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Kwikset Kevo review: This brainy smart lock just isn't brawny enough

Kwikset's new smart lock looks like a home run for the smart home -- but how strong is that deadbolt?

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Ry Crist
Ryan_Crist2.jpg

Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is 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, and home networking.

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11 min read

This review was adjusted on October 31st in light of confirmed physical vulnerabilities in the Kevo's deadbolt. We're working on a revised video as well, so please stay tuned.

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The Good

The <b>Kwikset Kevo</b> packs a lot of subtle smarts into a little device. The indoor/outdoor sensor worked flawlessly, never once letting us in when it shouldn't have.

The Bad

The SmartKey deadbolt at the heart of the Kevo is too easy to break for a lock that costs $219. Also, phones that aren't equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 won't be able to interact with the Kevo.

The Bottom Line

If you've got a compatible smartphone, you'll enjoy this smart lock, but if you're looking for high security, look elsewhere.

Keys. Who needs 'em?

Not the Kwikset Kevo, that's for sure. With the Kevo (licensed out from UniKey), you'll be able to unlock your deadbolt just by tapping on it, thanks to the built-in Bluetooth 4.0 capable of detecting the smartphone in your pocket. Don't have a smartphone? Don't worry about it -- the Kevo comes with a handy keychain fob that'll let you tap your way inside, too. You can even use the free Kevo app to send friends and loved ones "eKeys" to let them in when you're not around. And for purists, rest assured that the Kevo still functions like a standard mechanical lock, with keys and everything.

Kwikset Kevo Bluetooth dead bolt reviewed (pictures)

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This idea of smartening up our deadbolts is something we've heard a lot about for the past year or so, with upcoming products like the Lockitron, August, and Goji striking it big through crowdfunding and good old-fashioned word of mouth. But talk is cheap, and smart locks are expensive -- $219, in the Kevo's case, about seven times the cost of a standard Kwikset deadbolt. Is kissing our keys goodbye really worth such a price?

I certainly wasn't convinced that it was -- but then, I got my hands on a Kevo to try out for myself. After installing, calibrating, and testing the thing out, I was thoroughly impressed by how strongly the Kevo performed. That said, a smart lock is still a lock, and as brainy a deadbolt as the Kevo is, I wish that it were a bit brawnier, too. Despite being bump-proof and essentially pick-proof, our tests confirmed that the Kwikset SmartKey deadbolt that makes up the guts of the Kevo is vulnerable to certain types of simple forced entry.

As such, if you're looking for the strongest, safest lock on the market, I think you'll want to look elsewhere. But, if you want a lock that's loaded with convenient functionality and an undeniable cool factor, then look no further.

The Kevo looks like a regular old deadbolt...until you tap on it. Colin West McDonald/CNET

It's the little things
Tapping your way into your home has some clear appeal, especially if you're carrying an armful of groceries. Surprisingly, some of the Kevo's best features are its least noticeable.

First, Kwikset seems to have eschewed the kinds of design touches emblematic of an expensive device, and considering the fact that this is likely going to sit on the outside of your home, I'd say that's wise. I'm not sure that I'd feel comfortable bolting a conspicuously fancy appliance to my front door, as you will be if you go with a lock like the Goji. Unlike those kinds of sleek, modern, space-age-y smart locks, the Kevo looks like any other boring deadbolt. By not advertising itself as a pricey piece of hardware, it isn't likely to draw unwanted attention to your front door.

You can only really tell this lock is special when you touch it. When that happens, a ring of blue LED lights will spin around the lock, indicating that it's thinking about whether or not to grant you entry. If it detects your phone or your fob's presence, the lights will turn green and the lock will open (if you're locking it, the lights will turn yellow.) If your phone or fob is too far away for the Kevo to key in on its precise signal, the lights will turn magenta, telling you to stand a bit closer and try again.

The magenta lights mark another subtle, yet strong design feature. They'll only appear if the Kevo is certain that you're outside. If it thinks there's even a chance that you're inside your home, it'll only show the spinning blue LEDs, then nothing. Why is this important? Let's say you're inside the house and someone unsavory is at your door. If not for the inside/outside distinction, they could simply tap the lock, see the magenta lights, and know that you're nearby inside. It's a little touch that highlights Kwikset's commitment to your privacy and security.

