Review: Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd gen.) keeps pace with the competition

Review: Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd gen.) keeps pace with the competition

Our Nest Learning Themorsta (3rd gen.) rating:
(4/5)

Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd gen.) at a Glance

What it is: the award-winning, category-defining Nest Learning Thermostat hardly needs an introduction these days. Installation is designed to be simple and quick, and once set up, the Nest can (in theory) “learn” your schedule and preferences with minimal input from you. Twist the outer ring to raise or lower the temperature manually, earn a “Leaf” icon for choosing more economical heating and cooling temperatures, and build your smart home of the future with Nest’s ever-growing family of smart home products.

In our tests, we’ve found the Nest easy to use and pleasing to look at. The app was responsive, worked well with our HVAC equipment, worked great on both iOS and Android, and it was easy to set up multiple users and give them access. Since we also have a few Nest Cameras and a Nest Protect, we especially appreciated the ability to manage them all from the same app.

This year, the Nest family expanded to include support for Nest-branded room temperature sensors. These sensors give Nest a capability that Ecobee users have enjoyed for some time – the ability to read a temperature from somewhere else in the home – but they aren’t motion sensors, and their scheduling is fairly rigid right now, so they’re not quite the same as Ecobee’s sensors.

And, of course, you can control it from anywhere via the Nest app.

Nest Learning Thermostat quick look

ProsCons
  • New in 2018: room temperature sensors can be added to take readings from elsewhere in your home
  • Easy to use
  • Nicely integrated with Nest product family of smart home devices
  • Ongoing support from parent company Alphabet (Google)
  • Seven color ring options to choose from at time of purchase: matte white, matte black, silver, copper, stainless steel, brass, mirror black
  • 24/7 support for help with installation
  • 2 year warranty
  • Do you need a C-wire or not?! Nest has never been clear on this, and encourages users to first try without (much to the disappointment of many buyers who discover that yes, they do need one)
  • Entering passwords/setup information via the click ring is annoying but you only have to do it once, during setup
  • No Apple HomeKit integration and there probably never will be because Google and Apple don’t want to play nice (here’s a petition about the issue!)
  • “Idle” screen doesn’t display as much information as some competitor models
  • “Learning” feature can be hit or miss for some users

Nest vs. the rest

The Nest has been on the market for over half a decade. The competition has had time to catch up, and nowadays Nest is best understood in the context of what it does vs. what the competition does. 

We consider the Nest’s primary competition in 2018 to be the ecobee4 (read our ecobee4 review) and its secondary competition to be the hordes of lower-priced WiFi enabled thermostats aimed at the market the Nest created – but isn’t quite catering to for whatever reason. These lower-priced competitors include the Nest Thermostat E, the ecobee 3 lite, and the Emerson Sensi line of products. All of these thermostats can be accessed via a smartphone app, integrate with home automation systems such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, and install with ease.

Let’s look at what sets the Nest apart from the competition.

Welcome to the family

In our opinion, the best reason to buy a Nest Learning Thermostat is because you want to use it with the larger collection of Nest smart home products. No other thermostat on the market comes close to this level of integration with other home automation products.

Once you set your home up with Nest Cameras, Nest smoke detectors, a Nest doorbell, and more, they’ll all work together in some nifty ways. Tell it you’re away (or let it figure that out on its own) and it’ll drop the temp and turn on your cameras. If the Protect smells smoke, your Nest thermostat will stop making additional calls for heat. Basically, they work together in small but convenient ways.

Everything Nest-related is contained in one app, which beats opening a bunch of different apps to check on your home while you’re away or snug in bed. Nothing here is can’t-live-without-it, but it does all come together to make your home feel smarter and more comfortable in small but appreciable ways.

Our experience with the Nest product family

We actually have a small family of Nest products in our home: we’ve had a Nest Protect and three Nest Cameras for about 2 years now and we’ve been happy with them.

