Best Smart Thermostat
If you’re looking to spend over $100 on a “smart” thermostat, know that the $250 Nest is the only one worth your money. Not only does it have the internet remote controllability and data visualization offered by other products in this price range, it goes one step further by actually making adjustments for you.
(If you just want a cheap, programmable thermostat with no bells and whistles that just works, skip to the end.)
First thing’s first, if Nest doesn’t work with your home heating and cooling system, then you probably don’t want it. Considering Nest version 2.0 is compatible with 95% of low voltage heating and cooling systems (and a number of HVAC systems as well), you’re probably in the clear–unless you have some kind of specialty HVAC system. Use this online checking tool to be 100% sure. If your house is compatible, read on. If not, skip to the competition section where we outline some alternatives that may fit your needs.
The Future We Were Promised
The concept of a smart thermostat isn’t new, but the actual product has evaded us for years. Before Nest, companies’ perception of a “smart” thermostat was one that was easier for users to program. As a result, we got these contraptions with color touchscreens that have pop up keyboards, pretty menus, cloud-accessible controls, and data visualization. But for all their fancy features, they all shared the same flaw: they ultimately rely on humans to make the decisions. Nest was the first company to realize that programming itself was the problem and that the only solution was to get rid of it entirely.
The Nest is the only thermostat that actually simplifies your life and improves your happiness by making decisions for you. It does this by learning how you use your home’s climate control system over a one week period and then setting itself accordingly from there on out. It’s also got a motion sensor in it that automatically sets it into power-saving mode when you’re not around. And, thanks to its internet connection, it can also factor in the weather when setting the temperature. Now that’s smart.
Why We Like it
The original Nest debuted a year ago but it was so far ahead of its time that no companies have even come close to matching its functionality. Meanwhile, Nest has released a 20% slimmer, more widely compatible version 2.0 already. It’s often called the iPod of thermostats, an apt comparison considering the fact that Nest was started by Tony Fadell, the head of the team that created the original iPod. But the similarities don’t stop there.
In addition to its designers, the Nest also borrows its user interface from the once ubiquitous clickwheel found on every iPod. Grab and rotate the entire body to navigate through lists, click it down to select. Lest there be any skeptics among you, CNet’s Lindsey Turrentine writes that “[her] kids can’t stop touching the thermostat to explore the menus, and they instantly understand how Nest works.”
The GUI is similarly intuitive. The display background glows red when the heat is on, blue when the air conditioning is running, and stays black when it’s off.
Once it’s installed, setup is a breeze. By all accounts, it shouldn’t take more than a week of preliminary manual adjustments for the Nest to learn your usage habits. From there on out, it’s pretty much a set it and forget it product. You can still make occasional manual adjustments on the thermostat itself or remotely through its smartphone apps/web app if you so desire. If the Nest determines those adjustments are truly random, the Nest will ignore them, but if you make them with any sort of regularity, Nest will take that into account and do them for you. For example, if it notices you’ve been turning up the heat a couple extra degrees the last several times it rained, Nest will automatically raise the heat for you whenever rain is in the forecast.
Another parameter Nest learns is how long it takes for your house’s furnace/air conditioner to go from setting a desired temperature to actually achieving said temperature. It then incorporates this information into its schedule.
Other features include a wide-range motion detector that puts the Nest into energy-saving mode if it doesn’t detect any movement over a long period of time. On the original Nest, this was set at 2 hours but Nest 2.0 can adjust this figure based on your family’s usage patterns. There’s also a proximity sensor so the screen only turns on when you’re standing in front of it.
Finally, it comes backed with a 2-year warranty–just in case something goes wrong.
The Apps and Website
One of the best features of the Nest has nothing to do with the hardware itself, but rather how it presents your temperature and energy usage data on its app and website. Unlike apps for other thermostats, which usually don’t do much beyond allowing you to make adjustments, the Nest has charts that help spell out Nest’s learning process and your own usage patterns (you can also adjust any learned patterns that you disagree with through the web or iPad app interface).
