When rumor first surfaced a couple of years ago that Apple was working on a Bluetooth tracker gadget, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Companies such as Tile and Adero were already making such gizmos, which you fasten to possessions to help you find them in the event they’re misplaced. And they were having enough trouble scaling the idea up into a viable business that they were pivoting away from being purely about finding lost stuff.
If small outfits found the category to be limiting, why would it interest Apple, a company that’s hardly interested in pursuing niches?
I didn’t fully grasp Apple’s thinking until Apple Engineering Program Manager Carolyn Wolfman-Estrada introduced the $29 AirTag last Tuesday during the company’s “Spring Loaded” event. She called it “a new iPhone accessory,” and suddenly, I understood.
To Apple, stuff-tracking is not a business unto itself. It’s just something new you can do with an iPhone. From both a business and technological standpoint, that sets the AirTag well apart from the likes of Tile.
I’ve been trying out some AirTags provided by Apple in advance of their April 30 on-sale date, using them with a loaner purple iPhone 12 provided by the company as well as my own iPhone 11. (Both phones are running iOS 14.5,which is required to use AirTags and officially arrives in final form this week.) Using AirTags has left me struck by all the ways they recall other Apple products, piggyback on existing Apple efforts, or just generally have an Apple-ish feeling. To wit:
- As with AirPods, your iPhone detects a new AirTag in your presence and offers to pair it, making setup considerably more pleasant than with other trackers. It takes just a few taps, and there’s no new account to set up or app to download. (iOS doesn’t allow third-party products to match this experience, which is among the complaints that Tile presented at a Congressional antitrust hearing last week.)
- AirPods sit atop infrastructure that Apple has been assembling since it launched its “Find My iPhone” feature in 2010. You locate them using a new “Items” tab in the existing, preinstalled Find My app. And if an AirTag is out of range from your own Apple devices, it can report its location back by using Bluetooth to connect to any of almost a billion Apple devices that are part of the Find My network—a vastly larger network than those offered by other trackers (except Chipolo’s upcoming, Find My-compatible One Spot).
- As with the AirPods case, Apple will engrave an AirTag for free, in this case with your choice of alphanumeric characters and emoji. Along with being a fun form of personalization, there’s a practical side here: If you own more than one blank AirTag, they might be tough to tell apart.
- An AirTag is not just an accessory but an opportunity for Apple to sell you accessories for your new accessory: fobs and loops that let you attach the tracker to other possessions such as a set of keys, backpack, purse, or briefcase. Like Apple’s phone cases and watch bands, these AirTag accoutrements are well-made, colorful, and stylish, whether in silicone or leather. They also all cost at least as much as an AirTag itself, though Belkin and others already offer various types of AirTag holders at lower prices.
- AirTags, like the iPhone and other Apple products, treat privacy as a feature. My colleague Michael Grothaus wrote about the numerous steps Apple took in this area, from making sure that only an AirTag’s owner has access to its location to preventing stalkers from using one to track another person.
- I even found the AirTag’s materials—white plastic on one side, shiny steel on the other—to be reminiscent of a classic iPod. (Rotate the steel side slightly counter-clockwise, and you can open an AirTag and replace its CR2032 coin battery, which Apple says is good for about a year of battery life.)
As I lived with the AirTags for a few days, I didn’t conclude that they trumped existing trackers in every respect. For example, the $25 Tile Mate has a hole that conveniently allows you to attach it to the keychain you already own. (Apple’s leather AirTag fob/keyring is $35; Belkin offers a more basic version for $13.) The noise the Tile Mate makes to alert you to its location is louder, more distinctive, and sustained than that of the AirTag, which chirps for only a few seconds when you press the Find My app’s “Play Sound” button. And the Mate has a few extra features, including one that might be worth $25 all by itself: Press the button on the tracker twice, and it’ll make your misplaced iPhone ring. That’s much more convenient than using Apple’s Find My iPhone feature, unless you’ve got an Apple Watch to initiate the finding.
