Home / Networking / There’s a secret smart home radio in these Macs and iPads – does yours have one?

There’s a secret smart home radio in these Macs and iPads – does yours have one?

iPad Pro M4 2024 OLED display

Kerry Wan/ZDNET

Apple appears to be future-proofing its new iPads and Macs: Many — but not necessarily all — devices launched since September 2023 have Thread radios built in. Apple hasn’t confirmed this or added the information to the devices’ specifications, but FCC reports confirm the presence of these smart home radios in several iPads and Macs.

The catch? Apple hasn’t made official announcements about it, and it doesn’t appear that these devices can function as Thread border routers yet. However, the fact that the capability is there indicates that Apple could enable these radios in future updates, making iPads and Macs ready to function as Thread border routers.

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When Apple launched the iPhone 15 lineup last fall, it announced that the 15 Pro and 15 Pro models have a Thread radio. Aside from the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max, here’s a list of the Apple devices with Thread radios launched as of September 2023:

iPads with a Thread radio:

Macs with a Thread radio:

If and when Apple enables these radios in iPads and Macs, these devices could use the Thread protocol to connect smart home devices as well as peripherals with low-power and low-latency connection requirements, like the Apple Watch, AirTags, keyboards, and mice. 

Since the iPad and Mac run Apple’s Home app, they could function as Thread border routers, integrating more seamlessly with smart home networks. This could indicate the iPad’s return to functioning as a smart home hub. 

How to check if your iPad or Mac has a Thread radio

The best way to determine if your device has a Thread radio built-in is to look for evidence of Thread testing in the device’s FCC reports

Most Apple devices, except iPhones, have this printed on the back. If you can’t find this number on the device, go to Settings, General, select About, and look for the model number.

You can also look for your iPad, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro models on Apple’s Support page.

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You can access the Apple FCC database by clicking FCC.Report/company/Apple. This will bring up a complete list of the company’s FCC reports, from the first one in 1981 through today.

Search for your device’s model number or FCC ID by performing a quick Find using Ctrl F or cmd F.

Clicking on the device’s report will bring up a list of all the reports created for the device available through the FCC.

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Search for any test reports mentioning “Thread” or “IEEE 802.15.4,” which is the technical standard on which Thread is built. 

If a Thread radio exists in that device, you should find a report of its compliance testing since a non-existent feature wouldn’t be tested.

FAQ

What is Thread?

Thread is a low-energy wireless communication protocol for smart home devices created by the Thread Group. Like Zigbee, Thread is based on IEEE 802.15.4 and is designed to provide faster speeds and better range than Bluetooth within a home network. It’s also part of the new smart home standard, Matter, which can run over Thread or Wi-Fi. Apple is one of the companies behind the development of Matter through the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA). 

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Thread was created as an energy-efficient and secure protocol to connect battery-powered devices, like smart home sensors, smart locks, room thermometers, lights, thermostats, and security systems. The IP-based protocol allows for easy integration with smart home ecosystems, which is Matter’s main goal.

What is a Thread border router?

Hand holding a HomePod Mini

The HomePod mini is an Apple Thread border router.

Maria Diaz /ZDNET

Thread networks are mesh networks, so Thread border routers are crucial to a reliable network. A Thread border router connects the Thread network to external networks like Wi-Fi or ethernet and facilitates data transfer between the devices inside the Thread network and those outside of it, enabling smart home devices to interact with cloud services and smartphones.

The HomePod, HomePod mini, and some Apple TV devices function as Thread border routers, as do the Google Nest Hub Max, Amazon Echo, and Eero Pro 6.

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Thread creates a self-healing mesh network, so having more border routers in a smart home makes for a more stable and efficient connection between devices. The robust self-healing network ensures that devices remain connected even if one or more devices in the network go offline or experience issues, working together without interruptions.

For example, if you have a Thread smart lock and temperature sensor and a Wi-Fi smart thermostat, a Thread border router like the HomePod mini connects the smart lock and sensor to the Wi-Fi network and enables communication between the sensor and thermostat. It also would allow you to control all three devices through a single app — in this case, Apple Home — even if you’re not home.

Why would Apple give some iPads and Macs Thread radios and not all?

No Thread protocol information was found for the 11-inch M2 Wi-Fi iPad Air or the 13-inch M3 Macbook Air. This doesn’t guarantee that a Thread radio isn’t included in these devices, but Apple likely used a simpler chip for these starter models.

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While Apple hasn’t explicitly confirmed this information, the company may have used tri-band radio chips in the iPads and Macs with Thread radios. These integrated circuits support three different frequency bands for wireless communication, combining Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Thread into a single chip to make it more energy-efficient and compact. The multi-protocol support helps future-proof devices by supporting emerging wireless protocols.

Will iPads and Macs be Thread border routers?

It’s unclear whether iPads and Macs will eventually function as Thread border routers because Apple hasn’t announced or confirmed this functionality. However, future software updates could enable this capability to enhance smart home ecosystems and improve the performance of a smart home network, especially as the Matter standard becomes more widely adopted in the Apple ecosystem.

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The new iPads and Macs with Thread radios have the necessary hardware to act as Thread border routers, but Apple needs to enable this functionality.  

Is the iPad a smart home hub?

Not currently. The iPad used to be a smart home hub for HomeKit, but iPadOS 16 removed this capability. With that software update, Apple upgraded the Home app significantly and stopped supporting the iPad for new HomeKit features and automations. 

Apple opted to offer the smart home hub feature only to dedicated devices like the HomePod, HomePod mini, and Apple TV. These devices are always plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, whereas the iPad is a portable device that may not always be at home, disrupting its ability to function as a reliable hub.

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Giving newer iPads Thread support would bring back its smart home hub functionality and make iPads a more robust option for the smart home than before. 

If users want to keep an older iPad as a smart home hub, it cannot have iOS 16 and will work only with basic HomeKit functionality, as new features and enhancements introduced after iOS 16 won’t be supported.

Would Thread replace Bluetooth for Apple peripherals?

Probably not. Even in the unlikely case that Apple isn’t planning on using Thread for smart home devices and is only integrating it to connect peripherals, like the Apple Watch and other devices, Thread isn’t likely to replace Bluetooth. 

Bluetooth is the dominant connectivity protocol for peripheral devices, but Thread could complement it, providing a robust network alternative for specific use cases where its technical advantages are most beneficial, similar to how the Apple Watch uses Wi-Fi to complement Bluetooth.  

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The Apple Watch primarily uses Bluetooth to connect to the iPhone, but when Bluetooth isn’t available, it can connect to known Wi-Fi networks to maintain functionality. It can switch between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi seamlessly, ensuring continuous connectivity.


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