Keys Required: Life After Smart Lock

After living for about two years with the convenience of an August smart lock, I decided it was time to go back to a more “manual” lifestyle of home security.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t exactly going to be a “permanent” arrangement. One part of my job is, of course, being a product reviewer. And I was going to be soon testing a new smart lock, the HomeKit-enabled Premis from Kwikset. So what better time to take a “break” from the easy (lazy?) smart lock life? (And, the cool and rainy winter weather was starting to cause a door misalignment which started to render the August useless, anyway.)

In January 2015, I jumped into the smart lock world with the 1st-generation August smart lock and added an August Connect device (for remote access) shortly after. (Of course, there are videos on these very products!) August had just launched months before, and while the app experience and lock operation was mostly smooth and seamless, there were some obvious issues to be worked out. Automatic unlock and re-lock only worked like 95% of the time, which is a big problem for a security device. The app was slow to connect to the lock for settings updates and manual lock operations, which made me want to stay out of the app and hope for the best for the lock’s automated functions.

One thing that I learned within just a few days of installing the August: I became accustomed to not having to pull out keys to unlock my front door quickly. Very quickly. The same for not having to worry about locking the door when leaving home. As I mentioned above, the automation normally worked most of the time. So, when it occasionally didn’t work, it was really strange to actually have to pull out my keys (or the app), or find that the door was still unlocked after I left home. These issues were largely resolved through app and firmware updates throughout that first year, and I reported strange behavior to August’s support team to document the issues I experienced. The following year, 2016, was one with few, if any, hiccups related to the August smart lock and it provided me many, many automatic unlock and lock operations without problem. The vast majority of the time I was very happy with my wonderful little smart lock.

I want to mention here that, like I’ve stated in some of the August smart lock videos, if your current deadbolt doesn’t turn easily and smoothly when you simply close and latch your door, a smart lock won’t fix that issue. And, a smart lock will most likely not be able to turn your deadbolt at all, as they are generally all powered by a few AA batteries. My particular front door has started to have misalignment problems that are not just seasonal from temperature and moisture changes, and I’ve had to get it professionally repaired before I proceed with a new smart lock. (I’ve had to exert serious force to get the deadbolt to engage or disengage, nearly breaking the key in the process.)

Before I detail about my experience of going “without” the automation that a smart lock provides, I just want to touch on some pros and cons of all smart locks. One thing that I wished I could do with the August was to link it to other home automation systems to not require looking at the app for status updates and control, but that wasn’t generally possible with the August.

Benefits of a smart lock:

  • With auto-unlock turned on, never needing to use your keys is truly awesome. (It made me want an automatic door opener!)
  • Automatic re-lock after a timer delay is also awesome - just close the door and walk away.
  • Seeing the status of your lock when worried about the auto re-lock technology and seeing that the lock was truly “locked” provided peace-of-mind.
  • Having the “cool factor” and being able to tell friends that “I have a smart lock, check it out!” was pretty great, too.

Complications of a smart lock:

  • Auto-unlock on many smart locks generally relies on a mix of your smartphone’s geolocation and Bluetooth proximity technology. It normally works pretty well, 99.9% of the time, but it’s not perfect. And, if you don’t go far enough away from home—like just visiting a neighbor’s house—most smart locks won’t auto-unlock again because you didn’t leave the “geofenced area.” Thus, you still must carry your keys with you, especially if automatic re-lock is turned on, or start up the app on your smartphone. Some smart locks have keypads, touchscreens or fingerprint readers which will still provide that “keyless” experience. I wish that the auto-unlock features could be better calibrated to not rely so much on GPS and more on Bluetooth, especially with the new version of Bluetooth starting to roll-out this year.
  • Automatic re-lock, as described above, can potentially leave you locked out of your home if you decide that you want to live the “keyless lifestyle” and, say, your smartphone can’t connect to the smart lock to unlock it via its app. And, if you’re at home and don’t need the re-lock feature to work for a short period of time, like making trips from the car to your home, an easy way to disable automatic re-lock would be very helpful…without having to jump into the settings of the app. On the August, this could be accomplished with a “gesture” of sorts, like unlocking and re-locking the lock a certain number of times in rapid succession, followed by a confirmation sound of sorts from the lock.
  • Smart locks generally run on batteries, and suggest non-rechargeable, alkaline batteries to power them. This isn’t great for the environment, so I used rechargeable Energizer NiMH batteries instead and they generally lasted a few months between recharges.
  • Sometimes, friends who came over to visit would look at the August smart lock when leaving and say, “um, what is that? How do you unlock it?” Then, of course, I’d probably demo it for them if I hadn’t already done so. Was this a valid “complication” to list here? Probably not, but I did anyway ;-)

Since I knew I was going to be testing and reviewing the Premis soon, and since my door was starting to have alignment issues and causing the deadbolt to no longer turn easily, I decided to uninstall the August smart lock in late January and revert to just a “dumb” deadbolt. Since the August was becoming somewhat useless anyways, it didn’t take much time to adapt to life after a smart lock.

With the front door becoming misaligned, all of the automation that August was previously providing basically stopped working. Sometimes the August could unlock deadbolt but it would usually not be able to lock it, I’d simply hear the motor grinding away and then a series of error beeps that wouldn’t quit unless I manually turned the lock myself. I could still see the lock status remotely, reminding me if I had actually remembered to lock it with my key. (Key? What is this key thing? I haven’t used it for years!)

When I was usually about 10-20 feet away from my front door, I’d get a tap on my wrist from my AppleWatch, letting me know that the door had been successfully unlocked. Now I get no such notification, and then am reminded that I have to put one set of grocery bags down on the ground and dig out my keys, and then fight with the deadbolt to unlock it. Once I am inside, I have to remember to lock the door…ok, so that’s not a huge problem. (At least I don’t have to worry about locking myself out due to an automatic re-lock!) Since I can’t see the status of the lock remotely, if I do actually forget to lock it when I leave home, I’d have to return home to lock it up.

After just one month of not having lock automation and ultimate convenience, my “locking” wrist is starting to hurt from now having to use it regularly. I may actually need to do some wrist weight training to make it stronger, or seek some professional rehabilitation. I now worry so much about whether I’ve locked my front door that I’ve had to seek counseling, along with a 12-step program for those who have uninstalled their smart locks.

Alright, so the previous paragraph isn’t quite the truth. But I definitely do miss having the convenience of a smart lock on my front door. Having even the basic automation of unlocking and locking a deadbolt is pretty amazing, as small of a thing as that is. Now that my door alignment issue is shortly to be fixed, I can’t wait to get a smart lock back on my front door once again.