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What’s the Difference Between Programmable, Smart, and Learning Thermostats?

A smart thermostat hanging on a wall.

People rarely spend their free time reading about thermostats. So, when its time to actually buy one, words like “programmable,” “smart,” and “learning” can be a little confusing. What do these words actually mean, and what kind of thermostat should you buy?

Update, 10/3/22: Checked content for accuracy, product availablity, and dead links. Removed the unavailable ecoboee4.

The Basics: Programmable, Smart, and Learning

Man uses a mobile phone with smart home app in modern living room.

Let’s start with a bit of clarification. Most thermostats sold today, including smart and learning thermostats, are programmable. As the name suggests, a programmable thermostat lets you “program” different temperature settings, usually though a weekly schedule. This way, you save electricity while you’re away from home, or automate your home’s temperature throughout the day.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to refer to any “offline” thermostat as programmable. They aren’t paired to your Wi-Fi network, and you can’t control them remotely through your phone or voice assistant.

Smart thermostats, as you might expect, can connect to your Wi-Fi network. You can control them via your phone or voice assistant, and you can program their schedule through an app. Some smart thermostats, like the ecobee SmartThermostat, offer deep controls and smart-home support for granular automation. And, even the cheapest smart thermostats, like the Honeywell Lyric T5, support geofencing—a protocol that tracks your location and automatically adjusts the temperature when you’re leaving or returning home.

So, how are smart thermostats different from learning thermostats? Well, learning thermostats are smart, and they offer the same smart-home support and granular scheduling as typical smart thermostats. However, they also contain a specialized AI that “learns” your temperature preferences and habits. Over time, a learning thermostat can take full control of your home’s temperature, which saves you from having to press any buttons or plot out any schedules.

For reference, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat is the only learning thermostat that’s sold in stores today. However, Ecobee’s thermostats are inheriting some learning-esque features, and other thermostat brands may move that direction in the future.

The Simplest Thermostat

Google Nest Learning Thermostat - Programmable Smart Thermostat for Home - 3rd Generation Nest Thermostat - Works with Alexa - Stainless Steel

The Google Nest Learning Thermostat learns your preferences and automatically adjusts your home's temperature. It has some advanced scheduling features, but its made specifically for people who don't want to constantly toy with a thermostat.

Learning Thermostats Aren’t for Everyone

A photo of the ecobee SmartThermostat in a home.

On paper, learning thermostats sound like the ultimate smart-home purchase. But they aren’t necessarily the best option for everyone. Every household is different, and some people may prefer to stick with typical smart thermostats or even “dumb” programmable options.

This is something we covered in our Best Smart Thermostats roundup. The Google Nest Learning Thermostat is perfect for anyone who hates tweaking the temperature or setting schedules, but its manual programming features aren’t nearly as robust as some basic smart thermostats. Sure, the Google Nest lets you get your hands dirty with schedules and routines, but if you want something that can be micromanaged, then the tweak-able ecobee SmartThermostat may be a better option.

We’re not saying that learning thermostats are bad. In fact, we think that they’re the simplest temperature solution for most homes. But not all homes need a “simple” temperature solution. Some people, especially those with large families or a lot of roommates, just need to stay in the driver’s seat.

That’s where smart thermostats come in. They offer manual controls and granular automation through an app or voice assistant. Expensive options, like the ecobee SmartThermostat, even have some AI features to make things a little bit easier. One example from ecobee is the “Feels Like” feature, which automatically factors humidity into your manual or scheduled temperature settings.

However, if you don’t feel the need to adjust your thermostat from a smartphone or voice assistant, then you can probably skip a smart thermostat. Regular programmable thermostats are very affordable, and a few minutes of scheduling can help you save oodles on your electric bill.

Best for Full Control

ecobee SmartThermostat with Voice Control , Black

The ecobee SmartThermostat with Voice Control provides more adjustability than the competition. Even with its fancy AI features, ecobee never pushes you out of the driver's seat.

The Best Learning, Smart, and Programmable Thermostats

The Google Nest Learning Thermostat, the ecobee SmartThermostat, and the Honeywell Lyric T4
Google, ecobee, and Honeywell

Again, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat is the only learning thermostat on the market. If your goal is to never touch a thermostat again, then this is the path that you’re fated to travel. The Google Nest Learning Thermostat starts out as a blank slate, and slowly observes and learns your preferences over time. It can be a bit fussy at first, but in the end it’ll save you time and money.

If you want to save a little cash on a Nest Learning Thermostat, then you could always buy the less expensive Google Nest Thermostat E. Its HVAC compatibility is a bit limited, but it has all the same features as its big brother. The only real difference (aside from aesthetics) is that the Nest Thermostat E comes with a preloaded schedule. You’ll have to fight (or delete) the schedule as the thermostat learns your habits. Also, keep in mind that Google Nest products work with Google Assistant, Alexa, and IFTTT, but they don’t work with Homekit or SmartThings.

In our Best Smart Thermostats roundup, we found that the ecobee SmartThermostat is the most robust non-learning smart thermostat on the market today. Everything on the ecobee is adjustable, and it works beautifully with even the most convoluted Alexa, Google Assistant, Homekit, IFTTT, and SmartThings routines. Plus, it has a built-in Alexa smart speaker, it works with Alexa drop-in, and it’s sold with a remote temperature sensor that makes temperature adjustments and “away” modes more accurate.

If you aren’t a fan of the ecobee SmartThermostat’s price tag, then you could always buy an older ecobee3. It’s missing some features, like Alexa drop-in and Spotify Connect, but it’s still one of the most tweak-able smart thermostats on the market. If those options are still too expensive, then you could always buy the Honeywell Lyric T5, which plays nice with Google Assistant, Alexa, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT, and SmartThings, but lacks some of the in-depth features of the ecobee.

And, if you’re just looking for a programmable thermostat, then we suggest buying the Honeywell T4. It’s affordable, has a modern look, and its large display makes programming a breeze.

Best Offline Programmable Thermostat

Honeywell Home RCHT8610WF T5 Smart Thermostat Energy Star Wi-Fi Programmable Touchscreen Alexa Ready - C-Wire Required

The Honeywell T4 Pro is affordable and has an easy-to-read display. Its large screen makes it easier to program than similarly priced options.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »