Nest: It’s the iPod of Thermostats

By  |  Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 2:16 am

Many years ago, Tony Fadell took an idea he had for a new gadget to Apple. It was a pocket-sized hard-disk MP3 player. Apple was impressed–and, just over a decade ago, released Fadell’s creation as the iPod. It was, as you may recall, quite popular.

Fadell went on to run Apple’s iPod division, but In 2008, he¬†stepped down and in 2010, he severed all ties with Apple. He and his wife (also a former Apple employee) spent some of their newly-found free time with their kids, and some of it building a green home near Lake Tahoe.

While Fadell was working on his house, he had a new brainstorm. Why not take the thermostat–one of the most boring devices on the planet, and therefore one which is largely ignored by most homeowners–and make it interesting? Why not make it what he calls “a cherished object?” Why not make it a gadget?

Inspired, he co-founded a company called Nest Labs. It’s announcing its creation, the Nest, which it plans to ship in November for $249. And it’s not just the least boring thermostat ever invented: It’s downright interesting. When Fadell briefed me recently and did a demo, I got excited by its potential–and if you see one in person, I think you’ll be just as intrigued.

The thermostat in our household. It's possible that it's older than I am.

The Nest thermostat is in some ways reminiscent of the ancient one in my 1950s home–they’re both round, and let you control the temperature by rotating a ring. But it’s also radically different from any other thermostat you’ve ever seen, and almost explicitly evocative of the iPod, another gizmo you control by spinning a circular input device. (Fadell told me that he decided to pursue this idea in part because he promised Steve Jobs he wouldn’t compete with Apple, but his Apple experience practically exudes from the Nest nonetheless.)

Unlike most modern thermostats–which, if you’re lucky, have an LCD display, a few buttons, and rudimentary programming capabilities–the Nest is a sophisticated piece of consumer electronics. Inside the metal ring you spin to control it is a round color LCD. It’s also got Wi-Fi, allowing it to get onto the Internet. And it’s got embedded motion detectors, allowing it to have a sense of what’s going on around it.

Like any thermostat, the Nest lets you rotate to the left to turn the temperature down, and rotate to the right to crank it up. But that’s just the start. Here are some of the other things it does:

  • It can pay attention to its surroundings and turn down the heat automatically when it notices you’re not around.
  • As you adjust the temperature, it can pay attention, learn, and start to adjust it itself to mirror your habits.
  • When you use it in an energy-saving manner, it shows a green leaf to let you know you’re doing good.
  • It allows you to control it remotely over the Web or using an iOS app (an Android one is in the works).
  • It makes its LCD turn blue when it’s cooling your home, and red when it’s heating it.
  • When you set it to a particular temperature, it tells you how long it’ll be until it reaches it.
  • It can nudge you out of your comfort zone ever so slightly–making thing a little cooler or a little hotter to save more energy.
  • It can show the future temperature adjustments it’s programmed to make in a calendar view.

It’s hard to overstate how well-done Nest is, at least from a conceptual, interface, and industrial design standpoint. (I saw Fadell show off a version on a little demo stand, so I can’t vouch for how well it actually does at saving energy.) It looks good, it feels good, and it’s more intuitive to use than garden-variety thermostats that do far less.It seems remarkably polished for a first-generation product in a new category. (Fadell calls it the first learning thermostat.)

Nest Labs plans to sell Nest through home-improvement stores, electronics shops such as Best Buy, and speciality merchants that cater to contractors and HVAC experts. It says that anyone who’s comfortable installing a light switch should be able to install the Nest in about twenty minutes: It comes with a special tool and faceplates that let you avoid spackling and painting if you want.

Will it do well? Only if it changes the way people think about thermostats, which is usually not to think much about them at all. Based on what I’ve seen I think it has a good shot at being at least as important in its category as the iPod was in its field.

 
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21 Comments For This Post

  1. SirWired Says:

    Other than the remote internet access, and looking pretty, this thing does little more than a $50 Honeywell programmable t-stat. The Honeywell ones also "learn"; they turn on the heat or cool early to adjust for how long it takes to bring your house to setpoint. They know how long it takes to heat or cool your house, and instead of cycling 2 degrees around a setpoint (a noticable swing), they run a certain number of cycles per hour and simply adjust the length of those cycles; they never budge off the setpoint as a result. And need I mention again they're only $50? For a full 7×4 timed program?

