Nest Protect reviewed: Gadget watch

Google certainly raised eyebrows by buying out smart thermostat and smoke alarm maker Nest for $US3.2 billion.

But was the decision to buy Nest a wise investment on Google’s part, or a sign the mobile and online services giant now has more money than it knows what to do with?

Meanwhile, many of us will know the ear-splitting inconvenience of hiding a beeping smoke alarm in a cupboard after accidentally overcooking dinner. Nest promises a far more elegant solution to alerting you to a fire hazard.

So should you put one of Nest’s smart smoke detectors in your home?

It’s time to find out.

What’s the consensus?

One of the most immediate things Apple users will notice about the Nest Protect is the very Mac-like aesthetics used by the device. As Engadget points out, two of the designers responsible for the iPod are behind the creation of Nest:

Back in 2011, Nest did the impossible: It made thermostats sexy. Apple veterans Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers applied their iPod-designing expertise to the largely utilitarian world of home-climate control, creating the Learning Thermostat, an appliance aimed squarely at the gadget-obsessed citizens of the smartphone age. And then, earlier this year, Fadell and Rogers took on another traditionally banal (but utterly important) aspect of home life: the smoke detector. The conceit of the Nest Protect was to bring some of the same aesthetics and smart features that made the company’s first product a success.

Given Nest’s origins, it’s not especially surprising that the company managed to make even the product’s box a thing to behold. The message is pretty clear: If Apple ever saw fit to produce a smoke detector, it would look something like this. It’s a well-designed bit of packaging that looks more suited for a Best Buy vending machine than a dusty hardware store shelf.

The Nest Protect might feature the sort of minimalist exterior Steve Jobs would have opted for, had he ever attempted to crack the smoke alarm market.

However, housed within the sleek black or white exterior are a range of sensors that go beyond merely detecting smoke and carbon monoxide, and make it an important building block in a connected home:

In name, Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. It communicates with you through a mixture of verbal warnings, beeps, LED lights, and text alerts, too. But in practice, Nest is more like a starter package for the connected home. It carries a photoelectric smoke sensor, a carbon monoxide sensor, a speaker, and four sensors that detect motion, light, and heat—which means it’s smart enough to know when you’re in the same room or if you’ve turned off the lights.

While the device includes a host of new features, according to Gizmodo, setting up the alarm and up the iOS or Android app is a relatively painless process:

Installing Protect was more than reassuring—it was legitimately fun. Once you take it out of its box and pull the tab from the batteries (remember — there’s also a wired 230 version), its little LED ring pulses blue… Once I had downloaded Nest’s iOS app, it guided me through a few steps to connect Protect to my Wi-Fi network. This was surprisingly simple. First, with the app open, you point your phone at the QR code on the back of Protect.

Once I had downloaded Nest’s iOS app, it guided me through a few steps to connect Protect to my Wi-Fi network. This was surprisingly simple. First, with the app open, you point your phone at the QR code on the back of Protect…

This generates a Wi-Fi network name that you find in your phone’s Wi-Fi settings, which you select. Your phone and the alarm will spend about three minutes mulling this, and then the alarm blinks green and lets you know you’re connected. From here on out, you can tap the alarm icon on your device and Nest will give you a real-time update on what’s up at home—it’ll also alert you of warnings and alarms.

As The Verge points out, aide from the iOS or Android app, the Next Protect uses a multi-colour light to communicate its status:

Beyond its dashing good looks, the Protect actually has some brains. The big round button in the middle of the device is surrounded by a multi-colour light, which shines blue, green, yellow, red, or white depending on the Protect’s status. Blue is for setup, green means everything’s okay, yellow is a low-level alert, red is a high-alert, and white acts as a nightlight. It’s a more elegant notification system than the blinking green and red lights that a standard smoke detector uses, but for the most part, it accomplishes the same purpose.

As with the Nest Thermostat, the Protect is designed to be used online, using an iOS or Android app to connect to your Wi-Fi network and Nest account. Once connected, the Protect will send alerts to your phone whenever it detects smoke or carbon monoxide, even if you’re far away from home. You can also check on the status of the Protect’s batteries and manage other Nest devices from the app. It all ties back to the convenience that Nest is selling with the Protect: it’s nicer to get an alert on your phone when something is happening at home, as opposed to waiting for a call from the local fire department.

One of the key selling points of the device are the Pathlight feature, which switches on a soft white light when it senses people moving while no lights are on.

The other big advantage – especially for anyone who has ever had to put a smoke detector into another room while cooking – is the ability to stop an alarm with the wave of a hand.

I particularly liked the Pathlight feature; when you walk under the Protect when the lights are out the light ring glows with a soft white light to guide your way. This really comes in handy when venturing out into the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night. If you prefer, Pathlight can be disabled using the app.

If you’ve ever had to get up on a chair so you could reach your smoke alarm’s quiet button you’ll appreciate the Nest Wave feature, which allows you to stand under the device and wave your hand at the alarm to silence it. It’ll take four or five deliberate waves of the hand to do the trick, which is by design (Nest engineers wanted to make sure the alarm isn’t silenced accidentally), but it is a very convenient feature nonetheless.

Finally, over at Slate, two big concerns were raised about the device. The first is the standard voice is not alarming enough, and there’s no way to change it. A more serious concern, however, is the price:

I see two flaws so far with the Nest Protect. The first is that I’d like more options for voices. Right now it’s a very serene female voice that tells me there is smoke billowing in my entryway. Which seems a tad casual given the stakes. I might prefer a barking male voice, replete with colloquialisms. Something along the lines of, “Hey, chucklehead, your entryway looks like a friggin’ banya. You should split.” For me, this would conjure a more heightened state of concern.

The second problem is the price. It’s $129 for each one. Depending on the size of your home, you might need several. At Bed Bath & Beyond, a no-frills smoke and carbon monoxide detector will run you about 30 bucks, so Nest is counting on consumers to make a significant expenditure for an item that one prays won’t ever become relevant. Balancing the ledger: Should it become relevant, it might save your hide.

Who’s it for?

If price is no issue, and you love Apple’s minimalist design style, this alarm is for you. By all accounts, it is a far more elegant and intelligent solution to keeping you and your family safe than a standard fire alarm. 

However, while the coloured alerts, smartphone apps, Pathfinder lights and other features are nice to have, they come at a significant price premium.

If you can tolerate occasionally hiding a smoke detector in a cupboard when you accidentally burn your carrots and care little for aesthetics, a $30 smoke detector from Bunnings still does the same job.

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