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‘Smart’ Locks: A Work in Progress

Plus—High-Performance Deadbolts & Safes

Six companies now make smart locks that allow you to lock and unlock your front door by using a fob, a smartphone or a tablet computer. However, we found that smart locks are tricky to operate and don’t provide any more security than a traditional keyed deadbolt lock or a keypad deadbolt lock does.

Unikey

For years, vehicle manufacturers and aftermarket companies sold keyless entry systems, which allow you to lock or unlock an automobile by clicking a button on a fob. Now, keyless (and keypad-less) entry systems are available for your front door.

In the past year, three companies introduced motorized smart locks (starting at $159) that allow you to lock or unlock a door by using a fob or, in some cases, a mobile application that’s on a smartphone or a tablet computer. At press time, three more smart locks were expected to be available by August 2014. So far, only one of the smart locks, UniKey’s Kevo, was developed in conjunction with a major deadbolt lock manufacturer (in this case, Kwikset).

“Assisted-entry systems have become standard in the automotive industry since the mid-2000s,” says Phil Dumas, who is the founder of UniKey Technologies. “The question has been, ‘Why can’t I do this for my home?’”

You can now. Smart locks are possible because of the latest version of Bluetooth, which drains far less battery life than previous versions did. Consequently, Frank Gillett of Forrester Research, which is a technology research company, expects smart locks to be widely available in 5 years. From talking with experts and manufacturers, we expect that at least 10 competing smart-lock manufacturers will exist in 2 years.

However, at press time, smart locks were compatible only with smartphones and tablets that use the Apple iOS operating system. We also found the interface that’s on smart-lock apps to be confusing to navigate, and a complicated interface is the last thing that you want to open your front door. In other words, we believe that you should wait for smart-lock technology to mature before you run out and change your locks.

OPEN UP. Two of the six smart locks replace your front door’s entire deadbolt lock, while the other four models are installed on the interior side of your door and operate your existing lock.

All six smart locks are locked and unlocked by encrypted digital keys that are stored on a fob or an app. When you’re within 30 feet of your door, most of the smart locks automatically read the digital key that’s on your device and unlock your deadbolt lock if you have an authorized code. The Kevo ($219), however, activates and starts to look for the digital key when you touch any part of the touch-activated smart lock with your finger. Unfortunately, we found that the Kevo typically takes 3–5 seconds to unlock, which can feel like a long time if you’re holding a bunch of grocery bags.

In the event of theft or misplacing your mobile device or your fob, you still can open the door with a traditional key. If you lose your mobile device, you have to go into your smart-lock app and change your digital key, so a stranger can’t get into your home. If you lose your fob, you have to reset your lock entirely. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to reprogram the digital key that’s stored on a fob, manufacturers of the products tell us. That’s because fobs are pre-programmed.

Like with other locks, you can “share” digital keys for smart locks with other people, such as a relative, a dogwalker or a service professional, who require access to your home, but only as long as they have a compatible mobile device. The smart-lock app keeps a record of when those digital codes are used, so you can tell when someone enters and exits your home.

The Goji Smart Lock ($299), which at press time was expected to be shipped in June 2014, even includes a built-in camera that can be programmed to capture an image automatically when the lock detects motion in front of your door. The smart lock automatically connects to your Wi-Fi network and sends the image to your mobile device, so you’ll know that someone is at your door. We haven’t heard of any other lock that has a built-in camera, but we like the idea of knowing whether the person who knocks on our door is a friend or, say, a door-to-door solicitor, so we can greet or ignore the visitor.

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However, the person has to be within 6 feet of your door and in the focal range of the model’s camera to be visible in the image. In other words, you won’t be able to see a person if, for example, he/she stands to the side of the camera. Also, the camera lens that’s in the smart lock is easy to see, so people could avoid having their picture taken.

At press time, all smart locks work only with Apple smartphones and tablets that are fully compatible with Bluetooth 4.0 (the iPhone 4s and newer, and the latest iPad tablets). Smartphones that run BlackBerry 10.1, Google Android 4.3 or Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 aren’t fully compatible with Bluetooth 4.0, but they will be after software updates are released for the operating systems later in 2014, technology experts tell us. Until those updates are released, non-Apple users can unlock smart locks only by using their key fob.

Despite the convenience of today’s smart-lock systems, four locksmiths tell us that they broke into smart locks easily and that a smart lock provides no more security than does a traditional keyed deadbolt lock or a keypad deadbolt lock. A number of magazine stories and YouTube videos show that smart locks can be broken into by using a locksmith tool and vise-grip pliers. (Experts and manufacturers tell us that almost all residential deadbolt locks can be pried open in the same way.)