Our homes are increasingly filled with gadgets that connect to the internet in ways that rightly have us concerned for our privacy and security. But when discussing those concerns, it's important to keep a level head and consider just what kind of privacy and security concerns actually stem from using these products, and in what instances they might actually enhance both for you in real, tangible ways. And like surveillance cameras, we think smart locks fall into such a category: they can actually make your home safer and more secure than a traditional, "dumb" lock, and they do it all while bringing a tremendous amount of convenience. For many people, the idea of a remotely-controlled door lock elicits a visceral, knee-jerk reaction; who could possibly think connecting physical access to your home to an app is a good idea? But when discussing the benefits and drawbacks to a smart door lock, we think that for most people they're a reliable, trustworthy tool that can bring peace of mind and practical security benefits a traditional lock can't match.

You can't argue with the convenience

The first thing that comes to mind when you think about a smart lock is the ability to unlock your front door with your phone. The other is the option to issue temporary pass codes for guests and other trusted people (your dog walker, plant sitter, cleaning crew, etc...). There's much more to a smart lock though.

If you leave your keys at home, you can easily get back in without having to call a locksmith or kick in the door. This happened once to my husband and me, and trust us, we were very happy to have our lock's app on our phones. When you're away, or even when you're bed at night, you can easily check the status of your lock and stop wondering if it's locked. In case of an emergency like a fire or water leak, you can always remotely open the door for someone you trust and let them get in.

Plus, many smart locks will keep a detailed log of who unlocked or locked and when. Beside the fact that it helps keep an eye on who's home and who's left, this easily-underestimated feature can come in handy if you hire hourly paid contractors or services for cleaning or maintenance. We always forget to manually log the hours for our cleaning maid, but looking at our smart lock's activity, we know for sure when she came in and when she left. It's minor, but it's a plus nonetheless.

 

Nuki and Schlage's apps provide a detailed log of each action.

Smart locks provide more security in many instances

By offering alternative ways of entering your home, a smart lock removes the need to carry your keys everywhere and take them out whenever you get home or leave. That means less risk of misplacing them or losing them. It also means less risk of any guest losing your keys if you'd have provided them with a copy. Additionally, several smart locks can notify you when someone tries to tamper with them, a feature your regular lock certainly lacks.

Most models also remind you to lock the door if you leave your house without locking. They often also offer an auto-lock option at preset times of the day or after a certain unlock time. For example, you could set the door to lock at 10:00 PM every night or 10 minutes after each unlock. Plus, some recent locks like Nuki 2.0, Wyze, and August can detect whether the door is open or shut and automatically lock when it's closed.

Nest x Yale offers several settings for auto-locking the door after each unlock.

If you have kids that often leave the house and forget to lock the door behind them, or if you tend to be the forgetful kind, all these measures help secure your door and make sure it's never left unlocked and more vulnerable.

Regular locks aren't necessarily safer

Locks get picked, it's a reality. It's much easier to pick a regular lock, or break a door frame or a window than to hack a smart lock to enter a home. If someone is dead-set on gaining access to your house or apartment, they'll find a way no matter what, and it will likely be more manual and less involved than hacking a smart gadget.

Plus, if you go for a smart lock that doesn't even have a keyhole, like the Nest x Yale, you're also removing one potential brute-force entry point for would-be thieves.

That doesn't mean smart locks can't be vulnerable or a potential risk, but you just have to weigh the pros and cons and decide what matters more for you. That's why I put together a list of things to be aware of when researching smart locks.

What to consider before buying a smart lock

For anyone who's conscious about their home's security but also interested in getting a smart lock, the first step to take is to make sure any vulnerable entry points don't exist or are limited. Then, if you're a renter, you need to check if your landlord would allow you to install a smart lock or not.

