Populife Smart Deadbolt review: Ultra-cheap and attractive, but lacking in the operations department

Populife’s smart lock certainly looks appealing. The exterior escutcheon is slim, clad in jet black, and features a sleek keypad illuminated in red light. The interior side of things is considerably more industrial in appearance, but I will say I’ve seen worse. And for a mere $65, it’s very inexpensive. Sadly, even at this budget price, it’s hard to recommend the Populife Smart Deadbolt to any but the most cash-strapped of smart-home owners.

Populife smart lock doesn’t immediately appear to offer anything particularly unusual in terms of hardware. The two components sandwich each side of the door, and two screws (with an optional third, if you drill an extra hole in the door) connect the two pieces. The interior escutcheon is a two-part affair, attaching to a metal bracket that holds everything in place. A cable snakes through the hole in the door to electronically connect the two components.

An optional door sensor can also be wired into the device directly, so the lock can determine whether the door is ajar. A 9-volt battery terminal below the keypad gives you a lifeline to get back in if the four AA batteries (not included) that power the lock happen to die while you’re out. Put it all together and the unit has a distinct resemblance to the Igloohome series of deadbolts.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart locks, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

At the time, I declared Igloohome to be one of the most frustrating locks on the market to install, but Populife certainly gives Igloohome a run for its money. The lock’s instruction manual walks you through some basic setup, and while getting the various pieces situated securely is difficult enough, step 10 is where things go downright crazy. Most smart locks come with the tailpiece—the metal bar that allows the lock mechanism to physically turn—already installed. In Populife’s case, the tailpiece (Populife calls it the “access handle”) is not only not preinstalled on the lock, it must be physically attached with a tiny connecting plate and two even tinier screws.

populife tailpiece Christopher Null / IDG

Unless you have an exceedingly thick door, you’ll need to remove the Populife Smart Deadbolt’s tailpiece, trim it, and reattach it.

These screws are so small that Populife includes a minuscule screwdriver with which to attach them. This process requires the delicacy of a surgeon and the patience of a saint, and if you drop one of these screws you can be sure it will be gone forever. After that, you’ll probably need to snap off the end of the tailpiece, much like the U-tec Ultraloq requires (a requirement U-tec has since eliminated), because it comes ready for the thickest possible door. The good news: Populife’s tailpiece can be shortened with two pairs of pliers rather than requiring a hacksaw.

Wrestling the various components together isn’t easy, and the hardware ultimately requires significant patience to get everything seated properly. As with many smart locks, the screws holding the two escutcheons together can’t be overtightened, or the lock won’t be able to turn. Getting it all just so takes some trial and error, particularly maneuvering the wiring into the right place, but after nearly an hour of finagling it, I finally had the lock seated properly on the door.

populife 3 screws for scale Christopher Null / IDG

Installing the Populife’s tailpiece means attaching these tiny screws to the interior of the lock using the provided jewer’s screwdriver.

And it didn’t work. I first downloaded the Populife app and paired the lock with my phone via Bluetooth, which was successful. But when I tried to use the app to operate the lock, nothing happened. Whether tapping in the preassigned seven-digit PIN or using the app to unlock the door, nothing would disengage the lock. The Populife would simply beep and do nothing.

Populife’s tech support was well-meaning but unable to help, suggesting that I disassemble and reassemble the lock, and requesting videos of me using the keypad to ensure I was pressing the right buttons. (I was.) After nearly a week of back and forth—all via the agonizingly slow process of emailing with someone in China at a clip of one message per day—tech support simply stopped responding. I finally requested a replacement unit from Populife’s marketing team and when it arrived, I had to go through the whole setup process once again.