Thursday, January 5, 2012

Competition: Nest Learning Thermostat: Black Box Analysis

Since Nest is the only competing product you don't have to take a loan in the bank to own (well, maybe just a small loan), it was interesting to get a first hand experience with it. So, I bought it and installed next to one of DZ sensors.

I am reluctant to talk to my competition because the amount of information they can extract out of my questions significantly exceeds the amount of information they can extract of my most honest answers to their most detailed questions. --GT
Well, the experience was definitely interesting.

The Excellent

The most impressive (from usability standpoint) thing about the installation process is how they implemented pairing the device with the online account. I created the account (took a split second) and several seconds later, when I turned  to face the thermostat (less than a meter away), it was already displaying the message asking whether I want to associate it with the account I just created. Under the wraps, it is pretty simple to someone in the trade (they probably matched the WAN IP to serial number and account name to the IP it was created from), but nevertheless very impressive. Definitely karma bonus for creativity.

The Good

  • No-brainer installation for someone with hands growing out of shoulders.
  • It was impressive that it correctly determined wiring.
  • It was really simple to configure it to work with the existing system (those who know how many variations of thermostat wiring and systems are out there will be definitely impressed by this).
  • Upon connecting to WiFi, the device immediately downloaded the update.
  • There's just a few seconds latency between the device and the web app.
  • Control algorithm seems to be smarter than just a simple hysteresis loop, will see how smart later.

The Neutral

  • Temperature displayed is the setpoint temperature, not the actual temperature.
  • Both setpoint and actual temperature display resolution is 1°F and 0.5°C, this is not sufficient for some conditions (good example: the room with little air getting to it, while the other room next to the HVAC unit gets more than it bargained for). Making this happen, though, will destroy the "Apple" aesthetics.
  • Not sure how successful will be WiFi connection when a DHCP server is not present. Too lazy to try, hope they did something smart.
  • Initially, I thought that the device was blind as a bat and doesn't sense presence right, but then realized that it's just doing it in its own way.

The Bad

  • It was quite painful to enter a 21 character passphrase for the wireless network.
  • It took two reboots and about 10 minutes to download and install the update.
  • There is no indication of how close the thermostat is to calling - itchy fingers *will* try to bump the thermostat if they feel too hot or too cold.
  • Settings change sensitivity is, unexpectedly, extremely high compared to setpoint change sensitivity - the latter is less than 1:1, and the former is almost trigger fast. Uncomfortable, and is a violation of the principle of least astonishment.
  • There doesn't seem to be a way to change the hysteresis from the default. This will cause short cycling for smaller rooms, and stale air for bigger.
  • The maximum "away" temperature setting for cooling mode is just 90°F. Folks, this is not enough for hot climates - I *work* comfortably at 90°F, and won't be afraid to set the away temperature to 100°F on the second floor.
  • Actual temperature is not easily visible over the "grill" (and for °C, good luck trying to distinguish "22.5" and "22°").
  • Web app and mobile app don't honor the °C measurement unit for ambient temperature. While we're at that, why don't they display other data available from Weather Underground (which is their data source)? (The weather is displayed as a background picture)
  • Standard 18 AWG thermostat wire doesn't fit into the base, had to use thinner wire. I had a patch panel for wiring so it wasn't a problem, but good luck doing this if all you have is the cable sticking out of the wall.

The Ugly

  • Fingerprints all over the glass.
  • Guess what two users tried to do (independently from each other) when asked to change the setpoint on iPad app. Correct, they tried to replicate the circular movement that it takes to change the temperature on the actual device. Instead, they were presented with ancient up and down arrows. Come on, folks, *I* did better than that, gesture detection is not that complicated.
  • Entering several spaces in the passphrase was most excruciating. Hint to Nest developers: it is possible to use all that nice space between the alphabet and done/cancel/backspace symbols that you already have, and plant some spacebars right there. Yes, in every shift mode. Won't hurt. Took quite a while to figure out that those spaces are currently just for decoration and aren't functional.
  • And it was completely infuriating when after spending about two minutes of entering the passphrase the thermostat happily reported "failed to connect" (it was a transient failure) and... displayed the EMPTY prompt again.
  • Let me just say this... Don't even try to use their webapp on a mobile phone. Their "beta" is not Google's "beta". More like "alpha". At $250 plus shipping a pop.
  • Where is my Android app? Right here: Nest Mobile. Pretty basic, though, nothing to write home about.

The Verdict

Short version: Meh.

Long version:
  • Hardware looks to be decent (though, just like I suspected, there's not much stainless steel, it's mostly plastic).
  • Embedded software (on the thermostat itself) is perfect as far as usability is concerned, but passable as far as climate control is concerned (no comments about learning ability, that'll be covered later).
  • Web front end is definitely in alpha stage. Let's hope that they are planning to advance it, or at least make it work right on a wider variety of devices.


All the information above is pertinent to model Diamond-1.10, display software ver. 1.0.4, base ver. 3.5.2/1.1, as of January 5 2012.


  1. There is a known problem with wifi-drop off. Then minutes later it will recconect. None of the remedies on the Nest site fix the problem. I'm hoping a future software patch will fix it.

    Apple uses "just in time" manufacturing and only maintains a two day on hand for it's stock business model.

    I'm guessing the fact they claim they "sold out" is a cover to work on the glitches.

    One eBay seller in San Francisco (near where the Nest is designed) is advertising the newe model.

  2. @Anonymous:

    - WiFi doesn't seem to be a problem so far;

    - Apple: earmarks all over, of course. One of things I noticed a while ago is that it is never "iPad version such and such", but always "iPad". Here, the same thing - nowhere on the site does it mention "Diamond", only "Nest". I bet my left ear that the same pattern will continue. In my book, this is deceit. Well, good marketing, though;

    - "Sold out": even the instance I have is nowhere near "legendary Apple quality" if you take a look not just at the device, but at the whole hardware + web app + mobile app combination (I won't care to pay $250 for *any* single thermostat, no matter how smart it is).

    More to come, stay tuned.

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