Google acquires Nest, but what is it and how does it work?


If may have come as a surprise to some when news broke announcing that Google had spent $3.2 billion (it’s not a surprise yet) on a company called Nest Labs, whose focus is on the eco-friendly future home and whose portfolio currently consists of a smart thermostat and smoke alarm (there it is). It’s the tech-giant’s second largest acquisition yet (following the $12.5b paid to Motorola Mobility) and when you start delving deeper into the reasons why, it starts to make sense.

Google’s expansion into less mainstream areas oriented around connected devices, such Google Glass and Chromecast, has already signalled its intent to rivals like Apple, who has also shown a desire to widen its portfolio. In fact the founders of Nest previously worked with Apple hardware and software, so this could almost be seen as a kind of pre-emptive strike. What makes Nest so special, and whether its value will be realised is yet to be seen, but a closer look at its products does suggest there might be something interesting going on.

The “lead” device appears to be the Nest Learning Thermostat. This fancy wall-mounted unit (which can be fitted yourself, if you’re comfortable installing a light switch) essentially adjusts the temperature of your home by learning your schedule, and can also be controlled from a mobile phone. Simply personalise for different types of heating (dual fuel, conventional forced air etc.) and then start using it – by this we mean increasing or reducing the temperature as you would a normal thermostat. Nest then attempts to learn your schedule and will begin to adjust itself according to your habits.

Why not take a look at the Apple-esque video (complete with plinky plonky pianos, and a “we call it…” segment):

It also features activity sensors for an “auto-away” mode, which will switch the heating off if it thinks you’ve left the house, a humidity sensor, weather conditions and savings and other information that can be transmitted to your account via Wi-Fi.

PC Review warms things up with a 4.5/5 review and an Editor’s Choice award. Praised is the funky styling, ease of setup and use and well designed range of apps. The ability to control the device remotely is one of the biggest plus points, which is important because there is some doubt as to whether it’ll help save you money. As pointed out, this is entirely dependent on lifestyle, and largely whether you’re the kind of person who always leaves the heating on, or often forgets to turn it off. Despite this and the high up-front cost of the device, it still gets called a “must have for high-tech homeowners”,

However, Apple Insider, who awarded Nest 4/5, does claim that the Nest does has potential for energy savings, even going so far as to suggest it may have already paid for itself. Again the design and smooth setup and operation were praised, though it wasn’t as keen on the app, claiming that there’s been too much chopping and changing going on and it becomes difficult to use for certain functions.

App showing Nest recorded history
App showing Nest recorded history

High scores seem to be a theme here, even if conclusions as to the Nest’s effectiveness aren’t. TechSpot gives it 90% but says that after two months it’s unclear whether it has saved a significant amount of money. The remote adjustment gets a big tick though, as does the learning functionality and viewable energy reports. Finally, Engadget shows a global score of 94% for the Nest, with biggest props going to design and operation.

Rivals to Nest come in many shapes and sizes. First of all you have more informational energy saving units from companies like Owl and  Efergy. These simply retrofit to your mains supply and provide you with an account on daily energy usage, so you can work out what’s costing you the most money. Most similar to Nest is a product from British Gas called Hive Active Heating, which lets you control heating and hot water remotely from a mobile. This is interesting because it’s about the same price as the Nest but doesn’t have any of the active learning functions.

We think this will be the biggest draw of the Nest Learning Thermostat by far. Most people have become used to scheduling heating/cooling or manual controls for “emergencies” for some time now, leaving problems that could be caused by a thermostat set too high to occasional concerns. Additionally, the temptation to switch the heating on an hour or so before you get home from work, or get out of bed, could actually lead to it costing money. However, this isn’t just about cost savings, it’s about the connected home, and there’s little doubt that this market will get bigger and bigger over the coming years.