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Talking to my thermostat feels like the future, but the present isn’t ready

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Ecobee’s latest smart thermostat has Amazon’s Alexa built right in

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For the past few months, I’ve been talking to the thermostat mounted on my wall. And, oddly enough, for the past few months, the thermostat on my wall has been talking back to me. I’ve been testing the $249.99 Ecobee4, a smart thermostat that has both a microphone and speaker built into it. Oh, and Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

As a smart thermostat, the Ecobee4 is excellent. It’s basically the same product as the Ecobee3, and has all of the stuff you want in a smart thermostat: intelligent scheduling, smartphone app control, and presence detection, so it can automatically tell when you’re home or not and adjust your HVAC accordingly. It also uses very handy remote sensors to measure temperature and presence in other areas of your home. The Ecobee can then balance the climate in your home based on where you are or what the average temperature between the main unit and the remote sensors dictates. It’s great for managing hot or cold spots in your home, or if your thermostat is installed in an area that has different temperatures than the main living areas.

But while all of that is great, it’s not what makes the Ecobee4 interesting. The Ecobee’s ambitions are all around that voice control, which you can use to adjust the thermostat’s level, or set home and away modes without having to touch the device or pull out your smartphone. Since it also has the same Alexa that’s in Amazon’s own Echo products, you can also ask your thermostat to set timers, perform unit conversions, turn off smart lights, or even play music. At its core, the Ecobee4 is basically an Ecobee3 with an Echo Dot built directly into it.

There’s a distinct advantage to having Alexa broken out of the Echo line and installed in every plugged-in appliance you own. You don’t have to put an Echo or Dot in each room to give your house full voice control if there’s already one in the thermostat mounted in the hallway, the alarm clock on your nightstand, the TV in your living room, or the toaster oven in your kitchen. These are devices you already have in your home, so adding an Alexa access point to them makes a ton of sense and requires one less thing in your house.

The Ecobee4 is the first of these appliances to get built-in Alexa support, and the experience I had shows it. The microphones are good, but not as good as a proper Echo at catching my voice commands from across the room (or while there’s other noises going on). The speaker is fine for voice feedback, but it’s terrible for music playback. And because the Ecobee is not an Amazon product, it doesn’t have access to all of the features and services Amazon’s devices do — most notably the new messaging service. Other limitations include not being able to change the wake word on the Ecobee to something other than “Alexa” and not being able to group the Ecobee with other Echo devices for multi-room audio.

It also doesn’t support the Echo Spatial Perception (ESP) feature that prevents multiple devices from responding at the same time when you utter a voice command, and this is what I missed the most. In my home, the thermostat is installed on an upstairs landing that faces the open living room below. It’s a good place for it to be if I want to yell a command from downstairs and have the thing hear me. But I also have an Echo in the kitchen adjoining the living room, and the Ecobee would frequently pick up commands that were intended for the Echo. That resulted in two devices attempting to respond at the same time with answers or both trying to play music at the same time. In a word, it was chaos. Sometimes the results were humorous, but most of the time it was annoying, and I ended up disabling the always-listening feature on the Ecobee, effectively neutering the Alexa inside of it. (Turning off the always-listening feature also turns on a bright red light at the top of the Ecobee, which is ugly and annoying.)

Turn off the always listening feature and the Ecobee4 will display a bright red light at all hours of the day.
A remote sensor detects presence and temperature away from the thermostat.

I think that Amazon and Ecobee could improve this experience greatly in two ways: one is by implementing the ESP feature, and the other, perhaps easier one, would be to prevent the Ecobee from playing music entirely. Music sounds terrible through it anyway (I mean, of course it does, it’s a thermostat), so it wouldn’t be much of a loss.

If you don’t have multiple Echo devices in your home, you might find the Ecobee’s Alexa features more useful. Aside from those missing features already mentioned, its capabilities are basically endless, and it can tap into the thousands of third-party skills already available for Amazon’s platform. Ecobee itself has two skills that have to be installed in order to get the most out of the voice commands, which also work with other Alexa-enabled devices. (One allows you to adjust the thermostat’s temperature setting, the other controls the home and away functions and enables more varied commands. Why there are two, I have no idea.) Saying “Alexa, tell Ecobee I’m hot” to the Echo Dot in my basement and having the A/C kick on instantly when I’m two floors away from my thermostat definitely feels like one those “I’m living in the future” things. It also supports Apple’s HomeKit, so you can use Siri to control it from an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch.

The Ecobee4 has a touchscreen on the front of it if you don’t want to use voice control. It’s fine for adjusting some basic settings and viewing the current weather report, but making quick adjustments to the set temperature requires an awkward tap, hold, and slide motion that’s neither elegant or intuitive. Rotating the dial on a Nest is a much easier and more obvious process. The mobile app for iOS and Android mimics the interface on the thermostat itself, but it lets you dive deeper into the history and reports on your system’s energy usage. Most of the time, I just relied on the schedule I set up in the app and automatic presence detection and didn’t bother adjusting the thermostat manually.

As a smart thermostat, I’m really impressed with the Ecobee4. The remote sensor system lets me manage the climate in my home much easier than a single device could, without the clumsiness of setting up and managing more than one HVAC zone. (I have the remote sensor in the playroom in my basement, which is often six to 10 degrees cooler than where the Ecobee is installed, two floors above.) The reports I get in the app on how much the system is being used and its efficiency are great. And of course, being able to adjust the thermostat from my phone when I’m not even home is a convenience I wouldn’t want to live without.

But the Alexa side of things still needs work if it’s going to be as impressive as the thermostat’s functions are. Given that, it might be better to buy a last-generation Ecobee3 at a lower price than the new Ecobee4, as it has all of the same thermostat features without any of the Alexa headaches.

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