Review: Ditching keys and combinations with the Noke Bluetooth padlock

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The Noke padlock is designed secure, weatherproof, and easy to use with Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag)

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The Noke padlock launched on Kickstarter last August, resonating with backers who liked the idea of a Bluetooth-connected padlock. Since then, other smart padlocks have hit the market, such as ones by Master Lock and Quicklock. The Noke padlock has recently started shipping to backers, and although it may not be the first available to consumers, it's possibly the smartest and most secure. We spent some time with the Noke to lock down its strengths and weaknesses.

Design & connectivity

The Noke Bluetooth padlock looks and feels like your trusty combination lock, except that it has its name engraved where a dial would normally be. It's weighted well and shows care in construction. If you have an appreciation for minimalistic design, the Noke padlock's brushed metal surfaces and beveled edges are sure to please. Having an indicator LED embedded within the accent above the "e" is a nice touch, even though it can be hard to see in direct sunlight. The padlock's only moving parts are the shackle, the rubber seal that covers the jump-start contact points at the bottom, and the back plate that removes in order to replace the CR2032 coin battery. No tools are needed, as you can use your palm to spin the plate open and closed.

When it comes to physical security, the steel used for the Noke padlock is about as good as you'd find for this type of lock by any reputable company. Of course, if someone with the right tools, time, and determination wanted to get through the shackle/body, they certainly could, but the same can be said for most locks, old or new. The Noke padlock feels solid, and, despite the slim cracks, offers little/no purchase for tools to pry and pop. The back of the padlock opens only when the shackle is in the unlocked state, and the shackle itself locks only in the proper locking position.

The Noke padlock is IP66 rated, giving protection against dust and jets of water. When opening the back plate, you can see the rubber o-ring that maintains this seal. It doesn't work for immersion though, which seems fair considering typical lock duty. We left the padlock outside for a week through cold, rain, and sun before bringing it back in to test again. It functioned just as well as it did before being assaulted by the elements.

Mobile devices will need to meet the Bluetooth and operating system requirements in order to pair with the Noke padlock. The device uses Bluetooth 4.0, which uses 128-bit encryption on top of the mobile app's own encryption for enhanced security. And if someone tries to pair with an already-claimed Noke padlock, the app says so, recommending to contact the owner for authorized access.

Mobile app & features

After downloading the Noke companion app (we used a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 running Android 5.1.1 for this review, but apps are also available for iOS and Windows Phone), it efficiently steps you through the process of creating an account, pairing, naming, and then setting up a manual unlock code for the padlock. This "quick-click" feature (think Morse code, can also be changed later) allows you to open the lock through a series of short and long clicks/holds on the shackle. It's handy for those times when you may not have your connected device. Keep in mind that interrupting the set-up process before it has fully completed will require you to go through all the before-mentioned steps again. And sometimes (because of bugs) the app may make you do it once more before it actually sticks.

Once the lock's settings data has been assigned and uploaded to your account, you're free to explore the options laid out at the bottom of the app. The Noke app lets you add and manage multiple locks, users, and fobs (sold separately). Each lock can have its name, unlock method (one- or two-step), Bluetooth range, and quick-click code updated. One can also enable notifications, rekey, or forget (delete) the lock within the app. Most of the time these changes are saved immediately, so long as the lock is nearby and connected. Sometimes it takes a second attempt (or even third).

Full, one-time, and custom (days of week, start/stop times, start/end dates) lock access can be granted (and revoked) to other individuals. Users who don't have a Noke account will have to create one (and download the Noke app) in order to open the locks you share. And you'll have to make sure you're naming the same email address those people used for their accounts (they'll also get a notification of access auto-emailed).

The app lists users and locks in order of creation, with (currently) no option for sorting. Deleting users, locks, or lock access is easy, and permitting user access happens nearly instantaneously for the parties involved. Deleting a lock immediately erases all access to it, including yours (you'll have to re-add it anew). The quick-click code remains in place, however, even if the Noke padlock is currently unassigned. Very useful.

The Noke app keeps track of all activity within its history, complete with colored icons, lock names, descriptions, and date/time stamps. You can see when locks have been added, unlocked (by anyone you've authorized), shared, rekeyed, had their quick-click code changed, or when someone has attempted unauthorized access. New entries appear almost instantly, so long as both devices have internet connectivity (Wi-Fi, 3G/4G) to report it. Otherwise it pops up after a data connection has been established.

You can view the entire history chronologically as a whole, by person, or by lock. Renaming a lock also updates its name within the history. While you, as the lock's owner, can see everything going on, shared users are privy only to their own unlocking actions. Shared users can also delete their own lock access if they choose. If an authorized user has GPS enabled at the time of unlocking, that icon shows up in the history entry. You can then touch it to bring up a map showing the recorded location of the mobile device at the moment the padlock was unlocked – not the lock, although product descriptions almost make it sound that way. And this works only if the device had GPS enabled at that time.

Noke experience

Managing and unlocking the Noke padlock is fairly smooth. Once your device is in Bluetooth wireless range, the Noke padlock automatically unlocks after two seconds of pressing the shackle. And then you pull to open. However, this works only if you have the Noke app running, either actively or in the background. Sometimes the app will need relaunching if some time has passed. The Noke app functions as part of the security and verification process, even if you have elected the option for one-step unlocking. There is no auto-unlock as originally described in the Kickstarter campaign.

While some may lament how this works, thinking that basic Bluetooth proximity should be sufficient, Noke's unlocking procedure is smart. Locks are tied to individual accounts and not specific devices. So if your smartphone ends up lost or stolen, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that someone else has immediate access to your Noke padlock. As long as you use the Noke app only when unlocking (exiting the app when finished), and keep your device and/or apps secure (e.g. screen lock, applock, etc.), whatever you have secured behind the padlock will stay that way. Then all you need to do is borrow a device, log into the Noke app, and unlock. That, and the app is meant to provide an added layer of encryption on top of what Bluetooth 4.0 offers.

