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Smart lock buying guide

Looking to upgrade to a connected lock? Here's what you should know before you take the plunge.

The deadbolt installed on your front door right now likely serves its purpose. It locks, it unlocks -- and it does what it can to keep out any unwanted guests. That's probably enough.

Smart locks won't really make your home any safer, but they will allow for more control so that you can lock and unlock your door remotely (whether you're home or away) and even extend "digital keys" to friends, family, caregivers and anyone else you regularly admit into your home.

Sure, you can still use a regular ol' key to open a smart-lock-equipped door (or most of them, anyhow), but don't be too quick to discount the convenience of connectivity -- especially when your hands are full of grocery bags, a stroller, or anything else that makes it tough to rummage around for your keys. And just think of all of the times you've crawled into bed at the end of the day only to start second guessing whether or not you remembered to lock the door. With a smart lock, you won't need to throw a bathrobe on and stumble out to the front door -- you can just check the lock status on your phone.

That said, not all smart locks are the same. Here's a look at today's options and what you need to know before buying.

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Should you keep or replace your existing deadbolt?

With some smart locks, you can hang on to the deadbolt that you already have.

Models like the August Smart Lock and the Kwikset Kevo Convert are designed specifically to clamp in place over top of your existing deadbolt hardware. Both work with a lot of standard deadbolt brands; in August's case, the options range from Arrow Hardware and Baldwin to Defiant, Kwikset, Schlage, and many more. (Here's August's and Kwikset's complete deadlock compatibility charts for more details.)

The August Smart Lock clamps over your existing deadbolt and can turn it automatically whenever you want it to.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

With these retrofit set ups, you get to keep the hardware already defending your door and add a layer of connectivity over top of it. In most cases, this makes for an easier installation, too.

The other option is to replace your existing deadbolt altogether. Most smart locks take this approach, including the Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt, the Kwikset Kevo, and the Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt.

Locks like these will take a little more time and effort to install, but it's definitely doable for a novice DIYer. Similar to the retrofit versions, you really just need a screwdriver and about twenty minutes. Just remember to make sure that your door is smart lock compatible before buying in. Another tip: Snap a picture of your existing setup to ensure that you can reverse the install if you run into any unexpected issues with the new smart lock.

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The Kwikset Kevo Convert connects directly with your phone using Bluetooth.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Picking a protocol: Bluetooth, Z-Wave or Wi-Fi

A smart lock needs to be able to communicate with the rest of your smart home setup and with your phone. Most will do that using one of three common communication protocols: Bluetooth, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi.

There are pros and cons to each, so you'll want to be sure to understand the differences before making a purchase.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a common smart lock protocol because it doesn't burn through battery life as quickly as Wi-Fi does. After all, it's not like you can plug your deadbolt in, and who wants to change the batteries on a door lock every month? With Bluetooth, your lock's batteries should last a year or longer.

The downside to Bluetooth is that your range is somewhat limited -- roughly 300 feet in a best case scenario, and probably a lot less than that depending on how your home is laid out. It's enough to control your lock while you're at home, but wander too far and you'll lose the connection.

Something else to keep in mind is that Bluetooth locks will connect directly with your phone or tablet. You don't need any sort of hub device to act as translator since your phone already speaks the language. That's convenient, but keep in mind that hubs tend to make it easier to connect with third-party devices and services.

There are still some neat integrations available with Bluetooth-only smart locks, though. For instance, the August lock has an opt-in auto-unlock feature that's tied to your phone's Bluetooth. Lock your front door, leave home, then return within Bluetooth range, and your front deadbolt will automatically unlock.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave smart locks are available from brands like Schlage, Poly-Control and others. Unlike Bluetooth locks, Z-Wave locks don't connect directly with your phone. Instead, they'll need to connect to a Z-Wave-compatible hub. That hub will translate the lock's Z-Wave signal into something your router can understand -- once it does, you'll be able to connect with your lock from anywhere.

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The Wink Hub can translate a Z-Wave smart lock's transmissions into something your router can understand.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The range of a Z-Wave connection is about 120 feet, so the lock will need to be at least that close to the hub -- though additional Z-Wave devices can act as a range extenders by repeating the signal from the hub and sending it out further. The Z-Wave signal can bounce up to four different times, for a maximum range of about 600 feet (walls, doors, and other obstructions will all take a toll on range).

Some Z-Wave locks like the Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt don't offer their own app -- instead the interface for the lock will pop up in the app of whatever Z-Wave hub you use.

Samsung's SmartThings and the Wink Hub are two examples of Z-Wave control hubs. SmartThings in particular works with a bunch of third-party Z-Wave locks from Kwikset and Poly-Control to Schlage and Yale. (Here are the complete lists of SmartThings- and Wink-compatible locks.)

One significant setback of Z-Wave is that it requires an additional hub to talk to Wi-Fi. The plus side is that you can connect to more third-party devices than a standard Bluetooth lock -- if you have SmartThings or another multiprotocol hub. But, if you don't plan to use a bunch of other devices with your lock, Z-Wave may not be right for you.

