I once was lost, but now am found

(Pocket-lint) – How often do you lose things? If the answer is a lot, then Apple is hoping its latest accessory, AirTag, will be your saviour. But can a small device the size of a bottle top be the answer?

We’ve been getting lost and then found again with the new AirTag, Apple’s interwoven ecosystem alternative solution to Tile. For many it’ll be the insurance needed when it comes to their bags, keys, and other items.

A shiny circular design

  • Diameter: 31.9mm / Thickness: 8mm / Weight: 11g
  • Replaceable battery (CR2032 coin cell type)
  • IP67 rated (1m submersion for 30 mins)
  • No hole to attach to your keys

The small, shiny white-and-silver AirTag is smooth, Sharpie friendly, minimalist in its design, and looks like a gaming counter.

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The front is gloss white and fuss-free – although you can opt for it to be engraved with up to four characters or an emoji to make it more personal. The back features the Apple logo and key messaging like “Designed by Apple in California”.

A quick anti-clockwise twist with your thumbs placed firmly on the back removes the metal backplate, allowing you to replace the CR2032 coin cell battery that’s powering it all – it’s said to last for up to a year. The battery casing fit is snug, unlikely to be knocked off in transit, and means that the device is water- and dust-resistant (it’s IP67 rated if you’re wondering, so could be submersed in a tub of water for half an hour no problems).

The build quality is excellent. AirTag is not only small, but there are some nice touches. The metal back plate is held in place with metal prongs, that should be less prone to snapping, and the design of the AirTag itself doubles as an acoustic chamber to make the built-in speaker sound louder than you might expect.

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That circular design does mean there’s no hole to attach it to a lanyard or key ring though, and that’s certainly something to bear in mind. Why? Because, but of course, that’s another accessory you’ll have to pay for. And yes, Apple, and others, are keen to sell you additional key ring and luggage fobs and loops – which can easily double the cost.

There’s plenty of tracking hardware on board

  • U1 chip for Ultra Wideband and Precision Finding
  • Bluetooth for Proximity Finding
  • NFC tap for Lost Mode

It might be small, but there’s plenty of tech inside an AirTag. It works using a combination of technologies, including Bluetooth, and Apple’s own U1 chip for Ultra Wideband, as well as NFC (near field communication) for finding out who owns the AirTag when in its Lost Mode.

There’s also an accelerometer for help with tracking movement, although no altimeter for measuring how high from sea level you are. There’s also no button for control, so you can’t use the AirTag to find your phone for example, or do anything else.

Setting up AirTags is easy

  • Pairs with your Apple Cloud ID

Setup couldn’t be simpler. You take the AirTag out of the box put it near your iPhone and the setup process begins. If you’ve paired a pair of AirPods with your iPhone or iPad in the past, you’ll be familiar with the way it works. The three-step process involves connecting, naming the AirTag, and then registering it with your Apple ID.

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No app to open, no lengthy setup, no codes to add, nothing to download – it’s impressive how simple it is. Once setup, everything is controlled via the Find My app, which is already present in iOS.

It’s all controlled via the Find My app

  • Managed via the Find My app
  • Can be setup via iPhone or iPad
  • Must have iOS 14.5 installed

Hardware as always is only half the story. The Apple AirTag is managed and controlled via Apple’s Find My app, which is a part of the iOS operating system. You will need to upgrade to iOS 14.5 (iPhone 6S and later).

Added AirTags can be found in a new section called Items along with other third-party devices that also “works with Find My”. Here you’ll see all the Items you are tracking, where they are right now, and where they are on a map.

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If you’ve used the Find My app before to track down your iPhone or other Apple gear in the past, it’s incredibly straightforward and self-explanatory.

Within each AirTag there are further options: check battery levels, play a sound, find it with Precision Finding, enable Lost Mode, setup notifications when it’s found, rename it, or remove it from your account.

Tracking your items

Once setup, all that’s left is to attach the AirTag to your keys, your bag, or whatever else you are looking to find if you lose it.

Tracking your items out in the real world is all done via the Find My app, in connection with Apple’s Find My network of over 1 billion iPhones.

Every time an iPhone encounters an AirTag it will securely and privately relay the AirTag’s location for you to monitor via the Find My app. It’s anonymous so you can’t track other peoples’ AirTags.

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That’s great if you’ve lost your AirTag-attached item in a busy urban environment, but not ideal if you’ve lost your keys in the woods where no-one ever goes, but at least your iPhone should have relayed the AirTags last know location if you had it on you at the time. 

We used our family to purposefully “lose” our AirTag and had no problems tracking it down. It only starts to become more difficult if it’s in a more remote area and you don’t have your iPhone on – as the AirTag requires a lock on with an iPhone to help pinpoint its last known connection. You’ll probably be amazed by how many iPhones are out there, though. We left an AirTag on a fairly remote but regularly frequented dog walking route, and our hidden AirTag sitting in the undergrowth was pinged by passing iPhones a couple of times. 

Tracking your items nearby with Precision Finding

  • Uses the U1 chip and Bluetooth to locate your items
  • AR interface makes things easy 
  • Works as soon as your iPhone connects to the device (around 40ft)

For iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 users, Apple employs the use of the included U1 chip. That, combined with Bluetooth, allows you to zero in on those last 10 metres or so.

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In our tests against the Tile Pro, the Apple AirTag range is noticeably much shorter. In a test on an open lane with no obstructions we were able to connect to the AirTag from our iPhone around 10m (30ft) to play the sound. By comparison, the Tile Pro connected to our phone via Bluetooth a whopping 80m away. You might not be able to hear the sound that far away, but that’s an impressive range. Likewise the Tile Pro’s speaker is considerably louder than the AirTag – which is something worth baring in mind if you think you’ll be losing things in a noisy environment. You might struggle to hear the AirTag’s chirp. 

