Hands-On With the Nest Learning Thermostat, Part I

| In-Depth Review

Nest Mac Observer Hands On

We here at TMO have followed the Nest Learning Thermostat since its introduction late last year. Produced by Nest Labs, a company founded in 2010 by former Apple SVP and iPod creator Tony Fadell, the Nest is a digital home thermostat that “learns” the best way to balance comfort and energy efficiency over time.

After suffering through the July heat in the United States, and seeing our energy bill this month, we decided it was time to find out if the Nest lived up to its promises. Could this sexy, networked, “smart” thermostat really save us money?

The folks at Nest Labs agreed to lend us a review unit to find out but, unlike other product reviews, this one is going to take quite a bit longer. That’s because Nest not only takes several weeks to learn how a home’s inhabitants prefer their climate, it takes many months to adequately compare energy usage with similar temperatures the year before.

As a result, this may be TMO’s longest product review ever. Today in Part I, we’ll show you how we installed the Nest and then, quite a few months down the road, once we’ve gathered enough data to make a judgement on Nest’s effectiveness, we’ll have Part II.

So let’s dive on in to the coolest (zing!) thermostat we’ve ever seen.

Packaging & Box Contents 

The Nest’s iPod heritage is clearly evident from the beginning. The packaging is clean and simple and, while not as streamlined as Apple’s packaging today, definitely reminds us of opening our first iPod.

Nest Learning Thermostat Box

Nest Learning Thermostat Box 

Nest includes everything you need to install it yourself in almost all configurations. Clockwise from the upper left is the installation guide, the thermostat face, a screwdriver, mounting screws, the wall plate, additional mounting screws for attaching Nest to an electrical box, a mounting plate for an electrical box installation, and two optional cover plates to hide any wall damage behind your old thermostat.

Nest Learning Thermostat Contents



UPDATE: We neglected to mention that we turned off the air conditioning and furnace power at our circuit breaker box before beginning the installation. This is an important safety tip and something that Nest emphasizes in its installation guide. Safety first!

With all of our parts accounted for, we turned our attention to the existing thermostat, in our case a basic Honeywell model.

Nest Learning Thermostat Old Unit

We removed the face to reveal the connection wires. Each installation will be different, but Nest’s compatibility guide helps you determine which wires you need.

Nest Learning Thermostat Old Wires

Before removing any wires from the old thermostat, use the wire sticker labels included with the Nest to label each wire carefully. Once all the labels are applied, you can remove the wall plate.

Nest Learning Thermostat Wire Labels

Nest Learning Thermostat Wire Labels Applied

Now you’ll need to determine if you need to use a cover plate. If so, pick the applicable size, feed the connection wires through the opening in the middle, and then attach the Nest wall plate and cover plate to the wall with the included screws. Nest includes a handy built-in bubble level to make mounting easier.

Nest Learning Thermostat Attach to Wall

Once the plate and cover are secure, begin to connect the wires to their corresponding holes. The connection is made with a spring-loaded tab, so it’s as easy as pushing down on the right tab, sliding the bare wire into the opening, and letting go of the tab. Once all of the connections have been made, carefully push any excess wire back into the wall opening so that the face cover can attach properly to the wall plate.

Nest Learning Thermostat Wires Attached

The Nest has two connections on the back, a mini USB connection for manual updates and troubleshooting, and a proprietary connector that attaches to the wall plate and provides power and temperature control.

Nest Learning Thermostat Back

Carefully snap the Nest into the wall plate and within a few moment it will power on.

Nest Learning Thermostat Connected

The Nest can be connected to your home wireless network, which allows for remote monitoring and control, weather forecasts, and software updates. Once connected to the network, Nest will walk you through the setup process with a series of questions that let it know how you plan to use the thermostat and, in general, what range of temperatures you prefer.

Nest Learning Thermostat Equipment

Nest Learning Thermostat Setup Questions

Nest Learning Thermostat Location

Nest Learning Thermostat Temp Range

Nest Learning Thermostat Setup Complete

Altogether, installation was very easy and took about 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary, however, depending on the configuration, location, and wiring of your existing thermostat.

Once installation is complete, head to your computer and create a Nest account. This free account will give you remote web and app access to your thermostat and provide you with energy usage analysis and alerts.

Nest Website


First Impressions

In the roughly day and a half that we’ve had the Nest thus far, we’ve really enjoyed it. Setting the temperature is simple and easy and the remote web and app interface has already come in handy: it was a bit hot in the house last night so I simply grabbed my iPhone from the bedside table, launched the free Nest Mobile app, and turned on the air conditioning.

Nest Mobile App

I’m not saying that I’m lazy and, without Nest, wouldn’t have gotten out of bed, gone downstairs, and lowered the temperature from the thermostat myself…wait, I guess I’m saying exactly that.

But convenience is only part of Nest’s promised benefit. Smart energy usage is what Nest Labs hopes will really set the Nest apart from other home automation thermostat solutions.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, however, it will take many months to gauge and evaluate the Nest’s performance in this regard. We’ll therefore use the Nest to keep temperatures comfortable, within the same range that we set with our old thermostat, and report back to you in Part II on whether Nest saved us energy and money.

Until then, stay cool!

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Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

First, please tell me you went to your breaker box and shut off that circuit before playing with the wires!!

But second, if the thing saves you $10/month during the summer, it will pay for itself in 8-10 years! The real advantage of this thing is remote Internet control of your thermostat. That’s why most people will buy. It’s very desirable to be able to get your empty house comfortable for your imminent return from the convenience of a slowly moving freeway when you can’t think of anyone you’d like to text.

Jim Tanous

First, please tell me you went to your breaker box and shut off that circuit before playing with the wires!!

