We’re on the hunt for the perfect climate control setup for the CNET Smart Home. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road before. We’ve been making our living lab in Louisville, Kentucky smarter piece by piece since September of last year, and in October, Megan Wollerton tackled the thermostat.
At the time, she picked the Nest 3.0 for our smart-home setup because it looked great, worked well, and was the most well-rounded option available at the time. She mentioned, though, that Nest wasn’t perfect; that the competition, particularly the Ecobee3 Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat, was catching up; and that we might have to revisit this decision at some point in the future.
That time is now. this week, we’re swapping out the Nest for the Ecobee3 in the CNET Smart Home.
Why the change?
The Ecobee3 has made great strides in interoperability, and once it added native integration with the Amazon Echo — a Wi-Fi connected speaker with always-listening voice control — it fit better with the direction we’re moving in the CNET Smart Home. The shift is meant more as a compliment to Ecobee than a slight to Nest. The Nest Learning Thermostat is still a great product that will be a great fit for many homeowners. Sure, we’re kind of breaking up with Nest, but it’s not Nest, it’s us.
The Amazon Echo has slowly made itself a centerpiece in our setup, and last week, when Ry Crist connected it to every single light in the house, he cemented the Echo in that center spot. We don’t just want to connect all of our electronics in the CNET Smart Home, we want the various smart pieces we’ve installed to work together via intuitive controls.
That’s where the Echo comes in. By saying the trigger word, Alexa, anyone can easily use their voice to command the Echo’s growing list of compatible smart home products. For us right now, that means the lights of the home, whether they’re Philips Hue bulbs or Belkin WeMo switches. It’s a much easier approach than setting up multiple users to access the lights via many different smart home apps, as we learned from experience.
The Echo costs $180 and is a US-only product for now. (The price converts to AU$255 or £125 for our readers in Australia and the UK.)
Given the Echo’s increasing role in our Smart Home, its native integration with Ecobee makes a big difference, enough that it made sense to take another look at our installed thermostats to see if the switch made sense.
Ecobee vs. Nest
The Ecobee3 and the Nest Learning Thermostat both cost $250 (£155/AU$285), both have iOS and Android apps, and both apps let you change the temperature remotely, set schedules, choose temperature preferences, and the like. Both function well as far as thermostats, both look nice, control intuitively and respond quickly. As far as the basics are concerned, the contest is a tie.
As far as advanced smarts, Nest and Ecobee take different paths. The Nest Learning Thermostat lives up to its name by gradually learning your schedule and habits, and then anticipating them and adjusting itself for you over time.
The Ecobee thermostat doesn’t adjust your schedule automatically in the same way. It does include a remote sensor in the package, with the option of adding more sensors to the system. Via motion and temperature detection, the sensor helps the thermostat accurately know when you’re home, even if you don’t pass by it in the hallway, and will adjust home and away preferences accordingly.
These self-adjusting smarts combined with more-than-competent basics put the Ecobee3 and Nest Thermostat well above the competition. Honeywell has a few smart thermostats with voice controls built in, but all feature a dated design and clunky controls, and that hasn’t changed since Megan passed on Honeywell for the smart home a few months ago.
The options for voice control have changed. Because of the direct integration between the Echo and Ecobee, you can simply say, “Alexa, turn the thermostat to 71 degrees,” or “Alexa, turn the temperature down two degrees.”
Again, we want centralized voice controls to avoid having to share the app’s account information with everyone who wants to control the thermostat. It’s a particular problem for us, since we have a handful of smart home editors who need access, but I’d imagine a family of four would struggle with this as well.
The Nest isn’t without options for voice control. You can use the voice assistant in your Android phone, but that doesn’t solve the problem for multiple users or wider integration. You can even use Nest with the Amazon Echo, but because you have to use the third-party rule-making platform IFTTT to connect the two, the process is far from intuitive.
If you want to adjust the temperature, you can’t just speak that command to the Amazon Echo directly. You have to build an IFTTT recipe connecting the Nest to the Echo, then give the precise command to the Echo using the exact phrase you specified in your recipe. And it’ll need to start with the word “Trigger.”
So, for example, you won’t be able to say to your Echo, “Alexa, change the temperature to 71 degrees.” Instead, you’ll need to say “Alexa, trigger the thermostat to 71 degrees.” That might not seem like too much of an inconvenience. But remember, you had to build a recipe with that exact phrase. If a family member says, “Alexa, trigger the temperature to 71 degrees” it won’t work.
Aside from remembering exact phrases and adding extra words like “trigger” to the process, if you want to change the temperature to 72 degrees, you’ll need to build a different recipe. Meaning, in order to use Amazon Echo with Nest, you’ll need recipes for every possible temperature you could desire. And you still won’t be able to command Alexa to turn the temperature up or down a couple of degrees.
Using Echo with Nest is possible, but it’s clunky and tedious. Using Echo with Ecobee is seamless. Alexa will respond to any request to change the temperature. If you have multiple thermostats, the Echo will simply ask you which one you want to change after your request. You can pick a specific temp, or shift the temp up or down.
