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

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.

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