Nest Learning Thermostat review

The Nest Learning Thermostat is a must-have for high-tech homeowners or anyone looking to save on heating and air conditioning costs through interactive programming and online management.
Photo of Nest Learning Thermostat

As a longtime homeowner I can honestly say that I’ve never given much thought to the lowly thermostat. I’ve installed two or three over the years and never paid more than $45 for a basic programmable model, and the last two I installed (more than ten years ago) still work perfectly. So when I was asked to install and review the Nest Learning Thermostat ($249 direct), I jumped at the chance to see what all the fuss was about, but was admittedly skeptical given the Nest’s lofty price tag. As it turns out, this “next-generation thermostat,” as the company calls it, is one of the coolest products I’ve had the pleasure to review. It will likely become a permanent fixture in my home—if I can find one on the cheap, that is. It’s an easy Editors’ Choice for home automation devices.

Design and Features
Most traditional thermostats use nondescript rectangular white plastic housings and feature small monochrome LCDs with multiple program buttons and dials. The Nest, on the other hand, is housed in a round glass and brushed metal enclosure that oozes style. Measuring 3.2 inches in diameter and 1.3 inches thick, it resembles a high-tech hockey puck.

The clean design allows for no buttons or dials; the stainless steel outer ring provides all the functionality you’ll need to set up and program the device. Simply press the ring once to bring up the menu, turn it left or right to toggle through menu choices, and press it again to select your choice. The same goes for programming temperature settings, heating and cooling times, and for configuring network and heating system settings. The Nest connects to your wireless network, so once you’ve performed the initial setup you can open a free Nest account and manage everything over the Web or from your Android or iOS phone or tablet.

The Nest may be tiny but it’s jam-packed with cool technology, including activity sensors, a Wi-Fi radio, three temperature sensors, and a humidity sensor (you can also use the Nest to control a whole-house humidifier/dehumidifier system).  

The activity sensors are used to activate the Auto Away feature, which shuts down heating and cooling after an hour or two of inactivity to conserve energy.  I particularly like the energy history feature, which tracks daily heating and cooling usage. You can view daily usage on the Nest display or get a colorful graphical monthly report via the Web app. This can be very useful if you’re looking for ways to reduce costs, as it shows the length of heating (or cooling) times per day and if you’re running in an energy efficient manner. The Nest also collects real-time local weather information that it incorporates into the energy report to explain why usage may vary from day to day.

The Auto Schedule feature is ideal for users who don’t program their thermostat and instead simply turn the heat on or off when needed. The Nest senses your presence and displays the current room temperature along with the desired setting. The reading is illuminated by white backlighting and is set against a black background. If you turn the ring to the left, the temperature readout will decrease incrementally and the background will turn blue to indicate cooling. Rotating the ring to the right raises the temperature incrementally and turns the background red to indicate warming. In order to help you save money, a green leaf will appear when you set the temperature to a level that is considered energy efficient, say, 68 degrees.

The Nest learns your heating and cooling habits over the first week of use. Simply set your heat/AC temperature at the same time each day for a week and the Nest will create a schedule based on this usage. Once the schedule is created you can still make arbitrary changes from time to time (one-offs) and the Nest will stay the course. You can change the schedule at any time using the Nest’s ring, but it is much easier to do online. If you can’t be bothered to take the time to let the Nest learn, you can always create your own schedule with the robust Web app.

The Nest will work in most dwellings that employ a two- or three-stage heating/cooling system. My home uses a typical two-wire low voltage setup for heat (I don’t have central air conditioning) so installation was a snap. After removing my existing thermostat, I used the optional trim plate to cover the rectangular patch of old paint on the wall and connected the red wire to the base’s W1 (heating) terminal and the white wire to the Rh (power) terminal. If you’re doing this yourself, make sure you know which wire is your power (hot) wire or you may damage the unit and your heating system. After checking the built-in level to make sure the base was straight, I screwed the base and the trim plate into the wall and snapped on the Nest unit.

