Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

For as important a role as your fire and carbon monoxide detector plays in your life, you don't hear from it very often—and when you do, it's usually either annoying or terrifying. Protect, the new detector from Nest, is decidedly more talkative—a device that not only keeps you safe, but makes you feel safe. That matters more than you might think.

What Is It?

In name, Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. It communicates with you through a mixture of verbal warnings, beeps, LED lights, and text alerts, too. But in practice, Nest is more like a starter package for the connected home. It carries a photoelectric smoke sensor, a carbon monoxide sensor, a speaker, and four sensors that detect motion, light, and heat—which means it's smart enough to know when you're in the same room or if you've turned off the lights.

The $130 alarm comes in a wired 120V version and a battery version, and connects to your home's Wi-Fi, communicating through an iOS iPhone, iPad, or Android app.

Why Does It Matter?

Protect is the vanguard of a new generation of products that use increasingly cheap, ubiquitous sensors to collect data about the world around us. It's easy enough to set up—and cheap enough to buy—that it could be the first "smart" home device for millions of consumers, many of whom still see the Internet of Things as a figment of Spike Jonze's imagination, a sexy, disembodied voice talking to Joaquin Phoenix in a LA apartment.

Nest's goal is to redesign home appliances that collect and analyze data about your home—then use it to improve it. It began with the thermostat, and now it's moving onto home safety. On Tuesday, Google acquired Nest for more than three billion dollars—a price that was hard to comprehend for some of us. But the two companies share divergent missions: Google collects information about your online life—but Nest is doing it for your home life.

Design

Protect inherited the looks of Apple—no surprise, given the fact that its creator, Tony Fadell, was a design consultant on the first iPod. The roughly five-by-five inch square arrives sheathed in white or black plastic, perforated with a leaf-like pattern of holes around a central button. On the underside of that, a ring of five color LEDs shift shades to communicate different alerts—green for "everything's OK," blue for tests, yellow for alerts and low battery, and red for alarms. There's also a white for night light.

Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

That covers product design. What about UI and UX? This is where Nest shines—literally. Up until now, no design team has cracked a truly intuitive gestural, heads-up interface, and Nest has done just that. Even the least experienced user will be able to master the simple commands Protect can follow: Wave a hand to silence a warning. Press a button to do a test. Watch for the green glow when you turn in at the end of the night—Protect's silent message that it's doing its job.

Using It

When I moved into our ancient railroad one-bedroom last year, the landlord provided a grimy, battered "fire alarm" that plugged into an electricity outlet in our bedroom. Its LCD screen never turned on and we never heard it make a peep. Eventually, we unplugged it because, ironically, it seemed like kind of a fire hazard. Now, I know what you mature, level-headed readers are thinking: You dumbass! You lived for months without a fire or CO alarm?

Yes, yes we did.

So taking a review unit of Protect out of its simple, un-dyed cardboard packaging was a huge relief to me. But installing Protect was more than reassuring—it was legitimately fun. Once you take it out of its box and pull the tab from the batteries (there's also a wired 120V version), its little LED ring pulses blue. The alarm introduces itself in a calm female voice. You choose your language—either Spanish or English automatically, but you can download French and UK English, too—by clicking the button, and the alarm does a quick test:

Once I had downloaded Nest's iOS app, it guided me through a few steps to connect Protect to my Wi-Fi network. This was surprisingly simple. First, with the app open, you point your phone at the QR code on the back of Protect:

Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

This generates a Wi-Fi network name that you find in your phone's Wi-Fi settings, which you select. Your phone and the alarm will spend about three minutes mulling this, and then the alarm blinks green and lets you know you're connected. From here on out, you can tap the alarm icon on your device and Nest will give you a real-time update on what's up at home—it'll also alert you of warnings and alarms:

Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

I had sat down at my desk expecting to spend at least half an hour setting up the alarm, but all of this took roughly three minutes. All that was left to do was mount it to the wall or ceiling using a small plastic plate and four screws and let it do its thing.

Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

The thing that impressed me the most about living with a Protect wasn't its heads-up warning system or calming-but-commanding female voice. It was the functionality that isn't even related to its intended purpose—the "extra" features, which end up being the ones you see the most (unless you have a lot of house fires). Every night when we turned off our light to go to bed, the LED ring pulses for three seconds with a calm green glow—the signal for "everything's OK." And when one of us gets up in the middle of the night to get water or go to the bathroom, the ring radiates white light, illuminating our apartment just enough to not trip on a bike pedal or table leg.

These aren't killer features. The real brilliance of Protect lies in its warning system, of course. But they matter more than you'd think. Every other fire alarm I've used (or not used) has been designed as a binary: It's either beeping or not. Nothing in between. Nest has taken that distinctly unsettling UX quandary and turned it into a device that's almost always communicating in a low-level, ambient way. Tony Fadell didn't get his reputation for humanizing industrial design for nothing.

Nest Protect Review: Peace of Mind, For a Price

Still, writing a review of a fire alarm without having experienced a house fire wouldn't be very helpful. So we used a can of synthetic smoke to put it through its paces. When Protect detected our fake smoke, it pulsed yellow and gave us a verbal warning: Emergency. There is smoke in the bedroom. The alarm is sounding. Then, the (very loud!) beeping began.

We silenced it, and when the smoke cleared, Protect glowed green and gave us an update: Smoke clearing. Everything's OK. If you've installed multiple units, it broadcasts this message on all of them, indicating which room the smoke is in, too.

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It's ironic: The incredible UX expertise and engineering know-how that went into Protect makes it such a joy to set up that when I was done, I found myself wishing there was another way to interact with it. It's a tribute to Fadell and his team that they've taken a device associated with annoyance in the best of times and terror in the worst, and turned it into something that I wish I heard from more often.

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It's going to be really, really expensive to outfit larger homes with Protect. It just is. The United States Fire Administration recommends that you install smoke alarms "outside each sleeping area, in every bedroom and above stairwells," which ends up putting you quickly into the $1,000 range if you live in a larger house. Another cause for concern? The fact that the USFA recommends you replace your CO alarm every seven years, which will also add up over the years.

Nest's decision to make a fire alarm that costs three times as much as the market rate isn't uncalculated, though. The demographic of Americans who try "smart" home devices skews young. Young people live in apartments. Spending $1,000 to alarm your house might seem over the top, but spending $129 to alarm your studio or one-bedroom? Not so bad.

I've also read reports that some users are getting false alarms. Unfortunately, I can't do anything except report back that we never got a false alarm—our Protect did exactly what it said it would do.

Should You Buy It?

For most readers, I think the question comes down to cost. If you live in a smaller place and only need to buy a few units, I'd wholeheartedly recommend it. It might serve the same basic safety function as the alarm you have right now—waking you up when there's a fire or a leak—but it also serves another: It makes you feel safer.

But should you run out and buy ten Protects to replace every alarm in your giant house? Probably not—especially since Nest may eventually sell discounted packages. It makes more sense to replace the next alarm that dies with a Protect—that way, you can see whether you think it's worth outfitting your whole place.

As for those who are worried about privacy issues, now that Google owns Nest? On Tuesday, Nest founder Tony Fadell told me that its privacy policy isn't going to change just yet, and it may not change for a while. If and when it does, you'll have to make your own decision about how much of your own data you're willing to let out into the world.

But keep in mind that this is a dilemma you're going to confront again and again over the next decade or two—if not with your fire alarm, than with your car, your door lock, or your dang toaster. In the meantime, I'd check out Protect—if for no other reason than to dip your toe in the Internet of Things for yourself.