In that time we’ve triggered our Protect twice (verifying that it does indeed work!) and the only trouble we’ve had with it was the time a car idling on the driveway tripped the CO sensor on the Protect (our Protect is located just inside our front door). We were not home and wanted to silence it from 200 miles away, but couldn’t do that via the app. We feared it would generate alerts all day long until we got back home, but it actually silenced itself once the house fan kicked on and circulated the air a bit. Phew!

The Nest cameras are high quality and have a devoted following but we think they’re a bit expensive compared to lower-priced competition that has emerged since they first hit the market. Without the paid subscription (per camera no less!), the Nest cameras suck at distinguishing boring things like shifts in daylight apart from things that are actually interesting, such as people, and it generates alerts for all of the above. We also wish the Nest cameras had a local storage option as an alternative to paying for the cloud storage. We’ve since switched to buying Yi cameras for our additional camera needs, but we miss the all-in-one-app feeling and we liked the hefty, quality feel of the Nest cameras. If you don’t mind paying for a subscription (again, for each individual Nest camera you own) to get storage and better motion detection, the Nest cameras are great.

An update on the classic “wall wart” design

The Nest is strikingly beautiful. The ring design is a standout, evoking the look and feel of the classic Honeywell thermostat popularized last century. The display is crisp and elegant, and the twist ring comes in seven different colors (you have to make your choice at the time of purchase, you don’t get all 7 rings in the box). The outer ring is satisfying to twist and “click”. The user interface is uncluttered and easy to read. No one else on the market looks or feels like a Nest.

By default, the Nest just shows the target temperature (centered, huge) and the current temperature as a tiny number embedded in the ring design around the screen. (Am I alone in thinking they should be switched? The current indoor temperature seems more important than the target temperature. If I’m looking at the thermostat, it’s because I want to know if the house is actually colder or warmer than I expect it to be, not because I want to see what temperature it will eventually be.)

The 3rd generation Nest includes a new feature called Farsight, which detects movement up to about 20 feet away from the thermostat and responds by displaying some useful bit of information on the screen. What, exactly, displays when Farsight activates is up to you – you can pick between an analog-style clock, a digital-style clock, a simplified version of the current weather and forecast for your region, the thermostat’s target temperature, and the thermostat’s current temperature. What you can’t do is see all of this stuff at once, much to the annoyance of some Nest users. Even more frustrating is how you can see it all at once in the settings menu, but you can’t set this screen to be what Farsight shows you by default. Perhaps Nest’s development team will improve this screen in the future.

Usage reports leave something to be desired, but at least they exist

Let us preface this section by saying that none of the big names in smart thermostats have figured out how to make a useful energy report. Nest has reports, but they aren’t great. However, since most smart thermostats don’t even generate any kind of usage report (only ecobee and Nest attempt to), we feel it’s worth looking at what you do get with the Nest.

There are two ways to see what your Nest has been up to: look in the app to see the last 10 days of usage summarized into one screen, or wait for the monthly email to come out. The emailed report tells you how many hours you heated or cooled your house total and awards you some Leaf icons for choosing “energy saving” settings (the exact criteria for earning these is somewhat cryptic).

The report looks like this:

Image credit: Control Trends, because our data looked a lot less interesting

The reports include information like how many hours total you cooled your house. ie: “205 hours of cooling this month”. We can’t figure out how to make that information useful, and it doesn’t easily translate into a savings amount. Of course we used more heat in October than we do in September – there’s not much point in comparing month to month when you live somewhere with a variable climate. Nest makes no effort to compare this year’s usage to last year’s, either. (You might be able to get this information from your utility company, though.) Google’s business is data, so we’re surprised that Nest’s reports have always been so thin and uninteresting. We give Nest credit for trying, but ecobee has them beat here (only slightly – ecobee isn’t providing a treasure trove of data, either, and you have to wait a month+ to get yours).

What we want is an always up-to-date look at HVAC usage with some effort at analyzing the data to identify energy savings, patterns, run time by day, usage compared to others in your area, and action items to improve efficiency.

But wait – you can download a more robust data set from Nest!

Nest gives you the option to download a detailed set of all your Nest data from their servers, which you might be able to crunch in more interesting ways.

