The Nest Learning Thermostat is one of the biggest smart home breakouts that we've seen, but it wasn't the first of its kind. That distinction goes to Ecobee, a Toronto-based startup that put out an app-enabled thermostat back in 2009 -- two years before the Nest made its debut.
Five years later, Ecobee is launching its newest smart thermostat, the Ecobee3. Like the recently released Honeywell Lyric, the $250 Wi-Fi-enabled Ecobee3 is clearly designed to compete with the future-friendly Nest and aims to set itself apart with capacitive touchscreen controls, along with an environmental sensor accessory that comes included.
Aside from monitoring the climate, that sensor accessory features a built-in motion sensor to track your comings and goings -- same as the thermostat itself. Put it in a different room from the thermostat, and your system's optional "Follow Me" feature will be able to tailor your home's heating and cooling to best serve the room you're actually in. Additional two-packs of sensors can be purchased for $80, and the Ecobee3 claims it can manage up to thirty-two of them.
That motion-sensing approach is different from the Honeywell Lyric's focus on "geofencing," which uses your phone's GPS location to determine when you're home and when you've left. While cool in theory, we found the Lyric's geofencing to be a bit unreliable -- a problem we've also seen with other smart home devices that use the same trick, like the Quirky Aros Smart Air Conditioner. Given those recurring difficulties, Ecobee might have been wise to take a different approach.
Installing the Ecobee3 is largely the same as installing any other thermostat, with ports in the back for all of your HVAC hardwiring needs. One key difference, though -- unlike its competitors, which steal power directly from the furnace control board, the Ecobee3 uses a "power extender kit," which you'll need to install inside of your HVAC unit. Ecobee claims that this is a more reliable way of keeping the thermostat powered during temperature spikes.
Using the Ecobee3 is fairly intuitive once you get it installed. Like with the Nest, the Ecobee3 interface will "wake up" as it senses you approaching, offering you a convenient slider for adjusting the temperature up and down. With just a tap or two, you'll also be able to check the local weather, tell the thermostat if you're leaving, or access more advanced settings.
Those settings include a scheduling mode, where establishing the thermostat's heating and cooling patterns is a cinch. You'll also be able to adjust presets like "Sleep" mode and "Away" mode, or tell the thermostat when you'll be going on vacation.
Download the Ecobee3 app to your Android or iOS device, and you'll find nearly the exact same interface as on the thermostat itself. From the app, you'll have complete access to your system settings, as well as the ability to set alerts if the temperature or humidity hits an extreme, or if part of your system needs maintenance.
In addition to app controls, Ecobee offers a Web interface for the thermostat, too. This interface departs from the app's sparse, black-and-white design, going instead with an interface that looks a lot like the Live Tiles of Windows 8. Select a tile, and it'll flip out to full screen, showing you the info that you're looking for.
Included in this Web interface is a tile with Ecobee's "Home IQ" insights, a feature the startup introduced last year to better compete with Nest. Home IQ will let you track your usage and energy savings, along with diagnostic data for your HVAC setup.
At time of writing this piece, Home IQ doesn't look to be activated for the Ecobee3, but it stands to weigh heavily on the Ecobee3's appeal, given how strong a role similar insights play with the Nest. The two thermostats cost the same, so the Ecobee3 will likely need to match Nest's level of attention to detail (or at least come close to it) if it wants to compete.
It'll also be interesting to see what sort of third-party systems the Ecobee3 ultimately syncs up with. Previous Ecobee thermostats have been integrated into setups from popular smart-home platforms like Control4, Vera, and most recently, SmartThings. With its open API and an expansion slot for adding in Zigbee, Bluetooth, or some other additional wireless standard, I'd expect the Ecobee3 to follow suit.
The Ecobee3 is available directly through Ecobee's website, or through licensed HVAC dealers, and comes with a three-year warranty. I'll be hooking a test unit up at my apartment, and once I've spent some time trying it out for myself, expect a full review.