But the AirTag beats every Tile variant by supporting two things that increase the odds you’ll actually find a lost item: Ultra-Wideband connectivity and Apple’s Find My network.
The UWB support comes courtesy of Apple’s U1 chip, and requires that you have an iPhone 11 or 12, which also sport the U1. The goal is to give you a much more specific idea of where a misplaced nearby AirTag-equipped item is, without making you rely on the “Play Sound” option, which requires you to listen closely and figure out which direction an AirTag’s audio is emanating from.(Earlier this month, Samsung beat Apple to market with an UWB-equipped tracker, but its Galaxy SmartTag Plus works only with certain recent Galaxy phones; Tile reportedly has an UWB tracker in the works.)
UWB powers “Precision Finding,” a new AirTag-specific feature in the Find My app. It leads you to a nearby AirTag by displaying arrows that indicate the direction and distance you need to walk to be reunited with your misplaced item. Precision Finding occasionally sent me on mini-wild goose chases by telling me to walk a few feet in the wrong direction, but then it would get back on track; it’s the single slickest aspect of the AirTag experience, and makes searching for a missing possession into something that feels like a game. (I did, however, discover that it didn’t work with my iPhone 11 until I toggled Bluetooth off and then back on.)
Like Bluetooth, UWB has limited range, which means that Precision Finding is for locating items in your immediate vicinity. Inside my house, it could detect AirTags located in nearby rooms; outside, I had to get within a few feet of my car before Precision Finding could tell an AirTag was in the vehicle. But even though Precision Finding only works at a short distance, it’s useful: If I’d relied on the AirTag’s “Play Sound” option, I wouldn’t have heard it chirping inside the car.
As for the Find My network, it’s most likely to come into play when an AirTag-equipped item isn’t merely misplaced around your home but is really lost, well out of your iPhone’s Bluetooth and UWB range. If the AirTag can use Bluetooth to make contact with one of those near-billion Apple devices that are part of the Find My network, it can still report its location back to your iPhone, with the whole process encrypted and anonymized for privacy’s sake.
This technology is tough to test in a methodical fashion, but when I squirreled AirTags away in locations off my own property and out of my iPhone’s range, they continued to report back their location—seemingly doing so through the Find My network.
Other companies’ Bluetooth trackers also leverage a network of all their users to help a lost tracker report its location back to its owners. But the more devices in the network, the more potent this technique is—and no other tracker maker has anything like Apple’s customer base.
No Bluetooth tracker guarantees that you’ll find a lost item.
Bottom line: No Bluetooth tracker guarantees that you’ll find a lost item. Instead, it offers a toolkit of techniques that might help. Judged by that criterion—the single most important one for this product category—the AirTag scores well.
So do you need an AirTag, or maybe even a $99 four-pack of them? If nothing else, answering that question is a revealing exercise in contemplating your own ability to keep track of your possessions.
When I recall things I’ve lost over the years—either temporarily around the house or (sniff) permanently—most of the items that spring to mind aren’t the kind that would call for an AirTag. Some are items that already have built-in Find My support, such as iPhones and MacBooks. Others—like a wristwatch and a fancy pen—offer no practical way to affix even a Bluetooth tracker as diminutive as an AirTag. (It’s about 1.25 inches wide and as tall as a stack of four quarters.)
Still, I might put an AirTag on my keychain—not that I’ve ever lost my keys, but the best time to worry about that scenario is before it happens. Once I’m spending less time cooped up, I could see dropping one in a backpack pocket, just in case. And I’ve already taped an AirTag to an item that gets misplaced all the time and is a pain to relocate: Our living room’s Apple TV remote.
You might see either more or fewer uses for AirTags in your your life than I do in mine. Either way, at $29 a pop–plus the cost of any keychain, loop, or other related apparatus you buy—they’re one thing you don’t associate with Apple: an impulse purchase.