Is Nest’s Smoke Detector Any Good?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
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.

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?

There’s a more involved set-up required with a Nest Protect than with a regular, non-Internet-enabled smoke alarm. You need to connect it to your Wi-Fi network and let it know it where in your abode it will be located. But the set-up process is easy to follow, with step-by-step instructions popping up in the Nest app. And once this is out of the way, a joyful relationship commences. The key—as in all healthy relationships—is communication.

When I’ve tried to test previous smoke detectors, I have just held down the button on the front and hoped something would happen. The resulting beeps could have meant the batteries were fine or, for all I knew, could have meant the device was now disabled. When you test the Nest Protect, a pleasant voice says, “The alarm will sound” and then thoughtfully warns you, “The alarm is loud,” before sounding said loud alarm. Likewise with battery alerts: Instead of chirping mysteriously at the most inopportune moments, the Nest Protect informs you that its batteries are low by calmly stating, “The battery is low in the [room name]. Replace the battery soon.”

I have no scientific means of testing the smoke threshold of the Protect versus other alarms, but I can tell you that when I attempted to recreate the latke fiasco, the smoke from the bubbling cooking oil failed to rouse the Nest. I was forced to light a piece of notebook paper on fire and hold it aloft. The Nest said, “Heads up. There’s smoke in the kitchen. The alarm may sound.” When I persisted, it sounded. The same sort of beeps as my previous smoke detector. But instead of forcing you to mount a chair, the Nest lets you deactivate its alarm by waving your hands purposefully below it. Its motion sensor understands that you are telling the alarm to quit it. No undignified chair-climbing necessary. (This same motion sensor illuminates a helpful nightlight when you walk beneath the Protect in the dark. And, if you believe dystopian Google paranoia, will eventually help the Protect serve you ads for ice cream whenever you walk in the direction of the kitchen.)

When you install multiple Nest Protects in your home, they communicate with each other. The Nest in the bedroom will tell you, “There’s smoke in the kitchen,” and vice versa. The alarms also send alerts to your phone via the Nest app. How reassuring to know that you can be vacationing on a ski lift somewhere and yet still receive instant updates regarding the ablazeness of your home. Here were the two phone alerts I got during my flaming notepaper experiment: 1) “Emergency. Entryway. There is smoke. The alarm is sounding.” 2) “Smoke clearing. Entryway. The smoke level is decreasing.” The Nest app can be set to pop up the contact number for your local fire department, but—for reasons I’m not totally clear on—does not automatically alert any emergency service providers. Given that the Protect is connected to the Web, this seems like a missed opportunity.

I see two flaws so far with the Nest Protect. The first is that I’d like more options for voices. Right now it’s a very serene female voice that tells me there is smoke billowing in my entryway. Which seems a tad casual given the stakes. I might prefer a barking male voice, replete with colloquialisms. Something along the lines of, “Hey, chucklehead, your entryway looks like a friggin' banya. You should split.” For me, this would conjure a more heightened state of concern.

The second problem is the price. It’s $129 for each one. Depending on the size of your home, you might need several. At Bed Bath & Beyond, a no-frills smoke and carbon monoxide detector will run you about 30 bucks, so Nest is counting on consumers to make a significant expenditure for an item that one prays won’t ever become relevant. Balancing the ledger: Should it become relevant, it might save your hide. And cutting costs to buy a smoke alarm that sits disabled in a closet is not a wise use of funds. (Also, you might ask yourself how much you’d pay to never again stand naked on a chair in the middle of the night.)

Designed by former Apple guys, the Nest is an object of beauty. With its sleek, iPod-ish lines and single, oversized button, it easily outclasses the light fixtures it perches next to on my ceiling. Its elegant looks, ease of use, and apparent superior functionality all make it a worthy addition to the field of residential tech. As Nest nestles under Google’s wing, I hope it will continue to reinvent unloved home items. May I suggest they next tackle the fitted sheet? I would pay good money for one that could tell me, in a pleasant voice, which corner goes where.