    Cute, but not something I'd personally pay $250 for. And it certainly doesn't bring any particularly useful capabilities to the table. The iPod was only a modest price premium over its far less usable peers; this thing is FIVE times the competition. That's a tough sell.

  2. Steve Leon Says:

    Hi, Harry. This looks good, but it doesn't do much more than the Carrier t-stats and systems in my house that offer remote access. More important, based on what we saw at CEATEC, this is an improvement to design that does not move function forward in the same way the Japanese are looking to turn the house into an emergency generator, or a digital extension of your life that conserves energy while making you more comfortable. Great design will trump a playing field of level capabilities — Apple is proving that over and over. But Japan is innovating while Nest appears to be repackaging.

  3. bmiller Says:

    I tend to agree with SirWired…I'm a techie working in the HVAC field and there are several thermostats on the market today that provide similar features from much more trusted brand names such at Honeywell, Trane and EcoBee that all provide more features. The only thing that I tend to disagree with him on is the price tag. Yes $250 is expensive for a thermostat, however my COST at wholesale is nearly $80 for a good Honeywell thermostat that can support today's multistage furnaces. If you want to be able to access your home's heating and cooling system remotely, you're not going to get if for $50. For many, $250 for a stat that can be accessed remotely and send text and or email messages when something is not working properly is pretty cheap insurance when compared to the cost of frozen pipes.

    Personally I own a Trane thermostat that provides me access to not only the temp in the house, but also communicates with my front door lock that can be opened remotely if necessary. It also sends me a text message telling me when my kids come home from school. This is the future of home automation and the "smart house"

  4. Amelia@IT Management Says:

    I wouldn't mind getting one but the price is out of this world! It looks good and pretty and has nice features but at the end of the day it is just a thermostat.

    Sorry but I'm cheap. I prefer one of those things that just cost $50. As for its other features, there are other gadgets out there that can perform better.

  5. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The question isn't, "Why not" but, "Why?"

  6. Kevin Says:

    I agree with all of the above posts. Devices are already on the market that do all this for a lot less (I own one also). What this does do that the current market doesn't, is light up your hallway like an xmas tree all night. Really…a red and blue glow? That'll get annoying pretty quick unless there's a way to turn that feature off. The remote access is somewhat interesting, but properly programming the thing should eliminate that need 364 out of 365 days a year.

  7. shawn Says:

    are these comments about the nest, or the original ipod?

  8. Steve Says:

    For the Trane/Schlage solution that's out there, don't you have to pay a $9 monthly subscription? Anyone know if Nest is going to charge for Web access? I can't seem to find it anywhere.

  9. immovableobject Says:

    No one "needs" the Nest thermostat, and it is certainly expensive. On the other hand, there IS a market for luxury stylish gadgets that are fully featured, yet easy and pleasing to use (think of the $1000 bidet toilet seats).

    In this economy, splurging on a thermostat won't be for everyone. But if it works well, there may be enough takers to keep them in business. Unless they can knock the price way down, it certainly won't be like the iPod which grew to dominate its product category.

  10. worleygurl Says:

    how many of us had the exact same thoughts/concerns about the ipod? whenever something new comes out, everyone says oh why do we need that or it's too expensive or i already have something that works just as well! well, take a look around at the high tech gadgets on your desk. this could turn out to be the next big thermostat. :)

  11. Mike Says:

    Worleygurl. you may be right in your post but I think not? The price point is off, a lot. Too much money.

    it doesn't seem to comprehend alternative energy sources such as geothermal? With geothermal, heat pumps, etc you are best off to not keep altering the temperature.

    In addition, many home security/home control systems are starting to offer these kind of capabiliites and more.

  12. Prince Ace Says:

    It seems good, but I think it doesn't do much more than the Carrier t-stats and systems in some house that offer remote access.
    http://neos.theultrasoft.com

  13. Br. Bill Says:

    It's cheaper than the Ecobee thermostat, and looks easier to use. If it saves you $500 in 3 years, is $250 too much to pay?

