What you should know before buying a smart lock

Thinking about adding some smarts to your front door? Here are a few things to consider first.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
5 min read

Smart locks make plenty of sense. After all, you probably lock and unlock your door just about every day -- that makes your deadbolt a prime candidate for an upgrade. Go the smart route, and you'll be able to lock it remotely from your phone when you forget, or extend app-enabled access to houseguests and repair technicians.

But upgrading your locks isn't as simple as swapping out light bulbs or plugging in a smart power outlet adapter. The installation is a little more hands-on, and the feature sets vary pretty significantly. And remember, these things aren't cheap -- most cost upwards of $200 or more.

Bottom line: there are a few things you need to know before rushing out to the hardware store. Let's start with:

1. You need to inspect your door

Different smart locks offer different things, but the one thing they all have in common is that they'll automatically turn your deadbolt. That's all well and good -- but you need to make sure your door is ready.

Go ahead and lock and unlock your door manually. Did you need to push or pull on the door in order for the bolt to turn smoothly? You won't be there to do that when your new smart lock is trying to turn the bolt on its own, which could cause it not to work properly.

Does the bolt extend all the way into the door jamb? If not, that's another potential problem, since your smart lock will always try to fully extend the bolt. If the door jamb isn't deep enough, you risk burning out the motor or even gradually damaging your door.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Both problems can be fixed with a bit of elbow grease, the right tools, and perhaps a little bit of googling. In the case of a misaligned door, the fix might be as simple as tightening a few screws in the hinge. Other issues might be better off in the hands of a professional. Either way, you should know what you're getting into before making a purchase. The last thing you want is to realize that your lock won't function properly halfway through installing it.

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Smart lock apps often come with handy pre-installation tips. It's a good idea to check them out before buying.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Other things to check are whether or not your door is thick enough for the lock you're planning on buying, and whether or not your door is cut in the sort of standardized way that'll fit a smart lock to begin with. Pro-tip: Download the app for the smart lock you're interested in before buying it -- most of them include handy pre-installation guides to help you size everything up.

2. Different locks, different features

I mentioned that different smart locks do different things, so let's talk about your options.

The first big difference to look for is whether or not your smart lock is actually a bonafide lock with its own deadbolt. Most are, but some, like the August Smart Lock, are just motorized attachments that clamp onto your existing deadbolt. That's fine -- those are often a little easier to install. But you'll want to make sure that they'll work with the deadbolt that's currently in your door. Again, a peek into the prospective smart lock's app is probably a good place to start.

You'll also want to look at how each smart lock you're considering actually lets you in. Aside from phone controls, some offer the option of automatically unlocking as you draw near. Others let you punch in a code for keyless entry. Go with the Kwikset Kevo, and you can get in just by touching the lock (provided you've paired it with your phone).

You'll also want to consider each lock's app. Does it keep a record of comings and goings? Does it include auto-lock settings? An option to turn on a built-in alarm? It varies from product to product, so you'll want to do a bit of research to see what sounds best to you. Our full reviews can help with that.

3. Consider the connections

While you're looking at features, you'd be wise to think about the other smart home gadgets you might want to use in conjunction with your smart lock. Most will integrate with a number of different third-party platforms and devices, but it varies from lock to lock.

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Different locks offer different ways of letting you in. With this Schlage lock, you can assign a specific code to anybody who needs access.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For instance, August and Schlage offer locks that work with Apple HomeKit, which lets you control the lock with Siri commands. The Kwikset Kevo syncs up with smart doorbells from Ring and Skybell, allowing you to let people in when they're at the door. Z-Wave and Zigbee locks from established companies such as Yale will sync up with control hubs including SmartThings, Wink and Piper. This will let you integrate them into a wider smart home setup.

4. It's all about access

Something else to look at is how a smart lock handles multiple users. For example, the touch-to-open Kwikset Kevo is pretty convenient when it's paired with your phone, but if you have a big family then everyone will need to download the app -- and it doesn't help that you have to spend $2 per "eKey" after the first two.

If there's more than a couple of people in the house, a coded lock such as the Yale Real Living Deadbolt might be a better choice. It'll let you assign everyone their own code and then track who, specifically, is coming and going.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

5. You're paying for convenience (not necessarily security)

This last one is a big one. As expensive as these smart locks are, none of them are patently better than the average dumb deadbolt at protecting your home from a burglary. In fact, most of these smart locks actually use those same dumb deadbolts.

That makes them a convenience upgrade, not a security upgrade. If the latter is what you're after, then you're better off investing in an alarm system, a smart home camera, a motion-sensing video doorbell or perhaps a security-minded smart lighting setup. Any of them would do more to help deter a home invasion than a shiny new smart lock would.

That's not to say that smart locks aren't worth it. Like I said at the beginning, it makes plenty of sense to upgrade the things in your home that you use every day, deadbolts included. Do your homework and you shouldn't have any trouble picking out the perfect one for your front door.