just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

December 8, 2019

6-month review update: UltraLoq U-Bolt Pro

Last May I shared info on my then-latest purchase of a crowdfunded item, the "UltraLoq U-Bolt Pro Combo".  This was a new, fancier smart lock from a company that was already shipping smart lock solutions with good reviews.  The new "U-Bolt Pro Combo" was notable in that it included a Bluetooth-to-WiFi bridge adapter for a smart deadbolt with access options including fingerprint scan, code entry, wireless entry (cell-phone proximity detection), and traditional key entry.

Was it any good, though?  YES!

Read on to get my impressions after 6 months of heavy use...

How my family uses the U-Bolt Pro
I installed the U-Bolt Pro on our home's primary entry/exit.  Every family member uses this door on a daily basis so the U-Bolt was destined to get a workout. 

I set up fingerprint scanning for me, my wife, and each of our kids.  I configured code-based entry as a backup to fingerprint scans.  The U-Bolt supports individual accounts (fingerprints, codes, smartphone detection) for up to 60 users.  Although we could set a single shared access code, setting codes for individual users allows the U-Bolt to keep a history of *who* unlocked the door.  This is a handy distinction when the smartphone app alerts that someone has entered the house mid-afternoon (was that my wife or was it one of the kids getting home from school?)

Ease of Installation

This was my first smart lock installation but it was as you'd imagine: very nearly identical to installing a traditional mechanical deadbolt. 

Because our U-Bolt was replacing an existing deadbolt, much of the installation work was already done since the door was already prepped for a deadbolt.  However, the U-Bolt proved to be slightly larger than the deadbolt it was replacing.  The actual bolt used in the U-Bolt was also larger than in our old deadbolt.  As a result I needed to use a chisel to create more space in deadbolt housing area in our door and also chisel out some extra room in the door frame to accommodate the new strike plate.  All that was needed was a hammer, a small chisel and several reassurances to my family that, yes, I did in fact have some idea of what I was doing despite the loud noises and repeated use of a hammer when installing a smart lock.

One nice touch from U-Bolt was the inclusion of extra-long wood screws for the strike plate/box.  The weakest point of most deadbolt solutions is the short screws often used to mount the strike plate.  Short screws will do their job but only a small depth of wood will get tapped to anchor the strike plate.  Extra-long screws means more wood as an anchor making it much more difficult for someone to kick in the door.

Impressions from Family Members
Initial reactions to the U-Bolt were, "cool"!  The lock-side of the device beeps, lights up and animates through a circular pattern when unlocking.  The beep is sufficient for most people to know when the U-Bolt has recognized your fingerprint (or entry code, or phone) but the lighted "unlock" animation is a great feature if you are in a noisy environment or have a hearing impairment.

When leaving the house we simply push the code-entry key "enter" button and the lock auto-locks.  With our old deadbolt we would stop to lock with a key so being able to push a button to lock is a notable improvement in convenience.  The U-Bolt will auto-lock on its own after a set amount of time but I still prefer to lock the door immediately upon exit.

The U-Bolt was "cool" the first day of use but over the next couple of weeks our general impressions dimmed notably.  The U-Bolt would sometimes jam while trying to lock and require two or three attempts to lock.  The smartphone app alerts you if this happens (so that's nice, at least).  Some family members had not recorded enough variations when configuring their fingerprints and had a hard time consistently replicating finger placement when unlocking the door.  My wife was not shy about complaining when the U-Bolt wouldn't recognize multiple attempts to unlock and she had to resort to punching in an entry code.  Finally, the WiFi bridge sometimes connected and sometimes did not despite being 20 feet from a WiFi access point with no intervening walls or doors.  When the WiFi bridge is not connected the smartphone app cannot function remotely.

During the first month of use I worried that our overall experience was unlikely to improve.  There were a couple of possible solutions that I tried:

Jamming Issue
In response to the jamming issue I partially uninstalled the deadbolt from the door to check the deadbolt housing area.  It turned out that some slivers of loose wood (from my chiseling) were present and may have been hindering the motion of the lock.  I also made very minor adjustments to the strike plate installation to better assure it was aligned with the bolt.

Fingerprint Issue
I tackled the fingerprint issues by having affected family members re-encode their fingerprints.  The encoding process requires you to present a finger multiple times so the U-Bolt can learn to recognize a range of variations for your print.  This time, though, I had each person step away from the door and then, when ready to encode the next fingerprint, pretend to be in a hurry to enter the house instead of carefully standing still as we'd initially done.  For some attempts I also had the family member hold and reach around a box to force a more awkward -- and more realistic for some situations -- attempt to reach the fingerprint scanner.  After these "real-world" fingerprint re-scans we found that our fingerprint-unlock success rate had greatly improved.

WiFi bridge Issue
I tried the WiFi bridge plugged into an electrical outlet a few feet from the U-Bolt.  I also tried it in an outlet much closer to the WiFi access point.  In both cases I had inconsistent success.  Finally I put the bridge on the end of an extension cord and experimented with a range of placements between the door to the access point.  I discovered that, when the bridge was fully in the open, it tended to connect and stay connected.  When it was plugged directly in an electric socket, it had trouble.  Was it perhaps benefiting from use of the extension cord as some form of antenna?  No.  It turned out that, when plugged directly into the wall, a chair was partially in the path from the bridge to the WiFi access point.  Moving this chair out of the way fixed the issue.  It wasn't a big chair but was apparently just enough to be a problem.  I suspect the WiFi signal from the U-Bolt bridge is not very strong but, since moving my furniture slightly, the bridge has consistently worked.

After making these changes daily use of the U-Bolt improved considerably.  It is a somewhat rare occurrence, now, for a fingerprint to not be recognized on the first attempt.  It is a -very- rare occasion for the lock to ever jam when locking though, when it does, it is able to lock on its second attempt.

Six months later...
How is our daily life with the U-Bolt after six months?  We've nearly forgotten it's there... and that's a very good thing.  Instead of being bothered by some of the initial issues we encountered we now simply enjoy the benefits of the U-Bolt without even thinking about it.  Walking in the door with a quick fingerprint scan is fantastic compared to digging for keys.  The ability to remotely unlock on demand is a comfort if we need a friend or neighbor to access the house on our behalf while we're away.  I'm also still on the first set of AA batteries.  We average 4 powered unlocks and 7 powered re-locks per day plus the unit's Bluetooth radio is always enabled so, six months in, I'm pretty satisfied with the battery life.

It seems apparent now that our initial issues were likely no fault of the U-Bolt but rather complications from our particular installation and initial set up attempts.

Bottom line:  Based on my first six months of use I would buy this device again for myself and, yes, I would also recommend it to my friends and family.

Do you have questions or experience using UltraLoq products?  Share in the comments!

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