A device to protect protect life, liberty, and sanity
Smoke detectors are a forgotten necessity in our homes. I only think about the detectors in my house about once a year—when the batteries are depleted enough to trigger a piercing chirp that startles me in the middle of the night. Beeepp! Beeepp! Beeepp!
You know the drill. Step one: Stumble out of bed and wonder if there’s a real fire. Step two: Knowing there isn’t one, lumber from room to room as the beep taunts and dares you to figure out which one it’s actually coming from. Step three: Locate the room, flip the plastic door open and rip out the detector’s battery (with, let’s be honest, a degree of spite). Step four: Find a replacement battery and put it in. Step five: Collapse in bed.
That well-worn homeowner tradition may soon come to an end. You may not have noticed but household appliances are slowly gaining the ability to connect to the Internet. With that capability, it was only a matter of time before a company developed a “smart” smoke and carbon monoxide detector.
That company, of course, is Nest Labs. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company made headlines when it released its slick Learning Thermostat in 2011, and gained enough buzz to convince Google to acquire it earlier this year. In October, Nest released its second product, the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector, but a software glitch forced the company to pull the $129 device from store shelves.
The Protect returned to stores in late June with updated software and a $99 price tag. Is it still worth the dough? Maybe.
The Protect gains its powers by connecting to your home’s Wi-Fi network. (It can also work in tandem with a Nest thermostat, should you have one installed in your home. More on this in a minute.) The Protect is capable of sending alerts to your smartphone when it detects an issue. With a combination of lights, audible alarms, and voice commands, the primary goal of the Protect is to do as its name implies—protect you by alerting you of present danger.
Like its thermostat sibling, the Protect is designed with clean lines. With a rounded square shape and a floral hole pattern, it doesn’t really look like a conventional smoke detector—more of a wireless speaker, really. In the center of the unit’s face is a large circular button, surrounded by a light ring. The button can be used to test the device or hush an alarm. The light ring plays an important role in the alert process, using several colors to alert those in sight of impending or immediate danger. The ring also lights up green each night, as you turn off nearby lights, to let you know the unit is functioning properly.
It takes a smartphone or tablet running Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android, a Wi-Fi network, the Nest companion app, and a few minutes of time to set up the Protect. A combination of voice commands and illustrations—some from the app, some from the device itself—guide you through the process. At one point, the app prompts you to scan a QR code on the back of the unit using your smartphone’s camera to identify each device. Of the two I tested, only one worked with my iPhone, but thankfully the app allows for manual entry of the unit’s unique key.
After that, the app instructs you to connect your smartphone to a small wireless network emitted from the Protect, after which the app will request the credentials for your home Wi-Fi network to connect the Protect to the Internet. You must repeat this process for each Protect you install.
Only after each Protect is wired up digitally can you actually install the unit in your wall or ceiling. The duration and difficulty of this process depends on the type of electrical connection in your home. I live in an older home that lacks a hard-wired network for smoke alarms, so I made sure to purchase the battery powered version of the Protect. (The hard-wired version costs the same.) It took a few minutes to mount the bracket and unit.
When it first begins detecting smoke, the Protect is supposed to give early warning to danger with a combination of a pulsing yellow light and a verbal command. On the two occasions I managed to accidentally set off the alarm—I’m a really good cook, I swear—the Protect skipped the warning alert and went headlong into emergency mode. The two units in my house began talking—”Emergency, there’s smoke in the kitchen!”—their light rings lit up bright red, a familiar fire alarm sound echoed throughout the house, and my iPhone received alerts from the Nest app. I was able to quickly hush the alarm by pressing the center button, but was surprised when the Protect alerted me 10 minutes later, once the smoke had cleared from the room.
In a situation where there might be a fire, it’s smart to be overly cautious. But one of the selling points Nest uses for the Protect is its ability to provide early warnings. In my testing, I never received one.
Aside from its primary purpose, the Protect also moonlights as a nightlight. Using its built-in motion detectors, the light ring will turn white when it senses nearby movement in a dark room. In conjunction with a Nest thermostat, those sensors help optimize heating or cooling when you’re not home—though it’s not foolproof, and a thermostat positioned in a low-traffic area like a hallway might enter auto-away mode even when you’re home. At any rate, motion detection is a very subtle feature that helps round out the overall Protect experience.
It’s also the sole reason my wife and I elected to purchase a Protect. We recently moved into a fairly large house, and the added detector improves the performance of our existing Nest thermostat, which is mounted in—you guessed it—the hallway. The ability of the mobile app to alert me to trouble wherever I am was icing on the cake.
Even at $99, the price for Protect is steep, and one that is prohibitive for most people interested in its primary function. (A run-of-the-mill combo device will run you about $25 at Lowe’s.) If you’re a Nest Learning Thermostat owner, the equation is a little less lop-sided. Still, after using the Protect for three months, I appreciate the additional features it incorporates. The night light, green OK light, voice commands, and mobile alerts are all capabilities you never think you’d want in a smoke detector, but they do a great job helping a home feel safer. Not a bad feature of a piece of tech you hope to never have to use.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.