Smartphone Controlled Kevo Lock Tested

Published May 04, 2017 16:09 PM

Smartlocks are a growing market, with millions sold. Kwikset's Kevo is one of the most common choices, using the Unikey smart phone access control platform.

Many like the concept of controlling locks with their phones but doing is not easy, as shown by hyped startup Lockitron struggling with design troubles and no clear winner yet in the market segment.

However, few products can claim the brand experience and market history of Kevo, who recently released a 2nd generation lock under the Kwikset brand. We bought a lock to test and run through the paces:

How well does Kevo work, and does it succeed where previous residential smart locks have failed? Inside, our test results.

Test Findings Summary

Our test shows Kevo has some advantages, but also lengthy and potentially frustrating challenges:

  • Keys Often Faster: In our testing, we time tested all three methods of operating the lock. Using regular mechanical keys was generally faster and more reliable in unlocking the door than using the electronic or app-based features.
  • Finicky Touch: In our test, getting the Touch feature to consistently respond was challenging and never worked 100% reliably, with potential impacts like user phone positioning and other BLE services and devices complicating how responsive the feature performed.
  • Event Log Gaps:  Kevo records only app triggered or BLE-verified events, but does not record manual key open events. Kevo does not integrate or include door position switches that detect when a physical door is opened, meaning that the door might be unlocked and the facility entered without recording the event occured.
  • Controls Outside, not Inside Doors: Kevo fits doors with cylindrical door cutouts, but will not fit mortise lock cutouts. Also, Kevo must be installed on doors that include spaces for deadbolts, andthe lock does not have its own door pull, knob, or handle. While those types of doors are common to perimeter doors, the required prep style is uncommon on interior, bedroom, or storage/closet doors.
  • Not Truly Remote Without Hub: Kevo uses BLE to operate, so users must be within BLE range to use the app. In order for remote access offsite, an additional $100 hub must be purchased.

The shortcomings above limit the product to basic and intermittent residential use and essentially rule it out for 'busy' openings that are locked/unlocked many times per day and when a comprehensive log of events is needed.

Given that deadbolts are prohibited in many applications from commercial entry/exit doors for not meeting 'free egress' requirements, Kevo is not suitable regardless for many occupany codes other than residential sites like apartments and houses.

Three Methods of Operation

Kevo uses three methods to operate/unlock/lock a door, and IPVM tested all of them:

  • Mechanical Keys: Like standard locks, Kevo comes with two mechanical keys cut to activate the lock core for operation without using apps or fobs, and as a general backup method if battery power is dead.
  • Smartphone Apps/Fobs: Most users will use the free Kevo app to activate the lock, but a registered fob will also authenticate users to touch open a lock if they have no keys or battery power.
  • Touch: The third method enables a user to just touch the face of the lock to open or close. We examine that feature in the following section.

The free app allows users to send 'eKeys' to others, provided they also download the app. Kevo users can issue eKeys for free, but each eKey must be registered to specific users and they cannot be shared among different phone.

Touch Operation Feature

Footage from our test shows how the third method of operating the lock does not use a key or app, but only requires users to touch the lock face.

A 'Touch' cycle where the lock is both locked and unlocked is shown below.  The behavior of the front LED ring changes based on event, with the white flash meaning 'locked' and the green flash meaning 'unlocked':

In order to be responsive to a touch, the user must have an approved phone's Bluetooth on/ fob active in a pocket or nearby on the outside (locked side) of the door. Touch does not work without the presence of the BLE based 'keys' within range, even if they are not physically handled during door operation.

During troubleshooting with Unikey on the Touch feature, there is specific instruction to NOT expect Touch to operate reliably if the door is open, as displayed in the .gif above.  While the image is included in this report to reveal bolt activity that would otherwise be hidden inside the frame, Unikey described Kevo's antennas and proximity to BLE fobs or phones is sensitive to both orientation and proximity to the door. For proper function, the Touch feature requires the door be closed and ideally the phone or fob to be kept in user pockets, not in the hand.