Tap the calibration button on the interior of the lock to activate indoor/outdoor detection. If you have any trouble, just scan the QR code for assistance. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Calibration is key
The Kevo determines whether you're inside or outside your home thanks to a clever calibration process that teaches the lock how to make the distinction. It's perhaps the Kevo's most crucial feature -- without it, leaving your phone sitting on a table near the front door would mean that anybody with skin could waltz up to your stoop and unlock your deadbolt. It's the number-one thing that I wanted to test out, and thankfully, it's a feature that works flawlessly. I tested it again and again, from every conceivable angle, and not once did the Kevo unlock when I didn't want it to. Kwikset errs on the side of safety here -- you'll basically have to stand right on your doormat in order for it to reliably recognize you 100 percent of the time. Take a step to the left or a step to the right, and that number will drop to 80 or 90 percent. Leave your phone inside, even right up next to the door, and it drops to 0 percent.

According to Kwikset's instructions, calibrating the indoor/outdoor detection seems like it should be painless enough -- just tap the calibrate button on the indoor side of the lock, hold your device against the lock for a few seconds, then step outside. The lock will glow green, and, with the phone or fob that you're calibrating in your pocket, you'll simply tap the lock three times. That's it.

Except that really isn't it. After those three taps, the lock will either flash green for a successful calibration, or red for an unsuccessful one. As simple a process as it sounds, it took me about a dozen attempts to get it right. I tried doing it with my phone in my pocket, as instructed. Red flash. I tried holding the phone up in the air. Red flash. I tried stepping back as far away from the lock as I could. Red flash. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, I tried it with my phone tucked into my shirt pocket, putting it at roughly an even height with the lock, and this got me the green flash.

I spoke with some of the folks at Kwikset about this, and they acknowledged that calibrating can take multiple attempts to get right. They're aware that it probably isn't as easy as it should be, and to their credit, they've done about as good a job as they can of managing the issue. The Kevo's manual is very clear about the importance of calibrating, and it walks you through the process with illustrated step-by-step instructions, warning you outright that you might need to try repositioning the phone a few times in order to see green. If, after multiple attempts, you can't get it to work, there's also a number you can call for help. Additionally, all of these step-by-step instructions are located conveniently within the Kevo app.

With Kevo's app, you can keep track of who's coming and going, and when. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

About that app...
Once you're up and running, you can use the Kevo app to send eKeys to friends, family, and anyone else who may require entry into your home. These eKeys are really just an e-mail message instructing them on how to download the Kevo app and authorize their phones to open your lock. You'll be able to see when people "accept" the eKeys you send out, and you'll also be able to see when everyone is coming and going on a handy timeline. If needed, you'll also be able to delete or temporarily disable those eKeys, too.

However, unlike with some other smart locks, you won't be able to send out eKeys that only work at a certain time, or that automatically expire on a certain date. You'll need to manage all of that manually, which is a little bit disappointing. Also a bummer: each eKey you send out after the first one will cost $1.99. This doesn't bother me that much -- after all, that's about what you'd pay to get a normal key copied. Still, copying a normal key requires parts and labor. Charging for eKeys is just something that Kwikset does because, well, it can.

Another minor quibble is that your iPhone will vibrate and make the "new mail" sound whenever you activate the lock. I like feeling that buzz in my pocket and knowing that the process is working, but the app doesn't currently offer a way to change the sound, or mute it completely. Look for that to change in the near future as the app gets updated.

All that said, my favorite part of the app is that you can sort of forget about it. Unless you're managing multiple eKeys, you can safely store it out of sight in a folder once you're all set up, because you won't ever need to run it in order to open your lock. Your phone can be asleep in your pocket, and as long as you have Bluetooth turned on, it'll work with the Kevo.

The app looks stylish, but it isn't quite as intuitive as I'd like. I found myself getting a bit lost looking for specific functions, unable to remember which icon to press in order to find my way. It's the kind of thing that I'm sure you'd get used to with repeated use, but as I just wrote, I'm not sure that I'd be using the app all that regularly. To be fair, this also means that the app's ease of use really isn't that big of a deal, at least not to someone like me.

Android users will be stuck using the fob for touch entry, or a plain old key -- at least for now. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Because the Kevo lock isn't connected to the Internet, you also can't use the app to control it remotely like you can with other smart locks. If my friends called me while I was at work and needed to get into my place for some reason, I wouldn't be able to unlock the door for them through the app. I could send them an eKey, but if they don't have a smartphone with Bluetooth 4.0, they're out of luck.

That brings us to the true elephant in the room. Since the Kevo relies on Bluetooth 4.0, it currently only works with compatible iOS devices (iPhone 4S and newer, iPad 3 and newer, or the fifth-generation iPod Touch). Android 4.3, BlackBerry 10.1, and many other smartphone operating systems don't use compatible Bluetooth hardware, so they can't use the Kevo. That's an awful lot of people left locked out.