Compatibility with your door frame or existing lock

Next up is knowing what your door lock type is and whether your door frame is compatible with smart locks (if you're completely replacing the lock). In the US, the most prevalent type is often a deadbolt that can be unlocked from the inside without a key. In Europe, a double cylinder EU profile is more common, with the main difference being that you can't unlock it from the inside without a key. Other types of locks exist, so you'll need to look for brands based on what they support. In general, August, Schlage, Kwikset, and other US-based brands support deadbolts only, while Nuki is made for EU-style locks. Yale offers smart locks for both types, depending on the region you're buying in.

Schlage's Encode replaces the existing deadbolt.

Security, security, security

Now that you know which lock type you have, you can start looking into companies that offer a smart solution for it. The absolute most important factor in your decision should be security. First, strike off any no-name brand you see on Kickstarter or AliExpress (and similar sites), and any white-label product you find under ten different brands. This is your home's door, it's not an experimentation ground for a start-up. If the product category was still new, I'd say you'd have to take a risk with unknown companies, but no, smart locks have existed for years and several brands have already established a reputation and track record.

Look for previous stories of vulnerabilities about the lock brands you're interested in, and read what specifically was hacked, in which context, then check if it's been fixed. Sometimes hacks are achieved, but they're so elaborate and far-fetched that you can't help but think, "Just break the door frame, it's easier."

Also look at these brands' security and privacy policy, then check reviews on Amazon or by knowledgeable sites, and don't underestimate the app's Play Store reviews. You'd be surprised how much you can learn from the app's listing — date of last update, app design, comments by disgruntled users who are facing similar bugs versus mostly positive reviews, all of these can tell you how well the app is maintained and how much the devs care.

And finally, make sure the brand you pick offers 2-factor authentication for cloud logins, for another layer of security.

Here at Android Police, we've tried a few brands and models we wholeheartedly recommend. I've been using Nuki's smart lock since 2017 then upgraded to Nuki 2.0 without any issue. David called the Nest x Yale "the most sensible smart home gadget" he's ever used, Stephen is still a fan of the Schlage Encode, and Artem loves the convenience of his different Yale and Schlage locks. Beside these brands, you should also consider August (now an Assa-Abloy brand, i.e. a Yale sister company) and possibly Kwikset. These are the five companies I've personally heard the most good about, and seen no major security issues with.

Add-on vs. full replacement smart lock

Depending on how handy you are and what's allowed by your landlord or homeowners association, you may be limited in the design of lock you can install. August and Nuki bolt right on top of your existing lock, necessitating a shorter installation time, and likely being more renter-friendly. Whereas Schlage and Yale locks are usually a full-on replacement that requires taking off your entire lock and could be forbidden on your rental or by the HOA.

Visible from the outdoor vs. inconspicuous

Smart locks come in various shapes and forms. Some offer a visible keypad on the outside (like Nest x Yale, Schlage, Nuki with the add-on keypad), others completely rely on the app on your phone (August, Nuki without the keypad). If there's nothing on the outside, you may feel a little more at ease knowing that no one can tell that you have a smart lock. Everything looks normal.

The keypad is more convenient though, especially for easily sharing entry codes with temporary guests or other household members who don't have phones. If your choice lands on a model with a keypad, make sure you keep it clean and remove any grease or wear signs that could indicate frequently pressed numbers.

Nuki's keypad on the outside. Without it, the door looks unchanged thanks to the generic keyhole.

My additional advice is to assume that your phone's battery will be dead at least a few times a year — what would you use in that case? You either need a keypad or a keyhole + keys. Don't go for a smart lock that doesn't have either. I haven't come across any models like that, but some enterprising company might think it's a smart idea in the future. It isn't. Batteries die, phones fail, apps bug out. Have a back-up plan, always.

Keyhole on the outside vs. no keyhole

This extends the previous point. Going with a smart lock that doesn't have any keyhole on the outside (like the Nest x Yale) means you're less vulnerable to break-ins and lock-picking attempts. However, you may be taking a small risk if the electronics malfunction and the unlock code doesn't work. You also don't have any back-up option if the lock's battery is dead and you forgot to change it.