From here, you can look at your last 10 days’ worth of usage data that shows you exactly when and why your heater or AC was running. For example, if the AC was running extra-high on a particularly sunny day, then a little sun icon appears next to that day’s time usage bar (the second page of Ars Technica’s review has some great screenshots and explanations of how this works). The only complaint that reviewers had was that you could only access the previous 10 days’ worth of data in detail at any given time.
Who Else Likes it?
As far as independent reviews go, this is probably the best-reviewed product I’ve ever encountered.
CNet’s Lindsey Turrentine gave the Nest 2.0 5 stars (exceptionally rare by CNet standards) in her review, Second-gen Nest zeroes in on perfection writing, “Within a week of installing the first-generation Nest Learning Thermostat in my house last spring, I decided to buy my review unit rather than return it to the company. When a tech journalist pays $249 for a thermostat, you know it’s a special kind of thermostat.”
The rest of these reviews are about the original Nest, but considering they’re almost exactly the same aside from size and compatibility differences, we feel confident applying them to the new Nest.
Jacqui Cheng from Ars Technica, a self-proclaimed thermostat aficionado who has previously owned multiple $100+ smart thermostats, says of her Nest 1.0, “My personal metric for whether a home modification was a good purchase is whether I want to take it with me when I move. In this case, I do—desperately. It would be hard to go back to a ‘normal’ thermostat after having become attached to the Nest’s capabilities.”
It even has gadget veteran David Pogue singing its praises: “Goodness knows there are cheaper thermostats. And there are other learning thermostats with color screens and Internet connections. But they don’t have the sensors that let them self-adjust. They don’t look like pieces of art. They’re sold and packaged for contractors, not humans.”
Kevin Tofel at GigaOm echoes his peers saying, “Given that I already have a smart thermostat, you’d think I’d pass on the Nest. But after I return the review unit, I may spend the money on one anyway.”
The review from Consumer Reports (login required) was one of the only negative ones we found. They gave it a mere 74/100 rating, which is pretty good, but far from great by their scale (the top scoring Venstar ColorTouch Series T5800 got 96 points). Unfortunately, they don’t tell you anything about their testing process so it’s difficult to analyze their reasoning behind the lower score, but sadly, I think it might have to do with the Nest’s lack of touchscreen controls. They were very impressed with the pretty touchscreen interfaces found on some models and gave them all scores of higher than 90 points. This, to me, is missing the point entirely. The other touchscreen models need the touchscreen interface so they can be programmed more easily. The whole point of the Nest is that it doesn’t need programming.
Popular Mechanics didn’t appreciate the hands-off concept behind the Nest. Here’s what senior tech editor Glenn Derene had to say in his review: “I find myself frequently checking in on it and second-guessing its intentions. When I hear the heat kick on, I run to the Nest and examine its current setting. Do I really want the temperature to dial up to 72 degrees F? Now I’m not sure.” But I don’t interpret that as a dig against the Nest itself. It seems like more of a personality incompatibility issue. Glen makes it clear that he likes to have control over what’s going on in his house and that it makes him uncomfortable when the Nest makes decisions for him. If you are like Glen and like to keep track of and control your environment, then a learning thermostat is not for you.
Some Minor Drawbacks
All in all, the Nest is one impressive gadget. But nothing is perfect. First of all, if you’re the kind of person who would rather have a touchscreen keyboard and the ability to show photos on a tiny color screen, then the Nest is not for you. It’s designed to be the simplest climate control system, not the most fully featured. That said, this shouldn’t be a problem for most people. I think Jacqui Cheng put it best in her review: “it’s not enough to just throw a ton of features at a thermostat if it’s not also painfully easy to use.”
Reviewers also complained that Auto-Away mode could often activate when you don’t want it to. After all, it’s not unlikely for people to spend 2 hours in their house in a room without a thermostat. The latest firmware claims to have improved Auto Away by letting it adjust to your family’s unique habits, but none of the reviews we read tested the revised feature.
