By now, Nest Labs’ story doesn’t require an extended retelling: years after helping to design the iPod, Tony Fadell left Apple to create a home automation company initially focused on elegant thermostats. It was obvious that Nest wouldn’t stop with the original Nest Learning Thermostat — a beautifully metallic circular device that could be controlled wirelessly using an iPad, iPhone, or iPod — and it quickly released a similar but refined second-generation model. Late last month, Nest released Nest Protect ($129), its third and most affordable product to date. Made from plastic rather than the Learning Thermostat’s metal, Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide detector with several novel features, notably including 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity with iOS compatibility. While the concept is laudable, the question as to whether it’s truly necessary is more prominent with Protect than with the Learning Thermostat, as alternative options sell for 1/10 the price and perform the same basic tasks.
Unlike the Learning Thermostat, Nest sells Nest Protect in two colors: white is currently sold in multiple stores, while black is exclusively available through Nest’s web site. The white version we tested wasn’t Apple-style pure white, but rather a tone that blends into the off-white paints typically used on home ceilings. Each Protect has one circular central button with a multicolored, swirling ring of light hidden within a recessed edge, as well as a dot pattern that starts small in the center before radiating out with larger dots to form a subtle, flower-like shape. While not as jaw-droppingly different as the Learning Thermostat was upon its debut, Protect’s industrial design is visually pleasing, attaching to a ceiling with a relatively simple plastic ceiling mounting plate and four long metal screws.
The installation process was fairly simple, except for one relatively major issue. With the version we tested, there was little more to do than choose a spot on the ceiling, mark and tap the screw installation points, place the mounting plate on those points, and tighten the screws. After that, you’re supposed to align four holes on the Nest Protect unit’s body with four small plastic pegs on the mounting plate, twist Protect to secure it, and be done. Unfortunately, two of the pegs broke off the mounting plate when we tried to install Protect, leaving the smoke detector hanging askew. It was still functional, but the mounting plate needed to be replaced. After an e-mail and telephone call, Nest offered to FedEx a replacement mounting plate at no charge, but then sent follow-up e-mails requesting re-confirmation of the shipping address and serial number for the unit it had shipped out.
Like most smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, Nest Protect is sold in two versions: one that’s battery-reliant and one that can be connected to a 120V wiring system in your home. The fully battery-powered version we tested comes with six AA Energizer Ultimate lithium batteries pre-installed for “multi-year operation” — the duration is unclear, and impacted by the unit’s Wi-Fi and light ring activity — while the wired version uses three AA lithium batteries as backups for the 120V power, and includes additional parts to assist with wiring the unit up. Nest’s web site emphasizes the battery system as a justification for Protect’s existence, noting repeatedly — and accurately — that people hate to be bothered by the annoying “low battery” chirps of their smoke alarms, sometimes disabling the detectors rather than replacing the batteries.
Each version of Protect automatically checks its battery status: to reduce Wi-Fi drain, the battery-only version does so once per day, and the wired version performs multiple checks. In addition to a yellow light on Protect, you can see the latest “Battery Life” status update on Nest’s recently-updated iOS application; once it doesn’t read “OK,” you’ll know to replace the batteries well before any prompting is needed. Reasonable people may disagree as to whether eliminating the annoyance of a chirping battery warning is worth a $115 premium over a standard $15 smoke and carbon monoxide alarm.
To that end, Nest has given Protect some other neat features that will appeal to some people and strike others as novelties. The aforementioned light ring generally stays dark, but swirls blue when the button is depressed to engage test mode, green to let you know once per night that everything is OK (Nest’s “Nightly Promise”), yellow as a warning, and red when there’s an emergency. Thanks to a proximity sensor, you can wave your hand at Protect to disengage the alarm — multiple waves are notably required for safety reasons — rather than needing to stretch to press the button, and the light ring can briefly illuminate as a “Pathlight” if the light levels are low and someone is walking beneath it, impacting battery life if activated. Last but not least, Protect has recorded voice samples that speak to you along with or without alarm sounds, making the testing and notification processes better. A clear female voice is loud enough to be heard from the integrated speaker, and certainly preferable to the beeps of inexpensive smoke alarms.
Because it’s Wi-Fi-enabled, Nest Protect can also be checked remotely via an iOS device. Once it’s added to the Nest application, Nest Protect sits as a generally green circle besides a Nest Thermostat, letting you know everything’s okay even when you’re not at home. Tap on it and you’ll see more granular descriptions of whether the smoke or carbon monoxide alarms have been triggered, along with notes as to when Protect’s status was last checked manually or automatically.
As you might note when looking at that list of features, the added value Nest Protect really offers over a traditional smoke and carbon monoxide alarm is questionable — it’s certainly a better product, but whether the improvements are meaningful will depend a lot on your personal perspective. Unlike the Learning Thermostat, which meaningfully improved the experience of using something that regular people found too daunting to understand, Protect turns something originally designed to be installed and forgotten into something you’re supposed to enjoy interacting with. But are the improvements really necessary? Protect’s current tagline, “Love your smoke alarm,” is sort of crazy when you really think about it. No one really wants to love a smoke alarm; the best alarm is one that works every time it’s supposed to and doesn’t bother you otherwise.
Protect does include one really novel safety feature, but it requires a Nest Learning Thermostat. If the alarm is triggered, Protect can trigger the Thermostat to automatically turn off your home’s furnace, which may be responsible for the carbon monoxide emissions Protect is detecting. Some people may reasonably conclude that this feature alone could save lives in the event of a carbon monoxide leak, though the investment required to use the feature is currently just under $400; it may be more compelling if and when a Nest Thermostat is offered at a more aggressive price point.
Overall, Nest Protect is a somewhat appealing new product — not quite as cool or frequently useful as Nest’s Learning Thermostat, but intriguing nonetheless. There’s no question that it’s a legitimately advanced smoke and carbon monoxide detector, or that it’s aesthetically appealing; the real issue is whether it’s so much better than common sub-$15 alternatives that it’s actually worth purchasing. Given its current price and functionality, our editors saw it as on the edge of B and B- ratings, tilting into the latter category based on the mounting plate issue. We really like what Nest is working to accomplish with its devices, but it hasn’t yet reached the price-to-functionality tipping point where its products are must-haves. Until that happens, devices such as Nest Protect will be a curiosity for all but the well-heeled, who will appreciate the unique functionality whenever they have a reason to actually interact with it, but otherwise get much the same experience as users with less sophisticated alternatives.
Company and Price
Company: Nest Labs
Model: Nest Protect
Compatible: iPads, iPhones, iPod touches (iOS 5+)