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Nest Protect review: For $129, the best smoke detector on the market

$129 is a lot for a smoke detector, but it's hard not to covet this smart, sharp-looking new device.

Lindsey Turrentine EVP, Content and Audience
Lindsey Turrentine is executive vice president for content and audience. She has helped shape digital media since digital media was born.
Lindsey Turrentine
9 min read

Editors' note, June 16, 2014: After an official recall on May, 21, 2014, the Nest Protect returned to retail today. For now, sales are limited to online stores including Nest.com, Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, and HomeDepot.com. The updated units do not have the Wave feature which prompted the recall decision, and there are no specific plans to bring it back in the future. To account for this loss, Nest reduced the price of its Wi-Fi smoke and carbon monoxide detector to $99.

The Good

With boutique design, remote monitoring via mobile device, and the ability to wave off false alarms with your hand, the <b>Nest Protect</b> is the smoke/CO detector we never knew we wanted.

The Bad

$129 is a lot to ask for a smoke/CO detector, even a connected one.

The Bottom Line

Nest brings crisp design and smart features -- connected and otherwise -- to the humble smoke detector. You don't absolutely need the Nest Protect, but it's fine to admit you want one.

How do you make a smoke detector cool? It's hard, and more difficult still to glamorize a carbon monoxide detector. Under ideal circumstances, you'll never hear a peep out of either.

Nest took a crack at reinventing the boring old smoke alarm anyway. The upstart company, famous for its five-star Nest Learning Thermostat, aims to reimagine the dull, annoying, or dysfunctional white-label products around your house. As such, Nest took the passive wall wart of yesterday and transformed it into the Nest Protect, a Wi-Fi-ready smoke alarm and CO monitor. And while the Nest Protect doesn't necessarily revolutionize the smoke detector, it resets the curve for the competition.

The Nest Protect is a Wi-Fi smoke detector and carbon monoxide monitor, costs a brain-bending $129, and -- thanks to its brand-new Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification -- arrives tomorrow for anyone who preordered a unit. But it's the Wi-Fi integration that sets Nest Protect apart and gives it powers no other alarms can claim, including the ability to send alerts to the Nest smartphone app. I spent a weekend with two Nest Protect alarms set up in my house alongside a Nest thermostat, and I grew fond of these rethought detectors.

Nest Protect looks unlike any other smoke detector (pictures)

See all photos

What the Nest Protect does
For $129 for each unit, you'd expect a pair of these alarms to make you a cup of coffee while protecting your family. They don't, and you can find other wireless, networked combination smoke-and-carbon-monoxide detectors on the market for as little as $65. To set itself apart, the Nest Protect solves a few problems you might not realize you have with your current detectors.

When an alarm first sounds, Nest projects a human recorded voice to tell you that smoke or carbon monoxide may be gathering. If you have more than one Nest Protect on your network, the alarm repeats anywhere in the house with a connected Nest Protect identifying the nature of the emergency and its location. Both wired (with backup battery) and battery-powered versions run when the power and Wi-Fi go out, so they'll continue to communicate over a proprietary mesh network. The Nest Protect's voice sounds pleasant but firm -- like a (rare) mother who got a full night of sleep or maybe the announcer on a Virgin America preflight safety video.

Because it wouldn't be safe to fill my garage with carbon monoxide, I will rely on the exhaustive UL certification program to have tested the Nest Protect's ability to sense dangerous materials in the air. But with a can of a special mist used explicitly for testing smoke detectors and a brand-new smoke detector from First Alert installed next to the Nest, I confirmed that the Nest alarm is swift and loud.

I tested the Nest Protect beside a new First Alert detector. Both responded to the smoke at the same moment and volume. Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

The siren itself sounds very much like a typical smoke detector -- identical in detection speed and alarm sound to the First Alert unit. When I waved the smoke wand in the hallway upstairs, the Protect in the downstairs playroom also blared, reporting along with the siren that "there's smoke in the hallway." Once the (canned) smoke dissipated upstairs, both Nest units reported throughout the house that the smoke had cleared. When I silenced the Nest alarm upstairs, its companion downstairs alarm piped down, too, albeit after a slight delay.

One of the Nest Protect's charms is the ability to wave to silence the alarm when something small like a burnt toaster pancake sets it off. While Nest says that small children and pets cannot hush the alarm, both my 10-year-old (he's tall) and I were able to silence the alarm with a pleasant but persistent wave. It's a good thing that you have to work to silence the Nest Protect because you want to be certain an area is safe before calling off the hounds, so to speak. I did notice that while the Nest Protect can work at recommended heights on both walls and on the ceiling, the ability to silence by waving works much better when the Nest Protect is mounted on the ceiling.

Relatively easy setup
Here's the thing about the old-style smoke alarms: unless you're hooking up hardwired detectors, installing one is as easy as adding batteries and screwing the mounting plate into a wall. Because the Nest Protect works on a network, you'll need to add each unit to your network, one at a time. The process is a breeze (I'll talk more about that below), but it does take a few more minutes.

Out of the box, the Nest Protect and its brochure look downright cheerful. Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

True to form, Nest sells the Nest Protect with charmingly thoughtful packaging. The clean, sturdy box makes unpacking the device fast and free of hardshell-induced plastic cuts on your hands. The included instruction manual is much more complicated than the one that comes with the Nest Learning Thermostat, but the safety issues involved demand the extra length. And in comparison with the instructions accompanying competing devices, the Nest manual reads like Longfellow.

Hanging the Nest Protect on the wall means screwing in a mounting plate, just as with a traditional smoke detector. The included screws are sturdy and work in many types of walls, and the detector snaps into the mount easily. I was a little sad to see that these don't come with their own handy screwdriver like the Nest thermostat does.

