While traditional lock-and-key systems have improved over time, the basic mechanism hasn’t really changed since the first lock was invented more than a thousand years ago: A piece of metal that is just the right shape pushes pins inside a lock into the proper position, allowing the lock mechanism to turn. As a society, it’s been tough to replace a system that has worked reasonably reliably for literally a millennium.
Updated December 31, 2021 to add our Securam EOS review. It’s not the prettiest smart lock we’ve encountered, but it has an outstanding fingerprint reader and it can also be unlocked via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, its numeric keypad, or a physical key. We’d have scored it a lot higher had we not experienced connectivity issues.
Are smart locks really better?
You can thank the hospitality industry for finally pushing locks into the digital age. Hotels learned long ago that keys are easily lost, expensive to replace, and simple to bypass, as thieves can pick locks or simply make copies of a key to allow for unfettered future access. On the flipside, hotel guests have readily accepted key cards (and in some cases, smartphone-based solutions) as the primary means of getting into their room. The electronic solution is just so much simpler. Lost hotel key card? Replacing it is no big deal.
But the biggest benefit of electronic entry systems is that they are highly configurable. Digital locks can be changed at a moment’s notice (which is why that old hotel key card in your wallet isn’t good for anything), and the property owner can generate a record of when each door was opened. In a more advanced setting, different keys can be generated for the same lock, so a homeowner can tell when each member of the family came in, or when the housekeeper arrived.
Whether you have a teenager who tends to break curfew or merely want to give temporary access to houseguests, service providers, or Airbnbers, smart locks are an incredible upgrade over the old way of doing things. Ready to make the jump to smart lock technology? Here are our top picks of the market at the moment.
Some will argue that we should have named the Level Touch our top pick in this category—it earned a higher score, after all—but Level treats iOS users better than it does Android users. Kwikset also ditches the old familiar keypad in favor of a fingerprint reader on its latest smart losck. This enabled the company to dramatically shrink the footprint the lock presents on the exterior side of your door. Kwikset also gives you the option of opening the lock with a conventional key, in the event the reader won’t recognize an authorized fingerprint (should your skin prune up after a dip in the pool, for instance).
The minimalist Level Lock – Touch Edition looks as good as it operates and is our highest-rated smart lock. The reason we’ve named it runner-up, versus best-of-the-best in this category, is that it can be remotely controlled only with an iOS device—unless you have also Ring products in your home and use Amazon Sidewalk. If you can give up the convenience of touch operation, the new Level Lock costs $80 less.
The August Smart Lock Pro has been deposed. Level Home’s Level Bolt is our new favorite retrofit smart lock, thanks in large measure to its ability to disappear. The smart components of the Bolt hide inside your door, where they replace the interior mechanical elements of your existing deadbolt. You re-attach your existing interior and exterior components, so that your door’s overall aesthetic doesn’t change in the least.
Weighing the convenience of Wi-Fi versus the visual appeal of the zero footprint that the Bluetooth-only Level Lock offers was tough, but Level Lock won out in the end. Hey, achieving runner-up status in TechHive’s coverage is no easy accomplishment, and if the convenience of Wi-Fi outweighs aesthetics in your mind, then this is the retrofit smart lock to buy.
Wyze Labs has a well-earned reputation for producing bang-for-the-buck smart home products, and its new Wyze Lock deadbolt converter is certainly no exception. Fit this device to your existing deadbolt, plug in the included Wi-Fi bridge, and you’ll convert your dumb deadbolt into a modern smart home device that can be opened with your existing key, and you can’t argue with its less-than-$100 asking price.
The Lockly Vision reduces the number of security devices you’ll need to deploy on your porch by combining a powerful smart lock with a great video doorbell. It’s not perfect—it’s big, bulky, and not very very attractive—but there’s nothing else like it on the market.
What to consider when shopping
How do you pick a smart lock? (No pun intended.) This is a young and wildly immature space, and many products on the market are still extremely rough around the edges. Even top products can balk when dealing with old or stiff deadbolts, doors that don’t shut well, or environments where non-standard fixtures are in use. The bottom line is that it’s tough to declare that any product is universally perfect for every home. That said, here are some key considerations to take into account to help you narrow down your shopping list.
How smart is it? An important caveat to consider first: Some “smart locks” don’t work with a smartphone app or any smart home networking hubs at all; they’re really just electronic locks that use a code instead of a key to open up. One step up from that, you’ll find Bluetooth-only locks. These work with a smartphone app, but can’t be monitored remotely or via a smart home system. That’s fine if you’re looking to get rid of the keys in your pocket, but less impressive if you want to make your entrance portals a true part of your home network.
Replace or retrofit? You’re forgiven if you don’t want to replace your antique doorknob on your vintage Victorian with a metallic device that looks like it would be more at home keeping people out of a strip mall bank branch. A sizeable number of smart lock products don’t require you to replace all your existing hardware. Instead, they are installed on the inside of the door only, replacing only the interior part of the deadbolt. You can continue to use a standard key from the outside or open the lock via a smartphone app.
Smart home hub integration If you have an existing hub like the Wink Hub 2, Samsung SmartThings, or an Apple TV, you’ll want to ensure your chosen smart lock is compatible from the start. Many smart locks support Bluetooth, so they work with your phone, but lack the technology needed to connect with your home network. Some Bluetooth locks, like the Yale Assure system and the August Smart Lock, offer a radio module as an add-on to connect to your home network. If you’re using a smart home hub like the Samsung SmartThings or Wink Hub, look for a lock that supports Z-Wave or ZigBee, instead.
Alternate entry means Forgot your phone at the office? How will you get in the house? Physical key? Numeric keypad? Wait for your spouse to arrive? Myriad different approaches are available.
Power backup What do you do if the batteries inside the lock die—and you’re stuck outside? Some locks allow for emergency power to be applied should this happen. Yale’s Real Living locks feature external posts to which you can connect a 9-volt battery, giving you enough juice to get the door open. Other models retain the traditional key cylinder for backup.
Geofencing Bad about manually locking the door when you leave? A geofencing system automatically locks the door when it detects your phone has left the vicinity, and can be set to automatically open up when it finds you’ve come home.
Guest access features Most smart locks let you set up temporary keys for houseguests, which you can delete when they’ve returned home. Smarter systems even let you set time restrictions around when each access code can be used.
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.