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How the Nest Learning Thermostat works

When we first heard about the Nest Learning Thermostat, we were a bit weary, much like you might be right now. I mean, it’s a thermostat–who cares? Well, normally we’d say yes, but Nest has actually made the first thermostat that may do its job and actually monitor the temperature in the house. And since Nest Labs is founded by some of the pioneers behind the iPod and other Apple products, everything about it is simple and fairly intuitive. 

Regular thermostats are either really simple–turn up for hot, down for cold–or too complex for their own good. Some have rudimentary scheduling and such, but Nest is taking a different route. The Learning Thermostat is the first of its kind to learn what temperatures you like and then heat your house in a smart and more efficient way, saving you money and all that time you might spend being uncomfortably cold or warm. 

Andrew and I got a chance to check out the Thermostat in action last night at the New York CES Preview show. The video above gives a good demonstration of the technology and interface.

Here’s how it works

Once you install the Nest (see below), you have to connect it to your Wi-Fi connection and then set the temperature you like. It will ask you a few basic questions to get started. After you answer those, you set the temperature. For the next week, the device is in an “aggressive learning phase.” In this phase, it privately tracks when you are home and not home, and remembers the different temperature settings you give it during different times of the day and days of the week. Using a variety of sensors for temperature, humidity, near-field activity, far-field activity, and even ambient light, it can detect whether there are people home and how active the home is at any time. There’s an infrared sensor on it as well (perhaps that’s for ambient light?), as we can see from the video. When no one is around, it will learn to turn the heat down. When you come home from work, it will know that the heat should go back up. Even better, after the first few weeks, it should know just about when you actually do come home from work and can turn the heat up 20-30 minutes before so that you come home to a warm house. It never stops learning. 

Using the device is pretty easy. All of the controls are on the outer ring of the device. You can turn it and press it in as a button. Turning it will, by default, turn the temperature up or down. Unlike other Thermostats, it also tells you exactly how long it will take your house to achieve your new temperature. So if you turn the heat up, you’ll know that it will be 25 minutes before it’s hot. This could prevent you from just cranking the heat way up when you’re freezing because you think it will heat faster.

Using the temperature dial, you may see a leaf on the screen, which indicates that you will save more energy if you try living at that temperature for a bit–representatives told us that it’s usually only a degree or two cooler or hotter than you’d normally have it. The Nest can challenge you a bit, if you choose to let it.

Pushing the ring in makes a clicking sound and opens up a menu of options  that you can scroll through. These options are Schedule, Energy, Settings, Away, and Done. It also shows you if you’re on heating or cooling modes.

  • Away mode will let you manually tell the thermostat that you’re leaving and how it should behave.
  • Energy mode will let you see your energy usage for the last few days (maybe longer). This information is also available online. 
  • Settings takes you through the basic setup and lets you specify specific options for the thermostat.
  • Schedule lets you see a complete weekly schedule for your Nest, showing you the exact days and times that the temperature will go up and down. Change it as you like.

Additionally, you can control your home heat from an iPhone, iPad, and soon Android. PC and Macs are supported through a Web interface. The app client looks almost exactly like the interface on the device so it’s pretty easy to use. You can also control multiple thermostats in one home or many homes from a single account. The Nest Learning Thermostat also automatically downloads software updates for itself. Your data is stored privately with encryption, though we no information on whether it’s 128bit or 256bit or what type of encryption. We’re not sure what a robber would do with your Nest data, but we assume that they’d plan to arrive when it’s warmer in your house. Nobody wants to work in the cold. Again though, the data is private. 

Installing the Nest

One thing we like about the Nest is its attention to detail. Not only does the Nest make managing your energy use possible, it also looks fairly easy to install. Honestly, we didn’t even know you could install a new thermostat, but apparently it can be done in 20 minutes. The device comes with the nicest looking screwdriver we’ve ever seen ship with a product and uses a new push button technique to help you guide the 8 or so colored wires into their correct place . After that, screw on the Nest cover, set up Wi-Fi, and you’re good to go. Unlike some thermostats, no additional power source is needed despite the backlit color screen. 

We like it

I don’t currently live in a place where I could use a thermostat, but sadly, I wish I did. I never imagined I’d ever get gadgety and excited about a thermostat, but it’s remarkable what can be done when a company decides to rethink a product we take for granted. The Nest Learning Thermostat costs $250. Currently, it is sold out through January, but should become available again next year. To sign up to learn when it will become available, head to the Nest Labs Store

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