Smoke detectors are boring. They’re not attractive, not fun to deal with, and probably came with the house or apartment when you moved in. They make themselves known when you’re cooking and burn the roast, or at 2:00 AM when their batteries need to be replaced. But aside from that, they are little more than decorations on the wall or ceiling — no more noticeable or significant than a picture frame or light switch.
In reality, smoke detectors are much more than just wall decoration. They are vital safety devices that are required by virtually every municipality in the US and other countries.
But the lowly smoke detector hasn't really changed in decades. Sure, they can now detect carbon monoxide in addition to general smoke, and there are options for battery-powered or plug-in models. But for the most part, they’re still round discs that mount to your ceiling and beep very loudly when they detect something is not right, even if it's just a burnt piece of toast. For most people, they are a nuisance more than anything else. Or worse, they are so annoying that they’ve been yanked off the wall and had their batteries torn out, making them little more than paperweights. That’s a real problem: the National Fire Protection Association says that almost two-thirds of the deaths from home fires are directly connected to non-functioning smoke alarms.
Nest, the company that reimagined the home thermostat, is looking to change that. The Nest Protect is its latest product, a $129, internet-connected smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Like the Nest Thermostat, the Protect has a stylish design and user-friendly features such as voice guidance. It promises to fix those annoyances that make people deactivate their existing smoke alarms while adding other conveniences, such as alerts on your phone. But it's more than three times the cost of a standard smoke and carbon monoxide detector, and since most homes already have smoke detectors, the need to buy a new one is virtually zero for many people. So, is it worth it? Google certainly thinks you’ll want one: it announced just this past Monday that it would be purchasing Nest for a staggering $3.2 billion in cash.
As the old adage goes "if it ain’t broke, don't fix it." Do we need to fix the smoke detector? I installed a Nest Protect in my home to find out.
Ring the alarm
Most smoke detectors look the same: nondescript white discs the size of a saucer. The Nest Protect upends that — it’s available in black or white, and while it is about the same size as a typical smoke detector, it’s square with rounded corners and a dimpled finish. It kind of looks like a high-end home speaker when mounted to your ceiling. I've truly never thought (or cared) about what my smoke detector looks like, but the Protect is really nice-looking.
The Protect looks like a high-end home speaker more than a smoke detector
The Protect comes with a standard mounting plate and four screws. I had to drill new holes in my ceiling to mount the Protect since the plate didn't line up with the holes from my old detector, but your mileage may vary. Once the plate is mounted, you clip the Protect to it by lining up the bracket and giving it a short twist — again, just like any other smoke detector.
Unlike the Nest Thermostat, there's no wiring involved with the Protect if you purchase the battery-powered model. (Nest does sell a 120-volt hard-wired model, but you should check your current smoke detectors to see if your house is wired for that.) Once it's mounted, you press the big button in the middle — the Protect will run through a brief testing procedure, after which it will be actively screening for smoke and carbon monoxide. Nest says the Protect will last for "years" using the six included lithium AA batteries, but of course I wasn’t able to test that claim.
You could stop there and have a nice-looking smoke detector that does exactly the same thing as your old one. But chances are you didn't pay three times as much for the Nest Protect just because it looks nice.
Beyond its dashing good looks, the Protect actually has some brains. The big round button in the middle of the device is surrounded by a multi-color light, which shines blue, green, yellow, red, or white depending on the Protect's status. Blue is for setup, green means everything's okay, yellow is a low-level alert, red is a high-alert, and white acts as a nightlight. It's a more elegant notification system than the blinking green and red lights that a standard smoke detector uses, but for the most part, it accomplishes the same purpose.
Getting alerts on your phone is far more convenient than a call from the fire department
As with the Nest Thermostat, the Protect is designed to be used online, using an iOS or Android app to connect to your Wi-Fi network and Nest account. Once connected, the Protect will send alerts to your phone whenever it detects smoke or carbon monoxide, even if you’re far away from home. You can also check on the status of the Protect's batteries and manage other Nest devices from the app. It all ties back to the convenience that Nest is selling with the Protect: it's nicer to get an alert on your phone when something is happening at home, as opposed to waiting for a call from the local fire department.
The Protect also ties in to Nest's grander vision of a connected home. If you happen to have both the Nest Thermostat and a Nest Protect, the Protect's motion sensors will make the Thermostat's automatic settings that much smarter. The more motion sensors available, the better the Nest Thermostat can identify when you are home and when you are not, making its heating and cooling management more efficient. (These motion detectors and the data they collect has sparked quite a bit of controversy in light of Google’s recent acquisition of Nest, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this review.)
