Homes are getting more automated, as new “smart home” products — most controlled by smartphone apps — appear almost weekly. To be only slightly facetious, with the right home combination of gadgets and apps, you could turn on the lights, start the coffee maker and adjust the thermostat just by sneezing at the right time and place.
The trouble with many of these products, however, is that they are complicated, and aim to be part of often-incompatible networks that try and do so much they make your head spin.
A few days ago, I installed a new smart home product that combines clever technology with simplicity. Its aim is to replace, and improve upon, a very old feature of homes in a way that requires as little disruption or techie knowledge as possible.
It’s called the August Smart Lock, and it goes on sale today (Oct. 14) at August.com and in Apple stores, for $250.
August replaces the standard dead-bolt lock on your door with a wireless, smartphone-controlled, electronic lock. The device, which includes a small motor, locks and unlocks the door with a tap on the screen of your iPhone or Android phone. That may not be quicker or easier than using a key. But it’s just the start.
The August app also allows you to distribute digital “keys” to family members, house guests, cleaning services, contractors or others who require entry to the home, and to control those keys. For instance, you can limit when and for how long these digital keys are active. That means no more making copies of your physical keys, and risking them being copied or never retrieved. And no more leaving keys for others under the welcome mat or a flower pot.
It also has two cool, more advanced, optional features that I liked a lot in my tests. One, called Auto-Unlock, available for now only on the iPhone, detects your smartphone as you approach the door and unlocks it without requiring you to use your phone or your keys. That’s great when your arms are full with, say, grocery bags.
The second, called EverLock, locks the door again after 30 seconds, so you’ll never again forget to lock up.
But here’s the key feature (no pun intended) of the August Smart Lock: It doesn’t replace most of your existing locking mechanisms, or change the look of your door from the outside. It replaces the inside lever or knob that throws the bolt with a high-tech motorized device that’s stylish, if a bit large.
And it doesn’t disable your existing key-and-lock mechanism. So if for any reason you don’t want to pull out your phone to lock or unlock your door from the outside, you can still do it the old way.
Another good thing: This device doesn’t depend on Wi-Fi, or even on your electrical system. It runs on standard AA batteries that the company says should last for a year, and it communicates with the August app on your phone via Bluetooth. So even if your power, or your home network, goes down, the smart lock doesn’t.
In my tests, the August Smart Lock worked as advertised. I liked it and can recommend it, especially for folks who often have to give keys to strangers. It’s also great for those who now have cars that unlock automatically when you approach them, and wish their front doors did the same.
I was able to set up the app quickly on a new iPhone 6 running the latest OS, and to give my wife full access on her older iPhone running an older version of the operating system.
Using a third iPhone, which I pretended was the property of a guest or cleaning person, I was easily able to issue a key that worked for a limited period of one day. It operated fine during the specified period, but then stopped when its programmed time ran out.
What about security?
Every key holder must first establish an account, using two separate one-time codes sent via text and then email. Once you have an account, any other account holder can issue you a key that pops up in your app. For instance, I was given a key to the August headquarters in seconds.
The August app keeps a log of who entered and exited the house using it.
The Auto-Unlock feature only works from the outside, so the door doesn’t accidentally unlock immediately when someone rings the bell and you go to see who’s there with the phone in your pocket or hand. (The app even works in the background.)
And this feature only works — even from the outside — if you leave a specified area of about 100 meters around your front door, and then return — say, from work, or taking a walk, or running errands. I tested this multiple times, and it functioned perfectly each time. So did the EverLock feature, which locks the door after 30 seconds. (Both features can be turned on or off by the user.)
And if your phone is stolen or lost, you can disable the app by going to an August site using any Web browser. If your phone battery dies and you’re locked out without a key, you can borrow any iPhone or Android phone, download the app, log in, get into the house, and then log out and delete the app.
I only had two problems with the August Smart Lock.
One was a frustrating installation. Because the device only replaces the inside part of your lock, it’s meant to be a quick do-it-yourself task: You unscrew the existing inside part of the lock, and then screw in the August, using a supplied mounting plate and plastic adapter sleeve. No drilling or anything else is required.
The instructions are good (there are even videos), and the process seemed simple. But what tripped me up was the lowest-tech thing in the box — a strip of adhesive tape meant to hold the heavier outside part of the lock in place during installation. On my door, it proved too weak, and my entire lock fell out several times. I called for tech support, replaced the included tape with duct tape, and was able to complete the task.
The company says it will consider switching to stronger tape, but noted that it chose low-adhesive tape so as not to strip paint off the outside of the door.
It’s a beautifully designed cylindrical object made of aluminum, and it comes in four colors, but the second downside of the August is the size of the device. The motor inside is large enough that the smart lock protrudes several inches from the door, and may cause some users to reject it on looks alone. The company says it is working on shrinking the size.
It’s debatable whether using an app on your phone to operate a dead bolt is easier or quicker than using a key. But the guest-key feature, the auto locking and unlocking, and the simplicity of the August Smart Lock make it a promising product, especially for people who frequently give out extra keys.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.