Timed Test Results: Keys Fastest

We tested how much time each method took, with the resulting average in parenthesis after each option. Our time trials used factory keys, version 1.2.13 of the app, and are average lengths of ten events:

  • App (6.5 seconds): Using the phone app (iPhone 6S/ iOS 10.3.2), the time needed to trigger an event took about 6.5 seconds, which was measured from phone being unlocked but without the app being launched. The app automatically connects to the lock on the door during the process of launching the app.
  • Touch ( 4 - 10 seconds): Using the tactile touch mode, the process generally took the shortest time to lock, but longer to unlock. To lock a Kevo, Touch usually responded and completed the operation in about 4 seconds. However, unlocking proved more difficult to execute, sometimes taking multiple 'touches' to trigger. In our test, Touch would not 'unlock' consistently until user positioning had been optionally recalibrated via the app. Once done, however, Touch generally unlocked the opening in about 7 seconds.
  • Keys (5 seconds): Using the included keys to unlock an opening overall was the fastest method. We sampled two different users ten times each taking keys from pocket-level and activating the lock. In general, these events took about 5 seconds, making it faster than using the app or BLE authenticated 'Touch'.

For many residential users, the 'Touch to Unlock' feature will be most desired, in theory unlocking the door without need to unpocket a phone or keys and potentially with arms full.  However, that particular feature is susceptible to issues and may take product and phone fine-tuning to make reliable.

Mixed Product Ratings

Mirroring those potential issues is Kevo's rather mediocre review ratings on reseller sites like Amazon. For the 2nd Gen model, 34% of reviews are '1-star', with 55% rating '3-stars' or lower, with many noting trouble with the 'Touch' function:

  • "Essentially paid $230 for a lock that I still have to use keys with. The touch to open feature works about 40% of the time... They rarely work on the first touch."
  • "The problem: 50% of the time when you tap the lock, nothing happens! You tap the lock, the blue light swirls, and then NOTHING!!!! There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this."
  • "It usually takes up to 10 tries to get it to unlock by touch. Often after an attempt or two, it will decide to recalibrate, leaving you standing in the rain or the dark for several minutes while the pretty lights spin around and around."
  • "Clearly there are still many bugs that need to be worked out. To start the "touch to open" never works. I have stood in front go my door for a ridiculous amount of time tapping and tapping with the lock actually responding maybe 5% of the time."
  • "The only reason to get this lock over a keypad lock is the touch to open feature...unfortunately, that is the part that is so buggy it is ridiculous. "

Unikey explained to IPVM that many of the dissatisfied reviews were product of issues with an iOS 10.0 update that has since been directly addressed by newer firmware releases. While our test performance was never flawless, Unikey's technical support was adept and effective at troubleshooting problems, and unlike other consumer access products like Lockitron, the company appears able to continue improving overall product performance. 

Kevo Price Comparison

The market has several options for 'smartlocks', all claiming phone app BLE based local controls.

  • Kevo Gen2 ~$230: As tested in this report.
  • Kevo Gen1 ~$175: Older versions include 1 keyfob in the box not included in Gen2 models.
  • August Smartlock ~$230: Compared to Kevo, this lock does not include a mechanical lock cylinder for keys, but claims a number of integration options including Apple HomeKit, Alexa, Wink, and other Z-Wave platforms unavailable in others.
  • Lockitron Bolt $99 - $180: While Bolt is priced the cheapest of the above, it also has the worst product reviews on reseller sites and some models remain backordered '8-12 weeks' despite being released 2+ years ago.

In terms of installation and fit, all of the above options are new locks designed to replace existing non-smart lock hardware deadbolts and are not lever or knob locks.

Lock Installation

For retrofit installation, testing shows that Kevo can be installed on most openings in 30 minutes or less.  Once the existing lock is removed, Kevo replaces in with three main pieces - the front lock, an adjustable deadbolt, and the back controller base.

The front side of the lock closely resembles a regular lock face, with the major difference being a ring of LEDs that light up and give feedback to the users on current lock state (lock/unlocked/error and so on).

The 'brains' of the unit are contained in the 'lock controller base' installed on the backside/secured side of the door.  This unit contains the battery supply (4AA batteries), the wireless radios, a status LED, and the mechanical thumbscrew stem to lock the lock:

The backside also features a small 'programming' button to trigger configuration once installed, and a small bank of dipswitches that control the LED, audio, and 'touch' behavior of the lock.