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The Kwikset Kevo Plus translates your lock's Bluetooth signal into a Wi-Fi signal you can access from anywhere.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is available as an optional add-on with select models, like the August lock. The $79 August Connect plugs into a power outlet and bridges the connection between the Bluetooth August lock and your home Wi-Fi network. Once you've made that connection, you can control your August lock from anywhere you're connected to the Internet.

While this doesn't require a clunky router-connected hub, the Connect is yet another hunk of hardware that you wouldn't otherwise have to deal with. Still, it could add significant value to a once Bluetooth-only product, depending on your needs.

August's Bluetooth Smart Lock next to the Connect Wi-Fi accessory.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Connecting to third-party products

Related to all of this protocol-talk is the question of interoperability with products from other manufacturers.

With the Z-Wave locks that work over "universal" hubs like SmartThings and Wink, this functionality is built-in. That means other smart gadgets that are compatible with your Z-Wave hub should have some level of integration with your smart lock. Want to set up a rule that turns on your ZigBee-powered Philips Hue LEDs whenever you unlock your Z-Wave lock? That's a reasonable option when you have a hub that speaks both ZigBee and Z-Wave.

In addition, products like the Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt, the Kwikset Premis, and the second-gen August Smart Lock work with Apple's HomeKit, Apple's own network of smart home devices that harnesses the voice control powers of Siri to control your lock. The Schlage model works with Siri today, but August is still ironing out the security aspects of using voice control to lock and unlock your door, so the team hasn't flipped the HomeKit switch yet. We expect that will happen this year.

And then there's Amazon's Alexa. After first rolling out support for the August Smart Lock, Amazon's virtual voice assistant debuted an entire set of software development tools for smart lock integrations, along with a whole host of new partners, including Yale, Kwikset, Schlage, and the Z-Wave Alliance. As a result, it's easier than ever to find a smart lock that you can control with voice commands.

Overall, this category is making a lot of headway. Nest even announced that it's working with Yale on a smart lock last year, one of the first proposed products to have Weave, Google's own effort at wireless smart home communication technology.

How do you want to interact with your lock?

The Schlage Century lock with touchpad.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

There are clear variations among smart locks in terms of installation, the wireless technology, and integration with third-party products, but they all still do roughly the same thing -- give you advanced, remote control over access to a space. But there are still some nuances in terms of how that advanced smart control happens.

Most Schlage, Kwikset, and Yale locks, including the Schlage Sense Bluetooth Deadbolt, the Schlage Camelot Touchscreen Deadbolt, the Yale Real Living Touchscreen Z-Wave Deadbolt and the forthcoming Yale Linus all have touchpads. Don't have your SmartThings app pulled up? Just enter your secret code and voila -- your door will open without a key.

That said, installing a smart lock doesn't necessarily mean giving up your key. You might not need to use one if you choose to rely on coded or app-enabled entry, but most smart locks still let you use your key, too.

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If it detects your phone, the Kwikset Kevo will let you in with a single tap on the lock.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Others, like certain Yale models and the Kwikset Obsidian, ditch the keyway altogether. With smart locks like those, you can lose your keys for good -- and there's zero risk of someone breaking in by picking your lock.

Locks like August don't come with touchpads as a standard option, but they do offer plenty of useful automatic functions -- use the auto-unlock feature and you shouldn't have to do anything -- no app, no secret pin, no effort at all. (August now offers an $80 keypad accessory if you want to add this in, though.)

It's the same with Poly-Control's Danalock (in theory, at least); it has a "knock to unlock" option that literally means you should be able to "knock" on your smartphone to unlock your front door, but it didn't work during our testing. The Kwikset Kevo was much more successful -- if it detects your smartphone or a keychain fob, it'll let you in with just a tap.

Each brand seems to take a slightly different approach, but the results are pretty much the same. Think about the one that makes the most sense to you and go from there.

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Plenty of smart locks work with Siri and Alexa -- or even both.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A final note

As we mentioned earlier, a smart lock doesn't necessarily equal a safer lock. If you're skeptical of the whole smart home thing and are unsure about a lock that's linked over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or another protocol, this sort of product definitely isn't for you.

With smart locks, it's really all about trying to add a small convenience to your daily life. They can make getting in your house easier when your arms are full and your keys are out of reach. They can also save you a trip the hardware store to have a key made when you need to grant access to someone when you're not home.

Another general concern is battery life, but this will vary significantly (for all smart locks) based on how much you lock/unlock your door, the quality of the batteries you're using, if your deadbolt occasionally sticks and requires extra effort from the built-in motor and even the weather -- colder temperatures can hurt battery life.

In the end, there's no right answer here in terms of the model you end up buying, but considering key details (see what I did there?) like whether you should keep or replace your current deadbolt, what protocol best lines up with your needs, considering what, if any, third-party devices you'd like your lock to work with and if you prefer a touchpad or a different lock design -- will help you

narrow down your options so you can quickly find the right smart lock for you

.

Interested in a broader home security set up? Be sure to check out my home security buying guide.