Welcome to the Nest universe...

A week living under the watchful eye of Nest

Google sister company and darling of the smart home industry Nest has finally arrived in New Zealand. Jihee Junn tries out its range of safety and security products, concluding that while Nest might not be for everyone, stalking people on camera sure is a hell of a lot of fun.

Before companies like Google and Amazon catapulted the smart home dream into mainstream reality, there was Nest – a home automation company started by two former Apple employees way back in 2010. At the time, Nest started by selling Wi-Fi enabled thermostats because, according to co-founder Tony Fadell, everything else in the market sucked.

Nest’s thermostat eventually went on to become the pioneering face of smart home technology, and while it all seems rather innocuous today, Nest’s technology was a genuine disruptor when it first launched more than seven years ago. So much so that in 2014, it was enough to convince Google to purchase the company for $3.2 billion (to put this in context, Google bought YouTube in 2006 for approximately half that amount).

Welcome to the Nest universe…

Despite facing a number of unfortunate snags since then (missed sales targetsproduct recalls, Fadell’s departure etc.), Nest has managed to lift itself back up into the upper echelons of the smart home game. And while most New Zealanders have had to resort to ordering online or a trip to the US to get their hands on Nest’s products, things are finally set to change as it officially launched into the Kiwi market this month.

Rather than offer its full range of goods from the get-go, Nest has opted for an initial launch focused on its safety and security products (which means its coveted thermostat is still off the books). This includes the Nest Cam Indoor (for keeping track of what’s happening inside), the Nest Cam Outdoor (for keeping track of what’s happening outside), the Nest Cam IQ Indoor (also for keeping track of what’s happening inside, but a little bit smarter), and the Nest Protect (a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm).

Nest Cam Indoor + Nest App (Supplied)

For someone who lives with two other millennials and a 17-year old cat in a suburban neighbourhood, high-end security and smart home tech aren’t exactly at the top of our priorities. But with a box full of products to try out, I kitted up our quaint rental home in a blanket of 24/7 security. And after having tested the goods for at least a solid week, there are a few key points I think are worth mulling over:

The cameras run on a constant source of power, which is both a blessing and a curse

While the Nest Protect runs on batteries just like any other regular smoke alarm, all three cameras only operate when plugged into a power source, which has the benefit of providing uninterrupted footage all day, every day (unless you have a power outage, in which case the app will alert you that your camera’s offline).

While this worked great for the two indoor cameras (especially since it meant I didn’t have to deal with the chore of recharging the cameras on a daily basis), it became a bit of an issue with the Nest Cam Outdoor since there was no accessible power point to plug the camera in outside.

Nest Cam Outdoor (Supplied)

“It’s true that batteries, on paper, look a little easier to install,” says Lionel Guicherd-Callin, head of product marketing for Nest. “[But] If you have outdoor lighting, there’s a way [around it]… or you can drill through the wall or the cavity at the top of the roof and plug the camera in from the inside, which is no different to many other cameras on the market.”

True, but given that I’m living in a rental where drilling arbitrary holes in walls is generally frowned upon, naturally, it was a no from me.

The video quality is surprisingly impressive (the audio not so much)

Granted it’s not super-high-definition-IMAX-theatre levels of great, but for 1080p live streaming and a 130-degree wide angle field of view, the level of detail that gets captured is surprisingly impressive, particularly in the dark when the cameras operate on night vision.

When it comes to audio, however, the verdict is somewhat patchy. While the cameras are great at capturing any sounds it hears from its surroundings — such as the TV in the background or a distant conversation — Nest’s Talk and Listen feature (which allows you to speak through the camera) proved to be somewhat underwhelming. Probably due to the fact they’re tiny cameras with tiny speakers that have zero options for controlling the volume. A two-way conversation? Virtually impossible.

The notifications can get a little crazy

Since no one has time to sit around and watch a live feed for 24 hours straight, the Nest app is equipped to send you a notification whenever the cameras detect any notable movement. Which was great when it noticed the deliveryman dropping off a parcel while I was at work, although not so great when it buzzed my phone every time the cat decided it was time to roam the fort. Even with Nest Aware – a subscription upgrade to the app which provides a more advanced motion detection system – the quality of notifications seemed only marginally better.

10/10 for stalking your pets

That’s not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing. Too many notifications is still better than not enough, and if the false alarms start to get a bit too much, there’s always the option to disable notifications and scroll through the highlighted footage in your own time, seeing as the cameras never stop rolling.

