Noke Bluetooth padlock - is the world ready for locks that open via smartphone?

It’s not that often that journalists get the chance to review a product that started life on Kickstarter barely a year ago, but the Noke is the intriguing exception.

In case the picture accompanying this article doesn’t convey the idea, the Noke is a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy padlock used in the same way as a conventional padlock but with a range of added digital features never before found on this type of product. Think padlocks are about as straightforward as it gets? Think again. Ordinary padlocks open and close with a key or PIN code but the Noke performs the same function using integrated electronics controlled via smartphone.

Setting it up turns out to have a learning curve, although not terribly steep. Users must register for a Noke account via an app (Android 4.3 on, iOS and Windows Phone 8.1), add a primary user and configure some basic settings including turning on Bluetooth so that communication with the Noke can begin.

Once the Noke and the app are paired, it can be opened in three ways. The simplest is for the lock to open automatically when the shackle is depressed with the smartphone nearby, with status conveyed by a single LED flashing green, blue white or red. Without the smartphone present, the lock stays shut, flashing red. The second way is identical but requires the user to manually initiate opening of the lock from the app. A third method involves setting a sequence of between 8 and 16 short/long shackle presses which opens the lock without needing a smartphone.

The latter is really just a glorified version of a PIN code and, frankly, not terribly secure, even as a backup. In theory it’s possible to set a reasonably complex sequence with the minimum 8 presses but most people won’t for fear of forgetting it. This design, by its nature, could be vulnerable to guessing attacks.

Note: It is important to check compatibility between the Noke and specific smartphones – incompatibility is possible with slightly older handsets. The company offers a key fob at $24.99 that does the same job and allows the Noke to be opened without a smartphone.

The lock’s internal power source is a standard CR2032 calculator battery, which its makers claim will last up to a year, depending on how often it is locked/unlocked. Should the Noke need to be opened when that cell has died, there is a jump start procedure that (we assume) must be carried out in conjunction with the smartphone being present although the instructions are a bit vague.

A word on the physical construction of the Noke itself, a 320-gram heavyweight said to be water and weather-resistant. Build is extremely robust so there are no quibbles about it falling apart after one winter, helped by there not being a keyhole to allow water to get inside the mechanism.

Noke Bluetooth padlock - but why?

All of this is all very clever but hold on you might say, does a garage padlock really need features that go beyond the ability to resist tampering and not freeze up in bad weather?

Frankly, for occasional, standalone use the Noke is overkill. Opening a padlock via a Bluetooth app is more work than can be justified for little if any extra security. It’s possible the Noke will last longer than a conventional padlock, many of which don’t stand up that well to years of bad weather and come with pointless guarantees (lifetime guarantees often require a defective lock to be posted back to the maker in the event of a failure. But postage costs as much as buying a new one).

On the other hand, the Noke offers some interesting features such as the ability to share access with specific people (the equivalent of giving someone a second key), to make that access time-dependant or simply as a one-off. It can even be set up to deny access if a data connection can’t be established between the app and the Internet, a way of checking access hasn’t been revoked.

Because several Nokes can be managed from one account, each with its own access settings, using electronic padlocks could be practical for anyone who has a few of them or has to share them a lot. The app keeps a track of usage in a log, including where (via the smartphone’s GPS) and when they were opened and closed.

In the UK, the Noke can be bought from Firebox; in the US it's from the Noke website at a price of $69.99.

Pro: No keys to lose; possibly longer life expectancy; turns padlocks into manageable, shareable devices

Con: Expensive; more complicated than a conventional padlock; the quick-access feature could be a security issue if not setup carefully

OUR VERDICT

The Noke website mentions enterprise features and it’s possible to imagine that a remotely-manageable lock would be attractive to some organisations, for example those looking after rental property. For everyone else, the Noke is a curiosity, the harbinger of an age where almost every device is digitally-enabled and can be upgraded with new features over time. If the Noke is this idea in 1.0 form, we look forward with interest to future developments.