Once snapped into place, the Nest lights up and enters setup mode, which includes language, internet settings, heating and cooling, location, and temperature screens. You can toggle through menu options by turning the outer ring and pressing it down to select an option. After selecting a language (English, Spanish, or French) it scans for an available Wi-Fi network. It found mine and connected within seconds once I entered my security key. After checking for and installing the latest updates it took me to the heating/cooling menu, which shows you which equipment is connected to the base and which terminals are wired. You then select the type of fuel (gas, electric, propane, or geothermal) and type of heating system (forced air, in-floor radiant, or radiators) you use.

(Next page: Performance and Conclusions)

Performance, Web App
The Nest needs your zip code to set the local time and determine the weather in your area. It also needs to know what type of dwelling you’re installing the unit in (single-family, multi-family, apartment/condo, or business), how many thermostats are in the dwelling, and when the dwelling was built or remodeled.

Next, you’re given the option to assign a name to the thermostat (upstairs, bedroom, kitchen, etc.), or you can just call it the Nest. In the Temperature menu you can choose the lowest temperature you’d like while you are away. After answering all of the above questions, the Nest tells you that it needs time to calibrate itself to your particular heating/cooling system.

My test Nest performed as advertised. I let the Auto Schedule feature do its thing by teaching it my heating habits. During the week, I turned my heat up to 68 degrees at 5:15 A.M. every morning and turned it down several hours later after everyone had left for work and school. I then turned it back up at around 3:00 P.M. and left it that way until around 10:00 P.M., when I turned it back down for the evening (we all prefer a slightly cooler house at night). After a week of this, the Nest took over and adjusted the heat according to my schedule. Weekends required a slightly different schedule that the Nest learned and adapted to without issue.

Having the ability to control the Nest remotely is huge. The Web app is very straightforward and easy to use, and can come in handy when you least expect it. For example, I checked my Nest via the Web while away from the house for most of a cold New York November day and found that it had gone into Auto Away mode. Knowing that we would be home within the hour I bumped the thermostat up and came home to a warm, toasty house. Nest also offers free, well-designed iOS and Android apps which offer streamlined versions of the Web interface so you can control the thermostat from your phone or tablet.

My only gripe (other than the price) is minor; my home office is on the other side of the house and out of range of the sensors, which have a 150-degree viewing angle. On two separate occasions the Auto Away feature shut down the heat while I was in the office for several hours. Granted, all I had to do was walk over to the Nest and push the ring to resume my normal heating schedule, but it took a while for the heat to come back up. On the plus side, the Nest learned from this and waited an extra hour before entering Auto Away the next time. To avoid this, you can always disable Auto Away if you know you’ll be home but not in view of the sensors. And if you forget to enable Auto Away before leaving for vacation, you can do so via the Web app.

You don’t get a lot of written documentation with the Nest other than a welcome guide and a basic installation guide. Fortunately, the Nest website is chock full of useful information, including installation tips, how-to videos, detailed setup, and everyday use instructions. If you would rather not attempt to install the Nest yourself, Nest offers a paid Concierge service that will provide professional installation and a demonstration of features.

Will the Nest save you money on your heating and cooling bills? That’s debatable. The folks at Nest Labs figure that most people set their thermostat for one temperature and leave it that way, so for those folks, the answer is a resounding yes (assuming they take the time to teach it and allow it to adapt to their schedules). For someone like me, who has always painstakingly programmed a traditional thermostat based on my comings and goings, probably not.

But the Nest is not just about saving money; having the ability to remotely manage settings over the Internet and view energy usage and potential savings are features that you don’t get with traditional thermostats. Moreover, its simple installation and learning capabilities will still appeal to users who shy away from high-tech products or simply don’t want to be bothered with trying to figure out how to program a thermostat. It’ll cost you more than your typical programmable thermostat, but it’s worth every penny, which is why the Nest Learning Thermostat earns our Editors’ Choice for home automation devices.

The Nest Learning Thermostat is a must have for high-tech homeowners or anyone looking to save on heating and air conditioning costs through interactive programming and online management.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc