Tony Fadell & Nest: Building a Sexier Thermostat

By Corey Conley

Take a look at the gadgets in your home. Chances are you have a variety of sleekly designed consumer electronics, from the ultra-thin LED TV with a barely-there bezel to the computer that appears forged from a single piece of anodized aluminum. But that kind of hip industrial design hasn’t touched your humble thermostat, which exudes all the charm of a pocket calculator yet controls half of your energy bill. Enter the Nest “learning” thermostat, created by former Apple employees.

Nest thermostat inventor Tony Fadell

Nest Thermostat’s Creator Tony Fadell

Tony Fadell, a former chief architect at Apple whose handiwork can be seen in millions of iPods and iPhones, left the company two years ago to found Nest Labs. His goal was to create a smarter, sexier thermostat – one that would become a cherished household device like one of the many iDevices he oversaw at Apple.

Nest Thermostat Design

After endless tinkering, the Nest is well-worth the wait on pure aesthetics. A glossy black face is broken only by the colorful LED display and its round profile is edged in mirrored aluminum. Anyone familiar with the iPod’s iconic clickwheel should have no problem setting the Nest, all actions are controlled by a rotating aluminum ring and the face acts as a single button. The Apple influence is also evident in the device’s unmistakable interface, which presents all needed information in a clever, color coded manner – turn on the heat, and it glows red, fire up the A/C and you’ll see blue. To underscore these tree-hugging efforts, the Nest displays a green leaf to let you know when you’re saving energy (and money).

Nest thermostat side view

Nest Thermostat’s Ability to Learn

So it has style in droves, but what about the substance? The Nest’s chief selling point is its ability to “learn” what temperatures you want and when you want them. Simply control the thermostat normally for the first week or so, and the Nest will remember the settings. If you keep a different schedule on the weekends or on a certain weekday, it will figure that out, too. This learning behavior never quits, so if your schedule changes the Nest will be ready to learn the new routine.

If that doesn’t sound terribly impressive, consider this: a one-degree change in your thermostat settings can make a 5% difference in your electricity usage. If the Nest knocks down the temperature from 75 to 65 while no one’s home that can add up to huge savings.

Still, with its Apple-inspired provenance and hefty price tag ($249, in case you’re wondering), most would expect more and the little cylinder delivers. The Nest is fully Wi-Fi capable, allowing you to change the temperature or adjust the schedule from anywhere you can access the Internet – including, of course, your smartphone as soon as you download the Nest app. (Currently available for iPhones, coming soon for Android devices).

Nest thermostat front view

The Nest doesn’t just sit around and wait for you, the thermostat uses its Wi-Fi connection to keep track of the weather so it can predict how long it will take get get the house comfy by the time you get home. Replace multiple thermostats with the Nest and they will link via Wi-Fi – communicating to keep costs down, but each will maintain its separate schedule.

Each thermostat will also keep an eye on you. Activity sensors will put the Nest on “auto-away” when it figures out no one is home. Wake it up or approach it at night, and light sensors tell it to keep the backlight low so it doesn’t blind you.

The company insists anyone handy around the house should be able to install the Nest. If not, they’ll gladly install it for $119.

While I’m hardly an Apple fanboy (as my four Windows-based PCs will tell you), the company’s influence in bringing real function, attractive form, and thoughtful touches to consumer electronics is in full display on the Nest. As with many Apple products, none of the Nest’s features – Wi-Fi integration, learning behaviors, or sleek style – are the least bit new, but Fadell and Nest Labs were the first to perfectly integrate this into an oft-ignored but vital piece technology.

The end result doesn’t just look good, slash energy use, and add convenience, it also makes people care about their energy use in a way that a homely little box never could. I can’t wait to see what Nest labs, or other Apple alumni come up with next.

Check out their website for more information about Nest

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