Last April, Nest Labs released the second version of the Nest Learning Thermostat. The update included some tweaks to the unit itself that made it easier to install--small, helpful changes that reflected the lessons founder Tony Fadell learned while overseeing the iPod division at Apple in the late aughts. (See an interview with him and his co-founder at Fast Company.) That update also added of a number of features to Nest’s companion software that seemed to signal a shift in the device’s focus towards a broader energy-management role in the household. But, as the company explains it, that version was actually something closer to Nest 1.5. Today, the company announced the real Nest 2.0, and its focus is perfectly clear: even more efficient heating and cooling available to an even greater number of homes. It’s Nest, same as it ever was, just better.
The new Nest looks pretty much the same as its predecessor, but the hardware has been updated in a few places. Nest 2.0 is 20% thinner than the older model, which is nice when you’re talking about a device that spends its life clinging to your wall somewhere around eye-level. The other change comes to the unit’s control ring, the central mechanism for adjusting temperature. Where the older version was controlled by twisting a centimeter-wide metal band near the front face of the device, Nest 2.0 has a stainless steel ring that circles the entire side of the thermostat, from the front face all the way back to the wall. Basically, it turns Nest into one big metal knob, and as we well know from our old stereo receivers, there are few experiences in consumer electronics as innately satisfying as twisting big metal knobs.
Further updates are found on the backplate of the device, where you connect Nest to the mess of heating and cooling wires that stick out from your wall. Nest 1.5 had a redesigned backplate that made the hook-up process easier by giving the installer’s fingers a bit more space to work. Nest 2.0 takes another stab at it, introducing a circular clip configuration that provides even more room for fingers to work--and makes space for two new connectors. The first new clip accommodates second-stage cooling found in some newer, high-end systems. The other is a "wildcard" connector, designed to accept wires for less common features like third-stage and emergency heat and whole-home humidifiers and dehumidifiers.
Basically, the new connectors are Nest’s way of expanding its potential user base; their inclusion brings the unit’s compatibility up from 75% of U.S. homes with low-voltage systems to roughly 95%. Maxime Veron, a senior product manager at Nest, told me that the new connections, while not terribly exciting for most, are a "really big deal" for the company. "The goal for this launch is to make sure that the people who wanted to get Nest and couldn’t can now take it home."
But if one part of the Nest 2.0 strategy is to accommodate more heating and cooling systems, the other aim is to work even better with the systems it’s been supporting from the start. To this end, version 3.0 of the Nest software comes with System Match, a trio of features designed to make Nest work more efficiently with forced air, heat pump, and radiant systems--three of the most commonly found in the U.S. Mainly, the features enable some combination of pre-heating and pre-cooling specific to the system in your home, ensuring that when you tell Nest you want it to be 75 degrees at 7 a.m., that’s exactly what you’ll get.
In other words, what System Match does is eliminate the startup and shutdown time from the thermostat experience. It’s something you probably account for without even realizing it--you turn on the heat before you leave the house so it’ll be warm when you come back. And that’s a user experience quirk that’s hardly limited to your thermostat. You know it takes a minute or so for your computer to start up in the morning, so you hit the power button, go brush your teeth, and come back just around the time it’s ready to go. System Match eliminates the need for that little routine when it comes to heating and cooling your home. Carrying forward my example, Veron said, "Imagine you go to your desk, and your computer is already on, because it knows you need it at that time." It’s sort of like Apple’s "it just works" mantra, as it applies to the world of air conditioning.
Aside from another small upgrade here and there, that’s mostly what Nest 2.0 brings to the table. No bold new energy management software, no striking redesign. Even though Fadell served as the product manager for the iPod division at Apple, in terms of design iteration, the new Nest seems to be more akin to another recently updated Apple product line: the iPhone. While iPods have changed drastically over the years, transforming from simple music-based devices to work-out gizmos, portable gaming machines, and all-purpose mini computers, the iPhone’s upgrades, especially the last few, have been more measured. Nest, too, seems to be sticking to what it knows. Like the iPhone 5, the design of Nest 2.0 is mostly the same as the one that came before it, except for some improved materials and a thinner profile (20% thinner, in fact!) And both products have been updated to work with the latest systems on the market--4G LTE in the iPhone’s case, and, in Nest’s, all of the high-end setups it can now accomodate thanks to its new connectors. Both updates operate on the same principles: You don’t change a good product for no reason, and you don’t try to make it into something it’s not.
There is one key place where the products diverge: while Apple counts on you wanting a new iPhone a year or two down the line, Nest knows that planned obsolescence is a bit harder to pull off when you’re dealing with thermostats. So they’re updating all the web-connected Nests that are already out there with the new software, including System Match, automatically and free of charge.