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Nest Thermostat E review: The perfect downgrade

Nest Thermostat E
Nest Thermostat E (Image credit: Android Central)

The biggest compliment I can give to the $169 Nest Thermostat E (opens in new tab) is that no one noticed it.

I've had a third-gen Nest Learning Thermostat in my entrance way for years, conspicuously placed so that everyone who walks into my living room inadvertently wakes up its bright LCD screen as they saunter past. The round stainless steel bezel is shiny — garish, even — inviting speculation and questions. "That's the touchscreen thermostat, right?" they ask. In fact, it's not touchscreen, but it looks like it.

After nearly two years with a Nest, I've learned a few things about it. For starters, it's very good at what it does; I've probably saved close to $1000 in electricity by intelligently rationing out central heat and air conditioning, and by allowing the system to learn my habits and create a schedule that accommodates my work-from-home lifestyle and my wife's desire for the house to be a tiny bit warmer than I'd prefer.

The second thing I've learned is that the Nest hardware itself is complete overkill, and totally unnecessary to enjoy the unit. It's a vestigial remnant of a time that you needed to physically walk up to a thermostat to make changes. And while I occasionally do make adjustments using the satisfying clicker ring used to navigate the basic user interface, I spend far more time in Nest's excellent Android and iOS apps. To that end, the $249 Nest Learning Thermostat is a nice-looking widget that tells people I have a smart home.

The Nest Thermostat E is not that. It's cheaper — $169, a full $80 cheaper — and wonderfully understated. Gone is the shiny stainless steel and black bezel, replaced by a smaller, plastic housing and a lower-resolution screen. The screen is also covered by a frosted white glazing, meant to slightly obscure the screen and allow it to blend it better with its surroundings. And you know, it totally works.

Installation and compatibility

If you've used a Nest before, you know exactly how this one works.

The Nest E, as I'll refer to it, requires basically the same setup as its larger predecessor; it assumes that your house already has the necessary wires protruding from some wall in your house, likely in a basement or main floor. Compared to the Nest proper, there are fewer connections — six instead of 10 — which makes it less likely to be compatible with some higher-output dual fan systems, but it had no problem interfacing with my fairly generic single-blower forced air system.

Installing the Nest E was as simple as removing the older Nest, disconnecting the wires and removing the backplate, and installing the newer, smaller equivalents. My system was wire-for-wire identical, though that may not be the case for yours. If you're coming from an older system, or just don't really trust yourself to install it correctly, the company offers very detailed installation videos and, at a cost, professional installers, to ensure that it will work right.

Unlike the regular Nest, which claims to work with "95% of 24V heating and cooling systems, including gas, electric, forced air, heat pump, radiant, oil, hot water, solar and geothermal," the Nest E works with "most" heating and cooling systems, according to the company. In other words, the Nest E will probably work for you unless you have a bespoke or high-powered commercial system that probably needs a professional to maintain, anyway.

The experience

The Nest E offers what amounts to the identical experience as the regular Nest, with a few minor differences. The interface, due to the lower-resolution glazed screen, is a bit simpler, but it still allows you to turn the sphere to maneuver around, and push in to select, just as before. (If you're new to Nest, the controls are extremely intuitive, and you definitely won't mistake this one for a touchscreen.)

The Nest E is easy to set up and a joy to use.

Once set up and connected to Wi-Fi, the Nest E can be controlled either through the unit itself or the accompanying iOS or Android app (which we'll get to shortly). Like any thermostat, the Nest E sits on your wall and monitors the ambient conditions using built-in sensors; these include temperature, humidity, proximity/occupancy, and ambient light. When it detects the temperature is above or below a given threshold, it activates cooling or heating, respectively. When it detects humidity is too high, it can be programmed to run the fans for a few hours. When it detects people aren't home, it can be made to automatically activate Eco mode, which sets the conditions a bit higher or lower than is comfortable to save energy.

What the Nest E doesn't have are the near-field and far-field sensors built into the original Nest, which means it has a hard time determining whether people are home by the ambient movement or sound around it. To make up for it, a proximity/occupancy sensor ensures that if someone walks past, it jumps to attention and figures out whether it should start working, but it's a little less precise. In real-world testing, however, I've noticed no difference at all.

The upside

In fact, that's what I'm taking away from my experience with the Nest E. If it works with your furnace, it's exactly the same experience as its more expensive counterpart.

Much of that is due to the fact that Nest's app, which has grown in usefulness while remaining remarkably simple, is the primary control center for your thermostat, and any other Nest products (of which there will be a lot more in a few months) you may have, from cameras to smoke detectors. I have all three, so I spend a lot of time in the Nest app, and I've absolutely come to depend on it.

Anything you can do on the Nest itself can be replicated in the app; Nest's best features are the ones you set once and forget about, from Airwave, which uses the fan to continue blowing cold air through the system once the air conditioner itself has been shut off, to Early-On, which suggests a time for reaching a certain temperature in the house and adjusts the cooling or heating accordingly.

That Nest has been available since 2013, which may suppress a bit of its magic to long-time owners, but anyone coming from a clunky offline thermostat will marvel at the ability to remotely set temperature a few hours before returning home from vacation, or even from work, to compromise between comfort and cost.

And now that the asking price is a considerably lower-than-before $169, Nest is accessible to even more people.

The downsides

Nest isn't the only game in town. Others, like ecobee (opens in new tab), have shown considerable innovation in areas that, for some reason, Nest refuses to touch. ecobee, in particular, uses in-room sensors to detect temperature in multiple rooms throughout the house, allowing the thermostat to make intelligent decisions about heating or cooling with additional data points. My bedroom is a good five degrees warmer in the summer, and five degrees cooler in the winter, than my living room — such is the agony of a tall house.

Nest is really good at a lot of things, but it still falls short when it comes to multi-room sensing.

When it's really hot or cold outside, I often have to manually adjust the temperature to accommodate for such discrepancies, something that I'm sure ecobee, and a couple of extra sensors, would take into account. ecobee's latest version, the ecobee 4, also integrates Alexa in the U.S.; Nest, owned by Google parent Alphabet, has no such plans to integrate Assistant into its thermostats anytime soon.

And Nest is a standalone product, owned by Alphabet; big names like Honeywell, Emerson, and Carrier, which either build their own or partner with many furnace providers across the United States and Canada, are manufacturing their own (admittedly dumber) smart thermostats, and providing heavy incentives for customers to upgrade. Nest isn't able to compete with such an entrenched market that is typically moved less by Silicon Valley than the Yellow Pages. Most of these companies throw in a so-called smart thermostat for free with a furnace or air conditioner upgrade, which puts Nest out of the conversation completely.

Should you buy it? Definitely

Even though I have the more expensive Nest Learning Thermostat, I have no intention of ditching the Nest E anytime soon. Not only do I think its white plastic housing looks better and disappears more easily than the chrome metal of the regular Nest, its simpler interface is a joy to use — I simply see no reason to go back.

For me, Nest built the perfect downgrade, a product that promises less and delivers more because of it. If you already have a Nest, you can completely ignore this review — there's no reason to switch. But if you've been on the fence about moving up in the thermostat world, the Nest E is probably your best place to start.

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Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

28 Comments
  • I picked up a nest third gen on sale for $35($160 purchase price and $125 in utility rebates). Watch out for sales and check out utility promotions (can be found on nest page) , if you want to stretch the dollar a little more.
  • Also, they're popular holiday gifts that require a bit of work on the recipient's part, so you see a LOT of them on Craigslist in late December. I picked up one for myself and one for my dad for a total of $200 last year.
  • I purchased a nest a few months ago... didn't really notice any change in my bill personally. I prefer the metal frame, and am generally happy with the purchase. The ability to control and schedule the thermostat temperatures from my phone (or Google home) makes it worth every penny. However, I find the 'learning' mode annoying. I am constantly having to correct it.
  • I assume it takes longer than "a few months" for it to learn your behavior and to provide energy savings in your bill.
  • I Like and prefer the low profile look of the E.
  • For me the only downside is the no outside temp on the display. I love being able to quickly see that before walking outside.
  • I just check my phone or ask Alexa!!! :)
  • What's odd about Nest, Gen4 here, is that it already knows what the weather is like or going to be like outside. Integrating that into the algorithm to set the schedule would be easy I would think. Other than that small issue, I don't think I have saved quite as much $$ as my fiance like to set the temp to 70 at bedtime, but once six am rolls around it goes up to 76. I live in Florida where it is hot AF, even at night.
  • Anyone ever use it in a rental? I've always wondered what they'd say if I put this up in my rental.
  • I just take it off before I move
  • Cool thanks. And it integrated just fine with their system? I'll be moving here in the next few months, and I'm hoping to install one in my new place.
  • depends on the system, but it's easy to remove the old thermostat, hook the wires up to Nest, and then save the old one to put back up when you move out. Just take detailed pictures of the wiring in the old thermostat so you get it connected back up and working.
  • Thanks. Your landlord every come in and say anything about it?
  • No. I think they'll like it too but just ask
  • Get an Ecobee instead.
  • Save $1000? Wow. That's why I've never understood how you get enough saving from fitting one of these things. Our total annual power bill for a detached house is under £1000.
  • My old AC was nearly 30 years old. It struggled to cool the house even half-assed and would have to run for 18+ hours/day. My August 2014 electric bill was $650. I'm not in a mansion. It's a 2100sf house, two story, 4 bedroom standard fare in the western US. After several months, Nest learned enough from me to generate a pretty crazy looking schedule, but it worked relatively well. And saved me about 10% on my gas and electric bills, on average. Replacing the old AC was a bigger deal, saving me another 30-50% in the summer months. Plus it just works better at actually cooking the house. The other great thing about the Nest is that it gets updates from my electric company and will shut off the AC during peak usage. As long as I don't manually crank the AC back down I get rebates on my bill every month during the summer. And I don't have to do a single thing.
  • I guess there is an advantage to living in the north of England. We don't get warm enough for air conditioning. Summer is our cheapest time of year. My August bill was £40! 4 bedroomed house around 2000 square ft.
  • I've been to Scotland (Edinburgh) in the winter and lived in Minneapolis and San Jose (CA). Those are places where one can survive just fine without AC. Austin, TX, Las Vegas, NV, Tampa, FL and Baton Rouge, LA are survivable without AC. But you won't be happy. For the warmer climates, AC and programmable thermostats are Godsends.
  • Speaking of downgrades, I miss the weekend threads :( But to stay on topic...
    In a perfect system, I'd have dampers on the individual ducts for controlling hot and cold areas. Whoever designed our house made the decision to put the master bedroom at the opposite end of the house, and give it ONE vent (roll eyes). So normally, it's hot in summer and cold in winter. I have a remote controlled booster fan in the duct (automatic ones wired to the blower are not allowed here, apparently). In addition to that, I put a vertical extension on the duct in the room for summer to eliminate thermal stratification. With the supply and return ducts at floor level, the cool air just flows across the floor while the air at head level is uncomfortably warm. The duct extension successfully eliminates this problem, and is fortunately hidden behind my desk.
  • Many builders fail to include the proper amount of vents in a home as well. As in Ridge Vents and Soffet vents. When we replaced our roof earlier this year, I added a vent, and I will be adding more soffet vents this fall.
  • Not sure how this would save us any $. We set our thermostat to 76 degrees and never change it. There is someone in our house about 95% of every day, so there's no reason to change the temp. Sounds like this product is for homes where people are regularly changing the thermostat temp?
  • Not just. Did you see his screenshots of the app? It can turn off the compressor when it reaches the desired temp, then use the fans to force that cold air around the home to continue the temperature without running the cold compressor outside constantly and running the fan more often, same effect less energy usage.
  • That is a basic feature that nearly every thermostat has. "Fan only" or "Circulate". The compressor stops running when you reach the desired temp no matter what thermostat you are using. That's the whole point of a thermostat.
  • Yea, most people will never benefit from this product. I have friends who purchased this based on the "wow factor" and their bill actually went up due to how it was constantly altering their HVAC behavior. I have a "smart" Honeywell and we have a very basic schedule as well. The idea is to make your HVAC run less. If you let the thermostat turn off the HVAC too much it will work harder to maintain your desired temp when it detects your presence. The Nest is probably great for some, but that is likely a very small subset of people. Everyone else just buys it because, Google, Smart, Pretty.... you know, advertising and bragging rights.
  • I have a swamp cooler for the summer months but I can't seem to find if Nest will work with this and my heating unit. Would be great if it could so I'd have better control over them both.
  • Excellent and informative article. Thanks.
  • I just installed one this week, I love it, and highly recommend it!