The Lock Has Evolved: Open Doors With Your Phone

You’ve probably opened your car without sticking a key in the door for at least a decade. So why do we still use old-fashioned keys on the locks at home? Electronic locks, around for years, are a paradox. They seem so obvious in cars, hotel rooms and offices, yet alien at home.

Now a crop of smart home deadbolts propose a different approach: Turning your smartphone into the key.

This is still a horrifying idea to many people, including most of my family. There are so many what-ifs. What if your phone dies and you’re forced to sleep in the backyard? What if it goes haywire and lets in murderers?

Two smart locks I’ve tried answer enough of the scary what-ifs to make me consider retiring my trusty brass keys. My favorite is the $250 August, an automated device in stores this week that attaches easily to the inside face of most existing deadbolts. My runner-up is the $220 Kwikset Kevo, which replaces an entire lock with more sophisticated technology, but is a little harder to make work.

Front DoorWhen your deadbolts take commands from a phone, some magical things become possible. With August and Kevo, you can order the door to open automatically when your hands are full of groceries, or you just want to show off. You can travel light, because a smartphone can now replace both your keychain and wallet (thanks to services like Apple Pay). You can send virtual keys to tenants, house guests and plumbers that expire before anyone wears out their welcome.

Smart locks can be safer than traditional ones because keys can’t be lost, shared or copied, and there’s a record of the comings and goings of keyholders. The biggest threat is old-fashioned lock-picking.

But an electronic lock requires a bigger leap of faith than an Internet-connected thermostat, security camera or light bulb. Can you trust it to open and close every time? I tested three smart locks in my home—August, Kevo and the $180 Lockitron.

It took a week to get comfortable enough to leave home without a physical backup key for August. Kevo was a bit harder. One time, it locked me out, so I had to climb in through a window. (The cause was a software error, which has been patched.)

I never totally trusted Lockitron, the only one of the lot with a Wi-Fi connection. It didn’t fit one of my doors, and its maker has yet to deliver on several promised features.

Tech Announcement 2August and Kevo get the balance between reliability and functionality mostly right. Both leave an old-fashioned keyhole on the outside, so residents without smartphones (or, with ones whose batteries have died) can still come and go using keys. And since your phone connects directly to the locks with Bluetooth, they have fewer points of failure. Others, such as the $200 touch-screen smart lock made by Yale, connect your phone over the Internet to a potentially flaky smarthome hub.

August is the best-designed home technology I’ve used since the Nest thermostat. Free iPhone and Android apps allow you to dole out virtual keys to permanent residents or guests and track their activity. The hardware, which hooks onto many existing deadbolts by replacing the inside-facing latch, took me under 20 minutes to install.

Inside the chunky aluminum cylinder August attaches to your door, there’s a Bluetooth radio, batteries and a motor strong enough to turn the lock. To lock up manually inside the house, turn the August cylinder just like a latch. (Lockitron attaches a motor to your existing deadbolt latch, which is why I had a problem with the fit.)

When an authorized phone is within Bluetooth range, August can lock or unlock the door. If you use the app, it takes a few seconds to load. You can also set it to auto-unlock without touching your phone: An optional setting lets the app know when you’re approaching your door from the outside. (It isn’t quite as smart about automatically locking when you leave, but can be set to lock on a timer.)

Kevo, whose inventor appeared on the reality show “Shark Tank,” replaces your entire lock, eliminating compatibility problems. It takes a Kwikset deadbolt and adds a motor, batteries, Bluetooth radio and a touch sensor. This extra hardware lets it do a helpful trick: To lock or unlock, just touch the deadbolt with your finger when an authorized phone (or included key fob) is nearby. You never have to take your phone out of your pocket, let alone futz with an app.

There’s also an iPhone-only Kevo app that helps you manage virtual keys and track who comes and goes. You can hand out as many 24-hour temporary keys as you’d like, but Kevo charges you $2 each for more than two permanent digital keys. Any guest would have to download the app, too.

Still, installing Kevo isn’t for the timid. I spent more than an hour working through 24 steps and was frustrated placing two screws in particularly hard-to-reach spots.

Tech Announcement 4And then there’s calibration. Kevo, which has Bluetooth antennas on both sides of the door, is designed to unlock only when it senses an authorized person outside the house. (This security feature prevents the door from unlocking when you’re peering out from inside.) But Kevo failed me when its sensors thought I was inside. The company says that happened to less than 1% of owners—usually on doors with glass. A software patch fixed the problem for me.

Other what-ifs to consider:

• What if your phone’s battery dies? The physical key will still work, so keep one handy. Kevo includes a wireless key fob. August plans to soon work with other secure Bluetooth devices and unlock in their proximity.

• What if your lock’s battery dies? Both August and Kevo come with four AA batteries that should last a year. Their apps will warn you before they die. If they do fail, there’s always that spare physical key.

• What if you lose your phone? You can borrow another phone or computer to log in to your smart lock account and stop your lost phone from working as a key.

• What if the lock’s motor fails? The motor in Kevo is built to last for at least 50,000 uses; August says its can surpass 100,000. An old-fashioned key can override a dead motor.

August did fail on me when it couldn’t quite seal my old door. I’m glad I didn’t just walk away—the motor’s loud whirring told me there was a problem. The company’s fix? Replacement deadbolt locks tapered to work with doors that don’t quite shut all the way.

• What if a hacker breaks in? That would be hard. Both August and Kevo only connect to the Internet via a phone that can unlock it, so some hacker in a basement couldn’t just open your door. (Systems like Lockitron—which connect directly to the Internet—attempt to minimize risk with encryption.)

Someone could steal your account password and attempt to get a virtual key. August alerts you whenever your credentials are used on a new device, and texts or emails you a code that’s required to unlock a door for the first time on a new device.

I’ve gotten over the what-ifs that kept me up at night. August and Kevo are a serious option for homeowners, particularly those who host a lot of guests, roommates or Airbnb tenants.

But this is just a first step. My ideal deadbolt would come with a camera and be able to alert my phone when anybody enters with a key (metal as well as virtual). It should be smart enough to lock up at night if I forget. To be a compelling enough front-door upgrade, smart locks still need to make a quantum leap forward in peace of mind.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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