The Nest is also not ideal for smart home enthusiasts who want more than just heating and cooling control. If you want to be able to control everything from doors to lights to climate control from one app, you have to look elsewhere for the time being. Although they haven’t announced any intention of doing so, it’s worth noting that Nest could feasibly expand their machine-learning concept beyond the thermostat into a house-wide home-automation system in the future.
The only problem that could potentially be a dealbreaker for some homes is its rechargeable battery. That’s because in certain heating and cooling systems that lack a “C” wire, the Nest can only charge itself when the heat or A/C is actually running. Problem is, you can go days without needing either in more temperate climates. Marco Arment, the software developer behind Instapaper, found that after installing the Nest, he would often hear his furnace pulsing as a result of Nest trying to draw more energy from the system. Of course, this could be fixed by installing a “C” wire, but that would require hiring an electrician which could be more money and hassle than it’s worth.
Consumer Reports liked the Venstar for its big, 4.3-inch screen saying that saying that its “colorful, interactive touch-screen display makes it easy to program settings for each day of the week. Its programming prompts are simple and clear, and its screen is easy to see.” They also appreciated its ability to display photo slideshows when in standby mode. But we think this is a poor reason for choosing the Venstar over the Nest since you don’t need a big screen if you have a good app like the Nest does, and putting photos on a thermostat is stupid. Unfortunately for Venstar buyers, it won’t work with internet-enabled apps unless you drop an extra $72 on a Wi-Fi card on top of the $170 street price. At that point, you’re looking at a thermostat that costs the same as the Nest, but with worse apps and no automation capabilities. (It’s also worth noting that the Venstar will not work at all without a C-wire; at least the Nest can draw power through other sources in a pinch).
Wired also recently reviewed the Venstar and gave it a less than stellar 6/10 rating citing a convoluted setup procedure involving manual firmware updates via SD card transfers and the fact that the Wi-Fi module sticks out of the side as a few of their major complaints. Ultimately, they liked the Nest better stating, “if you’re looking for serious thermostat intelligence, the Nest wins the day. The ColorTouch can’t do things like sense your presence in a room, monitor your habits, or learn how quickly your furnace heats or cools the house. Nor can it determine when you’re away and adjust the climate accordingly.” Popular Mechanics‘ Scott Neumyer also took issue with the Venstar’s firmware update procedures in their review but later updated to note that firmware versions 2.06+ can now update over Wi-Fi. In the end, the reviewer decided that he really liked the Venstar despite its flaws, but he also noted that this was his first experience with a device of this kind so take his opinion with a grain of salt.
Consumer Reports loved it, giving it an excellent 95/100 rating citing its HD display and “ease of use” as major selling points, but given their strange love for the Venstar, we’re taking CR’s work in this category with a grain of salt. For example, it doesn’t offer the same set-it-and-forget-it convenience of the Nest. You still have to program it by hand. And like the Venstar, adding internet controllability is going to cost you, about $85 to be exact. Not to mention having to hide yet another hideous modem-looking thing. It’s also very expensive even without the internet connection. Although you can buy it through Amazon resellers for about $340 and attempt to install it yourself (not recommended), you’re technically supposed to get it through a licensed contractor who must install it for you. According to Farhad Manjoo, writing for the New York Times, the whole setup can run north of $500. Yikes!
Consumer Reports also liked the Ecobee which also has built-in internet controllability and is versatile enough to be used with most HVAC systems. But Brian, Sweethome’s editor, had one for a while before Nest and noted the touchscreen and app was buggy/laggy and a chore to use and program. It’s also expensive. Consumer Reports liked it, even though we found it nowhere near as great as a Nest, and they gave it a 94/100. To Brian, that is, as he put it, “insane.”
The Budget Pick
Despite its comparatively skimpy features-set, the Lux managed to earn a Consumer Reports “Best Buy” title as well as the adoration of hundreds of Amazon reviewers. Of the over 340 Amazon user reviews written, over two-thirds are 5-star reviews and only 35 were below 3-stars. Reviewers such as Vine voice member S. Singh appreciated the Lux’s easy setup process and intuitive touchscreen interface. It even has a copy button that lets you duplicate your settings from one day to the next. Sure it’s only got a black and white display and runs on AA batteries, but what can you expect for $70?
