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How the Nest Actually Differs From Other Smart Thermostats

By Wesley Fenlon

The Nest isn't the first learning thermostat on the market, but its hardware design and smart algorithms could put it in a league of its own.

One of the hardware engineers responsible for the iPod has built a brand new pocket-size device to shake up an industry. But this time it's not a music player--it's a thermostat. Engineer Tony Fadell has spent more than a year building a startup of ex-Apple employees and other designers to develop the Nest Learning Thermostat. The Nest will automatically regulate temperatures based on your patterns, has motion sensors to detect when the house is empty, and connects to a Wi-Fi network to enable remote operation.

Nest aims to save homeowners hundreds on their HVAC bills with its learning algorithms and user friendly interface. It demonstrates an Apple-esque eye for visual design that's absolutely a notch above most thermostats, which range from plain to hideous. The Learning Thermostat isn't quite as revolutionary as it comes across, though--while Nest compares itself to antiquated thermostats like the Honeywell Round, more modern systems offer deep programming controls and wizards to regulate temperature.

Honeywell itself offers thermostats like the Prestige 2.0, which uses a question system to program itself based on your habits and temperature preferences. The Prestige will adjust HVAC based on utility costs to save money. The Ecobee Smart Thermostat offers programmable scheduling as well, and both thermostats can connect to a Wi-Fi network for remote access.

Nest claims to be pioneering in a field no one else has pursued, which clearly isn't the case--these programmable thermostats have been around for years. Honeywell's thermostats are even getting smarter--in September it announced a partnership with Opower to merge smart thermostats with energy usage analysis and recommendations. Nest hasn't created the smart thermostat category--but the iPod didn't create the MP3 player category, either, and look how that turned out.

Marketing spin aside, the Nest is a beautiful little device. Smart and programmable thermostats tend to rely on crappy LCD touchscreens and ugly, clunky interfaces. Even if they can save us big bucks on our HVAC bills, actually using them can be a big deterrent. Nest's design stands head and shoulders above the competition by combining an elegant display with a classic knob control for adjusting temperature. It will definitely be easier to use than everything else on the market--and if its algorithms are as smart as Nest implies, it could end up being even more efficient.

The Nest doesn't force temperature change on you--it learns based on your patterns, but also provides recommendations for money-saving or environmentally friendly settings and rewards you with a leaf icon signifying a happy compromise. Nest plans to offer updates via the web, so the thermostats will ideally get smarter over time. And at $250, the Nest is priced pretty reasonably compared to programmable thermostats like the Prestige and Ecobee, which can cost between $300 and $500.

Nest plans to ship the thermostat from its online store and have it on Best Buy shelves in November.