Original Nest Thermostat and the Smart Home Revolution

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Take a deep breath. We're about to talk about some seriously cool stuff: the 1st-Generation Nest Learning Thermostat. Fair warning, we're pulling out the big guns for this one, grandiose language and prose to talk about a smart thermostat—nay, the quintessential smart home device.

Nest simplified the model of what a thermostat should be—made it simpler, sexier, more accessible, and eco-friendly. I admit my timing's off since I missed the tenth anniversary in 2021. But I've been reading Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making by one of Nest's founders, Tony Fadell, and it seemed an appropriate time to indulge my smart home nostalgia.

Early days at Nest Labs

Nest Labs' founders, Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, started the company in 2010. They previously worked for Apple on the teams that created the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Nest's mission was to create a smart home device that was attractive and easy to use.

Nest founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers

Nest founders Matt Rogers (left) and Tony Fadell (right) with the first Nest Learning Thermostat.
Photo: Google Nest

As you might expect, the iPhone was a huge inspiration for Nest's first product: a thermostat.

Fadell's role as Nest CEO and earlier success as the team leader behind the iPod may have made him a natural fit for the face of the operation—but the Nest Learning Thermostat resulted from the hard work of every member of the Nest team.

Brave New Thermostat

I recommend checking out Steven Levy's "Brave New Thermostat: How the iPod's Creator Is Making Home Heating Sexy" on Wired if you want an excellent account from the early days of Nest. It goes into more detail than I can and highlights the many challenges team members faced when bringing the first Nest product to market.

In a 2013 interview with the MIT Technology Review, Rogers pointed out that "programmable thermostats existed before the Nest, but they were awful." Existing thermostats were "designed to be sold to a contractor and not designed for a user."

Rogers' observation hits especially hard for product reviewers like me. I can't tell you how often I've had to retrace my steps when nothing works after installing a device.

In Build, Fadell said one of the first things Nest designed was the box for the thermostat. The box's design evolved until its release and served as a physical mission statement for the team.

Nest Learning Thermostat's release

Nest Learning Thermostat first generation's box

The box for the first Nest Learning Thermostat. Photo: Google Nest

The original Nest Thermostat was a hit with reviewers on release in November of 2011—it sold out on the first day. The circular design was a nod to traditional thermostats, but the bright screen and stainless steel control ring screamed that this was a new kind of thermostat.

At $250, the Nest 1st Gen was a pretty expensive bet to add to your home when traditional thermostats were reliable and cheap. Still, Nest's smartphone controls meant you could control the temperature remotely and adjust settings in an easy-to-read format.

Beyond the smartphone app, Nest's AI was the show's real star. It used incredibly accurate temperature, humidity, motion, and light sensors to learn your preferences. You could track your energy usage over time, and Nest encouraged you to save more energy by showing a green leaf on the screen when you chose eco-friendly settings.

Installation was Nest's third secret weapon—it was an easy DIY project that you could do without hiring an electrician. One of my favorite insights from Build is an entire treatise on the screwdriver that comes in every box with the Nest Learning Thermostat. Fadell said, "it became a symbol for the entire user experience: thoughtful, elegant, long-lived, and deeply useful."

The screwdriver was certainly one of my top impressions when testing the Nest Learning Thermostat for the first time. (Full disclaimer, the Nest 3rd Gen launched before I finally tried a Nest thermostat as a tech journalist.) I was prepared with a toolbox, but it was nice not to need it.

What's the legacy of the original Nest Learning Thermostat?

The Nest Learning Thermostat isn't entirely responsible for the modern smart home, but it was hugely influential in the early days. Even today, some echoes still resonate.

Smart homes for everyone

Although Nest's $249 price tag seemed expensive at the time, it outperformed pricier thermostats from entrenched HVAC brands. Nest's focus on saving energy and money helped it connect with customers.

Energy history on the Nest app during the first generation

The Nest app shows the energy history of the first Nest Learning Thermostat. Photo: Google Nest

Nest threw out the old smart home playbook. DIY installation meant you could install devices at your pace and for a smaller budget instead of relying on trained professional integrators to install costly whole-home automation systems.