Yes, we did, but forget to mention that in the review. I’ve added an update at the beginning of the installation section to address this. Nest also mentions it in the installation guide.

Thanks, Brad, for reminding us about this important safety step!


I picked up one of these at a hardware store. I’m generally attracted to anything that lets me control more things from my phone or a browser. Other than an installation misunderstanding that had it heating my house when it thought it was cooling, I have no complaints so far.

The installation mishap was due to my not knowing whether my AC was a “heat pump” system. Apparently my AC is such a system, even though the manual said this was an uncommon case.

Derrick Dodson

“But second, if the thing saves you $10/month during the summer, it will pay for itself in 8-10 years!”

Not sure on your math here but summer in most regions consists of around 4-5 months.  At $10 a month that would be 40-50 a year, so 4-5 years depending on how granular you want to get with your device.  It does have a neat “leaf” feature that shows you when you are saving the most energy to cun an additional 5% on your monthly bill. 

What I have noticed over the past month with mine is the chart that actually shows you how long your device was active and if the weather had an effect on it’s more than normal usage.


In good coincidence, next week I’m installing a new furnace, air conditioner, dual-zone thermo system, and *two* Nest controllers. When working in this manner, I’m told the two Nests talk to each other and come to agreements about common settings and what constitutes your “away” time.  We’ll be experimenting together.


I haven’t read this article nor the comments yet, but I shall, I promise.

However, an article on installing a freakin thermostat that costs 250 buck$, and which article ? by virtue of it’s title ? contains multiple parts and currently has 18 illustrations, does not encourage me to run out and buy one.

So maybe I won’t read the article after all.


First, please tell me you went to your breaker box and shut off that circuit before playing with the wires!!

Always a good idea.  OTOH, it is low voltage, right?  Not going to hurt anyone.


Most domestic heating systems in USA are switching 24 volts - let’s reign in the FUD a bit on turning off everything at the breaker.  Biggest reason to turn power off is to avoid damage to the control system, 24 V does not present a hazard to humans under these circumstances.

Most domestic heating systems in Europe are switching 230 volts, and self-installation of this sort of device isn’t going to happen for a mixture of legal liability and safety reasons.  So if you are reading this in Europe, don’t try this at home.

There are, however, other intelligent thermostat systems with internet linking that are not all that different from Nest (and some of which may even be as good or better) which come complete with an installation service in Europe. 

But they don’t have the marketing connection to Apple so need to actually work on recognition to make an entry to the market.

This is also a great malware opportunity of the future.  Not everyone on the internet is your friend.  The industrial version of this sort of equipment, made by Tridium has just been hacked leading to the job loss of the top two executives.  It was hacked easily, not because it is particularly insecure but because the security is hard and fiddly to set up and a pain to maintain, so many people don’t bother.  Sort of like some computer operating systems. 



Good looking device and nice to have the mobility and maybe this is enough to warrant the expense.  However, I would be interested in an analysis of how much the Nest saves compared to the Honeywell you replaced.  The Honeywell already has offsets that save energy.  How much more does the ability to control it remotely and have unlimited offsets really save you?

Sirow Richard

Nest’s are great (I have 2 and am about to add a 3rd).  In addition to what other thermostats do, you can set a range for times when you might need heat some days, and A/C others.  Or, it can learn from your adjustments to set a schedule.  It can determine if the house is empty and reduce the energy demand then. You also can see daily history of usage and why it is up or down from normal.

Shyam Patel

I think the real proof comes from whether or not the nest acutally save you energy vs. just being a cool gadget.  Here is my attempt to analyze the energy savings of the Nest using a year over year analysis for three months: http://getgrok.in/PIL1ax


Shyam ~ Both your analysis and the Nest performance (especially during this past July) are quite impressive.

Well done!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Shyam, That is very thoughtful analysis. To improve it, you need to add three items for context:

(1) General summer climate where you live.
(2) The dollar amount you were paying before the Nest. I can deduce that it was about $180/month.
(3) Size and layout of your home.

I’ll bet the Nest does a better job paying for itself quickly in a single level 2000+ square foot home in Arizona than a two level condo close to the ocean or in the Pacific NW. I still think it’s a super bitchin gadget, and I also think if it just helps you make data driven energy decisions, it’s doing a lot of good, even if that puts the onus (and the credit) mostly on you to conserve the energy.

Shyam Patel

(1) General summer climate where you live.
(2) The dollar amount you were paying before the Nest. I can deduce that it was about $180/month.
(3) Size and layout of your home.

To answer your questions

1) I am in Dallas, TX so May- July temps range from 90-100 degrees
2) You are correct during the summer months my electricity bill is about $200 on average
3) I have a single story home thats about 1700 square feet.  Also my home was built in 1922 so it pretty poor when it comes to energy efficiency.

So I would consider my results are really best case scenario in terms of energy savings.


So I would consider my results are really best case scenario in terms of energy savings.

Possibly, but the apparent climate changes have affected a lot more than the people in the “hot states.”  During the whole of July, the temperatures here in Michigan (Canada is just a few miles away, fer pete’s sake!), the temps mirrored yours in Texas, with many days when it was 100+ all day. 

Weather experts are predicting a long deep Winter with record snow levels, though I don’t know if that prediction includes Texas**.  Long deep Winters also come with high energy costs, so between desert and mountain lake, the weather all evens out in the end, and we all pay energy bills.
** I lived in San Antonio for about two years, and the first Winter I was there, it snowed 13” overnight!  It was a hoot.  Nobody knew what to do.  The only snow-plow in the city was owned by the airport, and they weren’t lending it to anyone.  Nobody knew how to drive on snow.  I saw three TX State Police cars off the road (2 in the ditch) on the 410 ring road, where I was apparently the only one driving with any success.

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