The Amazon Echo app also comes with skills. Basically apps inside of the Echo, you can ask Alexa to activate a skill, then give voice commands for various functions within that skill. Via a couple of third-party skills, you can circumvent IFTTT for Nest controls, but it’s still not as intuitive as Ecobee’s native integration.
Reflect Connect — one such skill — requires you to sign up for a separate account beyond your Nest and Echo account. Then you activate it by telling Alexa to “Open Reflect.” Or you can simply say, “Alexa, ask Reflect to turn the temperature to 72 degrees.” That’s not bad, but Reflect can only connect to one Nest at a time, so bigger homes with multiple thermostats will be out of luck.
You’re also still using an extra service, and sometimes, my request to Alexa to talk to Reflect to command Nest timed out somewhere along that winding path. And you can’t use Reflect to adjust the temp up or down by a couple of degrees. You still have to specify your temperature.
You can ask Reflect to tell you the set temp, or the temp Nest is reading. That’s handy, since you can then follow up the inquiry with your temp request. And you can’t actually ask the Echo for the set temp or temp readings of the Ecobee3. Reflect bests Ecobee on that front, but for the most part, Ecobee’s voice controls through the Echo are easier to use.
The current setup of choice
In the CNET Smart Home, we have thermostats in a hallway on the main floor and on the second floor, just inside the entrance of the master bedroom. We installed an Ecobee3 in both locations. Via the app, I set schedules for both, and was slightly annoyed that I couldn’t set both schedules at once.
It wasn’t a big inconvenience, and within a few minutes, I had temperature preferences set up for home, away, and bedtime, and times for each mapped throughout the week according to our work schedule for the house. Since no one lives in the CNET Smart Home, I probably didn’t need to put anything for bedtime into the calendar, but I did anyway.
Next, I turned on the “Smart home/away” and “follow me” features that make use of Ecobee’s sensors. Voice control through the Echo was a big part of the reason we made the switch, but with a home as big as the CNET Smart Home — 5,800 square feet — the sensors proved to be a very useful advantage.
Each thermostat comes with a sensor included, but I paired both of ours to the downstairs thermostat, since that’s where we spent most of our time. I put one in the living room and one in the family room. The smart home/away feature makes alterations on the fly to your schedule if it’s set to home and doesn’t detect motion for awhile, or if it’s in away mode and the sensor picks up that you’re there.
Nest does the same thing, but since your thermostat might be in a hallway removed from the home office where you spend hours every day working, it might think you’re away when you’re not. With Ecobee, you can simply plop the little plastic sensor down on its stand on your desk, or stick it to a wall in whatever room you tend to frequent, and it’ll have a better idea if you’re actually home.
Like the Nest, the Ecobee thermostat detects motion as well, and Ecobee uses temperature readings from all of the sensors and averages them when making decisions about when to heat or cool. The “follow me” feature allows Ecobee to more heavily weight the average of the sensors that detected motion more recently. Short of using smart vents, that’s as close as you can get to intelligent room-by-room temperature control.
Once the thermostats and the sensors were in place, I took advantage of Ecobee’s other integrations to set up a couple of extra pieces of advanced functionality. The Ecobee3 works with HomeKit, so I can command it with Siri using my iPhone. The Ecobee3 also works with IFTTT, so I set up a few recipes telling the thermostat to switch to home mode when my phone entered the area.
I also set up “good night” and “good morning” recipes. The first shuts off every light in the house and turns the temperature to my bed time comfort level when I say, “Alexa, trigger good night.” The second turns on a few select lights and turns the temp back to home mode when I say, “Alexa, trigger good morning.”
The wish list
Neither command is ideal. Again, I’d like more intuitive, flexible phrasing to trigger scenes, but right now, the Echo doesn’t offer any built-in scenes. You have to go through IFTTT for that. Neither Siri nor IFTTT do anything more via Ecobee than what Nest can do via its own IFTTT channel and the voice controls on an Android.
I wish Ecobee’s motion sensors would let you take it’s IFTTT channel one step further — turning on the lights in a room when the sensor detects occupancy, for example. But Ecobee doesn’t have triggers for its sensors yet. And by losing the Nest thermostat, we lose the integration between our thermostat and the Nest Protect, but that link didn’t add much to our home’s smarts.
I also wish I could use my voice for more advanced functionality with the Ecobee. I’d like to be able to switch directly to home or away mode, or get an energy report, or even alter a schedule for the day or resume a set schedule after a modification. You can’t do any of that with a direct voice command. However, you can again turn to IFTTT if you want to create recipes for setting home and away mode on the fly.
We still haven’t found the perfect solution for our smart-home thermostat with the Ecobee3. But because we can continue to add sensors to the system as we see fit, and because we can just say “Alexa, turn down the temperature two degrees,” right now, it works well for the CNET Smart Home. And given the native integration between Echo and Ecobee, as the former grows its smart-home functionality, I’d expect the latter to tag along for the ride. Together, that all makes the Ecobee3 the right choice for us now, and for the foreseeable future.