Kwikset's people say that they hope Bluetooth 4.0 will expand to these devices soon, and as soon as it does, they promise to be ready shortly thereafter. In the meantime, they suggest that slighted Android users simply use the key fob for touch-to-open entry, then migrate to their phones as soon as the hardware becomes available. We'll see how that plays, but I suspect it'll end up sending a fair deal of business toward the Lockitron, Goji, and August -- all three of which are supposed to support both iOS and Android devices.

The Kevo is available in three different finishes. Kwikset

Modern smarts, same old parts
The heart of the Kevo is Kwikset's SmartKey deadbolt, which has been around for a few years now as an upgrade over the standard Kwikset deadbolt. The SmartKey uses a unique horizontal slider in place of the classic pin and tumbler setup, and this means that lock can't be bumped. The SmartKey deadbolt is also notoriously difficult to pick, boasting top certification from Underwriters Laboratories, the third party organization that tests how resistant locks are to being picked.

However, the SmartKey's horizontal slider creates some new vulnerabilities, too. Unlike standard locks, the SmartKey deadbolt is particularly susceptible to certain forced entry methods involving common tools like screwdrivers, tension wrenches, and blank keys. In today's age, there's no more "security by obscurity." These techniques are out there on the internet for anyone to research, and unlike lockpicking, they don't take much skill or practice to execute correctly. A thief will need to know that you've got a SmartKey deadbolt before arriving at your door, which might be a bit far-fetched, but still, it's a legitimate concern.

Still, Kwikset has a lot of confidence in their SmartKey deadbolt, and are quick to note that almost every lock is vulnerable to some sort of forced entry. I agree with this to an extent, though for over $200, I think it's fair to expect a lock that's more secure than the average deadbolt. Still, I appreciate the Kevo's multiple layers of digital encryption, as well as the SmartKey deadbolt's very cool rekeying technology, which will let you manually alter the lock to fit a new key in just a few minutes, with no need to remove it from the door or call a locksmith. If you want your new Kevo deadbolt to work with the same key you use for the knob lock, or if you want to change the lock so your creepy ex-roommate's key won't work, then you're in luck.

The interior half of the lock is definitely larger than your average deadbolt. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Like many Kwikset locks, the Kevo is available in three common exterior finishes -- Satin Nickel, Polished Brass, and Venetian Bronze -- so you shouldn't have any trouble matching it to your door's decor. As for the interior half of the lock, it's definitely larger than a standard deadbolt (after all, it has to house the Kevo's motherboard, along with the batteries that keep it powered). The size wouldn't bother me, but for some, it might be too much of an interior footprint. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Kwikset try and shrink the design down a bit for the next generation of Kevo deadbolts.

Kwikset also knows how to make locks that are easy to install, and the Kevo is no exception. You don't need to be Bob Vila to get this thing into your door -- all you'll need is a screwdriver and about 15 minutes, tops. The Kevo is designed to easily adjust to doors of different thicknesses, so if you aren't sure how thick your door is, you'll want to grab some measuring tape, too.

You can install the Kevo in about 15 minutes using only a screwdriver. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Service and maintenance
The Kevo runs on four AA batteries, which come included and should last about a year before you need to replace them. When the batteries are running low, you'll receive notifications within the app, and the lock itself will also flash red. The key fob also has a flashing light that'll let you know when its CR2025 battery is running low.

In the event that you lose your phone, you can log on to Kevo's Web portal and delete it from the lock. You can also initiate a hard reset on the lock itself. You'll need to use the key or the key fob to control the lock until you find your phone or replace it. If you need to replace a key fob, or if you'd like an additional one, they're available for purchase as standalone accessories directly from Kwikset.

The Kevo comes with a lifetime warranty on the mechanics and finish of the deadbolt, along with a one-year warranty on the lock's electric components.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
$219 is a lot to pay for a deadbolt, and I can already hear the jokes about keys never needing to have their batteries replaced. But the Kwikset Kevo is much more than just a novelty. It's a step forward. It's the kind of device that makes us reimagine what technology can bring to our daily lives. And yes, it's downright cool.

This is why it's such a shame that Kwikset didn't opt to upgrade the deadbolt itself for a higher level of security against forced entry. It's a smart lock, maybe the smartest we've seen yet. But I can't say that I'd call it a strong lock, and for the money you'll spend on it, that's more than a little bit disappointing -- certainly enough so to warrant holding out and seeing what August and Goji have to offer.

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6.7

Kwikset Kevo

Score Breakdown

Features 8Usability 7Design 6Performance 5
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