Viper SmartStart and SmartKey review: Viper SmartKey unlocks cars with hands-free ease, but requires alarm

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The Viper SmartStart and SmartKey system adds hands-free unlocking to cars along with the ability to remotely lock or unlock the doors from anywhere in the world. GPS features show where you parked and let you share your car's location with family and friends.

The Bad Remote unlocking or locking with the app, through the data connection, takes much longer than with a key or Viper's included RF fob. Setting the Bluetooth proximity unlocking for SmartKey requires a lot of trial and error.

The Bottom Line While Bluetooth proximity unlocking and the GPS locator features of Viper SmartStart and SmartKey come in handy, it is a fairly big installation and will apply to limited scenarios and vehicles.

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For many of us, our smartphones become the center of our lives, reminding us of appointments, keeping us up on the latest news, letting us know what friends are up to, telling us how to get to places, and even being a conduit to pay for products or services. At the same time, many new cars don't require a traditional key, instead letting us use a plastic fob transmitting an RF signal to unlock the doors and start the engine.

Viper, a company known for car alarm products, integrated the functions of that plastic fob into the phone, making one less thing to carry in your pocket.

As a new addition to Viper's alarm system, SmartKey works with the Viper Bluetooth module. With it, you can set your car to unlock the doors when you come within a set distance. Likewise, it will lock the doors when you leave the car's perimeter.

To test SmartKey, Viper installed the system in my car. Actually, Viper installed its Security system, SmartStart GPS module, and SmartStart Bluetooth module, all the components necessary to run SmartKey and some location features. There are quite few features beyond SmartKey in this system. It includes the basic whoop whoop car alarm (being a city dweller, I'm not a fan of this feature), remote engine start (not installed on my car because of its manual transmission), car locator, cloud-based remote unlocking, and geo-fencing.

An installer shop handled wiring the components throughout my car -- I just had to install the Viper app on my phone, sign up for an account, and pair my phone with the Viper Bluetooth module.

Proximity unlock

Setting up SmartKey involved a little extra trial and error, although a good shop will walk you through this procedure when you pick up your car after the installation. The Viper home screen, which shows lock and unlock buttons, includes a large Bluetooth icon in the upper left corner when the system is enabled. That button can also serve as a shortcut to turn off SmartKey, useful when you walk by your car but don't want it unlocked.

Viper SmartKey control
The proximity setting control for SmartKey is not very intuitive to use. Screenshot by Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Opening up the SmartKey screen, located in the setup menu for my specific car, I found a slider control with lock and unlock icons at each end. I could drag red and green dots along the slider to indicate at which distance I wanted SmartKey to automatically unlock or lock my car when my phone was in Bluetooth range.

This slider control is not all that intuitive to use, and it is difficult to differentiate the red and green dots when their positions overlap. Two separate sliders would be easier to use, something Viper could implement with a simple app update. I should also point out that I was testing SmartKey with beta software.

Setting the distance for SmartKey to unlock the doors involves a bit of trial-and-error, as there are no distance markings on the slider control. I spent a bit of time adjusting the slider, walking away from my car and then turning around and walking back to determine at what distance the doors unlocked. Getting that distance right will vary by your parking situation. If your driveway is next to your house, you might want to set a close proximity, otherwise your doors might unlock and lock every time you go in and out of the kitchen.

I set mine with a close proximity activation, the safest bet, so that when I walked by my car from about 6 feet away it didn't unlock, especially important for curbside parking in a city. And once the distance was properly set, I didn't have to mess with it again. The doors faithfully unlocked whenever I was within my set opening distance.

Included with the system were a couple of other ways to remotely lock and unlock my car. Viper included two key fob remotes with lock and unlock buttons. Those fobs send an RF signal to the SmartStart system, not only activating the locks but arming or disarming the car alarm.

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