There are certain utilitarian household items that don't necessarily beg for a reinvention, and yet those are the ones that can feel most innovative when they do arrive. A Silicon Valley upstart called Nest Labs has become the poster company for the ability to do exactly that and make the mundane, well, cool. It first pulled this off with the lowly thermostat by introducing a sleek, smart, and connected version of that old clunker – the Nest Learning Thermostat – and the company has struck gold again with the Nest Protect. This reboot takes the oh-so-crucial (but oh-so-boring) combination smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detector and actually makes it interesting – and, better yet, more useful.
Right out of the box, you'll notice that the device looks like a bolder version of the boxy detector you're used to, thanks to a stylishly patterned grille and an illuminating center ring. (It comes both in white and a much sleeker black.) Key to this new device's functionality is connecting it to your home WiFi network, which is a simple affair involving the quick download of an app to your phone or tablet and then scanning a QR code on the back of the device. You then mount it as you would any other smoke detector and presto, it's ready to monitor the air for smoke and CO. We "accidentally" overcooked some microwave popcorn to see how it reacted and unlike the traditional ear-bleeding beep, a stern (but kindly) female voice issued the warning "Heads up! There's smoke in the kitchen."
This is when things got interesting: In a similar situation, we would have stood on a chair to remove the batteries of our old detector to shut the thing up, but with the Nest, you can simply wave your hand in front of the unit a few times to silence it if there's a false alarm. (In the case of a serious level of smoke, the heads-up is replaced by a much more urgent "Emergency," followed by a traditional sounding alarm.) The other function we really liked was a green light that shines briefly when you turn off the lights and head to bed – it's just a little gesture to say, Hey I'm here and I'm working. Also useful at night: Tripping a motion detector sets off a dim white glow that acts as a nightlight if you need to get up for any reason.
Because it's connected to your home network, the Protect can be configured to talk to other Protect units in your house. So, if you're downstairs, you'll get a warning from the nearest unit if an alarm is picked up elsewhere. And you'll get warnings even when you're away from home, thanks to a clean and intuitive mobile app (Android and iOS) that receives notifications on your phone, wherever you are. You can even check it throughout the day, just to see that reassuring green signal that means everything is safe and sound back on the home front. We found it strangely addictive and checked it almost as much as our Instagram feed. One can only wonder what's next on the agenda for Nest. Come to think of it, that plunger does look awfully dated. [$130; nest.com]