By Dan Moren
February 24, 2022 11:00 AM PT
Review: Level Bolt is a stealthy smart lock contending with an imperfect world
I’ve spent a lot of time with different pieces of smart home tech over the last several years, but having finally made the jump from an apartment to a house that I actually own has opened up possibilities that weren’t available to me before.
Thus: a foray into smart locks.
I’ve always been a little bit skittish at the idea of smart locks. The idea of being able to gain access to my home via a security vulnerability or hack seemed like a worrying prospect. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized those fears are largely unfounded. It’s not as if picking a lock or smashing a window is particularly difficult. Nor does it seem likely that your average thief is going to spend time reading up on security exploits for your particular brand of smart lock.1
Moreover, I wasn’t sure about the styling of some of the smart locks on the market, many of which stand out like a sore thumb thanks to complex keypads or glowing lights. Personally, I was interested in something a little more understated.
Which is how I ended up buying a Level Bolt.
The Bolt is unlike most other smart locks in that it doesn’t replace your existing deadbolt. Instead, it fits inside your door, basically sandwiched in between the exterior keyway and the interior thumb turn. Inside sits a small motor with a Bluetooth chip, which can turn to shoot the bolt itself.
The engineering and design of this device is extremely clever. From the outside, the Bolt is completely invisible. The only place you can even see the device is the bolt itself, where Level’s logo is embossed on the end. (In another particularly ingenious piece of engineering, the bolt also contains a replaceable CR2 battery that powers the whole assembly. Swapping it out just requires unscrewing the end cap.) Another plus: the existing key and thumb turn for the deadbolt work exactly as before, and don’t interfere with the smart lock, or vice versa.
In addition to its invisibility, the other feature that drew me to the Level Bolt was its compatibility with HomeKit—not a given in the smart lock market right now.
For all of that, the Bolt isn’t cheap: it ordinarily retails for $199, though I managed to snag it while on sale from Amazon for around $150.
The art of installation
Level says the Bolt works with a wide variety of common deadbolts, including the Schlage model that was already installed in my house. Unfortunately, once I opened it up, I determined that my lock assembly was actually an older version of the Schlage that wasn’t compatible, due to the way it fit into the opening (there was a piece of metal that hit where the Bolt needed to go).
Already we were off to a great start.
Off to the hardware store I went, where I picked up a newer version of the deadbolt, the Schlage B60N, which runs about $35 and also happens to be The Wirecutter’s top pick.
Having taken apart the deadbolt to re-key it recently, I felt pretty confident in my ability to install the Bolt on my own. The good news is the Bolt can, in many cases, be installed with tools no more complex than a Phillips-head screwdriver. It ultimately took me only about half an hour to put in, though I had a couple points where I needed to make slight adjustments.
I did run into one significant obstacle, though I’d hasten to say that the fault isn’t really Level’s. The door in which I installed the Bolt doesn’t always close correctly, depending especially on the current temperature.2 This means it sometimes ends up in a situation where the bolt doesn’t fit nicely inside the strike plate (the metal receptacle within the doorframe). This was an issue even with the previous manual lock, which sometimes required us to open the door slightly in order for the bolt to catch.
Level is quick to say on their site that you need to have a properly locking door in order to install their products, which may not be one-hundred percent true, but is definitely advisable. However, we’ve mainly managed to work around it, even if we sometimes run into an issue where the Bolt reports a Mechanical Error while trying to lock. (The good news is it still gets far enough that the door can’t be opened without unlocking it.)
While I could probably rejigger the strike plate, it requires more time, energy, and skill than I have at the present moment, so I’ve made do with this imperfect solution.
Of course, the real reason to get a smart lock is in the name: the smarts. As I mentioned above, the Level Bolt works with HomeKit, which these days is pretty much table stakes for any new smart home tech I invest in.
That means the Bolt is controllable via the Home app, as well as via Siri. That’s pretty handy for the most part: it means if I get home and my hands are full but I’m wearing my AirPods Pro, I can ask Siri to unlock the door for me. I can also pull out my phone or use my Watch, although arguably those are more useful if I, say, have forgotten my keys. I also get notifications when the door is locked or unlocked, which can be nice since it lets me know when my wife arrives home. I will note, however, that using the HomePod doesn’t let me directly unlock or lock the door—it requires I use an authenticated personal device like a phone or an Apple Watch, presumably to prevent strangers from shouting in your window.
Level’s app also allows for a few additional features that can largely be duplicated in the Home app via automations, but are simpler to do through the app itself. For example, you can set an auto-lock timer that will automatically lock the door some number of minutes after it’s unlocked. It also allows for geofencing and auto-unlock when you get within range. (This combination of features can sometimes be annoying when, say, my wife is doing work around the yard or I’m out in the driveway for more than the allotted time, and thus it doesn’t auto-unlock because I’ve never left the geofenced area.)
The Level app also allows you to give other people ability to use the Bolt, both on a permanent basis—such as other members of your household—as well as generating Passes for temporary use, like when you ask somebody to watch your cat or water your plants while your away. I haven’t had call to use the Pass feature yet, but it does appeal to me, especially if I ever get around to also installing that smart doorbell that’s sitting in my office.
While other members of my household can control the Bolt via HomeKit without needing the Level app, if you want to give them the ability to distribute Passes on their own, they’ll need to set up the app.
In many cases, I’ve ended up using the Level app for locking and unlocking as well because it’s more reliable than the Home app, which often gives me “not responding” errors, or Siri, which is not infrequently pretty slow—although more often than not, Siri reports that my accessory isn’t responding, even after the Bolt has locked or unlocked.
I chalk some of this up to Siri and HomeKit’s own issues, and some of it up to the use of Bluetooth, which can be notoriously wonky. (I hope to see a version with Thread or ultrawideband at some point in the future.)
The Bolt doesn’t support the ability, added in the latest version of iOS and watchOS, to add a key to your Wallet—the lack of NFC in the existing hardware precludes that. It’d be nice to see the addition of that in the future as well, although features like that, Thread, and UWB, would all probably add to the pricetag as well.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, as per my previous issues with the mechanical aspects of the lock, I sometimes still need to fall back to my physical key. But at least that’s possible with this lock.
Though the Bolt isn’t perfect, I find that I generally really like it. More than anything, it’s really turned me around on the idea of smart locks, thanks to the convenience and—especially—the idea that I’m unlikely to ever get locked out of my home.
I’ve used other smart locks in the last few months as well, and some of them have additional features that are handy, like a keypad, but the Bolt and its low profile suit me pretty well at the present. And something tells me it won’t be the last smart lock I invest in.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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