Zigbee – The Ongoing Sonoff Story

Sonoff Zigbee 3.0 USB Dongle Plus

You may recall for a while I got fanatical about Zigbee – I’ve not lost interest – it’s just that by and large, Zigbee just WORKS – in particular, I have a load of Zigbee sensors around the house, mostly AQARA, mostly running on CR2032 batteries and the (rather short-range without repeaters) Zigbee network is nicely expanded by the use of the odd Zigbee mains-powered switch around the house, specifically Sonoff Zigbee DIY mains power controller and a couple of Sonoff ZBMINIs running house lights – as they are plugged in permanently, these extend the Zigbee mesh network to cover the whole house.

Initially I used the inexpensive, original Sonoff Zigbee dongle which worked well with a range of devices but which didn’t have the best antenna in the world. That prompted me, back in June 2021 to get an ElectroLama ZZH unit which uses a better chip (a TI CC2652R 2.4 GHz multi-protocol wireless microcontroller) and a better antenna to increase range and the number of units it can handle.

At that time, Sonoff were working on an improved model – some of us received samples – but they asked us to hang onto them as they made final improvements and mine just arrived. It is called the Sonoff Zigbee 3.0 Dongle Plus. With a working temperature of -10C to +40C it is just within range of temperatures likely to occur in my office here in Spain (I’ve seen the office go well past 30c if I go out in summer and forget to close the blinds).

Power consumption of the new Itead (Sonoff) unit is 100ma max at 5v (USB). In keeping with the name on the website, the dongle itself is marked (on the back) as ZBDongle-P and on the front as Zigbee 3.0 USB Dongle Plus – and comes with a detachable antenna. I use this with Zigbee2MQTT on Raspberry Pi 4.

So, first things first, solid aluminium construction – you would expect that to put the price up compare to the original. Four tiny screws hold the unit together so of course my first instinct was to pull it apart to see if the insides have changed. The price IS still reasonable – and Sonoff recommend a USB extension lead quite sensibly – even my ZZH “coordinator” does not work plugged directly into RPi4 due to interference so I have that on a 1M extension lead and it works a treat.

Sonoff Zigbee Coordinator dongle

Gone is the original chip and Sonoff now use a combo of the TI CC2652P + CP2102N with a claimed 20dBm gain antenna (the aformentioned ZZH unit uses the SLIGHTLY different CC2652R chip). Despite the suffix variation, I guess the upgrade should put the new Sonoff on a par with the ZZH – except that the ZZH isn’t as cheap as the Sonoff unit – if you are interested I suggest you compare the two – price variations may depend to some extent on where you live.

No doubt about it, the Sonoff is the prettier product with that substancial aluminium housing – which works best is yet to be seen – read on. Both of course work with ZIGBEE2MQTT (I have only come across one Zigbee 3.0 client priduct that DOESN’T work with Zigbee2MQTT – a cheap AliExpress light+temperature+humidity sensor).

October 2021 Update: The Sonoff unit should now be widely in stock and it is possible to upgrade the firmware using the free TI tool I used on the ZZH firmware upgrades, the performance of the ZZH being just fine after months of 24/7 use.

It seems that the Sonoff unit has issues pairing with sensors that the ZZH does not. Mat at NotEnoughTech has gone into this in depth, so that while the new Sonoff device SHOULD be much better than its precedessor partly due to the claimed gain of the new antenna, in reality the ZZH still wins out – neither of us have any axe to grind on this subject. The issues faced by the Sonoff unit are not limited to pairing sensors from other companies – the issues apply to their own products as well.

Because the software is community supported, Itead are relying on said community to help improve the situation. Meanwhile I’m sticking with my ZZH. As always however, Sonoff pricing remains very competitive – which is what brought the name to popularity in the first place and we can always hope that more upgrades will fix the issues. The Electrorama unit is almost 3 times the price – but just WORKS and has enabled me to experiment with countless Zigbee devices such as those featured here – without even thinking about pairing or other issues.

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6 thoughts on “Zigbee – The Ongoing Sonoff Story

  1. Hi Peter.

    Thank you for your blog. I have found really useful information and interesting devices here.

    Some months ago I was planning to move to Zigbee devices (Mostly sensors and switches), but considering the problems I had with WiFi when my computer’s Bluetooth connected to my speakers (Several ESP8266 based devices disconnected from WiFi when playing music and the only solution was to reset them), I decided no to go that wait.

    My question is: Have you noticed any issues in WiFi product of interference caused by Zigbee devices?

    Respectfully,

    Juan C.

    1. Ok Juan, here’s my story and it is probably as atypical as yours. No, I’ve not noticed any extra issues with WiFi since I started using Zigbee. On the other hand I have always found Bluetooth to be of far more limited range than usually claimed and tend to avoid it for that reason.

      I have a bluetooth dongle which I put on the end of an extension as my RPi could not reach to a Bluetooh garden sensor 3 metres away. With Bluetooth dongle at the window and the garden sensor on the window ledge (outside) – I can contact the sensor – if I move the sensor much further away, I get no connection.

      For my actual Zigbee Coordinator – I noticed that, plugged straight into the Raspberry Pi 4, it would not work – so I plugged it into a 1 metre extension. That is not WiFi related however as I have WiFi turned off in the RPi.

      Regards

      Pete

  2. “with a claimed 20dBm gain antenna.”

    Do they supply some huge multi element directional beam antenna that you haven’t mentioned ?

    1. It says “+20dBm output gain”. That’s not antenna gain – assume it to be system output. I think WiFi devices in this class nominaly output about 17dBm, so that means the antenna is adding about +3dBm.

  3. I’ve already had a response on this one – if anyone got an early model and is using it with Zigbee2MQTT – Octobe 2021 – updated software is available for the Sonoff unit but it seems it still has pairing issues with its own devices and others.

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