Go here to get it: https://myaccount.nest.com/mynestdata

The thermostat data included in the .zip includes device sensor and event data in JSON and CSV format:

  • Sensor data, including temperature, humidity, ambient light, far passive infrared, and near proximity. The exact sensors are dependent on the type of Nest thermostat you have.
  • Cycle times such as how long your heat was active.
  • Target temp data such as when your thermostat adjusts the temperature according to your schedule.

Some people have written guides on analyzing this data, such as this one by Jason Thompson at 33sticks, but we haven’t tried any of these methods ourselves.

Support for room temperature sensors

Room temperature sensors have been ecobee’s thing for years, but Nest joined the party earlier this year by rolling out a temperature sensing accessory of its own. This small, battery-powered puck is sold separately and useful for getting a temperature reading from somewhere in your house other than at your thermostat itself.

We reviewed the Nest Temperature Sensor earlier this year and found it to be useful in a limited set of scenarios:

  • Your thermostat is located somewhere that’s always hotter or colder than the rest of the house and you don’t think the temperature readings it comes up with are representative of everywhere else in your home
  • You want to monitor the temperature of a specific room
  • You want to keep a specific room at a specific temperature, the rest of the house be damned (the rest of your home will probably get too hot or too cold in the effort to get your chosen room perfect)

The sensor doesn’t offer much utility beyond that. It can’t detect motion the way an ecobee sensor can (to figure out if you’re even in the room you told it you care about most) and you have to work with the predefined time ranges that Nest provides (ie: morning, afternoon, night, overnight). You also can’t aggregate the sensor data to have it take an “average” temp across your home. The sensors have all the markings of a typical Google product release, with the first iteration being rather bare-bones and cooler stuff getting added later if the product is initially successful.

Nest Learning Thermostat unboxing and setup

Photo of Nest Learning Thermostat box contents

Everything you need to install your Nest Learning Thermostat. They even included a screwdriver!

What’s in the box?

  • Nest thermostat unit
  • Thermostat base (the thing you poke the wires into)
  • Backplate (optional, use it to hide the terrible things your previous thermostat did to the wall)
  • Mounting screws
  • Stickers for labeling your existing wires
  • Nest-branded screwdriver
  • Installation guide

Setup

Setup was fairly painless – the only parts I didn’t enjoy was entering our WiFi password letter by letter using the twist ring and having to wait on an update that downloaded and installed itself as soon as the thermostat was connected to WiFi. The setup process was guided by the Nest app on my phone and took about 15 minutes, even with stopping to take photos.

A nice, unexpected extra during installation was when the Nest asked me to confirm my wiring and equipment (as opposed to just going with whatever wiring I might’ve fed it and assuming all was well). As a DIY-er, this was a nice “hey, am I doing everything right?” sanity check.

All in all, setup went quickly and we didn’t encounter any major annoyances.

Our thoughts on the Nest Learning Thermostat

We spent about 2 weeks with the Nest Learning Thermostat (we swap thermostats regularly here in the Smart Thermostat Guide home).

It delighted us with its design and ease of use, but it never “learned” our schedule. Perhaps we are too unpredictable, and we also subjected the thermostat to our ongoing disagreement over the ideal temperature for our home. It might work better for a person who lives alone or a couple who agree on the temperature and always leave for work and return home at the same time every day.

We don’t recommend buying the Nest solely for the “learning” capabilities. It’s not omniscient. It will get “stuck” on whatever you told it the first week or so that you had it, and you’ll end up overriding it sooner or later.  The settings it picks will probably not be exactly what you want – too hot, too cool, too early, etc. Fortunately, it’s very easy to schedule it manually via the app. Much easier than any programmable thermostat we’ve tried, and just as easy as its major competitors.

Versus the competition, we think the Nest is up there with our long-running top choice from ecobee, now in its fourth iteration (read our review of the ecobee4 here). Both did a fine job managing the temperature of our home, so when it comes to picking one or the other, we think the choice is best made in the context of design preferences and whether or not you have other Nest products to use it with.

