Ecobee3: If you're crazy enough to want a smart thermostat – but not too crazy – this is for you

A cuckoo in the Nest

So in order to test out the Ecobee3 - as its names suggests, the third iteration of the product - it was necessary to pull the Nest smart thermostat off the wall and put it away.

That this act seemed somehow wrong and even came with a twinge of guilt is an indication of just how entrancing the product that has become the face of smart-home tech really is.

But the Ecobee has now lived on the wall for a little over two weeks and the incredible thing is that it will most likely stay there. Simply put, while the Nest is as sexy as any thermostat is ever going to be, the Ecobee is, well, better.

In fact, the remarkable thing about having the Ecobee and the Nest competing is that they are both so far ahead of the field (and that includes the only other comparable smart themostat, the Honeywell Lyric) that it makes you wonder how we ever lived with those hopeless beige boxes for so many years.

The answer of course is price. You can buy a thermostat from $15. Thermostats are not in themselves very complex pieces of technology: they measure the temperature, compare it to the temperature you have set, and send a very small electrical pulse to a heater or air conditioner to turn on when there's a difference.

If you want something above the very basic, something that can let you program different temperatures across the day to save you money (and it can save you a lot of money), then you are looking at $100+. If you want something with fancy colored screens and a decent interface, you'll need to part with $175+.

The Nest and the Ecobee cost $250 each.

In order to get consumers over this price hurdle both companies are highlighting the fact that their products are much smarter and so will save you money - they can tell when you are away from home, for example. They can figure out how long it takes your house to heat and cool and use energy more efficiently. And so on.

The savings will pay for the thermostat in two years, they claim, and from then on you benefit every year. What they don't say - and maybe they should - is that you'll also have a terrific, fun device on your wall from that point too.

But is there really much point in comparing an Aston Martin with a Tesla when 95 per cent of the population drives a Fiat Punto? Not really, but we're going to do it anyway.

Interface

The Ecobee's best feature is probably its interface. It feels very much like a smartphone - very responsive and you simply tap or scroll or drag to make it interact.

It always shows the current temperature but as you approach it, the screen slides down smoothly and gives you access to its main features in a simple icon style interface. It is simple and clear: the complete opposite to traditional thermostats with their array of buttons and cluttered screens. In short, it is a delight to use the Ecobee - to the extent that you find yourself interacting with it frequently.

It is literally like the difference between your old Nokia phone and your iPhone. The first you pulled out only to make or receive a call; the second is seemingly never out your hand.

What the hell does a thermostat give you that you would want to play around with it for? For one, it has a weather button that tells you the temperature and weather outside, plus how it is going to change over the day and during the week. This is information many people check on a smartphone app in the morning, but the Ecobee has taken over this function. As you walk past it, you find yourself having a quick check on the weather. It's as easy as a single tap.

In case you're wondering: it is easy to install - anyone that can put up a shelf can install it (assuming you have a 'C' wire, but more on that later). And it's smart so it figures out your HVAC system after you've plugged in the wires and just gets on with it.

The old clunky way of setting temperature ranges - inputting turn on and turn off times and then high and low temperatures by repeatedly pressing buttons - is out the window. A much more human interface asks you to set "comfort settings" of Away, Home and Sleep. You select temperatures by dragging your finger up or down.

Daily schedules are set by adding these settings and then scrolling for on and off times. You hit a big plus sign to add more. You can copy-paste one day to another. In short, it is easy and intuitive and removes all the hassle from the old systems.

What the Ecobee does not do that the Nest does is "learn" what temperature you want. This is something that Nest is very excited about and which people love - but we suspect that's more because you don't have to go through the painful process of inputting the days and times and temperatures. The Ecobee makes the process so simple that the magic of the Nest seems a little less magic.

We could go through all the various settings and explain why each is an improvement on traditional thermostats but it will get long and dull. Needless to say, everything your thermostat currently does, the Ecobee does it a little better and it is less painful to get at.

Your weather report. Oddly enough, this has become the first place for this information, beating out smartphone weather apps.

The differential

What marks the Ecobee out however - and what may make it worth that extra $100 - is its system of sensors.

The thermostat comes with one extra sensor - that serves as both a motion and temperature sensor. It is very easy to get the sensor to connect to the thermostat - literally pulling a tab and tapping a button. But as soon as you do, you have a second sensor that you can then start using to make more sense of your house temperature. Additional sensors come in packs of two and cost $80.

The sensors are small (square and 1.5 inches each side) and can be mounted on a surface or wall. They communicate over radio using a proprietary standard, although Ecobee's CEO told us the company is open to other companies making sensors to work with the thermostat if they want.

The sensors work extremely well and simply (you get a message if a signal is ever lost; in practice it doesn't happen). But what they do is lend a level of comfort that was oddly noticeable. Broadly put, the system notes whether someone is in the room where the sensor is; if they are, it averages the temperature across all the sensors and uses that figure as its temperature to act on.

This simple system - especially in a house, even more so if the house has more than one level - is strikingly effective. Over two weeks and many variations in temperature, things were noticeable more comfortable: the need to get up and turn on the heat, or put on the air conditioning was massively reduced.

One time, at the moment it felt a little stuffy, I walked over to turn on the AC and as I arrived, it turned on. It may seem like a silly thing but if a thermostat can make you feel constantly comfortable in your own home then it is doing its job. On hot or cold days, no more tapping at the thermostat, it's got it handled.

And of course, this being 2015, the Ecobee links to the WiFi and has a smartphone app that lets you control everything from wherever you are. We could live without having the app but it is a definite plus. If it's a little cold in the morning and you want it toasty, you don't have to get out of bed and walk down the corridor. A few taps and the heat comes on. It feels luxurious. Hell, it is luxurious.

It's on the wall but can it fend off the Nest?

Eco-system

Of course we're not just talking smart thermostats - for $250 the vast majority of us can live with tapping a button every now and again - the promise of such a system is how it could interact with a larger eco-system of other smart-home products.

Here is where things get a little complicated thanks the world of different standards and products and the rapidly changing market.

The Ecobee will work with "whatever is out there", its CEO Stuart Lombard told us. And to that end, it even has an expansion slot to future proof it.

That system broke down when Apple insisted that to work with its HomeKit system every manufacturer had to include its authentication chip, causing Ecobee to have to develop and put out a whole new product - something its customers were far from happy about. As a result, the Ecobee3's price has been reduced right now to $229. The "new" Ecobee with the HomeKit chip will be out next month and cost the normal $249.

Broadly however the Ecobee approach means that your thermostat should continue to work far into the future, even if you add new smart-tech products.

Ironically, it is Ecobee's main competitor, Nest, that has done the most to highlight how this ecosystem might provide real value. At the launch this week of its revamped product line, Nest's CEO Tony Fadell gave two examples.

One, if Nest's smoke and carbon monoxide detector, Protect, detects high levels of CO, it can tell the thermostat to shut off the furnace (35 per cent of CO problems come from leaky furnances). And second, if the Protect detects smoke, it can tell the thermostat to shut off the fan (to prevent smoke being circulated around the house).

These are good use cases. We're still not sure that the other iterations are that promising though: allowing your thermostat to check your smart doorlock and vice versa. Connecting your thermostat to your lighting so the lights can flash or turn different colors.

All these seems a little unnecessary and clunky right now. But you never know. Sometimes the fact that something can be done that wasn't possible before sparks a whole new path - just think back to before smartphone technology.

Next page: The one big issue

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