A keyhole is a known entity: you enter the key, turn it, and the door opens. It's easier to pick, but it's also a good alternative entry method should the smart lock malfunction or its battery be dead. Only you can choose whether you prefer to tip the balance slightly in favor of security (no keyhole) or convenience (keyhole).

Schlage's Encode is a good example of a US lock that offers both a keypad and a keyhole, for maximum convenience and a little bit of a security trade-off. Nuki with the keypad is an alternative for EU users.

Schlage's Encode lets you get it with a code, your keys, or your phone.

If you're going for a Nuki, which installs on top of an EU double-cylinder and requires the key to be inserted on the inside to turn it, make sure the lock you have has an emergency function. That means that even with the key inside, you can still use another regular key from the outside to get in. Otherwise, the exposed outside keyhole is pointless.

Easily opened from the inside

Regardless of the model you choose, one of the most important things to keep in mind is being able to mechanically open the door from the inside without the need for your phone. Otherwise it'd just be beyond inconvenient, and potentially unsafe during emergencies. On most smart deadbolts, a knob or thumbturn lets you unlock the door and get out. For August and Nuki, you can rotate the unit for the same effect.

Rotate the thumbturn on the Nest x Yale to unlock the door from the inside and get out.

Door state sensing

Beyond knowing whether your door is locked or unlocked, you want to know if it's shut or open (even if it's slightly ajar). Many smart locks (August, Wyze, Nuki 2.0) nowadays offer that feature, and it's something you should put on top of your list of features to look for. It provides some ease of mind when away and it's handy for setting up an auto-lock when the door is closed.

The Nuki 2.0 attaches on top of your existing lock and comes with a separate door sensor.

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Thread

We can spend hours discussing the merits of each type of connection a smart lock can use, but I'll try to be brief here.

Wi-Fi locks can consume more power than other locks, are more exposed on your network, could become useless when your internet is down, but they don't require any additional hub. I'd only buy them if they had an alternate, Wi-Fi independent entry method, like a keypad or a keyhole.

Bluetooth locks usually consume less power but can function without internet and without a Wi-Fi bridge. They're more secure given you're not making them reachable via any network hack, but the inability to remotely access them is a huge drawback. If you go for a Bluetooth lock, you should get the corresponding bridge, but again, look into the company's security measures. Nuki, for example, is a Bluetooth lock, but it uses end-to-end encryption for any communication between the lock, app, bridge, and cloud. It also lets you disable pairing, so only approved devices have access to the lock and no one else can initiate pairing unless you allow them to.

All other types of locks require a Wi-Fi hub of some kind. Nest x Yale uses Thread, which is a separate and more secure network from your Wi-Fi, but it needs the Nest Guard or Connect to act as bridge. Z-Wave locks also require a hub like SmartThings and if you go for them, make sure local control is possible (i.e. the hub can communicate with the lock without internet) or that you have an alternate entry method.

Battery life and type

For sustainability, you want a smart lock that doesn't require batteries to be changed every few weeks. Usually 3-6 months is the soft spot, and you should prefer locks with easily accessible compartments that use a battery type available as a rechargeable option. Keep spares in the house so you can easily swap them when the existing batteries die.

Schlage's Encode runs on 4 easily accessible AA batteries. 

You also want to make sure the lock notifies you remotely and in advance (ideally a week in advance) before its battery runs empty. That way you have time to swap it out when you get home if you were out of town.

Some smart locks like Nuki may also offer a night mode option, which saves battery by disabling the lock's unnecessary features when you don't need them and increasing the communication time with the cloud. It's a small trade-off and a nice bonus feature to have.

