Smart lock 101: What you need to know before you buy – CNET

The deadbolt installed on your front door right now likely serves its purpose. It locks, it unlocks — and it does what it can to keep out any unwanted guests.

The deadbolt installed on your front door right now likely serves its purpose. It locks, it unlocks — and it does what it can to keep out any unwanted guests. That’s probably enough.

Smart locks won’t really make your home any safer, but they will allow for more control so that you can lock and unlock your door remotely (whether you’re home or away) and even extend “digital keys” to friends, family, caregivers and anyone else you regularly admit into your home.

Sure, you can still use a regular ol’ key to open a smart-lock-equipped door, but the connectivity can really come in handy, especially when your hands are full of grocery bags, a stroller — or anything else that makes it tough to rummage around for your keys.

That said, not all smart locks are the same. Here’s a look at today’s options and what you need to know before buying.

Should you keep or replace your existing deadbolt?

With some smart locks, you can hang on to the deadbolt that you already have.

Models like the August Smart Lock and Poly-Control’s Danalock are designed specifically to retrofit to your existing deadbolt set up. Both work with a lot of standard deadbolt brands; in August’s case, the options range from Arrow Hardware and Baldwin to Defiant, Kwikset, Schlage, and many more. (Here’s August’s and Danalock’s complete deadlock compatibility charts for more details.)

With these retrofit set ups, you get to keep all of those hardware guts controlling your door today and add a layer of connectivity over it. Not only is this simpler to install, it’s also less invasive if you’re unsure of the security of a smart lock’s internal hardware components.

Take the Kwikset Kevo — this smart lock includes its own SmartKey deadbolt. But folks claimed that this specific type of deadbolt was vulnerable to a unique security vulnerability. So we put it to the test, and learned quickly that not all deadbolts are created equal when our technical editor, Steve Conaway, disabled the Kevo in under five minutes.

That hasn’t been our experience with all smart locks that come with built-in deadbolts. It’s also worth noting that most break-ins involved a smashed window or a kicked-in door frame. Lock picking or other more involved intrusion methods are a dramatic exception. If you’re really concerned about those risks and you want to take steps to remedy them, you should get an evaluation of your home by a professional security consultant.

On the other hand, if you’ve been considering a smart lock upgrade, and you find you want to replace your deadbolt wholesale, models like the HomeKit-enabled Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt and the Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt, among others, provide that option.

Deadbolt-equipped models will take a little more time and effort to install, but it’s definitely doable for a novice DIYer. Similar to the retrofit versions, you really just need a screwdriver to do most of the heavy lifting and follow the instructions provided to remove all your existing lock components and install the new ones. Note: It can come in handy to photograph your existing set up to ensure that you can reverse the install if you run into any unexpected issues installing the new smart lock.

Picking a protocol: Bluetooth, Z-Wave or Wi-Fi

Bluetooth, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi are three wireless communication standards that make all of that smart stuff built-in to today’s connected locks possible. You’ll find similar protocols throughout the broader smart home space, too. Here’s how they relate to smart locks.

BluetoothExamples: August Smart Lock, Poly-Control’s Danalock (Bluetooth version), Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt

Bluetooth is a common smart lock protocol, as it generally relies on less battery power than the other wireless technologies, especially standard Wi-Fi. Conserving power is important, because most people won’t run a hard wire power line to their door. That means batteries, and who wants to change the batteries on a door lock every month?

Another key thing to know about Bluetooth is that it only allows for connectivity within a specified (limited) range, up to about 300 feet. That should be enough to control a lock when you’re home, but wander too far and you’ll lose the connection.

The plus side of Bluetooth is that you don’t need a separate hub or other accessory to control your lock from your phone when you’re in range — beyond a compatible smartphone.

There are still some neat integrations available with Bluetooth-only smart locks, though. For instance, the August lock has an opt-in auto-unlock feature that’s tied to your phone’s Bluetooth. Lock your front door, leave home (at least 100 yards away, give or take), cross back into that 100-yard threshold and your front door will automatically unlock.

Z-WaveExamples: Poly-Control’s Danalock (Z-Wave version), Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt, Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt

Z-Wave smart locks are available from brands like Schlage, Poly-Control and others, and they require a separate hub device to control them with your phone. Typically that hub communicates with your home Wi-Fi network, which then transmits data over the Internet, letting you control your lock from anywhere you can get online.

The range of a Z-Wave connection is about 120 feet, although if you have multiple Z-Wave devices, each additional device can act as a range extender. The Z-Wave signal can bounce up to four different times, for a maximum range around 600 feet (walls, doors, and other obstructions will all take a toll on range).

Some, Z-Wave locks like the Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt don’t offer their own app — instead the interface for the lock will pop up in the app of whatever Z-Wave hub you use.

Samsung’s SmartThings and the Wink Hub are two examples of Z-Wave control hubs. SmartThings in particular works with a bunch of third-party Z-Wave locks from Kwikset and Poly-Control to Schlage and Yale. (Here are the complete lists of SmartThings– and Wink-compatible locks.)