What to Look Forward to
In June, Honeywell introduced the Lyric, a $279 thermostat. Honeywell has clearly taken some cues from Nest for their latest thermostat: The Lyric also has a round, minimalist design, and a few similar features like a proximity sensor and the ability to adjust temperatures based on outside weather. But it’s also different in some crucial ways: instead of using algorithms to learn the owner’s heating/cooling preferences, owners have to tell the Lyric what to do. It knows whether the owner is home or away based on the location of their smartphone and will shut down to conserve energy if no one is home, or turn on when he or she is a set distance away. This is the same idea that GE’s new Quirky + Aros “smart” air conditioner uses, and we don’t think this is nearly as useful or efficient as Nest’s approach.
On the positive side, Gizmodo said installation was “generally foolproof.” And then there’s the possibility is that you’ll be able to control it via Apple’s forthcoming Home app for iOS 8 since Honeywell was announced as a partner (while Google-owned Nest was not). CNET has also gotten a look at the Lyric and they found its software to be somewhat buggy. “While the Lyric has a ton of potential, the app needs some major updates to make its usability and performance on par with the Nest,” they say. Now that the Lyric is available, we will be testing it ourselves. But based on these early reviews it’s not looking like it’ll be unseating the Nest as our pick just yet.
Nest also introduced its Works With Nest program in early summer. It means makers of other devices and software from cars to activity trackers will be able to communicate with a Nest thermostat and (ideally) save energy. Mercedes Benz, Logitech, Whirlpool, Jawbone, IFTTT, and, naturally, Google, are the first companies announced, with plans for things like your car letting your Nest know when you’re almost home, your Jawbone UP telling your Nest you’re awake, and so on so that the heat and a/c are only on at the most necessary times. Once these partnerships come to fruition we’ll check in on how useful they are.
Nest is also opening up its API, so developers will be able to make apps that will have access to information from a Nest thermostat (like whether it’s in home or away mode and peak energy use times). There are a lot of exciting possibilities, so we’ll have to see what developers come up with.
Wrapping it Up
At the end of the day, we picked the Nest not because it has the most features, or because it’s the best deal, we picked the Nest because it will make you happy. Once you’ve set it up, that’s an entire aspect of your domestic life that you no longer need to worry about — it doesn’t even need batteries. It’s exceedingly rare that futuristic products such as the Nest Thermostat come onto the market fully formed but as you can see from the glowing reviews, Nest pulled it off, then turned around and made it even better in version 2.0. It’s certainly not cheap, but it is definitely worth it.
Second-gen Nest zeroes in on perfection, CNet, October 2, 2012,Within a week of installing the first-generation Nest Learning Thermostat in my house last spring, I decided to buy my review unit rather than return it to the company. When a tech journalist pays $249 for a thermostat, you know it's a special kind of thermostat.
A thermostat that learns? 3 months with the Nest, Ars Technica, August 2, 2012,My personal metric for whether a home modification was a good purchase is whether I want to take it with me when I move. In this case, I do—desperately. It would be hard to go back to a "normal" thermostat after having become attached to the Nest's capabilities.
Home Thermostats, Wallflowers No More, New York Times, December 7, 2011,You control the device by turning a wheel on its circumference, and you engage its main button by pushing on the face. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated; once you touch it, it will be obvious how to use it.
Nest Thermostat: Long-Term Gadget Test, Popular Mechanics, January, 2012,I find myself frequently checking in on it and second-guessing its intentions. When I hear the heat kick on, I run to the Nest and examine its current setting. Do I really want the temperature to dial up to 72 degrees F? Now I’m not sure.
Undocumented Nest incompatibility with single-stage wiring, Marco.org, December 17, 2011,
Nest thermostat reviewed: A smart device for all seasons, GigaOM, June 24, 2012,