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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Smart, Sexy—Thermostat?!

Nest’s new device is both; it looks gorgeous and can cut your monthly bill by learning your heating habits.

  • December 6, 2011

Consider the thermostat.

That in itself, I know, is asking a lot. What could be more boring, less worthy of consideration, than that bland gray panel on your wall?

But the thermostat, it turns out, is wildly important to our energy consumption: it controls up to half our energy bills. There are reportedly 250 million thermostats in the U.S., with 10 million more purchased every year. One recent innovation, the programmable thermostat, wound up being a complete failure: most users don’t program it at all, leading the government to exclude the device from its Energy Star program.

If someone could finally hack the thermostat—finally get it right—it would be a big deal. And there’s reason to believe that a company called Nest might be doing just that. Run by Tony Fadell, who helped design the iPod, Nest has actually designed a thermostat that is smart, and dare I say it, even a little bit sexy.

The Nest’s central feature is that it learns. I tried to program my thermostat once, and it was a nightmare. As a writer, I keep somewhat unusual hours—when exactly would I be heading out on weekdays, and when on weekends? For me, the most intuitive way to use a thermostat is simply to turn the dial when I want it hotter, or colder.

The Nest lets you do just that—simply turn the dial—and it’s smart enough to then learn your schedule as it goes. In about a week, it has learned your habits, and sets its own schedule. In other words, it programs itself.

Are you the kind of person who tends to make it halfway to the office before you suddenly remember you forgot to adjust the thermostat before leaving? No problem. You can control the Nest remotely, via smart phone or laptop. Those pangs of guilt are instantly assuaged.

Most importantly, perhaps, in our post-Jobsian world, the Nest looks nice. It’s a thermostat for the design geek, to be sure. It’s a little round dial with a strong familial resemblance to an iPod, with an elegant display that automatically lights up when you approach. There are nice, simple design touches of the why-did-no-one-think-of-that-before sort: the screen glows orange when the temperature is rising, blue when it’s falling.

The Nest is not without its kinks. David Pogue’s recent review—which was mostly a rave—nonetheless was full of accounts of the device’s odd behavior, at first. It cranked up the heat in the middle of the night. The software was buggy, and required two resets. In the end, though, Pogue was a happy customer.

The other drawback is the price: $250. But assuming the thing works, you should make that back inside of two years, claims Nest. Like most smart energy options, if you can afford the up-front cost, it’s the smart, pro-environmental, and ultimately economical choice. The Nest also makes clever use of some of the insights of behavioral economic research to induce your good behavior. A study once found that a simple smiley face on an energy bill could help motivate reduced energy usage; the Nest, for its part, displays a small green leaf that glows brighter as you turn the dial in a more environmentally-friendly direction.

Not sold yet? Try resisting Nest’s own pitch:

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