While the map feature in the Find My app is great for getting you to a rough vicinity, that’s unlikely to help in your home or once you’re nearby. Here Apple uses a new feature called Precision Finding that uses Bluetooth and U1 chip to create an augmented reality version of the game “hotter / colder”.

Press on the “Find Nearby” button within the Find My app and the feature springs into action as soon as a connection with your device and the AirTag is made. You are then guided via a compass-like interface that will tell you if you need to turn left, right, if it’s in front of you or behind you, along with a reading telling you how many feet remain until you strike gold. As you get closer the iPhone vibrates and the graphics on screen change accordingly before the satisfying moment of discovery.

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It’s worth noting that without an altimeter it can’t account for floors in your house as it directs you straight to where the AirTag is regardless if it is on the floor you are on or the floor above you. It also doesn’t account for any walls that you might have to go around.

Tracking kids, pets, or people

  • Not designed to track people – will alert iPhone users to an AirTag with them that isn’t theirs
  • Will start beeping after 3 days 

Privacy is clearly a strong concern – and one that Apple has tried to address from the start. While it is sort-of possible to track others with the AirTag – we know, because we tried with a family member at a local shopping centre – but it’s not actually that good.

We were able to track our AirTag down some of the time as it moved from shop to shop, but we couldn’t find it every time as it moved around. Once settled in a static location it was very easy though – but that’s because there were plenty of other passing iPhones assisting the process.

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That’s because of the way the AirTag works in the first place. Aside from your iPhone it’s not able to form a constant connection with another device. That means you are reliant upon random iPhones pinging the location of the AirTag when they encounter it. No random iPhones, no ping, and that means no up-to-date location data if an AirTag has moved since it’s last know position.

In short, it’s not designed to track people. Aware that “bad actors” might try to use the AirTag as a tracker, Apple has also built-in features to combat unwanted tracking where possible.

After a set period – currently three days, although that could change via a software update in the future – the AirTag will start beeping once a day when disconnected from its owner’s device to alert those nearby that it’s there to be found (this can be disabled for other members in your iCloud Family).

To deter tracking iPhone users specifically, if an iPhone detects that it is constantly sharing its location with a nearby AirTag that it isn’t connected to, it – similar to other tracking systems, such as Samsung’s, for example – will alert the owner.

And of course, if someone finds an AirTag on them that isn’t theirs, then they can always report it (as the AirTag is always registered to a specific person) or just throw it away.

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Yes, you could still use an AirTag to track some for up to three days before they might possibly become aware, and in theory you could track an Android user without them noticing, but as we found trying to track an iPhone user’s exact movements, the results weren’t great. Put simply there are better “trackers” for monitoring your pets or kids than trying to get the AirTags to do it for you. Despite some loopholes here, it’s clear Apple is trying to stop nefarious tracking.

Getting back lost stuff

  • Lost Mode 
  • AirTag can be read by any NFC reader

The main point of the AirTag is getting it back once it is lost. Well, hopefully whatever it has attached to it. So once you realise that you’ve lost something, you can put it into Lost Mode.

Doing so will force the AirTag to periodically make a sound, as well as priming it with a message and your phone number to allow those who find it a way of contacting you. Any finder can access that information if they have a phone, Apple or Android, with an NFC reader. Whether they call you, is up to them.

But you have to put it into Lost Mode for that function to work, and the AirTag hasn’t yet gained the ability to tell you automatically if you’ve left something behind, as you can with Tile if you sign up for the premium subscription service.

Accessories

  • Apple key rings 
  • Third-party options
  • Hermes options cost up to $449

There’s no way for you to attach the AirTag to your keys without buying an additional accessory. There’s nothing stopping you putting it in your bag, but if the thing you are tracking doesn’t have a pocket, you’ll need an accessory. Apple already sell a range of Key Ring and Loop options, as do Hermes if you’re really wanting to push the boat out (like, really really push it out).

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Other third-party makers, such as Belkin, are also getting involved – and we suspect that there will be a range of accessories available over time for those keen to attach their AirTag to something.

Verdict

AirTag acts as an insurance policy if the item it’s attached to is lost. Otherwise AirTag isn’t something you even really need to think about – it will just sit there, waiting to spring into action when needed.

The inclusion of the U1 chip for iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 owners makes this a no-brainer over the competition, while Apple’s seamless integration into the iOS ecosystem – which has over a billion users – outnumbers anything that Tile or others can offer.

Tile, the nearest obvious competitor, has been plugging away for several years to make finding your lost stuff as simple as possible. As we said in our review it has some advantages: a louder chirp, longer-distance nearby location tracking, and an integrated loop for attaching to your keys/items.

But Tile now though finds itself in a difficult position with Apple offering a device that is not only comparable, but a device that many Apple users will find considerably easier to use given that it works with an app they’ve had for the last decade. And let’s not forget: Tile doesn’t have a replaceable battery, so when someone is about to replace a depleted one, they might opt for an AirTag solution instead.

Overall, if you’ve coped so far without a lost and found technology service, then the Apple AirTag doesn’t add anything huge to the mix. But if you lose your things a lot, it will be your saviour – Apple style.

Also consider

Tile

The first major player in the smart tracker space, Tile comes in a number of different shapes and sizes to suit most needs. Working with iPhone and Android, it comes with a number of features and already works with a number of other third-party manufacturers to help you track your things. You can’t swap the battery though. But at least it’s cheaper and there’s a loop integrated in the design to attach your items.

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Writing by Stuart Miles. Editing by Mike Lowe.





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