Katherine Boehret

A Gadget for the Home Learns by Degrees

There are few technology products less inspiring than the thermostat. Yet for the past week, I’ve been more captivated by a thermostat than I ever thought possible.

It’s a thermostat called Nest from iPod inventor Tony Fadell’s new start-up, Nest Labs. And like Apple, Nest Labs has taken something you use every day and made it simple and delightful to use.

Nest operates with the same genius wheel user interface as the original iPod, with a digital screen in its center. It connects to your Wi-Fi network, allowing you to control it remotely via an iPhone app or the Web. And its stylish design made of brushed stainless steel is a showpiece.

What makes Nest stand out from other programmable thermostats is that it learns your behavioral patterns and creates a temperature-setting schedule from them. Nest has six sensors that can determine things like when you’re away from home.

Suddenly, I can’t imagine my house without a Nest.

Up front, it’ll cost you. Nest will be $249 when it’s available the week of Nov. 14. Installation costs $119 for the first unit and $25 for each additional unit. You can opt to install it yourself, but I strongly suggest ponying up for a professional installation unless you or someone you know has electrical expertise.

Installation took me an hour and a half, including removing my old unit and unplugging six wires, pushing anchors and screws into my wall, attaching the Nest base, clipping and stripping six wires to fit the new system, and using all manner of tools to fit the wires into the base. (Nest comes with four screwdrivers but no needle nose pliers, which are a big help.) After all this, my Nest didn’t run properly. The company sent someone to fix it, who discovered that only three of my system’s wires were attached, mimicking a working system without a fan.


The Nest thermostat.

Setting up Nest’s software was a breeze. Elegantly animated menus and instructions walked me through each step, including setting up my Wi-Fi network, setting my highest and lowest overall temperatures and entering my ZIP Code.

I entered data on my Nest by turning its outer ring left or right to skim through letters, numbers and symbols, and pushing in the center of the device to select each one. A gentle clicking sound — like the old iPod wheel — can be heard as you turn this ring and pass over each character.

At first, Nest doesn’t do much because it’s waiting for you to use it so it can learn your preferences. Turning the outer ring right or left adjusts the temperature. Cranking up the heat several degrees turned the Nest screen red; turning down the heat made the screen blue.

A little green leaf appears on the screen if an adjustment you make sets your system into energy-conserving mode relative to your normal behavior. This tiny symbol made me feel like I earned a gold star at school for good behavior.

Another way Nest teaches people is with on-screen messages that say how long it will take to get to a desired temperature. For example, if I turn my heat up two degrees from 72 degrees, a message on the screen may say, “In 30 minutes,” with a 74 below this message. This data is meant to deter people from making drastic temperature changes.

After two days of use, a message appeared on my Nest saying, “Initial heating schedule learning complete.” If the device’s sensors detect that no one has walked by the Nest in the past two hours, it goes into Away mode, automatically adjusting to the most energy-conserving temperature, set ahead of time.


Nest operates with the same genius wheel user interface as the original iPod, with a digital screen in its center.

If I didn’t agree with any of these learned behaviors, I could tweak the temperatures to my liking, and Nest adjusted to these corrections. After I adjusted the temperature two nights in a row so the house would be cooler when we were sleeping, Nest learned this and automatically adjusted temperatures around 11:30 p.m. We like heat in the morning, so Nest had the heat going when I hopped out of bed.

Nest.com, the website where people can control their device and review schedules and behavior, wasn’t yet live when I tested. The site shows a summary page of your Nest account, which reflects how much time your heat or air conditioning was used per day. A green leaf is awarded to the days on which the least energy was consumed.

To use the Nest app, you need only hold your iPhone in landscape view, and as long as it’s running on the same Wi-Fi network, the thermostat’s account is automatically set up on the iPhone. The iPhone app let me adjust temperatures from afar. One chilly day at work, I opened the Nest app and turned up my heat just before I went home.

People with more than one thermostat in one home can use more than one Nest, and they’ll all communicate with one another, though each can be adjusted to different temperatures. People with multiple homes can put all of their Nests on the same account.

Nest can get automatic software updates that the company says will let it do things in the future like adjusting temperatures according to current local weather and showing how much money temperature adjustments will save on utility bills.

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