Over fifteen years ago I purchased a cheap programmable 5+2 day thermostat at my local hardware store. And for nearly a decade that unit provided me ample performance, until one day it stopped working and needed replaced. At that time, a few years ago, there was only one option for tech geeks like myself who wanted a WiFi smart home thermostat. But nowadays we have many options, which is why today I’m provided my review of the two of the top sellers in this segment: the Nest Learning Thermostat and the ecobee3 Wi-Fi Thermostat with Remote Sensor (Apple HomeKit Enabled).
PREFACE: These days the options for WiFi enabled thermostats is endless. Such as the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat, the Honeywell Lyric WiFi-Enabled Thermostat, or the Lennox iComfort Touchscreen Programmable Thermostat … just to name a few. Although the Nest Thermostat remains the gold standard for this segment, what prompted this review was the fact that the ecobee3 Thermostat now offers Apple HomeKit compatibility. Hence this review focuses around what I think are the two best options on the market today, and delves specifically into how they differ, such as where the ecobee3 Thermostat also adds HomeKit features. Enjoy!
Warning!! This post is VERY PHOTO HEAVY. I’ve broken down the review into easy-to-handle sections, with a photo dump pertaining to that specific section at the end of each. Hopefully these photos come in handy for everyone. I’ve also included a short video showcasing the HomeKit features of the Ecobee3. Ciao!
Unboxing & Installation
Both the Nest Thermostat and the ecobee3 Thermostat arrived in nice modern packaging, laid out beautifully showcasing the primary components on the first layer, with the installation hardware just below. Having first hand experience with the Nest prior, I was pleased to see they’ve not made any drastic changes, and was especially grateful they still include the screw driver. Ecobee does not include any tools, so be ready with at least a flat blade and Philips screw driver for installation. You may also need a drill, depending on your wall surface, and possibly other tools for either unit depending on your current home HVAC controller.
Both the Nest & ecobee3 came with instructions for quick install, plus enough data to get you up and going. Although the Nest’s base and overall size is slimmer and lighter than Ecobee’s hardware, both were remarkably similar. Once installed on the wall we found the Ecobee a bit more modern and subdued looking. That isn’t to say the Nest isn’t a thing of beauty, but its a bit more sci-fi looking than the Ecobee, which is slightly more conservatively styled. Both are reasonable in size, with the Nest being slightly heavier feeling, with more heft or solid feeling in your hand.
Mounting both of them to the wall was very simple and straight forward, with the Nest being slightly easier to attach. This was due firstly to the self-tapping drywall screws included, avoiding in my case the need for any sort of drill for those three units I setup at my office. In contrast to the Nest, I did have to drill two small holes for the Ecobee at my residence, where the screws included were not capable of penetrating the drywall without the anchors. This makes the Nest easier to install, thanks to the included tool & hardware, though the Ecobee was hardly a chore. Both devices included a level in their base to insure your install is clean-looking, and both have optional trim rings, with the Ecobee offering two size rings (in my case I needed the larger one to help cover prior holes in the wall). It is nice to see that both offer these plastic shrouds to help ensure you are able to cover the prior thermostat’s old area.
One thing I found interesting was the difference in support on their web sites for installation. Both of them offer video support (Nest HERE, and Ecobee HERE),
but only Nest offers an interactive wiring helper that lets you select the wires you have before you setup, to ensure compatibility (edit: found THIS PAGE after digging more, guess they both have it, nice!). On the flip side, the videos on the Ecobee page seemed richer in dialogue, and their selection of PDF wiring diagrams was welcome to someone like me. Both were sufficient, but for the “average joe” the Nest’s included documentation plus their web page feels more naturally intuitive. This is a theme you’ll see more as you read on, as I compare both devices throughout this blog post.
Hardware setup was otherwise uneventful for both devices, though I did find snapping the ecobee3 Thermostat onto its base slightly more difficult than the Nest Thermostat. Both require you push back the wires after they are clicked in place, but somehow the Ecobee was more finicky if they weren’t pushed deeply in. Never the less, I’d rank both as “Easy to Moderate” installation, and definitely something an adventurous DIY’er could handle. Both units boast the same push-in wire connections, and both have support for wired accessories such as a humidifier. Once in place, both units felt safe and secure mounted on my wall, ready for their respective setup routines. I’d give a slight edge here to the Nest, but only marginally.
