The Nest thermostat received quite a bit of attention from the press for its sleek industrial design and features. It was the first such product to receive widespread press coverage. In addition to being a thermostat which can be controlled over Wi-Fi, it also maintains energy history and is advertised as a 'learning' thermostat. These type of value-add features justified the original introductory price of $250. The first generation Nest became very popular amongst consumers and the second generation version with updated hardware and compatibility was launched recently.

Nest, however, was far from the first device to enable thermostat control over Wi-Fi. As long as the 'smart learning' features are not needed, there are plenty of cheaper options available. Radio Thermostat's Wi-Fi enabled products (along with iPhone and Android apps) have been around since 2010. Radio Thermostat’s offerings can be accessed through well-documented APIs. This means that tech-savvy users can roll up their own control mechanism without being at the mercy of the iOS or Android app. Home Depot's 3M Filtrete 50 and the Homewerks CT-30 are rebadged versions of Radio Thermostat's offerings.

These units are cheaper than the Nest, though self-installation might be challenging for the average consumer. Other options for Wi-Fi / network enabled HVAC thermostats include the LockState Connect LS-60i WiFi Internet Programmable Thermostat. and the ecobee Smart Si / Smart Thermostat.

My colleague, Brian Klug, has been using the Nest thermostat for a number of months now, and he is a big fan of the device. GigaOM, while heaping praise on the device, does point out some issues with it in the context of a smart home. Being a standalone device, it can’t be controlled over the same interface as other HA components. While the review does recommend the Nest to people who currently have no HA system installed, I fear that the device would lead consumers down the path of a walled garden similar to what Apple has created in the computing landscape. To elaborate on this, consider the fact that the APIs for Radio Thermostat’s offerings are well documented. On the other hand, Nest refuses to provide similar details for their device. In fact, users have done some snooping to discover some of the bits and pieces. On the whole, the lack of official API documentation makes the whole scheme appear very complicated. In a larger sense, HA is about control as well as building a smarter and more efficient ecosystem. While Nest succeeds very well in the latter, we hope it will also integrate well with other HA devices.

Due to the closed nature of the Nest system, third-party developers may not find enough incentive to control it along with other Wi-Fi enabled HA components over a single interface. It is a pity that the lack of slick marketing and an attractive industrial design have relegated consumer-friendly devices such as Radio Thermostat’s offerings to a niche when compared to closed systems such as the Nest. Hopefully, as tech-savvy readers, we consider the bigger picture before choosing any HA device.

Coming back to the thermostats, we find that Radio Thermostat offers models with ZigBee or Z-Wave modules instead of Wi-Fi also. The thermostat itself is protocol-agnostic because of its support for U-SNAP bridges. Nest, on the other hand, went the non-standard route by integrating both Wi-Fi and ZigBee radios within the device itself. A look at the pricing of various U-SNAP modules online indicates that the Wi-Fi module costs around $10 more than the ZigBee and Z-Wave modules. However, Wi-Fi modules have the volume factor going in their favour. A downward movement in the pricing can be expected as multiple silicon vendors compete against each other in the same space, as outlined in the previous section.

Wi-Fi in Home Automation Power Switching with Wi-Fi: Belkin & Visible Energy
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  • southpaw42_i - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Electric IMP looks to become big Home automation over next few years.
    Product developer will be able to add HA WIFI features to their products without the needed support cost of a managing the connection and the service themselves or the FCC validation of each product..
    http://electricimp.com/
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Looks like a very interesting product. I will be sure to investigate. Reply
  • jamyryals - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the article Ganesh, very interesting and I agree that this technology is starting to get more accessible. However, I must disagree with the statement that it's not possible to recommend products that do not have a documented API. Nest works great for me standalone. Why would the average customer need to connect it to anything else? My sprinkler system is automated as well. It won't turn on if it has rained. The automated door locks will open when I approach with my cell phones. I think the simplicity and predictability in how these devices operate is key for mass consumer adoption.

    I am a developer so there's nothing technologically in this realm that has stopped me from automating my house in the past. It's practical matters; cost and me becoming on call support in my own house. Anytime the lights don't come on the way they are expected to I'll have to go troubleshoot my devices/scripts.

    If we had our wish we would get both simplicity and ultimate control. That's just not the way the consumer behaves though. Consumers will avoid poorly designed products that tout open APIs as a major selling point. People want things that work and they can understand.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    I don't disagree with you on the point that Nest is a great device. If it were not, it wouldn't have achieved this much success.

    Products such as Radio Thermostat CT-30 and those from Visible Energy barely make a mention of open APIs in their marketing material. So, it is not that they 'tout it as a major selling point'. My intention, as a tech journalist, is to point out where products can improve. In that respect, I am a cynical customer for most of these companies.

    To take the computing analogue, many users are satisfied with the Apple ecosystem, but there are a number of users out there who stand by Android for its open nature. Some journalists recommend and stand by Apple's products, while others are on the Android side of things. Both of them have a place in the market. Similarly, devices such as Nest will be popular in the market for some time to come because 'they just work' and people are enamoured by the appearance and usability. Just as Android continues to grow, devices which open up for ultimate control will give consumers better choices (particularly for the tech audience that makes up a majority of AT's readers).

    Publications like Engadget, Gizmodo, Verge, AllThingsD (WSJ) provide lots of attention to products like the Nest. As a tech journalist for AT, I consider it my job done if consumers are at least made aware of the other more flexible options available.
    Reply
  • bobbozzo - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    "Nest works great for me standalone. Why would the average customer need to connect it to anything else?"

    I'd like to have my house open the windows and turn off the A/C when the temperature drops in the evening, and I'd prefer to do it with one application. I can program, but I'd rather have something available off-the-shelf.
    Reply
  • shalomo1 - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - link

    I am currently working on a project about home automation, I would like to meet and share ideas with you. this is my mail abraham.o@aol.com. Thanks Reply
  • CSMR - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Good to have an article on this.

    Unfortunate that if there's a conclusion, it's that WiFi will become a suitable technology in 2015 with 802.11ah.

    Very little is even known about 802.11ah. It's too early to say what it is, let alone whether it will take over low power networking.

    I agree that: in the future, a low power wireless networking standard suitable for home automation will be standardized by IEEE and be called 802.11something.

    Maybe there will be so many connected low-power devices that the new standard will be integrated into many wireless access points and routers.

    What is unfortunate is that it will take years for this to happen.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Hmm.. low power Wi-Fi is only needed in a subset of HA devices. As I pointed out in the piece, there are already plenty of Wi-Fi based HA products and silicon vendors are providing low power platforms even with current Wi-Fi technology. Reply
  • noblemo - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (BLE) is another protocol worth mentioning. It is a low-bandwidth, low-power technology that enables users to communicate directly to a device using a smartphone or tablet without the need for a separate controller or network connection. A self-contained sensor pod including a BLE module and battery can fit within a package about the size of a stack of six or seven 25-cent coins.

    In a pre-802.11ah world, Wi-Fi is better suited to high bandwidth or web-enabled devices with external power. In practice, I expect to see hybrid solutions using Wi-Fi and a second technology for remote, low power devices.
    Reply
  • Chapbass - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Hey, just wanted to take a moment to recognize Ganesh for his work. I know a lot of people are on the mobile device bandwagon and all of that, but I consistently find Ganesh's work to be unique, informative, and incredibly refreshing to this site.

    Keep it up, love reading it!
    Reply

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