As for what we don’t like: we think the Nest could be even smarter. It’s nearly the end of 2018 and, aside from the introduction of the room temperature accessories, not much has changed with Nest this year. Our biggest criticism is that we simply expect more from a thermostat backed by data-king Google. For example, the Nest could take into consideration complex scenarios like “it rained all night last night and is now 13 degrees colder than mornings where it didn’t rain all night, so I should adjust the temperature and indoor humidity accordingly this one time and not every single day from now on”.

The Nest struggled to craft any kind of useful schedule for us, so we’re not convinced of its intelligence on that front, either. The usage reports are almost meaningless, but they could be so much more. Here’s hoping for some improvements on these fronts in 2019 and beyond.

All that said, the Nest is still a solid choice and one of the best WiFi thermostats on the market right now in 2018. We don’t know what the future will bring, but ever since Nest was brought back into the Google fold we are more excited than ever to see what smart things the Nest will do in the future.

Nest HVAC compatibility

Unlike Nest’s “budget” version, the Nest Thermostat E, the flagship Nest model offers the most complete support for a variety of HVAC systems.

  • Heating: 1,2, and 3 stages (W1, W2, W3)
  • Cooling: 1 and 2 stages (Y1, Y2)
  • Heat pump: with auxiliary and emergency heat (O/B, AUX, E)
  • Humidifier or dehumidifier (HUM, DEHUM)
  • Fan (G)
  • Power (C, RH, RC)

The Nest also contains these sensors:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Near-field activity
  • Far-field activity
  • Ambient light

And supports these WiFi protocols:

  • Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n @ 2.4GHz, 5GHz
  • 802.15.4 @ 2.4GHz

(Virtually all home WiFi routers from the last several years operate at these standards.)

Will I need a C-wire?

Probably. It’s hard to say for sure because Nest themselves has this weird “try it and see” stance in regards to the C-wire. Basically, Nest says their thermostat should work without a C-wire because it charges itself when your HVAC system is running. If you go a long time without running your heating at all (perhaps you live in a mild climate) then the Nest will briefly turn your equipment on to charge itself. Herein lies the problem for some users: they find their heat running when it shouldn’t, or the heat never turns back off, or the “pulsing” (as it’s called) damages their system in some way. Every setup is different, but we’ve noticed that the Nest has trouble holding a charge when coupled with an HVAC system that just isn’t run that often.

The best advice we can offer is to assume you need a C-wire to use a Nest. It’s the safest approach, and it future-proofs your home. You might already have a C-wire buried behind your existing thermostat already, or you may find it worth the trouble (or expense) to run new wires between your furnace and thermostat if that’s an option for you.

More resources:

Who we recommend Nest for

Go ahead and grab a Nest for your home if the following applies to you:

  • You want to take advantage of the larger suite of Nest home automation products and the way they work together
  • You prefer the Nest’s physical design over that of the competition
  • You know your home would benefit from the additional room temperature sensor

Should you upgrade from an earlier Nest version?

Compared to earlier Nest models, the third generation Nest has:

  • Farsight feature that responds to your movement nearby by displaying the time, weather, or current temp in a large font size
  • a thinner body so it protrudes into the room less
  • more outer ring color options to pick from
  • a sharper, higher resolution screen
  • support for 2.4 and 5 GHz network bands

The learning and scheduling technology inside the Nest is the same across all Nest models, and they all share the same app. Generally speaking, no, we don’t recommend you toss your 1st or 2nd generation Nest for this one unless you really want the different colored rings or the Farsight feature.

The bottom line

The Nest Learning Thermostat is still a leader in the product category it created and defined.

See the Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd gen.) on Amazon.com

 

Nest Learning Thermostat

9.3

Ease of installation

9.0/10

Display

9.0/10

Ease of use

10.0/10

Scheduling flexibility

9.0/10

Look and feel

9.5/10

Pros

  • Beautiful design and sharp screen
  • "Learning" feature useful to many users
  • Optional room temperature accessory can be added
  • Integrated with always-growing product family

Cons

  • Farsight doesn't display everything you might want to see (temp OR time)
  • Probably requires a C-wire but Nest encourages you to try without first
  • Monthly reports not very useful

 

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