The Nest Learning Thermostat may have grabbed all the headlines when it launched in 2011 and kick-started the current home automation trend. Ex-Apple engineers! Entirely new design for a thermostat! It can program itself! But it wasn’t the first smart thermostat. That accolade belongs to Ecobee, a small Canadian startup that launched the Ecobee Smart in 2008, three years before Nest came along.
Now, Ecobee is betting on expanding its ecosystem by launching a smart video doorbell, enhancing its affordable smart security system, and leaning further into smart home energy management. While it’s definitely not the first in either category, it plans to be the smartest.
In the decade or so since the two companies launched overpowered thermostats that held so much promise for the smart home, they have gone down drastically different paths. Where Ecobee’s original product has matured into a fine vintage, Google (which bought Nest in 2014) has let the excellent Nest Learning Thermostat wither on the vine, ostensibly replacing it with a watered-down version with half the smarts and none of the visual appeal.
By contrast, Ecobee’s latest flagship thermostat, the Ecobee Smart Thermostat Premium, has a slew of new capabilities. In addition to being a very good smart thermostat that adapts your heating and cooling based on whether you’re home or away and even which room you are in, it is also a smart speaker (Alexa or Siri), an indoor air quality monitor, a smoke and CO alarm listener, a temperature and humidity sensor, and a radar-powered motion sensor. While Nest was the first to add radar-powered motion sensing to its thermostat, the other notable recent hardware upgrade was… a mirrored face.
The new Ecobee Smart Doorbell Camera, launching today for $159.99, has a headline-worthy trick of displaying a live feed from the camera onto your thermostat (not just the top-of-the-line model, it’s coming to the Ecobee Enhanced and Ecobee with Voice Control models next year). This is something I always thought Nest might do. Instead, they have stand-alone smart displays for viewing your doorbell feed, but those haven’t been refreshed in a while.
Ecobee also announced today that all its thermostats going back to the Ecobee 3 will act as a keypad for Ecobee’s smart home security system before the end of the year, and those with speakers can also be a siren. Nest’s security system has been discontinued, and its doorbells don’t talk to its thermostats.
The Ecobee thermostat is one step away from being a smart home hub
The latest Ecobee product rounds out what is fast becoming an impressive smart home ecosystem. Ecobee also has an innovative indoor camera, the $99 SmartCamera with Voice Control (Alexa), and its smart security system leverages Ecobee’s Smart Sensors for Doors & Windows. These two-in-one sensors monitor motion and contact, as Nest’s now-discontinued Detect sensors did. The sensors also work with the thermostat to shut off the HVAC if a door or window is left open, something Nest’s never did.
Additionally, where many smart home companies are proprietary, Ecobee is largely open, working with every major smart home platform. It has also committed to supporting the new universal smart home standard Matter on its thermostats (Google is one of the founders of Matter). “We see Matter as a great addition to our thermostats; we’re committed to open ecosystems and ecosystems that matter to our customers. We haven’t made any announcements [about timing], but you’ll see some relatively soon,” CEO Stuart Lombard told me in an interview ahead of the launch of the doorbell. However, some companies who were bullish on Matter backed away when the technology or business models became too difficult to figure out and others have promised compatibility but are yet to deliver. Where Ecobee will land remains to be seen.
Will slow and steady win the race?
While Ecobee is late to the doorbell game (Ring arrived in 2014, and Nest announced its Hello in 2017), Ecobee’s Smart Doorbell Camera has some compelling features, including combination radar and computer vision-powered alerts that were impressively accurate in my testing, a towering field of view that captured my porch from top to bottom, the ability to be a hub for its smart security system, and the option to turn a thermostat into a video intercom.
You can read my full review here, but here are some high-level specs for the new video doorbell, which is available now for $159.99 on ecobee.com, and online at Amazon, Best Buy, and Lowe’s:
- A wired video doorbell with 1080p HD video and 5MP sensor
- 8x video zoom, color, and infrared night vision
- IP65 rated, -13 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, with no built-in battery for improved weather resiliency
- A 3:4 aspect ratio, with a 175-degree vertical field of view and 187 on the diagonal (substantially more than Nest’s 145 degrees diagonal)
- Works with Apple Home (not HomeKit Secure Video) and Amazon Alexa at launch (support for Google Home promised)
- Monthly subscription of $5 (or $50 a year) per camera for cloud-stored, motion-activated recordings (2 minutes long, no 24/7 recording)
- Ecobee Smart Security Complete plan adds professional monitoring and unlimited cameras for $10 a month ($90 a year) when paired with Smart Sensors for Doors & Windows
- Free person-detection alerts; subscription required for package notifications.
The big question, however, is why a doorbell and why now? The main selling point for Ecobee’s smart thermostat has been its wireless temperature and motion sensors, the latter of which is the base for most security systems. When the company added door and window sensors with motion sensing built-in for its security system, it found a natural connection between energy saving and security: turning off the heating or cooling when a door or window is open. A natural extension to a security system is the convenience of a keypad for disarming a system and an outdoor camera, both of which Ecobee has now added.