That doesn't mean professional installers didn't benefit. Nest recognized that DIY wasn't for everyone and worked to help customers find certified installers from the beginning. Customers could choose the best fit for their preferences, so everyone won.

Smart devices are better together

The first Nest Learning Thermostat was the leading edge of a wave of smart home devices. Nest always intended to expand its smart home offerings, but that takes time and resources it didn't have in 2011. Its newfound popularity presented an opportunity: up-and-coming brands knew their customers were already Nest users, so compatibility with Nest became a selling point.

Things took off with the Works with Nest program launch in June 2014. Nest leaned hard into the idea that individual Wi-Fi smart devices could communicate through the cloud. It wasn't the first company to do this, but it helped sow the seeds for Google Home Assistant, Thread, and Matter.

Now Matter's poised to change everything again by establishing a way for competing cloud platforms to work together for the consumer. It's all hands on deck for the biggest names in the smart home: Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, and many others.

Learn more: See how Google Assistant compares to Amazon Alexa

Smart devices can be beautiful

Many early Nest reviews use the same evocative language you'd find in a car, fashion, or smartphone review: sexy, sleek, gorgeous, stylish, sci-fi, and elegant. This thermostat felt fresh in a world of traditionally utilitarian home appliances.

Things can get ugly when companies prioritize utility. Form follows function and it's easier to design something with simple buttons and a white plastic case that's at least the same color as most walls. You don't need to stand out when your competition believes the same thing.

There are still plenty of ugly smart devices where sometimes function demolishes form. But Nest proved that we can care about how our smart devices look, and we don't need to settle for a plain design unless we want to.

Thoughtful homes

Nest Learning Thermostat first generation in Away Mode

Away mode on the original Nest Learning Thermostat. Photo: Google Nest

Fadell often said Nest was a "thoughtful home" instead of calling it a smart home. It's certainly a romantic notion that our homes could anticipate our needs and adjust accordingly. Nest's Auto-Away feature offered our first glimpse in 2011, and we've been chasing the dream ever since.

If we leave the house, the temperature goes up or down to avoid using energy in empty rooms. And, with smart home routines, smart locks and security cameras can leap into readiness to protect from threats.

But we're still a long way from smart homes that intelligently react to every situation without someone manually creating scenes, routines, or automations beforehand to say which settings to activate.

Nest thermostats keep evolving

Nest thermostat
Original price
Remote sensor
Heating and cooling
Nest Learning Thermostat (1st Gen)Nest Learning Thermostat
(1st Gen)
October 20111.75 in.Stainless steel
Icon No  LightNo
1-stage cooling,
2-stage heating
(Still supported by Nest)
Nest Learning Thermostat (2nd Gen)Nest Learning Thermostat
(2nd Gen)
October 20121.75 in.Stainless steel
Icon No  LightNo
2-stage cooling,
3-stage heating
(Still supported by Nest)
September 20152.08 in.Stainless steel,
polished steel,
mirror black,
black, white, copper, brass
Icon Yes  LightYes
2-stage cooling,
3-stage heating
Nest Thermostat ENest Thermostat E
August 20171.76 in.White
Icon Yes  LightYes
2-stage cooling,
2-stage heating
(Still supported by Nest)
October 20202.4 in.Fog, sand, charcoal, snow
Icon No  LightNo
2-stage cooling,
2-stage heating

Nest didn't stop after the original Nest Learning Thermostat, releasing an improved version less than a year later. The 2nd Generation Nest was slimmer, supported more HVAC equipment, and used a single stainless steel ring.

Difference between first and second generation Nest Learning Thermostat

How Nest Learning Thermostat's 1st (left) and 2nd (right) Generations differ. Photo: Google Nest

Google acquisition

Google acquired Nest Labs in January 2014 for $3.2 billion. Nest continued to operate independently until joining Google's hardware division as Google Nest in 2018. Nest's two founders eventually left for new opportunities: Fadell in 2016 and Rogers in 2018.

Nest took a break from thermostats to turn its attention to the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector and the original Nest Cam. The latter was a result of acquiring security camera company Dropcam in June 2014. Consumers wouldn't see the 3rd Gen Nest Learning Thermostat until 2015, three years after the Gen 2 launched—and it's still Google Nest's flagship thermostat in 2022.