The Nest Protect's brochure compared with the instructions that came with a smaller, basic smoke detector. Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

When I was ready to install my Nest Protect units, I updated my app, then scanned the QR code on the back of the device. The app then walked me through how to add my Nest Protect to my home network, which required me to enter my home router's Wi-Fi password and asked me to name each device according to its location. Everything worked on the first try and the entire process took less than 2 minutes. I did have to repeat this process for each detector. If you were installing a houseful of Nest Protects, the process would take you a decent chunk of time.

Adding a Nest Protect to your home network requires scanning a QR code and knowing your network's password. That's it. Screenshot by Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

Pleasant extras
Part of what makes the Nest Protect so clever is all the sensors it houses, including smoke, heat, carbon monoxide, moisture, and movement sensors. All these sensors let the detector act as a sentry in your home. If you also own a Nest thermostat, the Nest Protect will tell it when you're in a remote part of the house for a long period of time, which prevents the thermostat from setting itself to Auto Away mode and raising or lowering the temperature of your home more than is comfortable. I tested the Nest Protect over the weekend while my house was busy, so it's hard to confirm that this cool feature worked, but it's true that my house stayed a comfortable temperature even while my family was gone and I was working in a bedroom far from the thermostat.

Now, I wouldn't buy a Nest Protect for its ability to trigger my thermostat, but it's a nice extra that hints at possible futures for Nest as a company. The more rooms in a house with Nest-powered sensors, the more devices could eventually speak to one another and to a Nest app, from security cameras to remote locks to light bulbs. (Whether that's a future you want is up to your appetite for home automation dominated by a single brand.)

The Nest Protect's colored ring glows to signal warnings (yellow), emergencies (red), a clean daily scan (green), or readiness (blue). A white light serves as a nightlight. Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

Also thanks to the Nest Protect's onboard sensors, the device can serve as a dim nightlight. Walk underneath the Nest Protect in the dark, and the ring glows white to illuminate your path. In my tests, the room must be totally dark for the nightlight to work, and it's not bright. But it does make it easy to navigate the floor in a room, which helps with children's midnight trips for a glass of water and would be especially helpful in any emergency including earthquakes or other non-fire-related episodes.

The Protect tests itself regularly, and when you turn off the lights in a room and the room turns totally dark, its ring glows green to show that it's done its job and the room is safe from CO or smoke and that the device's batteries are still good. This is a fun feature that reminds you that your $129 investment is actually working, but it's just that: a fun extra.

Here's the Nest Protect next to a non-networked competitor from First Alert. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- which do you prefer? Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

Rethinking detector design
At first glance, the Nest Protect looks nothing like a device you might expect from Nest. For starters, it's square and comes in white or black -- quite unlike the round, silver Nest Learning Thermostat. According to Nest, the square shape sets this device apart from its old-fashioned competition, and the lacy, flowerlike design of the top panel gives more points for smoke and particulate to enter and trigger the alarm. Regardless, this is the prettiest smoke detector you'll find.

The Nest Protect isn't, however, the slimmest smoke detector on the market. Competitors come in all shapes and sizes, including some of the notably slimmer and smaller devices I've photographed here. These competing products lose the Wi-Fi ability, though, which presumably takes up more space in the Nest; and while some may prefer their design, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Nest Protect strikes a sophisticated, modern pose I haven't seen anywhere else.

A ring around the Nest Protect's center button illuminates gently to communicate various states that I've already talked about: light blue for setup, yellow to warn you before there's an emergency, red in a full-blown emergency, and green to let you know when everything's OK. The central button itself is large and makes a pleasant subtle click when you press it. The button alone sets the Nest Protect far from its competitors by making interacting with the device much easier than reaching for the tiny, sometimes hard-to-access button on a traditional smoke detector.

First smoke detector with an app
Nest recently updated both its Android and iOS apps to work with both the Nest thermostat and Nest Protect. It's worth noting that this version 4.0 starts with a new, flatter design and seamlessly merges activities from both Nest thermostats and the Protect. If you have a Nest thermostat, the app will even let you turn off your boiler from afar when the Protect senses carbon monoxide in the house.

The Nest 4.0 app gives you the most recent status for your Nest Protect, plus battery life alerts and alarms when dangerous events occur. Screenshot by Lindsey Turrentine/CNET

When I tested the smoke detector with the app, I received notification-screen, text-style push alerts when the alarm sounded and when the smoke cleared. I could also see at any given time in the office that all is clear in my home 20 miles away.

One small ding against the Nest Protect is its lack of IFTTT support. IFTTT (aka If This, Then That) is an open communication standard that lets you tie together different devices and online services. With IFTTT, you could tell the Nest Protect to send a neighbor a text message when it detect smoke and you're not home, for example, although the app does allow you to enter an emergency contact number so that it's easy to find emergency numbers when your phone receives an alarm alert. Smart-home enthusiasts have been asking for IFTTT support in Nest's thermostats for a while. I expect they'll miss it here as well, at least until Nest allows outside software makers to access its API. The company says it plans to provide that access in the first half of 2014.

When it comes down to it, outfitting the average home with a fleet of Nest Protects is a major investment: $500 to $650 to safely protect a three-bedroom home with the appropriate four or five devices. As part of a larger remodel or retrofit, however, and if you really value your time, you'll love these devices. The convenience they provide as they light your way, warn you when their batteries are dying, and calmly alert you about a variety of potential dangers will ease the pain of the cash outlay.


Nest Protect

Score Breakdown

Features 9Usability 9Design 9Performance 9