One significant setback of Z-Wave is that it requires an additional hub to talk to Wi-Fi. The plus side is that you can connect to more third-party devices than a standard Bluetooth lock — if you have SmartThings or another multiprotocol hub. But, if you don’t plan to use a bunch of other devices with your lock, Z-Wave may not be right for you.

Wi-FiExamples: August Smart Lock

Wi-Fi is available as an optional add-on with select models, like the August lock. The $79 August Connect plugs into a power outlet and bridges the connection between the Bluetooth August lock and your home Wi-Fi network. Once you’ve made that connection, you can control your August lock from anywhere you’re connected to the Internet.

While this doesn’t require a clunky router-connected hub, the Connect is yet another hunk of hardware that you wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with. Still, it could add significant value to a once Bluetooth-only product, depending on your needs.

Connecting to third-party products

Related to all of this protocol-talk is the question of interoperability with products from other manufacturers.

With the Z-Wave locks that work over “universal” hubs like SmartThings and Wink, this functionality is built-in. That means other smart gadgets that are compatible with your Z-Wave hub should have some level of integration with your smart lock. Want to set up a rule that turns on your ZigBee-powered Philips Hue LEDs whenever you unlock your Z-Wave lock? That’s a reasonable option when you have a lock that works with a multiprotocol hub.

In addition, products like the Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt and the second-gen August Smart Lock work with Apple’s HomeKit, Apple’s own network of smart home devices that harnesses the voice control powers of Siri to control your lock. The Schlage model works with Siri today, but August is still ironing out the security aspects of using voice control to lock and unlock your door, so the team hasn’t flipped the HomeKit switch yet. We expect that will happen this year.

And there’s always Amazon’s Alexa. This voice control speaker-turned smart-home controller doesn’t work directly with any smart locks, but you can design a workaround in IFTTT, a third-party app that lets you assign automation rules between various devices and online services. The IFTTT app has a SmartThings channel (of course, this only works if you have a SmartThings-compatible lock) and an Alexa channel that can bridge the gap between smart locks and other connected products in order to set up voice input and automation commands. Vivint, and other makers of high-end, dealer-installed smart-home setups also have broader, system-wide integrations with Alexa that include lock control.

Overall, this category is making a lot of headway. Nest even announced that it’s working with Yale on a smart lock last year, one of the first proposed products to have Weave, Google’s own effort at wireless smart home communication technology.

How do you want to interact with your lock?

There are clear variations among smart locks in terms of installation, the wireless technology, and integration with third-party products, but they all still do roughly the same thing — give you advanced, remote control over access to a space. But there are still some nuances in terms of how that advanced smart control happens.

One important note: Installing a smart lock does not necessarily mean you can no longer open your door with a traditional key. You might not need to use a key if you have faith in your phone to act as the opener. Some smart locks are also keyless by design, but most are not. For those that still have a deadbolt with a traditional keyhole, you can still open them with a physical key if your power or internet goes out, or if you lose your phone.

Schlage and Yale locks, like the Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt, the Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt, the Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt and the forthcoming Yale Linus all have touchpads. Don’t have your SmartThings app pulled up? Just enter your secret code and voila — your door will open without a key.

Locks like August don’t come with touchpads as a standard option, but they do offer plenty of useful automatic functions — use the auto-unlock feature and you shouldn’t have to do anything — no app, no secret pin, no effort at all. (August now offers an $80 keypad accessory if you want to add this in, though.) It’s the same with Poly-Control’s Danlock (in theory, at least); it has a “knock to unlock” option that literally means you should be able to “knock” on your smartphone to unlock your front door. This didn’t work during our testing, though. You can also tap on the Kwikset Kevo to unlock your door.

Each brand seems to take a slightly different approach, but the results are pretty much the same. Think about the one that makes the most sense to you and go from there.

A final note

As we mentioned earlier, a smart lock doesn’t necessarily equal a safer lock. If you’re generally skeptical of the whole smart home thing and are unsure about a lock that’s linked over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or another protocol, this sort of product definitely isn’t for you.

With smart locks, it’s really all about trying to add a small convenience to your daily life. They can make getting in your house easier when your arms are full and your keys are out of reach. They can also save you a trip the hardware store to have a key made when you need to grant access to someone when you’re not home.

Another general concern is battery life, but this will vary significantly (for all smart locks) based on how much you lock/unlock your door, the quality of the batteries you’re using, if your deadbolt occasionally sticks and requires extra effort from the built-in motor and even the weather — colder temperatures can hurt battery life.

In the end, there’s no right answer here in terms of the model you end up buying, but considering key details (see what I did there?) like whether you should keep or replace your current deadbolt, what protocol best lines up with your needs, considering what, if any, third-party devices you’d like your lock to work with and if you prefer a touchpad or a different lock design — will help you narrow down your options so you can quickly find the right smart lock for you.

Interested in a broader home security set up? Be sure to check out my home security buying guide.

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