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Testing: Life with a Smart Lock

By Nathan Edwards

My new smart lock makes my life more convenient every day, without a downside--except price. And it's not one of the new, fancy crowdfunded locks, either. This model has been around for years.

Friends, we live in the future. Until a couple of months ago I locked and unlocked my front door the way humans have for hundreds of years: by jabbing one cheap piece of pressed and cut metal into another. But now I can unlock my door with a $400 smartphone, with no physical contact between key and lock. I have upgraded to a smart lock.

But, you might ask, how is that smarter? And more importantly, how is that better? Haven't I just replaced a good, simple piece of technology with a more complex and inconvenient way of doing the same thing? The short answer is yes. But also no. I can also unlock my door with a keypad, or (if all else fails) with a traditional metal key. I'm not sacrificing anything.

My smart lock makes my life more convenient every day, without a downside--except price. And it's not one of the new, fancy crowdfunded locks, either. This model has been around for years.

Everybody's talking about smart homes. Home automation. The internet of things. Smart light bulbs, smart thermostats, smart...slow cookers? I'm not sure that I need a lightbulb I can control with my phone. But it looks like we're ready for connected hardware (in the construction sense) in a big way. Home automation was once limited to expensive, custom-installed, finicky systems like Crestron or Control4. Now a new wave of DIY smart-home gear is crowdfunding into existence. Some of it is gimmicky, but some of it is genuinely useful. Smart locks fit into the latter category--at least for me. Here's how it's changed my day to day life.

I'm the kind of person who can't leave the house without worrying that I forgot to lock the front door.

I'm the kind of person who can't leave the house without worrying that I forgot to lock the front door. I've also locked myself out of the house more than once, because I am an idiot. I also travel often. It's nice to be able to give a friend temporary access to the house without giving them a permanent key.

Now, when I leave the house to go running, I don't need to bring anything: no key, no phone, nothing but my shoes and ID. If I need to give a friend temporary access to my house, I can unlock the door from my phone, or give them their own temporary door code. If I lock myself out, I can unlock myself right back in.

The best part is that, although I can use my phone to unlock the door, I don't have to. Unlike many smartlocks, the one I chose uses a keypad. It also has a keyhole, so in the worst-case scenario it's no worse than an ordinary lock.

Consider the Smart Lock

Smart locks can be divided into two main groups. The first group consists of the smart locks that have been around for years. Most use keypads for entry, and they're made by the big established lock companies: Schlage, Kwikset, and Yale.

The second group is the disruptors. These are the crowdfunded, pretty locks with Bluetooth, smartphone apps, cameras, even in-app purchases. These include the Lockitron, Okidokeys, Goji, and August. These new, cool smart locks come with a minor caveat: every single one is still in the preorder stage. The companies will take your money, but you won't get your lock yet.

The Lockitron smart lock is part of a new wave of crowdfunded devices that haven't shipped yet.

If you're thinking about buying smart lock, consider how smart the rest of your home is. Do you have a home automation or security system that uses Z-Wave or Zigbee? Schlage, Yale, and Kwikset all make locks that are compatible with those systems. The new, crowdfunded locks generally don't play with others.

If you don't have an existing home automation system, or don't want to integrate your smart lock with it, you have more options.

If you don't have an existing system, or don't want to integrate your smart lock with it, you have more options.

The second thing to consider is how you'll control your smart lock. Some smart locks have keypads, some have touchscreens, some unlock via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or NFC. A few even use SMS. Please don't sext your smart lock. I chose a lock with a touchscreen keypad. It's nice to be able to unlock your door with your phone, but if that's your only option, you've just traded a tiny metal key for a larger, more vulnerable key. A keypad lets you get into your house even if you don't have your keys, or your phone is dead.

The third thing to consider is the lock mechanism itself. Modern smart locks have mechanized deadbolts, which let you lock and unlock the door remotely. Earlier models just control whether you can turn the deadbolt at all--you still have to lock and unlock the door by hand. Some new smart locks (August, Lockitron), work with your existing deadbolt, while others replace it entirely. Either way, your smart lock should have a physical keyhole as a backup.

Since smart locks don't need physical keys, any good smart lock should allow you to grant and revoke access as needed. Through a smartphone app if possible, although a web or physical interface is acceptable.

Finally, a good smart lock should be able to function even if your power and Wi-Fi are down. You know, like a regular lock.

Choosing My Smart Lock

Eliminating locks was easy. Since I live in the present, not the future (technically), I ruled out the August, Lockitron, Goji, and Okidokeys. Nobody in my house has an iPhone, so that rules out the Kwikset Kevo.

I wanted a lock that would be compatible with my FrontPoint home security system, which uses the Z-Wave home automation protocol. The Schlage Century touchscreen deadbolt seemed perfect: it has Z-Wave right in the title, it has an ANSI 1 rating on its deadbolt (the best you can get), and it even matches my existing handleset. But it turns out that the Z-Wave support is misleading: it doesn't work with FrontPoint. In fact, any remote access features require a $60 Nexia Bridge Z-Wave control unit and a $10/month subscription. I already have a Z-Wave controller--my FrontPoint system--and I already pay a monthly fee for that.

Schlage's older keypad smart locks work with non-Nexia controllers, but they lack motorized deadbolts. That's a dealbreaker.

That left two choices: Kwikset and Yale. Kwikset's SmartKey tumblers are somewhat vulnerable to forced entry. A determined burglar is going to get into your house anyway, but that vulnerability is enough to give me pause.

I ended up buying the Yale Real Living touchscreen deadbolt. It's expensive, but it has everything I want in a smart lock. It has a (smudge-resistant) keypad, so I can use it without a smartphone. I can assign and revoke user codes from the web, and use my Alarm.com Android app to lock and unlock the door. It's also CNet's favorite, and won a 2011 roundup in Maximum PC.

The Yale lock is compatible with other Z-Wave home automation controllers, like Vera, Revolv, and SmartThings, and it also works on its own, though without the remote access and easy programming that a controller provides.

One thing I like about Yale is that they're agnostic. If you don't want to change your existing locks, you can get cylinders for Schlage or Kwikset keyways and have new keys cut to fit. I wanted to change my locks anyway, so I didn't bother.

Installation

Installing my smart lock was easy. It fit perfectly into the space left by my old deadbolt, and a quick call to FrontPoint got it connected to my system. The longest part of the whole process was repainting the part of my door that my old deadbolt's bezel covered.

I love this thing. I no longer worry about locking myself out of the house or leaving the door unlocked when I leave. I can give my friends and relatives keycodes and revoke them at any time. A smart lock is a luxury, but it's one I'm glad I have. And seeing my lock has convinced several of my friends to get their own.

I can give my friends and relatives keycodes and revoke them at any time.

The Future

I'm pretty excited about the prospects of the Goji, August, and Lockitron smart locks, when they eventually ship. But I'm more excited about home automation in general. A couple of years ago I was dismissive of the whole concept, but between the Nest smart thermostat, my security system that can call the fire department, and my smart lock, I think I've started drinking the Kool-Aid.

Do you use any kind of home automation or connected-home gear? If so, what? What looks awesome to you, and what's just a gimmick? Let us know in the comments!