Photos of Nest Thermostat (Unboxing & Installation):
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Unboxing & Installation):
Once you flip the power back on to your HVAC systems each unit comes alive, with the Nest Thermostat displaying their iconic blue house logo, versus the ecobee3 Thermostat and their adorable little bee. From there I captured MOST of the screens below (see image galleries) that showcase what questions you’ll be asked about during the setup process. I’ll run through each of them, and then talk about the important differences.
Nest starts off asking for a language, and then displays a helpful list of the setup process (Language, Internet Connection, etc). After grabbing a network connection first (versus last on the ecobee) the device may require a firmware download and update, which in my case took about 5-7 total minutes. From there your location is set, which tries to find you automatically but in my case showed a nearby zip code, so I decided to manually enter my exact zip code. You’ll verify the wiring, confirm some high/low desired temperatures, and finalize what hardware you have connected. Finally the device provides a chance to turn on the heat and air, to confirm these features are working properly. You can skip these tests if you want, in which case you are now done and can now start using the thermostat.
ecobee3 has a very similar setup approach, though things are in a different order. First you’ll confirm the wires it senses are hooked up, and the hardware you have attached (including accessories, which the Nest supports but maybe would have auto detected? I have no accessories to test). You’ll setup a name for your thermostat too, which is a far easier task on the touch screen of the Ecobee versus the dial ring on the Nest. You set your ideal summer/winter temperatures, choose a mode (being summer I set my system to Cool for now), and confirm if you want smart home/away features turned on. Lastly you set your time zone, and finally your WiFi connection.
Note that neither of these units require an Internet connection, but obviously the core competencies of both rely heavily on their ability to be online. From energy usage, to remove access, neither would be as useful or worth their hefty price without this connectivity. If you are buying a WiFi thermostat, you’ll want to make sure you actually have WiFi at home. Both devices required some time to self calibrate their temperature and humidity sensors, after which point they were ready for battle!
Photos of Nest Thermostat (Hardware & Setup):
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Hardware & Setup):
Using the Thermostat
In my eyes one of the best features a WiFi thermostat offers is that you can control it from your phone, or better yet, your computer. Both of these devices have web portals and smart phone apps (See sections below)- but at first you’re obviously going to be fiddling with your new thermostat as it sits on the wall. So we’ll start there.
Navigating around the Nest Thermostat is fairly easy since you really only have two input options- first is to rotate the outer silver ring, and secondly to push the whole device in toward the wall to click, or select an item. Though this makes certain tasks more difficult than I wanted (such as entering a name), it does simplify things in a way that is more intuitive for most users. Menus are purposefully simple here, and the circular screen is very approachable as shown in the images below– and it is bright, and gorgeous! You have the ability to handle most of the tasks necessary here, but creating a schedule is far more enjoyable to do on the phone or web, versus at the thermostat. In truth both thermostats benefit from using the mobile app or web, but the Nest more so because of the limited input options.
Walk up the Nest and the screen comes on from blank. Rotate the ring and you can easily set the temperature, and just walk away. Want more? Push in (Click) and rotate to your desired menu. Switching between heat or cool, or turning on the fan, all those features are easy & simple to do here. The same for the Ecobee, as I’ll talk about in a moment — but I’d trust my 65+ year old folks with a Nest, it is just that good. And that is really where these devices differ, not just at the thermostat level, but in the app and web, too.
Switch over to the ecobee3 Thermostat and instantly you can tell this device has a bit more going on. Instead of a metal outer ring to turn, there is an on-screen slider occupying the right third column of the screen. Simply place your finger on it and drag it up or down to change the temperature setting accordingly. Like the Nest, the screen wakes up as you approach it, but unlike the Nest, the Ecobee screen is always on, showing the inside temperature, and an icon for outside weather and outside temp. When you’re nearby, it switches to showing inside temp & humidity, as well as that temp slider, and a few icons across the bottom.
My first “not so intuitive” awareness of the ecobee was the way you switch modes (heat versus cool, home versus away) with the little gear icon located in the bottom right corner. To me a gear means settings, and these options aren’t so much settings as “modes” — so perhaps an icon change is in order here? But like the Nest, the ecobee3 is equally as easy to switch between these primary modes, once you know where to look. It just could be slightly more obvious what that icon contains, IMO.
One-upping the Nest, the ecobee3 also brings more than just outside temperature data. Click on the bottom-middle weather icon and you’ll bring up a full-blown weather forecast, with everything from precipitation percentage, to morning, afternoon, and evening weather breakdowns. It even shows the next few days weather projections. This is a feature I felt was very useful, though being an Apple Watch owner might make this a bit redundant. But for users whose thermostat is conveniently located in your home, you may find this feature quite beneficial actually. (Great for looking at the weather for that day, to appropriately dress your kid before you send them off to school).