The Noke padlock has opened on every in-range attempt. However, there is a bit of inconsistency with unlocking, in that it occasionally requires a second press of the shackle to activate. And with two-step unlocking enabled, the Noke padlock unlocks after pressing the shackle and then the unlock icon within the app. Then you pull to open. It's not the silky smooth experience one might imagine. But, ultimately, the Noke padlock works in light of its oft-fiddly nature. And there is no extra wait time to unlock again after just locking, for those "oh oops, I forgot" situations.

With a maximum code length of sixteen presses (eight is the minimum), quick-click unlocking takes a fraction of the time as would a traditional combination dial. The LED on the front of the Noke padlock provides a visual indicator, glowing blue for short and teal for long presses of the shackle. All successful unlocking is announced by a muted "click" and green-flashing LED. But with the code, there is no wait for a Bluetooth handshake. Just pull on the shackle and voila! Close it shut again, and the LED flashes red to indicate the Noke padlock has securely locked. It's quite useful (and critical) to have a non-mobile-device-dependent method of opening, whether you've left your device elsewhere or it's locked behind the Noke padlock itself.

If you unlock the Noke padlock but don't pull the shackle open, it remains unlocked that way, tested up to the 110-minute mark. Considering that the app doesn't provide any type of auto-lock setting (hopefully corrected in the future), the amount of time could be indefinite. In order to re-lock the padlock in such a scenario, the shackle has to be fully opened and then closed again. While most people may believe it unlikely for one to leave an unlocked lock as-is, all it takes is a small distraction, so keep that in mind. We already did this once.

Although the Noke padlock is designed to operate up to a year (standard use) before needing a battery replacement, it has a fail-safe for when things don't go as planned. So if the Noke padlock is unresponsive due to a dead battery, holding a fresh CR2032 battery to the contact points at the bottom as you push the shackle provides juice to unlock and open the unit. You'll still need your connected device with Bluetooth on and the app running. Or, alternately, you can unlock using your quick-click code while pressing with the replacement battery.

Under each lock's settings is a wireless range slider bar that can be adjusted for sensitivity. Set at the minimum, a device would need to be within 5 in (12 cm) of the Noke padlock to unlock. This works well with two-step unlocking, since the Noke app requires interaction anyway. Set at the maximum, and without obstruction (including your body), the Noke padlock unlocks at a little over 6 ft (1.8 m). Either way, you pretty much have to be within easy physical reach of the lock for it to open. The closer the better, since the Bluetooth verification handshake gets a little weird when you're edging the wireless range. It takes longer and/or requires additional shackle presses to unlock the padlock that way.

Still needs work

As might be expected, the Noke app has a number of bugs that still need to be ironed out, and the interface could really use a makeover for both aesthetics and functional streamlining. The worst of the bugs we were able to repeat with consistency merely inconvenienced our time. Most of the app's crashes resolved after relaunching the app once. Sometimes it would take multiple launches, unless you waited about 20 seconds before the next attempt. Other situations (involving devices that have been granted lock access) required rebooting a device for the app to cease insta-crashing. But no matter what (thankfully), the Noke padlock locked and unlocked as it was supposed to.

While the hardware lives up to most of the promises made by its creators, the app is lagging behind. Although there is an option to enable notifications for each lock, the selection doesn't save to make it work. The app also doesn't process the selection of any photos to personalize user accounts or locks. Locks get stuck with a default image, and all users are just a basic blue people-outline. It doesn't matter if you attempt to select an existing image on your device, opt to take a new photo, or choose any one of the available default images.

At this time, the app's history doesn't show the individual names of users unlocking the Noke padlock. Even though you have labeled names, each entry reads as "you" even if it may have been anyone else doing the unlocking. But at least the lock names are showing up correctly. As shown from the product page's images, users are supposed to receive notifications in their history when particular lock access has been revoked. That, too, hasn't been enabled. There's also no means to edit/delete history entries or save/export logs.

Once the Noke app is updated to work as it's supposed to, it would be nice to see some fresh features added. The app is designed to notify users "long before it's time to replace the battery," but an actual battery meter would be great. And although it might be a bit tricky to implement, having a timestamp for locking in addition to unlocking can be useful (originally indicated in the Kickstarter campaign through image mock-ups). Also, allowing users to create their own quick-click codes for access would alleviate some potential hassles of lost/forgotten devices.

The verdict

If you hate memorizing combinations or fiddling with keys, and/or like the idea of conveniently sharing access with other people on a whim, then the Noke padlock can be for you. However, with its US$69.99 price tag, you'll be paying 5 to 12 times more than a basic (quality) lock without the latest tech and Bluetooth connectivity. The Noke padlock does require Internet connectivity to save lock settings to your account and grant sharing permissions, which can be a hinderance for some in remote regions without consistent 3G/4G/Wi-Fi access, so those are key aspects to consider.

Although the Noke app has more work and polish in store for its immediate future, the core functions serve the user well – even with the current crop of software bugs. The process of adding and removing locks/users is quick and painless, even if it might require a second go. Features within the app are rather self-explanatory, and it doesn't take long for one to familiarize with the whole thing. But, most importantly, the Noke padlock does its job of locking and unlocking with futuristic finesse. Quick-click opening and battery jump-starting help to ensure that the lock's technological strength isn't also a liability.

If you're ready to ditch keys and make your mobile device even more powerful and utilitarian, the Noke Bluetooth padlock is available to order right now. Those who are looking to secure a bicycle without the hassle of a loose chain can check out the Noke U-Lock, which is currently available for pre-order.

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