Budget Nest thermostats

After perfecting their smart thermostat design with Gen 3, Nest drove the price down in future versions. 2017's Nest Thermostat E simplified the design using plastic instead of stainless steel and removed support for three-stage heating systems—for $80 less than the Nest 3rd Generation.

Google Nest trimmed even more fat in 2020 with the new Nest Thermostat, which replaced the Nest E and cost $40 less. The Google Nest Thermostat abandoned the rotating ring that defined Nest for nearly a decade. Instead, it uses a touch-sensitive strip on the side for temperature controls. This is Nest's first smart thermostat without learning features—you need to program it yourself.

The future of Nest thermostats

I can only speculate about the next Nest thermostat, but maybe we'll see it soon as Google Nest adds support for the Matter smart home platform to its devices. The company announced that the newest Nest Thermostat will support Matter but hasn't mentioned any other models yet.

Does the original Nest Thermostat still work today?

Nest Learning Thermostat installed in a kitchen

Photo: Google Nest

The original Nest Learning Thermostat is almost 11 years old but still works with the Nest app. That's impressive, considering it helped set the stage for the modern smart home. If it survives the transition to Matter, I have a feeling Nest Learning Thermostat will be with us for a while longer.

Review: Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making

I pitched this retrospective to my colleagues at SafeWise about two weeks before finding out about the impending release of Tony Fadell's book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. It felt like the stars aligned, so I listened to the audiobook version.

I can safely say that Build is worth reading if you're interested in the ideas, tactics, and challenges of working at and running a successful company. Fadell structures Build a lot like a handbook with advice on careers, teams, product development, and starting businesses.

While I mainly listened for insights on the Nest Learning Thermostat, it was fascinating to learn about Fadell's career and business philosophy. To him, success isn't about being a genius or incredibly lucky—it's a process of learning from our mistakes to make the next project better than the last.

I enjoyed the direct, conversational tone of Fadell's writing style, which comes out in Roger Wayne's excellent narration. It's worth checking out.

Nest and my career as a tech journalist

I struggled to find a field I liked toward the end of my journalism studies. Writing with ADHD is often challenging: I'm not fast, get distracted, and write way too much. So you can see why traditional journalism with multiple daily deadlines and calling strangers for quotes can make me anxious.

I had started reading all the news I could find to hone my craft. I remember the first time I read about the Nest Learning Thermostat—a New York Times review by David Pogue. I was captivated.

Up to that point, my reference points for smart home tech were an X-Files episode and a smattering of jokes from The Simpsons. I thought I had no interest in real smart homes, but Nest changed that.

The iPhone was another early inspiration, but I eventually got over it. I still can't get over Nest.

I wanted to buy it but didn't have the cash (and my landlord would've thrown a fit). But I found a loophole: product reviews. And if I could test one product, I'd get to try others.

I started thinking about technology journalism. It was the perfect job for me. (And still is, BTW.) Journalism without talking to people for every story. I could interview products.

After graduating, I landed a tech journalism gig, eventually leading to SafeWise. It's been almost a decade, and I've covered so many products that I don't keep track anymore. And Nest Learning Thermostat started the ball rolling more than any other product.

I hope that gives you some context for why I relish the chance to look back at Nest.

Further reading

I don't have a perfect memory, so I dredged up a lot of old articles from across the web to help me remember key details from Nest's early days. While I mentioned some of these above, I didn't have enough time to cover everything, so I've included them here if you're interested.

I also want to include a special shoutout to the Internet Archive, which was a lifesaver for finding older web pages and photos that aren't accessible anymore.

Related articles on SafeWise


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†Google, Google Nest, Google Assistant, and other related marks are trademarks of Google LLC.

John Carlsen
Written by
John Carlsen
John is a technology journalist specializing in smart home devices, security cameras, and home security systems. He has over a decade of experience researching, testing, and reviewing the latest tech—he was the Smart Home Editor for Top Ten Reviews and wrote for ASecureLife before joining SafeWise as a Staff Writer in 2020. John holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications, Journalism emphasis from Utah Valley University. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, photography, cooking, and starting countless DIY projects he has yet to complete.

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