Smart locks are selling at a smart pace. According to market researchers NPD, 2019 saw a 42 percent increase in the number of smart locks sold compared with 2018. And the number of options have grown with new or improved locks from Shepard, Level, Lockly, BenjiLock, August Yale and Kwikset debuting at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
The benefits are many. These locks give you a lot of control over the comings and goings at your house. You can see who opened the lock and when. You can lock and unlock your house from anywhere through your phone. You can give out virtual keys, so others can unlock your door with their phones. Those keys can be set to expire, or to work only during specified times, like between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Thursdays for a dog walker, for instance. There are a variety of other features — some unlock your door automatically as you approach. Most also link to other smart devices so you can open your door from, say, your doorbell camera app, or use voice commands (“Siri, unlock the door!”).
But there are trade-offs involved. The more features a smart lock offers, the more complex the installation and setup tends to be.
August Smart Lock Pro
We called a number of lock manufacturers and received locks from August and Yale (both owned by Assa Alboy) Kwikset and Schlage.
I set about installing each into the front door of our 1925 bungalow to see what it was like to live with a smart lock. With repair people and caregivers coming through regularly, I wanted to see if the locks were a boon or a bane.
All of them suggest installation is easy. I should have known better — did I mention we have a 1925 bungalow?
First up was the August Smart Lock Pro ($190). What I liked about it was that I did not have to change the exterior lock hardware. It replaced the inside hardware with an Internet-connected motor that can lock and unlock the door on command from a smart phone. Plus our old keys would still work. The lock housing is smaller than older models. Now it’s a little larger than a stack of two hockey pucks.
The setup process is guided by video instructions that were easy enough to follow. The lock even comes with a piece of tape to keep the old front lock from falling out of the door while the new August lock gets screwed on to the back.
It went well until I tightened the screws on the back of the lock. The mounting plate wouldn’t snug up because the screws are too long. A phone call to August confirmed I needed shorter screws, but three hardware stores and one locksmith later, I discovered those screws are hard to come by. Finally, I shimmed it up and found out it takes a lot of force to get the lock in place. It became an all-day project.
The lock can operate with an app when my phone is within Bluetooth range — but to operate it from a greater distance I have to install a “bridge,” an electronic device that links the lock to my WiFi (except for the Schlage, the other locks I tested also require a bridge for WiFi).
That did not go smoothly. Back on the phone with tech support, I was told to move the bridge farther from the lock, but to have it face the lock. Then I needed to do a hard reset on my phone. That fixed it, but this became a multi-day installation.
When I tried to set up the features I wanted there was another hitch. I wanted the app to track me only when the app is in use. But it wouldn’t hold any of my settings until I allowed it to track me all the time. As uncomfortable as that makes me, I didn’t seem to have a choice.
It took some testing to see what features we most wanted. I liked that the August could automatically lock if you forget to lock it. But as my girlfriend, Linda, pointed out, there was a pretty good chance one of us would lock ourselves out. I also liked that the lock recognized me when I was about a quarter of a block away and unlocked automatically. But Linda didn’t like that feature: “What if there is a creepy guy on the porch?”
Her biggest objection was that when you are in the house you can’t tell from a glance at its impassive round face that it is indeed locked. You can check your phone to see but she gestured toward the door from 10 feet away and said, “I don’t want to be tied to my phone when I could just stand here and look.”
Yale Assure SL
The Yale Assure SL ($220) took care of that problem. It has a visible interior toggle, but it also replaces our outdoor lock hardware with a numerical touchpad. There is no physical key, which has some security value — burglar tools like picks and bump keys are useless. Yes, yes, I know — a computer mastermind could hack into my lock and control it. That seems like an awful lot of effort for a house where the most valuable items are probably the cats.
I installed the hardware — kudos to Yale for supplying the hard-to-find bolts in different lengths. The fit wasn’t perfect; I did have to bend the lock’s faceplate a bit, but it still cleared the doorframe and worked smoothly.
Or at least the lock itself did. Yale purchased August and it shares technology. I figured it would be easy to hook into the August bridge I had already established. Not so. I needed to deactivate the old system and start over — and there was a module in the box with the new bridge that was required for the new lock to work. I could have saved a call to tech support if I had looked. Duh.
Once past my own boneheaded errors, the app had a few errors of its own. Sometimes the lock spotted me coming down the street and opened the door when I was about a quarter of a block away and sometimes I walked right up to the door and . . . nothing. I could still unlock the door using the app or I could enter my code number. It’s possible that I had not gone far enough away for the lock to recognize that I had left — a precaution so that the door doesn’t unlock every time you get near it when you are home. But sometimes the app showed the door as unlocked when it was actually locked, and vice versa. I called tech support and was told, “This is an issue that is going on with several customers.”
I’m sure they will work it out quickly, but isn’t the ability to reliably check from anywhere if your doors are locked a main attractions of a smart lock?
Kwikset Kevo Contemporary
In my many years of testing electronics and home improvement products, I have never failed to complete an installation. But the Kwikset Kevo Contemporary ($195) made me say “uncle.” After two sweaty hours of trying to fit the lock into our door I threw in the towel.
The lock is the most complex installation, with the most parts, and with very detailed instructions. But I couldn’t get past the initial steps.
If our door were more standard I’m sure it would have gone more easily. If I were a better craftsman I probably could have sorted it out. I could have tried a different model, but I was too exasperated. Or I could have called a locksmith, which I am too cheap to do.
I do think it is the best-looking for the locksets, I like its heavyweight construction, as well as the pulsing blue indicator lights.
It also offers a unique feature called “SmartKey Security” which lets you change which physical key will unlock the door — rekeying the lock, as it’s called in the trade. Kwikset says that the lock is both pick and bump-proof as well.
Considering my track record, I didn’t look forward to installing the Schlage Encode ($230). But . . . surprise! By comparison it was easy to install. It was a more compact unit and it fitted up correctly on the first try. The QR code to connect with the app (and other lock ID numbers) was easily found under the battery cover and required no tools to access.
Schlage said it is the only lock with an accelerometer built in that can detect when your door is forced open, setting off a built-in alarm.
To my mind, one of the nicest features is it requires no separate bridge. Both Bluetooth and WiFi are built into the lock itself. Therein lay the one glitch I hit.
The Schlage app on my phone walked me through the steps to connect the lock to my network. Only it didn’t connect, no matter which method I used. A call to Schlage pointed me to an orange reset button under the battery cover. I held it down until an LED light indicated the electronics had been reset, and . . . presto! It connected. Now I can lock and unlock from my phone.
I did have some difficulty connecting it with other devices and services like Google Assistant (which may be a Google-based problem), but that doesn’t worry me for two reasons. First, I don’t find it too much work to open a second app to unlock the door and feel silly shouting voice commands at electronic devices. But more importantly, if it doesn’t connect to the system or a device I have, that is likely to change.
Which leads me to some general advice.
Don’t buy any lock that can’t be upgraded by WiFi. Software should always be improving and your lock should be capable of connecting to devices that haven’t been dreamed up yet.
If you are replacing your deadbolt, use one that is tapered. If your door swells or warps it is more likely to catch properly, and it will use less power to close securely.
Get a lock that uses standard batteries. It makes replacement easy.
Check the Builders Hardware Manufacturers Association website for a rating of how secure a deadbolt might be.
And finally, consider hiring a locksmith.
For the all the hurdles faced, even my resident doubter-in-chief, after fumbling through her purse for her keys at the back door, said, “Okay. I wish there were a keypad. Now that I have lived with it, I can see the charm of these things.”