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I run a real estate company by day, and electronic gadgets are one of my passions, so it comes as no surprise that I needed to be one of the first to install the Nest Learning Thermostat in my home. After a couple months on their wait list, I installed it last week and wanted to give my fellow GeekWire readers a glimpse of this neat gadget.

The premise of Nest is pretty simple. Ninety percent of the people who own programmable thermostats never set the schedule and miss out on huge energy savings. An intelligent thermostat that can learn your schedule can save you a bunch of money and help the environment. I’m actually in the 10% that did have an energy-saving schedule, though it was far from perfect. My one-person household with somewhat erratic hours meant that I was regularly fiddling with the settings. I don’t anticipate a huge reduction in heating costs for myself, but found plenty of other tantalizing features that made this device a welcome tech addition to my home.

The Install

Nest OOBENest was founded by two guys from Apple’s iPod/iPhone team and it shows. The out-of-box-experience oozes Apple influence, with slick packaging, elegant, cellophane-wrapped documentation and even a cute little Nest screwdriver set. Between the wall anchors and multiple trim plates, they covered just about anything you’ll need to get it installed. The trim plates were especially welcome in my case, since I was too lazy to patch and paint the holes from my previous thermostat. (Yes, it looks better without the trim plates.)

Hooking up the wires on a thermostat can be challenging. I’ve got a simple 3-wire 1-stage gas furnace, so it was a piece of cake, but YMMV if you’ve got an AC or multi-stage heat pump. The best advice here is to LTFW (label the f**ing wires) before you unhook your old setup. The engineers clearly obsessed about the back plate, like the rest of the device. A built-in bubble level makes sure you’re perfectly straight, and the play in the screw holes allows you to adjust if you didn’t get your wall anchors perfect. Even the wire hookup is satisfying, with clearly-labeled push-button terminals.

Nest backplate

Once you stop curiously looking at the mini-USB port on the back of the thermostat (hackable?), it’s time to attach the thermostat and power it up. Unlike any thermostat you’ve ever owned, this one actually has a boot sequence. Apparently the guts are powered by an ARM processor with 512MB of RAM. The first screen asks you to join up to your wifi, and it promptly proceeded to download two firmware updates during two reboot cycles.

 Nest updating

Nest also needs to know where you live, so it can use outside temperature and humidity data to better tune your heat. The dial is both a dial and a push button that was very easy to use to get your basic setup complete. There are many well-designed components here, but hats off to the engineers on the dial. It is both elegant and satisfying to use.

Nest ZIP code entry

Using Nest

Once the thermostat is up and running, it is time to train Nest. It takes at least a week of your usage data to setup the initial schedule, so you have to pay attention to turning the heat up and down. User input isn’t the only data at work here, though. The unit has a two motion sensors. One is long-range to tell if you are at home, putting the thermostat into “away mode” when you’re not there. The other is a short-range sensor that would make a Star Trek fan’s heart leap. It turns on the LCD when you approach. It also measures temperature and humidity, has the requisite wifi antenna, and also a second antenna for ZigBee, which leaves open future expansion to communicate with other devices. SparkFun has a fun teardown of Nest internals for you hardware nerds.

Nest temp screen

I’ve only been training it since Friday, so the jury is still out on how well it adapts to a somewhat erratic schedule. It’s got my wake time nailed, as my dog is obsessive about waking me up at the same time everyday. It is still working on my sleep and weekend schedule, as that is less predictable.

Nest iPhone appThe best part of the device for me is actually not the schedule-learning, it is the remote connectivity. They’ve got iPhone/iPad apps and a website that allow you to control your home temperature no matter where you are. The website also lets you track/tune the schedule. There is always an iPhone or iPad on the nightstand upstairs, and I’ll set it when I go to bed. I also find myself “warming up the home” on my phone when I leave the office. Three days in and it knew how long it takes to heat the house, clocking in at 47 minutes to get the temperature up from 63 degrees. I’ll check back in a couple of weeks to let you know how it fares on learning my schedule.

The low down

Overall, geeks will love the device. It looks stylish, feels great and promises to inject technology into an overlooked home device, but it does so with a hefty price tag of $250. People without energy-efficient heating schedules will probably recoup that pretty quick, but for me, it is just a new tech convenience. (Kind of like a sister device to my Sonos.)

It will be interesting to see where they branch out. Anyone with a programmable sprinkler or security system will notice the analogous needs there, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them venture into more mundane items like lighting or shade controls. The Nest is a hot ticket at the moment. I missed the first shipment and was on their wait list for a couple months before I could order. Looks like they are sold out again, so you’ll need to wait list for the next shipment.

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