination Thread border router / Matter controller) and you want to add it to Amazon Alexa, too, you’ll need a Matter controller from Amazon. This could be an Echo Dot, Pop, or Show.
The same is true if you used an Eero Wi-Fi router as a Thread border router to add a device to Alexa; you could then use a Google Nest Mini smart speaker (a Matter controller) to add the same device to Google Home, and so on.
The good news is that while you need multiple Matter controllers to use multiple Matter platforms, you only need one Thread border router. However, you can have multiple border routers, and the more you have, the better your Thread network should be.
Photos by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge