Is Nest’s Smoke Detector Any Good?

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Jan. 15 2014 11:09 AM

Reinventing the Smoke Detector

Can Nest—the company Google just paid $3.2 billion for—eliminate unwanted bleeps, chirps, and false alarms?

Nest Protect smoke alarm
The Nest Protect is an object of beauty.

Product photo via Nest Labs

On Monday, Google bought Nest—a maker of high-tech thermostats and smoke detectors—for the princely sum of $3.2 billion. Much of the response so far has involved 1) sussing out the strategy behind Google’s recent fascination with hardware manufacturers and 2) freaking out over privacy concerns. Why the fear? Nest products connect to the Internet, have a pretty good bead on when you’re at home and when you’re away, and can even sense, more or less, which part of your house you’re chillaxing in at any given moment. The Google-vigilant among us immediately wondered: How might Mountain View exploit all this fresh, intrusive data?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Meanwhile, I wondered: Is that smoke detector $3.2 billion good? If so, I think I want one.

Nest’s stated mission is to reinvent “the unloved products in your home.” The company launched with a thermostat that learns the ins and outs of your daily schedule, automatically adjusts itself to suit your thermal druthers, and lets you control your home’s microclimate remotely from your smartphone. In late November, Nest released its second product—a smoke detector, called the Nest Protect, that updates the design of the traditional smoke alarm.

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I have no particular love for the thermostats in my life. I’ve also never yearned for them to be shmancier. They do the job, for the most part, and I tend to forget they exist. Not so with the smoke detectors I have known. They inevitably drive me batty. For instance:

Fade in on your correspondent’s bedroom, a mere three months ago. It is 3:30 a.m. on a night your correspondent has miraculously lured a human woman to his apartment. They are a-slumber in pitch-black silence. “CHIRP!” What could this noise be? “CHIRP!” Sheets are thrown askew; eyes are rubbed in dazed displeasure. “CHIRP!” Oh dear, does my smoke alarm wish to tell me something? Perhaps that its batteries are low?

You know how this scene ends: With me balanced precariously on a chair, in an awkward state of undress, bashing at the device until I eventually rip it from its ceiling mount as I simultaneously apologize to my guest. The blasted thing still had the temerity to chirp again, even as I held it in my hand!

Fade in on the same apartment in early December. A happy gathering. My dozen-or-so guests and I are celebrating Chronukkah. (This is a sacred holiday that all should observe. It combines the lighting of a menorah, the gluttonous consumption of latkes, and the inhalation of a substance approved for legal use in two western states.) As potato pancakes fry to a golden crisp on the stovetop, dual varieties of smoke—one herbaceous, one potato-licious—waft through the air. “BEEEEEEEP! BEEEEEEEP!” Oh right: Following the nighttime chirping incident, I had diligently replaced the 9-volt battery in my smoke alarm. So now it detects mere wisps of harmless, airborne particulate and alerts me with hellacious bleating noises. Again with the chair and the ripping from the ceiling mount.

In the weeks since its second infraction, that smoke detector has lain inert on my desk, its battery removed, punished for its sins. During that time, any actual fire would have gone undetected. Which seems totally typical in the world of smoke alarm ownership—we’re always disabling them because they annoy us, even though doing so stupidly puts us at risk. The Nest Protect pledges to break this pattern. But can it?

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