Design-wise, they’re pretty slick

Nest products are an aesthete’s dream: smooth curves, matte finish, and “better light rings” than anyone else. In fact, Nest’s Best Light Rings Ever even serve a practical purpose, changing colour on the Nest Protect according to whether your house is safe and sound or on the verge of burning down in a raging fire. At night, the light ring will also briefly flash on when you walk past it, meaning it doubles as a motion-sensor nightlight, which (while innocuous) is actually pretty neat.

The Nest Protect feat. The Best Light Rings Ever (Supplied)

Our data is safe from Google (for now)

Everything captured by Nest’s products is stored in the cloud, which is pretty common these days seeing as we’re constantly on our mobiles and switching devices. But when your sister company happens to be big ol’ Google (or more accurately put, a division or ‘bet’ of the Alphabet empire), what happens to all the data that gets stored in the cloud becomes a bit of a sticking point.

As with all technology, leaks happen and hackers exist, and Nest has certainly been no exception when it discovered its thermostat was transmitting unencrypted data last year. And while the incident was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, occurrences like these hardly help in quelling consumer trepidation over having a fully connected home.

Monitoring the Nest Indoor and Nest Protect on the app.

“We’re very careful about how we manage the privacy and security of our users,” assures Guicherd-Callin. “[The data] doesn’t store to Google and… there are different business models between Google, which is a free service paid by advertising, and Nest, which sells hardware to consumers. There’s no selling, reselling or sharing of your data.”

Facial recognition still needs a bit of work

That being said, there are plenty of upsides to being a member of the Alphabet clan, with ready access to Google’s technology being one of them. It’s this that makes the Nest IQ stand out from all the others as it uses Google’s facial recognition software to detect whether it’s seeing a stranger or someone you know. And while the feature worked well for the most part (despite asking if I recognised the same person at least two or three times), there were also a few mishaps when it ended up detecting a bunch of faces it really didn’t need to, particularly whenever the TV was playing. And while I’d love to say I personally know the actors who play Will and Dustin from Stranger Things, I’m afraid the answer was a ‘no’.

Will and Dustin from Stranger Things make a surprise appearance.

Stalking is fun

If there’s one thing technology has helped facilitate better than anything else, it’s our propensity to snoop and stalk at will. All day every day, I knew the ins-and-outs and comings-and-goings of everyone (and everything) that happened to pass by Nest’s field of vision. Knowledge is power, so they say, and I had it all in the palm of my hand.

It’s also pretty fun to scroll through all the footage that gets recorded throughout the day, which makes for some pretty neat time lapses. But there’s also the odd bit of entertainment stowed away here and there (if you look closely enough). In one particularly striking moment, our cat Molly decided to reenact a scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien by coughing up the most heinous furball right on camera. And thanks to Nest Aware, which allows you to make shareable clips of these ‘treasured moments’, the incident has now been immortalised on my phone, in the cloud, and onto the minds of everyone I happen to thrust the clip upon (hit me up if that’s your kind of thing).

***

While Nest might not be to everyone’s taste, its security and safety range does have the potential to serve a variety of functions: a baby monitor for parents who want to see as well as hear, a spying mechanism for your kids when they think you’re not looking, a surveillance tool if you need to let the handyman in while you’re at work, or some extra peace of mind if you’re having a package delivered and left at your front door.

But good security doesn’t come cheap. The lowest priced product, the Nest Protect, retails at $219. The Nest Cam IQ is the most expensive, retailing for a steep $549 (not to mention the $16 a month it costs to access Nest Aware). They are, however, designed to be an investment. Not only are they meant to last years, even decades, but they should seamlessly integrate into any future smart home ecosystem you might end up with. If you have Smart Garden Hub, your Nest Protect will turn on your lawn sprinklers if it senses there’s a fire emergency. If your Nest Cam Indoor notices that the house is empty, your Wemo-controlled lights can automatically turn off to help you save energy. And if your stereo works with Nest, it can turn down the music to help get your attention if the Nest Protect senses smoke or carbon monoxide.

In 2015, a survey found that one-third of all New Zealanders had some form of home automation running in their homes – a number that’s sure to rise as more companies like Nest bring their products to our shores. Nest might not be perfect, but with better tech and faster internet, it’s only promising to get better. The smart home revolution is here to stay, and a high-end security camera might be a good place to start.


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