Emergent Tech

Internet of Things

You've been baffled by its smart thermostat. Now strap in for Nest's IoT doorbell, alarm gear

Our vulture gets his claws into new hardware

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco

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First fondle Nest unveiled a new outdoor camera, doorbell and security system this morning in San Francisco.

We were at the launch event and afterwards wandered over to a demo area, where we got to try them out first hand and flood willing Nest employees with questions. Here's what we learned.

The doorbell needs a wired connection

This has long been the bugbear of other smart doorbell manufacturers. There is an even 50‑50 split on US homes that have or do not have wired doorbells. Dumb doorbells require very little energy and so a small battery will last for years. Not the case when you add motion detection and HD video.

In response, one of the best-known doorbell manufacturers, Ring, included quite a large battery, making the whole thing quite chunky. And it didn't really work. The company claimed one year's worth of use before requiring a recharge. In our experience, three months is more accurate. And over time, the battery degrades.

Ring's solution was to offer wire-only versions (which are much smaller) and a range of add‑ons like a solar-powered charging unit that connects to your device to keep it topped up.

If you want a Nest Hello doorbell, you have to have that low-voltage wire or you're out of luck.

Also, we don't know how much it will cost yet. And Nest was a little vague about the related doorbell chime that you will need in order to hear the doorbell inside. Ring has one as an add‑on (and we didn't like it much).

But the doorbell is pretty good

We had a play around with it. It is a good size – not too big, not too small. It has a good camera – a wide depth and field of view. You do need to place it correctly though: the test doorbell we used was set too low so you couldn't see someone's face if they were close to the door itself. And that somewhat undermines one of the distinct plus points of Nest products – its intelligent video processing that does facial recognition.

We have been testing Nest's indoor IQ camera. Facial recognition works but it is also far from perfect – it keeps not recognizing the same person, so you end up with a long list of "unidentified" people who are in fact all the same three people.

That said, taken as a whole, and assuming you have a doorbell wire, and assuming the pricing isn't too nuts when it's announced, this looks like an impressive product.

The Nest Secure has to sit on a surface

The base station for its new security system is a small white puck-like object – similar to the Amazon Echo Dot but white and with a key pad on top.

Unlike most security systems – the beige rectangular box mounted on a wall – the Nest Guard is designed to sit on top of a surface near the door. This is nice... if you have a handy surface near the door or in the hallway. But not so great if you don't.

You can't mount it on the wall because if you did, its motion detector wouldn't work properly. And that means you can't just pull off your old system and stick in the new Nest one – like you can with its thermostat.

It also needs to be plugged in. And that further increases the likelihood of it not working well in your home. So long as you have a surface near the door that is also close to a power socket, you are good. If you don't, you are going to have to work around Nest's product.

That said, the Nest Secure is nice

As a homeowner who inherited an ageing ADT security system and has periodically looked at everything available on the market, this system does seem to solve many of the annoyances of those beige boxes.

It is elegant and simple and the plastic tags used to arm and disarm it basically bring corporate-level security into your home. The best in the market for home security right now is probably Frontpoint – and it offers basically the same as Nest, including the ability to arm/disarm with your smartphone. But based on what we saw, the Nest system is nicer. Cleaner, simpler.

But expensive

The Nest Secure is very pricey. The entry point is $499 and for that you get the base, two detectors and two tags. If you have a house – ie, not an apartment – that price is going to skyrocket.

Assuming six door/window sensors and two motion sensors (a normal-sized house) and one or two additional tags to friends or relatives that have keys to the house, the cost of Nest's system would be over $1,000. And then there is the cellular service cost – $5 a month – in case your Wi-Fi craps out (or a burglar yanks the power from your router).

And that's just the system. If you want 24/7 monitoring, that's extra. We don't know how much extra right now and Nest announced it would be partnering with MONI Smart Security – we're not sure if that's exclusive or not. MONI's plans currently range from $40 to $60 a month.

With pricing like that, it's hardly surprising that, according to Nest, 75 per cent of US homes don't have a security system and 43 per cent of those who do don't turn them on.

More on pricing

One of Nest's real strong points is its video processing software.

As we remarked in an earlier review, the company's ability to accurately and swiftly identify what is happening and relay that information intelligently back to you (ie, not bother you unless it's important) is the difference between having a camera system and wondering why you bothered, and having one and feeling glad to have it.

But under Nest's current pricing, that video processing comes in at $10 a month for the first camera and then $5 a month for each subsequent camera. Assuming that stays the same, if you add more cameras and doorbell and a security system, you could very quickly be paying $50 to $100 every month solely for peace of mind.

At that price, you have to consider whether better insurance might be the answer.

And what is this exactly? Shhh. It's the Google Nest Connect

What about the secret router?

One thing Nest didn't talk about but which appeared in the press materials was an egg-like device stuck into a wall.

According to the picture title, it's called the Connect and it is featured behind a plant and has something to do with the Nest Secure security system.

Why does it exist and what does it do? Well, in that question lies another difficult reality: the world of IoT and smart home and all the problems that every smart home company faces in getting their systems to talk to one another.

The Connect exists because when you start getting into security sensors placed in the far reaches of your home (as opposed to the thermostat, camera or smoke detector), you start hitting connectivity problems.

The small sensors have to be battery powered to stay small and mobile and so have to use minimal energy. There are various standards that do this – Z‑wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth – but Nest is using parent company Google's Weave and Thread protocols.

Thread was also showcased in an unusual way at the event: with a demo of a Yale lock. According to the folk we spoke with, it is not a Yale lock or a Nest lock, but a "Nest + Yale" doorlock. And it was built jointly by the two, uses Thread, and will be included in the Nest app.

The good news is that if you buy this specific Yale lock and the Nest Secure system, when you punch in the entry code to your lock to enter, it will automatically turn off your alarm system. That we like. The tie‑in to a Google system is a little less exciting.

Losing the Thread

Anyway, the Connect egg is a Thread router that both acts as an extender and a routing system for the eco-system that Google and Nest have started to imagine – basically connecting everything up in an effort to rival Apple's HomeKit.

Nest still views itself as a semi-autonomous arm of Google and seems to have some discomfort with being sucked into the ad giant's orbit. At the launch event, Nest announced that its Nest Cam IQ line will now start working with Google's voice-powered Google Assistant.

OK Google, turn on my security system. OK Google, please turn on my lights. OK Google. OK Google. OK Google.

And so we have the Nest Connect – which is basically Google tech – but Nest doesn't say a word about it.

The Connect could actually be a good thing. As people add smart home products, their Wi-Fi networks quickly become overwhelmed. And so, something like a Thread router could enable a smart home to communicate and interact without having to use the same channels as your phone, TV, games console, tablet and whatever else rides on Wi-Fi.

But you do get the sense that the uneasy relationship between Nest and Google continues afoot.

In short, today's Nest products are good. They may even be the best on the market. But they are expensive, they are innovative with a small "i," and they mark the beginning of Google's efforts to take over your home. ®

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