Like the Nest then, the ecobee3 also has menus of settings you can dig deeper into. However, where the Nest menus are basic because of the bare bones navigation (again, easier on the phone/web), the Ecobee does a far better job at the thermostat itself handling these tasks right at the device. Equipped with a large touch screen just makes it easier to tap-and-slide your way through the contextual menus, and in truth the thermostat interface is mimicked quite nicely on the phone app, as I discuss in the next section. As such I would have no hesitation to modify things like my schedule or add a vacation right at the display of the ecobee3, a task that on the Nest would be quite unenjoyable. You can see this displayed in the screen shots below, though you’ll surely notice the overall brightness and pixel density of the display on the ecobee isn’t quite as rich as the Nest. But it does the job, and does it quite well.
As you peruse the two galleries below one thing you will notice is that there are more options on the ecobee3— it just provides a much more granular experience over the Nest. At first I felt a bit overwhelmed, even coming from using a Nest for the past few years. There was just almost too much going on with the ecobee, but I quickly realized how it all came together, and appreciated some of the key differences. First you’ll notice that Access Control can set a security code for just specific items, where the security on the Nest only locks everything (but the temperature). Next, check out the section called Thresholds, to see just how technical this device can get for setting how different remote sensors behave together.
One of the features that I really liked seeing on the ecobee3 was the Alerts & Reminders. Although the Nest has reminders for filters, and alerts for high/low temps, the ecobee goes one step further adding alerts for humidity, reminders for service, and so forth. You can see an alert stored from when I added my device to my local Apple Home Kit system. Vacation is another sweet feature, allowing you to pre-program a specific mode for the HVAC to run during a pre-defined period of time you’ll be gone. This is great for trips where you don’t want the normal program to run, but you also might not want the Away settings the entire time either. Think of this as a “Customer Away” for a specific period of time.
Another important differentiation between the Nest versus ecobee3 is how they handle what ecobee calls Comfort Settings. For the Nest you can set a schedule that controls the temperature when you’re “Home” as well as your high/low temperature for when you are “Away” which is same as the ecobee. However the ecobee also allows you to set different parameters for Sleep, as well as create your own Comfort Settings. Let’s say you wanted to create one for when you work out? Make one called Gym and you’ll be all set. These are nice for setting your schedule, but one place ecobee misses the mark is that you cannot easily switch manually into these settings. If whenever you host a dinner party you want the temperature set to a specific level, based on a specific sensor (see more about sensors in a later section), you would have to modify your schedule for that. Manually going into a specific comfort zone would make their presence that much more useful. I’ll clarify this a bit more when I explain the added sensors that the ecobee offers.
One other quick gripe about the ecobee3 … when you’re manipulating your schedule, removing something is represented by an “X” in a circle in the top right corner. However, other places an “X” just closes a window. I feel in those instances where the “X” is representing a deletion, the icon should be changed to a Trash Can logo. This is more standard, and again, it is small matters like this which make the Nest slightly more naturally intuitive, over the ecobee.
As for the interface at the thermostat itself, I enjoyed the colorful, bright display of the Nest and its simplicity. However, I’m a sucker for large touch screens, and while the quality of the display itself on the Ecobee wasn’t quite as bold as the Nest, I found navigating around on the Ecobee more enjoyable overall. And as I said, there is just more you can do with the ecobee3; it far more configurable. But when you switch to your phone or the web, the Nest comes back swinging!
Photos of Nest Thermostat (Using the Thermostat):
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Using the Thermostat):
Smart Phone & Web Portal
Both devices have iOS apps which, once you’ve created a login username/password, allow you to add their devices. In both cases adding your device was easy, and explained on-screen. And after you play around with the Nest app on your smart phone, you’ll come to realize their web portal is literally identical. Every last feature you can control on the phone you can also do on the web. There are some features reserved to only being available on the thermostat itself, such as display brightness, click sounds, and so forth.
Rather than my attempting to explain features like Nest Auto-Away, or Ecobee Smart Home/Away, I’ve just placed them as linkable names there– so feel free to do some reading there to understand these features and how they differ. In truth they are very much identical, though the ecobee3 feature to follow you around the house is different and is covered later.
I’m a huge fan of the Nest app, as again it drives home function and simplicity. The web app is a great way to keep tabs on things, especially in my case where my office now has three smart thermostats. I do wish some of the changes you made to one thermostat could be applied globally to all devices at that location, saving me the time of having to make changes thrice. But that is a small price to pay for having such great access. Nest’s web and phone app are very quick to load, and have low latency and super-high reliability.
