Wednesday, November 20, 2013

State of the Art: Review: Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

Smoke alarms are old-world tech in an era when most of the devices that wind up in our pockets and homes tend to be sleek, efficient and deliberately nonintrusive. Most states in the United States require smoke detectors in homes, however, so we have to deal with them. Many of us either ignore them, or, as in my case, dismantle them. But the Nest Protect, a combination smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector, presents a third option. You might actually want to use it.

The Protect is the second major product release from Nest. In 2011, the company put out a smart thermostat that collects data about its environment and adjusts heating and cooling levels depending on whether anyone is home to save energy, and, ultimately, money. That device thrilled consumers and critics alike, setting sky-high standards for the company’s next offering.

For the most part, the Protect impresses, especially when it comes to its packaging. Tony Fadell, the chief of the company, led the team that created Apple’s original iPod and iPhone, and it shows in the simple beauty of the Protect. Its surface is covered in an eye-pleasing beehive mesh design, and at its center is a round LED-lit ring that softly glows blue, green, yellow or red, depending on the situation in your home. It’s roughly the size of a CD and weighs not much more than that, and the device comes in an eggshell white or a soft matte black.

The Protect (which went on sale Monday both online and in certain retail stores, and costs $129) is certainly a vast improvement over any smoke alarm I’ve ever lived with. It speaks calmly, and does not shriek. It delivers low-battery warnings via voice, rather than annoying chirps. It gently pulses with light, rather than blinking furiously and ambiguously. When it detects rising levels of smoke or carbon monoxide, it gently begins to chime and flash marigold yellow, while a soothing female voice gently intones, “heads up.”

In the event of an emergency, or high levels of smoke or carbon monoxide, that light switches to red and the voice urgently speaks up and lets you know there’s an emergency. Once the smoke subsides, the Protect chimes again, flashes green and tells you the smoke is clearing. Its superiority as a smoke detector lies in its civility and carefully programmed demeanor.

Setting up the Protect was a snap. After unboxing it, you just yank a tab to activate it, and pair it with the application for your Apple or Android phone or tablet to start getting real-time updates about smoke and carbon monoxide levels. Anyone who has ever set up wireless speakers or similar products will be familiar with the process. Nest declined to say how long the battery will last, but when it is almost out of juice, the device tells you it’s running low.

If there’s an emergency, the app will ping you with a notification that the alarm has gone off and whether the issue has been resolved. The app also displays a handy help guide during an emergency and even a shortcut for calling 911. The only thing the app can’t do is shut off the alarm. You have to do that manually, which is a regulatory requirement, according to Nest.

I did run into some problems with the Protect, like getting it to connect to my home network, but it was hard to determine which snags were the result of buggy hardware and software or merely one-off stumbles. It was difficult, too, to know how sensitive the Nest Protect was compared with my last smoke alarm. Small spritzes of the fake smoke supplied by Nest rarely set the thing off but huge blasts of it sent the device into a frantic emergency mode that could be remedied only by rushing the thing outside into cool, smokeless air.

But I was pleased to note that small, harmless amounts of particulate matter in the air — perhaps the equivalent of making popcorn — weren’t enough to trigger a false alarm.

Jenna Wortham, a technology reporter, is a guest columnist for State of the Art.

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