Matt Rogers, left, and Tony Fadell and their new thermostat for Nest Labs, a start-up in Palo Alto, Calif. Photo courtesy of New York Times.
Apple engineer Tony Fadell was as responsible as anyone short of Steve Jobs for introducing the iPod and iPhone to the world. Now he's turned his attention to a device as commonplace as it is boring: your home thermostat.
Fadell's Silicon Valley start-up, Nest Labs, has introduced a $249 thermostat designed to learn your habits and preferences and program itself to save energy without sacrificing comfort.
I've been testing two Nests in my home for a month and have come away impressed with their ease of use and the intelligence behind them. Boring, they aren't.
In size and shape, the Nest resembles the familiar round thermostats made by Honeywell, but the similarity ends there. The Nest is gorgeous, with a silvery outer ring that seems to complement every paint job. Instead of an analog dial, it has a multifunction digital display, black in repose, that comes to life when you touch or even just wave your hand in front of it.
You can adjust the temperature by turning the dial, while pushing it opens an array of settings and data, such as the current schedule the Nest has designed to heat and cool your home. A Wi-Fi connection lets you control it remotely, using the Nest website or apps for the iPhone, iPad and phones using Google Inc.'s Android operating system.
There are other super-smart thermostats on the market, but none so overtly aimed at the gadget-buying consumer, as opposed to contractors or HVAC professionals. As befits Nest's Apple DNA, even the packaging and accoutrements are an experience.
Accompanying the thermostat, for instance, is an off-white, vaguely egg-shaped object that, upon further inspection, proves to be an ingeniously designed screwdriver with four interchangeable bits -- all you should need to install your Nest if you're a modestly confident do-it-yourselfer.
If you aren't, Nest has partnered with Best Buy Co., which will dispatch its Geek Squad to install one for $119. In my case, an installer from the company put in one of my Nests, with me hanging over his shoulder. I did the other myself, with him hanging over mine.
The process was pretty straightforward. After removing the old thermostat, I attached the Nest's base to the wall with two screws. I then attached the wires from the furnace to the stereo-speaker-style terminals in the thermostat (there are terminals for air conditioning, if you have that, as well). Then I popped the thermostat onto the base, went through the one-time Wi-Fi set-up and was done. The process took about 45 minutes.
The problem with many programmable thermostats is that they never get programmed, either because of their complexity or our own laziness. Nest sidesteps those issues by having you treat it essentially like a dumb thermostat for the first couple weeks, adjusting it manually until you're comfortable.
To devise its schedule, Nest then marries this data to information gathered by its sensors, which register your comings and goings as well as conditions inside and outside the house.
The thermostat learned that I get up at 5:45 on weekdays and now begins warming the house then. On weekends, when we sleep in a bit, it waits longer to click on the furnace.
When the Nests weren't cooling the house as much as I wanted overnight, it was easy to set a new temperature. I was rewarded for my extra energy savings by a small green leaf on the screen. When we went out of town for the weekend, the Nests sensed our absence and after a few hours automatically put themselves into "Auto Away" mode, saving even more energy.
One Nest twice presented me with messages saying it wasn't properly wired, along with diagrams of the allegedly faulty connections. (Let the record show this was the unit the Nest installer hooked up.)
The thermostat continued to operate normally. A Nest engineer concluded that it may have misinterpreted how my furnace shuts itself off to prevent overheating. If that's the case, perhaps Nest Labs will address the bug in an over-the-air software update -- another advantage of the thermostats' connection to the Internet.
It's too soon to tell whether and by how much Nest is able to shave my utility bills. But it already deserves credit for bringing some welcome innovation, not to mention pizzazz, to a product category in serious need of both.
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.