Main Cable Connector

Proper lock operation depends on matching the front and backside on the unit by connecting a control cable to the base. The cable is run through the main cylindrical bored hole and is pressfit onto the base with a proprietary connector.

This cable connects the front 'touch' feature and LED ring to the battery pack in the back of the unit. A mechanical connecting rod also ties the keyed lock to the deadbolt and thumbturn in the base and is commonly used on other 'mechanical only' door locks.

Kevo Not For All Doors

Kevo is designed to be a replacement deadbolt, but not lever or knob lock. This means that doors with only one bored hole, like those typically inside an office or home, using Kevo requires drilling another hole in order to use the lock or else they will not have a handle or knob.

Most existing doors with two holes are outside or perimeter openings furnished with a deadbolt can use Kevo with no additional modifications, and Kevo can adjust depending on common door thicknesses or backset dimensions.

Bad Design For Battery Changes

Changing batteries requires unscrewing three holding screws and removing the back cover to access the battery tray, as shown below:

Considering that users will likely need to change batteries at least once and perhaps multiple times per year, quick access to the battery tray would be helpful. Also, a removable window is designed into the cover but does not provide access to the batteries.

Unikey Mobile Backend

Unikey, who licenses similar backends to multiple hardware vendors, provides Kwikset the app and BLE-based connectivity.

In our test, the app based control was fairly reliable with our iPhone 6S and updated v1.2.13 lock firmware.  Connection times and activation times varied, from nearly immediate when app and lock were actively synced, to nearly 30 seconds of lag when the phone and/or app started from hibernation mode.

The app interface is simple, with one main button, and a chronological log of lock events:

The log is only a partial log of events that originate via the app.  Manual key events are not shown, potentially resulting in unlogged activity, and error events are not clearly shown as errors, but as valid lock/unlock events.

User Rekeying Lock 

The Kevo touts Smartkey, allowing for users to quickly rekey the lock with the included insert tool to a new key using the same KW1 keyway. This feature allows a user to change keys without the services of a locksmith to repin the lock as required of most locks.

In our test, the feature worked well, although if user error in the steps happens, there is no easy method of resetting the lock without additional tools or a call to a locksmith.

The short video below demos the process:

Needs Extra Hub For "True" Remote Access

In our test, one of the biggest drawbacks for Kevo is that it relies on close proximity of phones, fobs, touch, or keys to activate the lock. Despite the app-based controls, if users are not within BLE range of the lock, no control is possible.  This means truly remote users who are away from the lock have no internet based control of the default lock and must buy an additional 'Plus' hub, shown below:

Instead, Kwikset sells an additional router connected 'Plus' hub for ~$100 more to enable true internet base remote controls. The Plus hub is required to bridge the gap between the BLE-based Kevo and an internet based user.

2nd Generation Claims Better Mechanical Lock

IPVM purchased a second generation Kevo lock that claims a number of improvements over the initial Kevo model.  The improvement claims are based on mechanical lock design differences:

  • Better Bump/Rake-Resistant Lock: While not part of our test, the 2nd gen lock claims to be tougher to mechanically defeat. Like millions of common lock types, Kwikset's first generation SmartLock core initially proved 'bumpable' by using common keyblanks and could be raked open in an undetectable manner. The 2nd generation model claims to change the 'anti-bump' sidebar and wafer designs of the lock, making the process much more difficult.  
  • Tougher Metal Construction: The original Kevo used a SmartLock core that was vulnerable to simple brute force attacks and could be unlocked by destroying the insides with special tools. The 2nd generation model claims to feature a redesigned lock core that mitigates [link no longer available] these brute force attacks with internal components that prevent the lock from opening if tampered with. While we did not disassemble the lock in our test (permanently damaging it), there are several lockpicking hobbist comparison videos online that illustrate these design changes.
  • Simplified Control Cables: In terms of control cabling, the 2nd generation model has a single cable and one-way cable connector that simplifies installing the front to the backside of the lock.

Also, the main smartphone app has been updated for iPhone and Android. However, while iOS support is generally widespread, Android support is limited to specific devices that have been tested by Kevo for compatibility.

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