Most thermostat makers now have at least a single entry in the smart-home category, with some already on their second- and even third-gen products. All are vying to provide consumers with smarter, simpler controls for home heating and cooling. The new Ecobee3 Lite isn't the company's first such device, but it does mark the brand's attempt to hit a much lower price point. With a $169 MSRP, it costs $80 less than the original Ecobee3 as well as the Nest, and is $30 less than the Honeywell Lyric. But in order for the company to hit that price and still keep the flagship model relevant, some features had to go.
The thermostat is wrapped in a white plastic housing with a prominent semireflective black face. Most of the front side is taken up by a 3.5-inch touchscreen. The display is easy to read from most angles and the information displayed is clear and easy to parse. At rest, the thermostat displays the current indoor temperature and weather, but when you walk up to it, the device recognizes your approach, at which point the screen morphs to also show temperature controls and icons for accessing system settings.
The underside is populated with pins that interface with the Ecobee3 housing mounted on the wall. Depending on the finish and condition of the wall surrounding your existing thermostat, you can opt to install the included plastic base that extends 2 or so inches around the edge of the housing. This helps make the installation look tidier if your wall has holes from a previous thermostat.
Speaking of the sort, the installation here is fairly straightforward: Either download the Ecobee app on your iOS or Android device for step-by-step instructions or use the how-to guides and videos on the company's website. In broad strokes, you'll need to shut down your HVAC system, attach the included base to the wall, level it with the built-in tool, wire in your existing thermostat, and turn the system back on. Then you're ready to configure it. While that might sound intimidating, Ecobee's compatibility guides will walk you through most of the important steps and considerations before you start. If you follow along carefully you shouldn't encounter any surprises, as the process is well-documented -- suitable for anyone who already considers themselves somewhat handy. If you've ever wired a plug or light switch in your home, the installation here will be a breeze.
The most common issue older systems may present during the install is that some home thermostat wiring might be missing the "C," or common wire that provides the 24 volts the thermostat system needs to function. Thankfully, you can handle this in a couple ways: Pull a C wire up to your thermostat's location from the furnace (or hire someone to do it for you) or use Ecobee's handy Power Extender Kit (PEK), which comes in the box. The PEK's role is to take power from the C tap inside your furnace and pass it through the existing wiring so you don't need to add a new wire. The PEK installation should cover most home configurations and only take a few minutes to complete. But keep in mind that you'll need access to your furnace and its wiring to complete this step.
Once installed and powered on, the thermostat will confirm all the wires you've connected and whether or not you are using the PEK, this gives you one last opportunity to check your work before proceeding with the configuration. With that out of the way it'll ask about your heating and cooling setup, have you name the thermostat and set up WiFi password via your iOS device or with the small on-screen keyboard. Now that it's connected to your network, the thermostat will generate a registration code, which you can use to add it to your Ecobee account via either the Ecobee app or website. OK, we're done!
Using the Ecobee3 Lite is as simple as you'd hope. Just slide a finger up and down on the right side of the 320-x-480 display to adjust the temperature of whichever mode you're in: heat, cool or auto. The device will learn your patterns over time and adapt continuously. All its settings are accessible via icons on the thermostat display, in the app and on the Ecobee site. The thermostat can be paired with the Amazon Echo Dot or used with Apple HomeKit for voice control, too. IFTTT support is also here for even greater levels of customization. Additionally, the device works with Samsung SmartThings and Wink, among others.
The app and web console match the display on the device itself, meaning the experience is essentially the same across platforms. The website offers much quicker access to all the functionality because of the greater screen real estate available, but the same controls are present everywhere. In my very unscientific tests, the furnace's reaction times to changes made from the web or the phone app were indiscernible to those made locally on the device.
Missing from the Lite is a component that some of the flagship's more advanced features relied on: remote sensors. The Ecobee3 included one in the box and more could be added to the system if needed. Sadly, the savings in the sticker price for the new version means that Ecobee has completely omitted support for remote sensors. And that's a shame: These small stick-on devices were useful for a few important things. In particular, they monitored temperatures in other parts of your home, and their motion-sensing allowed the Ecobee3 to be aware of your location in the house if the "Follow Me" feature was enabled. So, instead of heating or cooling based on wherever the Ecobee3 was installed, the motion sensor in the remote device would tell the Ecobee3 that you were near it and then heat or cool to that remote temperature instead.
The loss of these sensors won't be a deal-breaker for everyone, but in cases where your thermostat is out of the way and you're not walking past it regularly, it may decide you're out and put your home into away mode while you're still there.
Nest is likely Ecobee3 Lite's chief rival, but while it costs quite a bit more for what are essentially similar features, it seems to have become a household name in this space, not unlike Kleenex vis-a-vis tissues. In addition to brand awareness, Nest has the upper hand when it comes to build quality. Whereas Ecobee's products are made from plastic, Nest's devices are fashioned out of metal and glass for the housing. This isn't to say the Ecobee3 Lite looks cheap, per se, but to the extent that these devices need to blend in with your home decor, a premium design counts for a lot. Still, the Lite's lower price, coupled with its good performance, will surely help it win over some shoppers.
Your home's layout and size will ultimately guide you to decide which device will serve you best. Larger multifloor homes may be better served with the Ecobee3, while smaller abodes could get by with the Ecobee3 Lite. Either one is simple to use and works as advertised. As with its predecessors, the job of heating and cooling is performed so handily here that we barely need to think about them being there. But unlike its predecessors, the Lite gets smarter with time as it develops a better understanding of how your schedule works. The Ecobee3 Lite offers essentially the same features and functionality as its competitors but for a lot less money, and that makes it worthy of your consideration.