Unlike most smoke detectors, which emit the same loud, obnoxious beep whether there is a little smoke or a lot of smoke, the Protect can tell when there is a real threat or if you're just burning the frozen pizza in the toaster oven. If it's the latter, the Protect forgoes the loud beeps and just issues a voice alert saying “Heads up, there is smoke in the hallway“ (the light illuminates yellow as well). The calming female voice (other localities might hear a male voice) is certainly less annoying than the loud beeps most detectors emit, which hopefully means that the Protect won’t get ripped out of the wall the next time it goes off.
From there, you can simply wave your arm a few times at the Protect and it will silence itself. Nest says that you need to do this deliberately a few times before the Protect will shut up, so as to make sure you're actively aware of the alert. When I tested the Protect using a can of fake smoke (a thing that actually exists expressly to test smoke detectors), wildly flailing my arms only got the Protect to shut up once across multiple tests in multiple locations. The only foolproof method was pushing the button or clearing out the air in the room, which works equally well on my $40 smoke detector. For one of the biggest selling points of the Protect — fewer annoyances — the motion detection to shut it off more or less falls on its face. (Safety regulations prevent Nest from letting you silence the alarm with your phone, which would be the ultimate in convenience, but probably not the safest thing.)
For more serious threats — a lot of smoke or carbon monoxide — the Protect will glow red, beep, and audibly declare “Emergency! There is smoke in [whichever room].” In red alert mode, the Protect won't be silenced by waving your arms or by pushing its big round button — it really wants you to vacate the premises and find a safer place. Once the smoke has cleared, the Protect will announce that it is safe once again and send a message to your phone. If you have more than one Protect in your home, all of them will announce the all clear, including the location where the smoke was detected.
The Protect won't call the authorities if your house is on fire, that's still on you
Oddly, the Protect doesn’t actually alert the authorities when it thinks your house is on fire, as an alarm system might. It’s still on you to place the call to 911 and have the fire department put out the blaze, should your home actually catch on fire. I imagine that’s to prevent false positives and unnecessary calls to the fire department, but it feels like a natural step for an internet-connected home safety device to take.
To address those wake up calls because your smoke detector’s battery is dying, Protect sends you a message on your phone when the batteries are close to needing replacement. The Protect will also reassure you that everything is okay, including its batteries, with a quick green pulse every night when you turn the lights out and go to bed. And when you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the Protect will glow white to light your way when it senses your motion. I didn't find that particularly useful in my home — the light isn’t bright enough to actually illuminate my path and prevent me from tripping over my toddler's toys. It's more of a "hi here I am" light for the Protect than a replacement for a proper nightlight.
At the end of the day, for all of the bells and whistles that Nest has added to the Protect, it still serves the same purpose as any other smoke detector: telling you if and when your house is possibly on fire. Compared to my current smoke detector, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide Kidde unit that I paid roughly $40 for from my local Home Depot (and also has voice alerts), the Protect doesn't actually make my home any safer than before. It's more convenient and certainly more attractive, but it's still a smoke detector, a utility that doesn't warrant much attention from most homeowners beyond periodically checking the batteries.
For the cost of one Protect, I can purchase the three generic smoke detectors my small house requires. Those with larger homes will see an even larger upfront cost. The Nest Thermostat is an easier sell, since it can actually make your home more efficient and save you money over time. But the Protect doesn't make such promises, and thanks to governments and regulatory testing groups like Underwriter’s Laboratory, can’t promise to make your home any safer than any other smoke detector either.
Still, that doesn't stop me from wanting one, and wanting the connected home of the future that it promises. If Nest and others have their way, every appliance in our homes will be connected and smarter than ever before. Samsung and LG have been showing off smart washing machines and refrigerators that tweet at every CES for years. Philips and other companies already have lighting systems you can control with your smartphone. But what Nest is doing seems to be the smartest holistic approach to the smart home, even though it just has two products on the market. The home is the next big frontier for today’s connected world — smartphones and wearable technology has already invaded our person, it only makes sense to give our living spaces similar smarts.
The Protect is not a product for today, it's a product for the future, and if everything goes the way Nest wants it to go, the future is looking pretty bright. I didn't think much about my smoke detector before, but I do now, and really, that's the whole point.