People who own Nest thermostats tend to like them. They like the energy savings, they like the pretty thing on their wall. The round wall-mounted gadget has been a gateway to the smart home for millions and remains, by all accounts, the best smart thermostat you can buy. But if you ask Nest, not enough people own them. And Nest would like to help.
For the last couple of years, a team within Nest has been working on another thermostat. Not an upgrade to the current model, which they think works just fine. Instead, they hope to make something for people who didn’t want to spend $250 on a thermostat, didn’t buy the whole “it’s like art on your wall” thing, and didn’t want a thermostat that also told the time and shared the weather. They wanted a thermostat that did thermostat things, invisibly and well.
Those people will enjoy the $169 Nest Thermostat E, the latest member of the Nest line. It’s white, like your walls. The small, round screen—this time made from polycarbonate rather than aluminum—sits behind a polarized filter to avoid the bright light catching your eye. Maxime Veron, Nest’s director of product marketing, says everything about the Thermostat E’s design centered around users not noticing the device. That’s also why Nest isn’t calling this one a “Learning Thermostat” like the previous model, even though the two are functionally identical. Most people don’t care how their thermostat’s algorithms work; they just want the temperature to be right.
The two models, Thermostat and Thermostat E, work virtually identically. The E (which stands for energy, everyone, easy, and a bunch of other stuff) lacks a couple of inputs that some high-end homes use for heating and cooling, but the people who live in those homes should spring for the nicer model anyway. Both devices let you manually set temperature, adjust the thermostat from anywhere, and use it to control your smart home. Ultimately, you’ll leave it alone, and let your thermostat regulate your home for you. Nest says it’s saved nearly 14 billion kWh of energy so far, and found in a study that it shaves 12 to 15 percent off most customers’ heating bills.
Nest’s new goal is to save 100 billion kWh, which they’ve calculated to be enough energy to power every home in New York state for two years. That requires a lot of new Nest customers. With a more universally appealing device, at a lower price—or even free, with rebates from the government and power companies—the company has a better shot at much wider adoption.
When I asked Veron why Nest’s “cheaper” thermostat still costs $169, he said that’s just what it costs to build a Nest-quality product. They could have swapped the easy cable-clamp mechanism for a screw-on cap, or ripped out the processor and done away with all the machine-learning stuff altogether. In fact, they considered doing so: Veron describes long meetings in which he and the rest of the Nest product team went over every feature on the device and asked, what can we get rid of to make this cheaper? He remembers one fight he’s now glad he lost, over whether to put a larger wall-cover in the box for people who don’t want to spackle and paint just to install a new thermostat. The cover’s in the box, and he’s ultimately happy about that.
This announcement comes during a trying time for Nest. Founder and longtime CEO Tony Fadell departed a little over a year ago, and questions about the company’s performance have dogged Nest since then. New CEO Marwan Fawaz is reportedly leading the charge on a full-home security system, to launch later this year, along with projects like a connected doorbell and an improved Nest Cam. But the company has moved slowly. Meanwhile the smart-home ecosystem continues to boom, and devices like the Google Home (owned by Nest’s parent Alphabet) and Amazon Alexa have become the de facto hubs for people’s connected lives. Even other smart thermostats have gotten pretty good. Nest’s power-saving aspirations are valuable and important, and the company’s uniquely able to do things like automatically manage the power surges and dips caused by a solar eclipse. But if Nest wants to remain a giant in the smart home, it needs to get into more of them.