Today, the Ecobee thermostat itself is one step away from being a smart home hub, an easy step if the company follows through on its promise to support Matter. “It has multiple radios — Bluetooth, 915 MHz radio, Wi-Fi. It’s already a device with bridging capabilities between networks,” says Lombard.
Hardware-wise, it’s also a 24/7, connected programmable touchscreen on your wall, with built-in machine learning capabilities. “The processor is a quad-core 1.5 Gigahertz CPU with 500 MB of RAM and two gigs of flash memory. It’s got a lot of headroom,” says Greg Fyke, chief product officer at Ecobee. “As does the new doorbell. We’ve designed it with a set of sensors, actuators, and machine learning capabilities so that, as we learn, we can incorporate new capabilities and features.”
Context is king in the smart home, and Ecobee plans to deliver
From a smart home perspective, what is most interesting here is context. Understanding who is at home, where they are, what is happening in the home, and other key factors can vastly improve how our smart homes respond to us and to key events.
Ecobee made its name on context. All its thermostats work with its wireless temperature and motion sensors to know if you’re home or away and where you are in your house, targeting that room for optimal comfort rather than just the room where the thermostat is located. But context is hard. In my testing of Ecobee thermostats over the years, its ability to dial back energy use based on whether I was home or away has been spotty. With the expansion of its ecosystem and as technologies like Matter come into play, bringing with it the potential to more easily connect sensors from other manufacturers, Ecobee believes it can get significantly better.
Energy management is a big part of Ecobee’s future plans
“We pack our devices with sensors. And we can then put those sensors together using a technology we call sensor fusion to get significantly better results than just the individual sensors themselves,” explains Lombard. “If you have two occupancy sensors in a home, your ability to predict whether someone is home or not is 80 percent better than with a single sensor. But add technologies like the radar sensor in our doorbell camera [also in its latest thermostat], which combines with machine vision, and we create significantly better outcomes.”
From being able to tell there’s a person approaching your door rather than just a tree branch blowing in the wind to accurately identifying how long your house has been empty and setting your thermostat back to save energy within minutes instead of hours, more sensors equal a smarter smart home, equals more context, equals better experiences.
For Lombard and Ecobee, that smarter smart home is not just about comfort and convenience but also about sustainability and resilience through energy management. In 2021, Ecobee was purchased by Generac Holdings, the largest seller of home generators in the US. Lombard says this will push them closer to their ultimate goal of achieving a symbiosis of smart home and smarter energy.
“We have big plans to produce new features and services that will help bring about what we see as the connected home of the future: the net-zero-energy home of the future with solar panels on your roof, storage in your garage, and an EV in your driveway,” says Lombard. Some of those plans include combining context from the home and with context from the electrical grid with AI and machine learning in its products.
As time-of-use rates for electricity become more common in the US and more people add solar and batteries to their homes, the company that helps consumers most effectively manage their usage to get the best value will be in a strong position. “We see being able to change the way you consume energy,” says Lombard.
Today, the company offers its Eco Plus service to tap into programs like Demand Response and Time of Use, “If you’re on time-of-use rates, we automatically use a little bit more when prices are cheap and a little bit less when prices are more expensive.” But it’s the future possibilities Lombard is excited about. With Generac, they already have an integration with standby generators and they are working on solar and storage. “The vision is the thermostat as the hub of your energy management,” says Lombard.
“Energy is a trillion-dollar market that is going to be disrupted over the next ten years. Ideally, we’re the ones to disrupt it.”
The Nest and Ecobee smart thermostats of the 2010s made their name by promising to save up to 30 percent and around 20 percent, respectively, on your energy bills (Nest later dialed that back a bit). The smart home company of the 2020s that can intelligently and automatically balance the flow of energy from grid to solar to battery to EV and back again, to help you spend zero on your energy bills, will be in a very strong position.
“That future world of cleaner, cheaper, more resilient, and reliable power is one that I think is valuable, exciting, and one we can deliver,” says Lombard. “Energy is a trillion-dollar market that is going to be disrupted over the next ten years. Ideally, we’re the ones to disrupt it.”
Ecobee is not alone in this ambition. Google Nest brought advanced energy management to its thermostats in 2021 with its Nest Renew service that can automatically shift heating and cooling to times when energy is cheaper and / or cleaner. Its smart home platform, Google Home, has more potential than Ecobee’s to deliver whole home energy management through its broader integration with third-party devices. But that type of integration requires a lot of work and setup on the homeowner’s part. Ecobee’s play is simplification.
Google Nest fell behind Ecobee on the hardware front and appears uninterested in catching up. With its integrated suite of products, the power of Generac behind it, and an innovative open approach to the smart home, Ecobee is the smart home hardware company to watch.