    And those other programmable thermostats suck. They help, but not nearly enough. The programming interfaces are lousy – as one article pointed out, like programming a 1980s VCR. Some of them are not backlit. Some of them are too small to read. All of them are ugly. I mean, really ugly. What if I don't like my home's thermostat looking like my workplace's?

  14. Barry H Says:

    I think you may be missing part of the benefit here. I have been waiting for years for someone to come up with a reliable thermostat that I can install that will allow me to change the temperature setting remotely on my phone. Leaving work late on cold autumn night…crank up the thermostat and come home to a toasty house. I think I will buy one.

  15. TED Says:

    I don't turn the thermostat up or down when I leave. I WANT the temperature to stay the same all the time even when I'm not here. It is necessary for several reasons. For one thing I don't keep a "regular" schedule because I have a home office. I may be back at any moment. Another more important reason is that like many (most?) people I have pets. I don't want to come home and find one of them having a heat stroke because a device decided I wasn't home and turned off the A/C. Most important of all, I want to be in charge of the technology that I use not the other way around!
    I do NOT want any device trying to "nudge" me into being a little too hot or too cold. I already adjust the thermostat for the least amount of heating or cooling that I find acceptable. I don't need a device fiddling with it. When I can access this thing remotely and have it take the dog outside, make sure he doesn't stay outside too long when the temperature is too hot or too cold, let him back in, and refill his water bowl let me know and I'll consider it.

  16. Anonymous Says:
  17. Rob Says:

    @worleygurl

    You’re right that something new, like the iPod when first introduced, often meets with resistance because the implications and value are not comprehended. An iPod was a personal device that gave its user ready and portable access to an enormous music library in a useful, friendly, and engaging package. A thermostat has a largely uninteresting, impersonal role: control home temperature. That means it won’t incite the same interest.

    Let’s look at the features this one offers to see their value. Being able to control temperature remotely is interesting — though security concerns arise — and currently possible. The motion sensing feature is of very limited use: the thermostat is in just one room and can have no idea anyone is home if they don’t happen to visit that one room. Learning from how the user adjusts the thermostat is silly: many people can tweak it and if one’s schedule varies, the programming will be completely confused. Displaying the time to set temperature is a nice feature, though it obviously will take time to learn each home’s reaction time and can only be accurate when taking external temperature into account. The red and blue glow is silly; a simple, low lumen, two-color LED would suffice. The dial interface is nicer than repeatedly pressing buttons on other digital thermostats. The nudge-to-green behavior will be annoying for many. It isn’t hard to choose to reduce or increase the temperature oneself. However, being able to tell the thermostat to adjust the current program to be warmer or cooler, without having to adjust each programmed setting would be useful.

    Programmable thermostats are not terribly easy to use, in my experience. There is room to improve that. This one might be easier to program, though possibly only because it programs by observation. A better approach is to use an app which provides a nice interface for producing the program which is transmitted wirelessly (Bluetooth would work nicely) to the thermostat. That avoids the need for a UI on the thermostat, with its demands on display, input, and processing.

    There are features that can, and should, be improved on thermostats, but this one doesn’t do nearly enough for the asking price.

  18. Petridish Says:

    It's worth it if only for the sleek, modern look.

    Plus the geek in me will be trying to program this thing

  19. dan Says:

    It's a great invention. I wish I invented it. It's the free wifi access that makes it great. Do I like the fact that a computer guy invented something the HVAC should have developed–no, but that's life.

  20. rawbert Says:

    Just like there were other MP3 players when the ipod was released, it was the user interface and the sleek design that made it a product people wanted. It commanded a significant premeium over its copetitiors. (my 10gb firewire gen 1 ipod was $4oo+) the price premium makes it a semi luxury item, just like apple products. People still bought them. This thermostat will do well for the same reason apple has. eventhough MS windows does everything OSX can, the apple interface is more user friendly and their products look like they belong on display. Aesthetics are important. would you buy a hideous car even though it was fast or handeled very well?

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