Potential add-ons

A connected doorbell camera is an excellent add-on to a smart lock. It lets you get notified when someone's at the door, see them, and unlock, all in an integrated way. Nest x Yale's lock integrates with the Nest Hello, August's locks work with its doorbell cams and Nest cams too, Schlage is compatible with Ring doorbells only, Kwikset works with both Ring and Skybell, while Nuki integrates with Ring and Doorbird. Ring is far from a company I'd recommend these days, given all the issues it's had with security, privacy, and police establishments, but I've mentioned it here for completion's sake.

Another excellent addition is a gate opener. If you live in an apartment or a gated community, you want a way to open the main point of entrance too. Nuki has the Opener for that, which along with the smart lock, gives an integrated solution from the street to your living room. Sadly, the five US brands we're focusing on here don't have a similar offering.

Nuki's Opener is an excellent add-on for apartments to trigger the intercom.

Finally, you want your smart lock to integrate with other smart home gadgets. Whether that means voice control, automations, compatibility with smart garage door openers, AirBnB-friendliness, or more, you should look into what works better for your current setup.

You've bought a smart lock, now what?

Talk to your roommates, partner, family

If you don't live alone, the first thing to do before and after getting a smart lock is to talk to everyone who shares your home. Install the control app on their phones, show them all the features and explain what they do, and demonstrate every single way they can lock, unlock, and open the door from the outside or inside.

But most importantly, you have to discuss with them which features you all feel comfortable in enabling and which ones need to be disabled. For example, I will never trust Android's geolocation — it often messes up, thinks I'm away when I'm home already, or realizes I'm home several hours after I've already arrived. For that reason, my husband and I disabled Nuki's smart unlock option, which should automatically open the door when we get home (phone geolocation + Bluetooth). I've seen many complaints aimed at Nuki and August because this feature isn't consistent, but it's neither of these companies' fault. Just turn it off, regardless of the brand you have, or be prepared for your door to not unlock when you get home or unlock when you've been there for a while. Instead, opt to manually open the app and/or get a notification asking if you want to unlock when you're nearby.

Voice control is another thing to discuss. Several smart locks nowadays are integrated with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but that's potentially another vulnerability to add and something not everyone will be comfortable with. If you do decide to allow voice control, you'll be asked to provide a security code to unlock, so just make sure you don't shout it in front of your door entrance for anyone to hear.

Left: Schlage doesn't allow unlocking with voice. Right: Nuki does but requires a code.

Other important features to discuss are any gestures, widgets, double clicks, and other shortcuts that could change the lock's state. Whether it's on the phone or the lock itself, make sure there are no accidental ways you could unlock your door.

Enable 2-factor authentication

If your lock offers 2-factor authentication for cloud logins (and you should get a lock that does have that), enable it. If both SMS and app-based 2FA is offered, go for the latter. You want to make sure only allowed users can install the app and access the lock remotely. (Thanks, Derik Taylor, for reminding us of this!)

Monitor the lock

After getting your lock, you should still keep an eye on security and update stories about it. Subscribe to the company's RSS feed or newsletter to be notified of new features and keep an eye on support forums and Reddit to stay on top of any potential vulnerability or issue.

If you're into smart home gear, you should get a router with per-device network monitoring, or an add-on like Firewalla. These let you check your smart gadgets' activities and warn you when something isn't right. Be sure to manually check your smart lock from time to time as well: You don't want a lock that transmits a lot of data or communicates with unknown servers.

Nuki's bridge only communicates with Nuki's servers when called upon.

Don't forget the batteries

No matter what you do, keep a spare of charged batteries around the house and change them whenever you get notified that they're near empty.

Smart locks aren't for everyone, and like anything we buy, there's a risk of failure associated with them (physical plus software in this case, though traditional door locks can also fail). But before going with our gut instinct that tells us not to trust them at all, we should pause and consider all the different ways they could help us, either by being more convenient or by providing additional security features. No one can make that decision for you, but this article should've hopefully provided you with a different perspective and all the information you need to make an informed choice.