Ever since Nest introduced its $249 Learning Thermostat in 2011, pricey Wi-Fi-enabled temperature controllers have been trending in the smart-home industry. But not everyone wants a super fancy thermostat. So, how do you pick something that’s affordable and also works well?

Most people, I imagine, head to their local hardware store, grab something in their price range and hope for the best. Here in Kentucky, that means you’re pretty much guaranteed to buy a Honeywell thermostat. That’s because the vast majority of available models at stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot are all the same brand.

But you’ll find a lot more thermostat companies when you open up your search to Amazon and other online retailers. Even Lowe’s and Home Depot’s online stores offer a lot more than just the two dozen different Honeywell models you’ll see in person.

So I grabbed five different thermostats from Honeywell, Hunter, Emerson, White-Rodgers (an Emerson brand) and Lux. All of them are available online for $30 or less and all of them have basic programming capabilities. How do you find the right model for you, then? Here are some things you need to keep in mind.

Setting schedules

Let’s face it — basic thermostats can be really confusing. I moved earlier this year and still haven’t had the patience to figure out my outdated, confusing-to-use programmable model from the early ’90s. Part of this review process was selfishly driven, because I wanted to figure out if there are any affordable thermostats out there that aren’t a total pain.

While most of them are at least a little inconvenient to program, some are better than others.

That’s due in large part to the buttons available on classic thermostat displays. A lot of brands double up on buttons so that a single “Set” or “Program” button performs multiple functions. It isn’t all that difficult once you figure it out, but it might require reading a user manual.

Comparing thermostats

Honeywell RTHL2310B Hunter 44157 Emerson 1F78-151 White-Rodgers P200 Lux TX500U
Price MSRP: $25 Lowe’s: $24.98 MSRP: $25 Amazon: $20.59 MSRP: $43 Amazon: $26 MSRP: $50 Amazon: $23.77 MSRP: $30 Amazon/Home Depot: $30
Color finish White White White White White
Batteries Yes, two AAA Yes, two AA Yes, two AAA Yes, two AA Yes, two AA
Backlight Yes, green Yes, blue No Yes, green Yes, blue
Dimensions (WxHxD) 4.75 x 3.4 x 1 inches 8 x 6 x 1.6 inches 6.2 x 4.2 x 1.8 inches 6.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inches 5.4 x 3.4 x 1.1 inches
Display Digital Digital Digital Digital Digital
Programmable Yes, 5-2 Yes, 5-2 Yes, 5-2 Yes, 5-1-1 Yes, 5-2

That’s what makes the Lux TX500U simpler to program. It actually comes with a dedicated “Next” button so you can advance from setting to setting without having to figure out which button performs that hidden function.

Type of program

In the $30 or less price range, I found two types of programmable thermostats: 5-2 and 5-1-1. 5-2 programs give you control over two different program periods — weekdays and weekends. That means you can set one program for Monday through Friday and another program for Saturday and Sunday.

This is a fine option if you stick to a regular weekend schedule, but 5-1-1 programmable thermostats give you more options. Specifically, they let you program Saturday and Sunday separately. That way, you can have three different program periods instead of just two.

The White-Rodgers P200 is available for just $26 on Amazon, but it has a 5-1-1 program. Look for this on the label or in a list of specs online if you want more control over your HVAC system.


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Display types

While all of the models I tested have digital displays, they don’t always display the same information. The Honeywell RTHL2310B and the Hunter 44157 only show the current time and temperature, so you have to press the up arrow button to see your set temperature. That isn’t especially intuitive, so I had to pull up the user manuals to figure it out.

Other thermostats, like the Emerson 1F78-151 and the White-Rodgers P200, alternate the information displayed on the main screen. The set temperature is fixed on the right side of the screen, but the current time and current ambient temperature alternate on the left side. This is a decent workaround when the screen is too small to show every detail at once, but I found the alternating information a little annoying.

Finally, the Lux TX500U simply shows everything — the current time, the current ambient temperature and the program’s set temperature on the main screen at the same time. It even labels the two temperatures “Room” and “Set” so you know what you’re looking at.

The Lux TX500U programmable thermostat.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wrapping it up

Here’s what you need to keep in mind when you’re shopping for a basic programmable thermostat:

  • Do the display buttons make sense to you at a glance? If not, you might want to find a different model
  • Would you rather program Saturday and Sunday separately? Search for a 5-1-1 thermostat like the White-Rodgers P200
  • Do you want to be able to visualize the current and set temps with ease? Look for a comprehensive display like the Lux TX500U

In the end, it’s pretty simple to find a good programmable thermostat on a budget. And if you don’t like what you see in your local stores, widen your search to online retailers and you’re sure to find something that suits your needs.


How to find a great thermostat for just 30 bucks – CNET