In comparison, the ecobee3 app is also very powerful, as is their web portal. However, where their iOS app looks just like the thermostat does, their web portal spices things up a bit. First let’s talk about the iOS app. Other than the fact that it is missing the Settings section, you have the ability on the phone to control all of the same features. Since it is seriously identical, I did not add any photos from my phone, as it would look just like the photos I took of the device itself.
However, as you move over to the ecobee.com web portal, things get a bit different looking. Here you’ll find everything is very familiar, but it is laid out as you’d expect if perhaps this were a tablet. Settings are here (though some of those deeper settings I showed you earlier are limited to the thermostat itself). Weather data is here, quick changes, vacations, access to your sensors, etc. But the big addition here is the HomeIQ icon, which I’ll explain now.
With Nest you get a monthly email, showing your usage compared to others in your region. It talks about your efficiency, and compares your data to the prior months or year. Within their app you can see the last weeks daily usage, but that is all you can really see. In comparison then, Ecobee Home IQ is an even richer, data-hungry view. As the screen shots will do a better job showing than I could possible explain here, you get some amazing feedback. You said you were home, how many sensors saw you? How did the outside temperature chart over time affect your HVAC needs? And since my unit is still rather new, I’m still not even getting all the great data I eventually will.
Once again, then, I must say the Nest is a great device, that is easy to use, intuitive in every way. It provides just the right amount of data and feedback for the average person, saves you money, and helps you be more eco-friendly. From there, the ecobee3 takes it one step further, providing deeper configurability, more data in charts if you want it, more customization to how you handle your schedule (comfort settings), and other features. Most people won’t need this, and frankly these items alone were never enough to make me switch to ecobee3. But then they added more goodies…
Photos of Nest Thermostat (Smart Phone & Web Portal):
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Smart Phone & Web Portal):
Apple Watch & Home Kit
At the time of publishing this blog post (July 2015) only the ecobee3 Thermostat offers integration with the Apple Watch or Apple Home Kit. Even then what it can do from your wrist is limited, however there is promise that more features will come with iOS 9 later this year. Right now, as the photos below show, you can set the temperature from your wrist and see the sensors/temperatures throughout your home. This means is that your watch cannot switch from heat to cool.
Right off the mark I was unhappy with the force touch as it brings up a menu of four items, and going back requires carefully pressing in the middle to avoid accidentally setting your system to Home/Away. Also, at the moment you cannot use Siri on your wrist to set the temp, but that upgrade has already been announced for iOS 9 as an improvement I look forward to personally.
Apple Home Kit integration with the ecobee3 is one of two big reasons I decided to give the ecobee a test, the second being remote sensors (see next section). Setting up Home Kit was not terribly intuitive, with the menu “+” in top left main page iOS app being required, and then the Home Kit option listed in the bottom was selected. From there the thermostat on the wall presented a code required to activate the Home Kit features. From there you can go into the Home Kit settings and see various rooms (and tell the house in what room your thermostat resides). Note that for some reason the HVAC system gets rid of the Auto feature/mode once Home Kit is enabled (heat, cool, auto, and off were the old options, but Auto is now gone). Not sure why.
As the video shows, you have to use a rather specific set of language. For example you cannot say “What is my family room sensor temperature” — you have to say “list family room sensor temperature” — which isn’t really logical. Or, perhaps it is — but a more versatile set of strings should work. I’ve heard rumors that iOS 9 will solve some of this, but only time will tell. We had huge issues trying to make it work regardless of what name we gave my thermostat. Of the commands that Home Kit supports, many of them just aren’t natural language, and many of them just don’t work right. Sometimes the “resume schedule” one worked, but maybe only twice out of the 30+ times we tried. As the video will show you, resuming the schedule did NOT want to work for us. But, when the Home Kit features did work, it was a magical experience.
The folks at Nest have been hard at work to integrate their thermostat with as many third-party clients as feasible, and that is something I’m excited to see. However at the moment they have yet to integrate with Home Kit. There are hacks for the recently released Amazon Echo which allow voice control of the Nest, but these are not for the “average joe” — so if you want voice control of your thermostat and you’re an Apple user, the Ecobee has a clear advantage.
Now I’ll admit, I don’t really play with my home temps THAT often– but when I do, it is really nice to be able to just bark commands at my phone. You can even ask Siri what the temperature in the house is right now, not just set it. (For a full list of possible commands with Siri, look HERE). Moving forward I feel that integration with more devices, like Apple’s Home Kit or the Apple Watch, will create more allure for many potential buyers/users. At the same time, for non-Apple users, cross-platform compatibility is also key. (Sidebar: I’m not an Android user, so I don’t have any way to test this hardware in that arena– my apologies). I’ll wrap this section up by saying the watch app is nice, but not particularly useful. However, Siri and voice control is truly the future, and I’m mega-pleased with how the ecobee3 handled this feature set. (Remember, you can also set scenes with Home Kit, such at “TV night” which may set your dwelling to a temperature of your liking).
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Apple Watch & Home Kit):
Besides the Apple Home Kit features that were the straws to break the camel’s back (and cause me to buy the ecobee3 to replace my Nest), another distinguishing ecobee feature are their remote sensors. Although Nest does have multiple products that work together (see HERE for more about that), it differs from the ecobee in that it does not take temperature readings from anywhere but the main thermostat itself. So while having a Nest Protect does give you more places to pick up movement for the “Home” versus “Away” recognition, those sensors are $99 each and don’t share temperature data.
Adding a sensor to the ecobee3 was one of the easiest things you’ll ever do. You stand in front of the thermostat, power on the sensor (by pulling out the plastic battery spacer), and it automatically senses and adds it. As mentioned a few times prior, the advantage of having a touch screen here is that it makes custom naming of these sensors a breeze. You can also go back and rename it later on your phone, or the web portal, if you desire.
Once you’ve added a sensor (or in my case, 3 extra ecobee3 Remote Sensors), you simply place them around the house where you may like. There are three mounting options- drilling a hole in the wall (no thanks), adhesive, or a plastic stand. You’re suggested to place the units about 5-feet off the ground and on inside walls. For the rooms I wanted to place them in this required wall mounting, so I used the adhesive included. Within 12-hours all three fell off, so I ended up instead using some Command Medium Mounting Strips, which worked much better (they required being cut down in length obviously). This will also make removal easier down the road.
Having remote temperature and motion sensors throughout your home or office is brilliant. Our thermostat is placed in a location that rarely has any activity nearby, such that auto-home/away features never worked for us before. Now, we’ve placed a sensor in our master bedroom (where The Wife & I often sit and read or play on our computers), one in the kitchen, and one in the family room. These are the three primary places we spend time, and their placement does a better job finding us than just one lonely thermostat. With the Nest you would get smoke/CO sensors, but the price is more than twice the price per sensor, and again, Nest offers movement only (as it communicates back to the thermostat).
But why do you need temperature and other locations, too? Great question! First off, the ecobee3 has the ability to simply take an average of all the sensors, and use that for your home’s actual temperature. However, you can step it up even further, and allow only certain sensors to be active at certain times. Perhaps you spend most of your evenings upstairs, where the temperature is often a few degrees warmer. By setting a comfort setting and telling the ecobee to only utilize the temperature sensor(s) on that floor, it will optimize the temperature for you at those locations to cater to your presence.
Ultimately the device can use the “Follow Me” feature, to handle this automatically. It seems as though it switches from “unoccupied” to “occupied” quickly, but switches back to “unoccupied” only after no activity for some time (half hour perhaps?). Our home is a split level, with 3 floors (plus a walk-up attic and walk-down basement, so 5 floors in total). We love the fact that now the thermostat knows if we’re on the lowest level watching TV, or on the highest level in the bedroom. This allows us to have the right temperature we want, in the room we’re spending time, at all times. And best of all, its automated, using these remote sensors, so you don’t have to do a thing.
Photos of Ecobee3 Thermostat (Remote Sensors):
After testing the Nest Thermostat and the ecobee3 Thermostat extensively, I love them both! Neither one would be a bad option, and for most people I’d probably suggest the Nest. Installation on both was equally easy, and each offer the ability to control them at the device, on your phone, or via the web.
If you have a desire to pick up the temperature at remote locations beyond the thermostat, the ecobee3 will handle that. If you want voice control via Siri, the ecobee3 brings that to the table, too. I have to imagine these features may eventually come to the Nest using their Protect units, but for the moment, these features are what make the ecobee slightly more useful than the Nest. As noted, and the video shows, these features are most decidedly still in their early stages, but I do suspect they will improve greatly with iOS 9 in the fall.
Hopefully this review has answered all your questions, but if not, please sound off in the comments below. I’d love to hear what devices you folks own, and if you purchase(d) one of these units, tell us why and what you think. Thanks for reading!