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August smart locks review: Intelligent convenience, for a price

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When it comes to peace of mind for the home, a San Francisco startup thinks a new set of locks could do the trick. August recently released a pair of new smart locks, and VentureBeat got a chance to test them out and see if they deliver on their promise.

At the end of the day, August is selling two things with its smart locks: security and convenience. Security comes in the form of smart alerts that can tell users information like when the door has been opened or if it has been left ajar for too long, and includes an access log that lets them review what has taken place. The open door alerts are thanks to a new feature called DoorSense that lets the lock track where it is relative to the wall.

In terms of convenience, the locks can automatically engage themselves after a user has closed the door, either instantaneously or on a timer. Users can — as with previous iterations of the hardware — also set their lock up to automatically open when they arrive home, which felt nearly magical over the course of my use.

Whether users will want to buy one of the Smart Locks or not will depend largely on two factors: whether they consider those features to be worth more than $100 and whether their home supports some of the peculiarities with August’s system.

There are two models to choose from. The first is a Smart Lock ($149), which offers users a standard latch on the inside and can connect to smartphones via Bluetooth, as well as interacting with Alexa and the Google Assistant. The Smart Lock Pro provides a few more bells and whistles, like support for Apple HomeKit, and costs $279.

This is the third generation of August’s Smart Locks. The Smart Lock Pro is the successor to the company’s past two forays into the space, and the Smart Lock is a new form factor from the company. They’re designed to integrate with the company’s Doorbell Cam Pro, a smart doorbell that began shipping today.

The locks are easy to use, and useful

Let’s start with the good news: Both locks are easy to install. They work by replacing the thumb turn latch that sits on the inside of a door, and installation just requires removing a couple of screws and the old latch, replacing it with a mounting plate, installing an adapter for the Smart Lock, and attaching the motorized portion of August’s hardware over that existing bundle of low-tech metal.

The hardest part of getting either attached was making sure that the adapter was seated properly inside the actual Smart Lock mechanism. In particular, the Smart Lock Pro adapter has to be installed in a particular orientation, which can be a bit difficult to figure out at first. But once it’s set, you should never have to fiddle with it.

What’s more, you don’t have to give up your old keys. The outside of the door still has a working deadbolt with a working keyway, so it’s possible to unlock the door without a phone.

August’s iPhone app walked me through the whole hardware installation process for both the Smart Lock and Smart Lock Pro and then helped connect the hardware with my smartphone so I could lock or unlock my door by tapping the screen. It also walked me through setting up the DoorSense module, which is a small lozenge-shaped piece of plastic and magnets that is designed to reside on the door frame.

All told, the setup of the lock itself was fairly painless. Actually getting deeper into the app and finding some of the more advanced settings, like automatically locking and unlocking the door, was more difficult, but with enough poking and prodding, I found my way to them.

Each lock and unlock cycle gets logged and can be viewed through the August app, even if the door is unlocked manually, so you can always track activity at your house. August is also working on Active Monitoring, an alert system that can provide a set of intelligent push notifications when something out of the ordinary happens.

The new hardware also integrates with August’s new Keypad and Doorbell Cam Pro, which — as their names imply — let you see who’s at the door, and offer keyless access to an August-protected door, respectively. I wasn’t able to extensively test either product for this review, but, in theory, integrating these products with a smart lock should increase the utility of both.

Neither one is a slam dunk

Unfortunately, Active Monitoring is pretty uninspired at the moment. While the future may hold a set of intelligent alerts that could tell me about unusual access to my home, or regular notifications about the comings and goings of delivery people, what’s available now is exceedingly basic.

The August Connect is needed to connect the Smart Lock and Smart Lock Pro with the world outside of Bluetooth range, which could prove problematic. In order to work effectively, the Connect needs to be close to both the lock it’s paired with and a strong Wi-Fi signal. If you don’t have an outlet close to the lock, you’re out of luck, and if the Wi-Fi signal at your front door isn’t reliable, you’re similarly left in the lurch.

That’s a bummer, because some of the hardware’s best features are locked behind remote access that only Wi-Fi can provide. For example, without an internet connection you won’t get an alert that someone opened the door until after you arrive home. People who want to control their locks using Alexa or the Google Assistant will also have to get a Connect. This isn’t a restriction that’s specific to August, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

A Connect is included with the purchase of a Smart Lock Pro, and costs $79 on its own. It’s a necessary purchase for all the folks who want to live in the fully automated smart lock future.

There’s also the issue of noise when using the lock. Something needs to physically move the lock’s bolt, and in the case of both the Smart Lock and Smart Lock Pro, it’s a rather noisy motor that can be heard from the other side of the door. The Smart Lock Pro is slightly quieter than its more budget-friendly counterpart, but both can be clearly heard through the wooden door of my apartment.

Who needs these smart locks?

August’s improvements to its smart locks are good and provide value to people who want to benefit from a more automated home. Everyday buyers, however, could likely find a better way to spend their money.

Those who want a smart lock and never plan on buying an iOS device can likely get away with buying the Smart Lock and a separately packaged Connect. At $228, that’s still cheaper than buying a Smart Lock Pro.

But folks who want to retain HomeKit access (so they can lock their doors using Siri) and those who want a slightly quieter lock will be better off with the Smart Lock Pro.

That said, I think there’s clearly a use for the $149 Smart Lock, without its Wi-Fi bridge. It’s relatively cheap and could prove useful for people who want to regularly admit trusted folks while retaining the ability to revoke access digitally. For example, someone with a home care aide or house sitter could gain some peace of mind without shelling out serious cash, and would still have the option to connect the lock to the internet in the future.

But while the Smart Lock and Smart Lock Pro can provide me a little extra peace of mind, I’d rather save my pennies at this point.

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