AirTags turn nearby iPhones into a search party for your lost items, making it that much harder to quit Apple
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Apple’s AirTags are Bluetooth trackers that communicate with your iPhone to track down lost items.
Samsung and Tile make very similar products, but Apple has a big advantage.
They can use other nearby iPhones to find lost items when they’re out of Bluetooth range.
Products like AirTags make switching to Android seem even less appealing for longtime iPhone owners.
One of my favorite uses for the Apple Watch has always been its ability to help me find my iPhone by prompting it to play a sound. I’m prone to leaving my phone in another room or letting it slip between the couch cushions, and my Apple Watch has saved me from more than a few meltdowns.
There’s good news for absent-minded people like me. Apple wants to make every item just as easy to locate thanks to a new gadget called AirTags. These minuscule trackers are almost as tiny as coat buttons, but they’re packed with sensors that allow them to communicate with your iPhone. A single tag costs $29.99, and you can buy a four-pack for $99.99.
Apple is far from being the first to make a clever little tag that lets you find lost items with the push of a button. Yet AirTags are ahead of the curve when it comes to design and privacy, just as one might expect from Apple. But most importantly, AirTags’ reliance on nearby iPhones to pinpoint the location of lost items give it a huge advantage that seems impossible for competitors to match.
But, of course, they’re only compatible with Apple products, and you must purchase accessories to attach them to keys and other belongings. And investing in this type of accessory makes it that much more difficult to switch to Android down the line.
Set up and design
AirTags are just as easy to set up as AirPods, which means you barely have to do anything at all to get started.
The moment you pull the tab on the back of an AirTag to remove its wrapping, your phone recognizes the device, making the setup process more seamless than that of other similar tags.
I like this for two reasons. Not only does it make the setup process simple, but it also ensures it’s intentional. If for some reason you’re unboxing an AirTag that isn’t yours — say, as a gift — it won’t just pair instantly the second you bring it close to your phone.
AirTags also have a more distinguished look than other similar Bluetooth trackers. Their compact white design makes them resemble a cross between a button and a Mentos mint, while the underside has a glossy silver finish branded with the Apple logo.
Taken together, these elements make AirTags stand out, whereas trackers from Tile and Samsung can easily be mistaken for key fobs. AirTags are also water and dust resistant, so they shouldn’t damage too easily. I accidentally dropped one on a concrete sidewalk and there’s no sign of damage.
There is one big advantage other trackers have over Apple, however. Tile and Samsung trackers both include a loop that allows them to attach to a key ring, whereas you must purchase an accessory to put your AirTag on your keys.
Tracking and finding
AirTags use Bluetooth to communicate with your iPhone, and tagged items can be managed in Apple’s “Find My” app. Here, you can view these belongings on a map, make them play a sound, or put an item into “Lost Mode.” This lets you leave a name and phone number so that someone can contact you if they find your lost item.
What really makes the AirTags shine is how accurately you can track their location even when you’re out of Bluetooth range, all thanks to Apple’s network of 1 billion iPhones. It works just like Offline Finding does for Apple devices: any nearby Apple device that’s part of the network can relay the tag’s location to the cloud, which you can view in the Find My app.
It’s important to note, however, that Samsung and Tile offer similar capabilities. But Apple’s massive footprint is a major asset in this regard, as data suggests it’s the top smartphone maker both in the United States and around the world. That means there are likely plenty of iPhones or iPads in a given area, whereas in my area there were only tens of thousands of Tile devices.
This works impressively well in practice. When my husband took my keys and roamed around the neighborhood, I was able to find him relatively easily since the location of my keys was being shown on a map in the Find My app despite being far out of range.
There were a couple of instances in which the map was slow to refresh and indicated that he was at the opposite end of the block. But it only took a few moments to update and accurately pinpoint my husband’s precise location.
Around the house, AirTags are loud enough to hear from another room — even with the door closed and when placed inside a wallet. But all three trackers work well in this regard; I am able to find my keys equally fast just by following their sounds whether I am using Apple, Samsung, or Tile.
However, you can’t adjust the volume on AirTags like you can with Samsung’s tracker, which is disappointing. Similar products from Samsung and Tile also have a button that prompts your phone to make a sound if misplaced, which is a handy trick that AirTags lack.
One of the most useful aspects of AirTags is the way they leverage ultra-wideband technology (UWB) to lead you directly to lost items with a feature called Precision Tracking. UWB is a wireless communication protocol like Bluetooth that’s much more precise and operates at shorter ranges. That means it can pinpoint an item’s exact location within a small space rather than just bringing you to its vicinity.
It feels like you’re following an invisible map that only your iPhone can see. Arrows guide you in the correct direction, while haptic feedback signals intensify as you move closer to the lost item.
I was able to find my keys, which my husband hid underneath a couch cushion, without even prompting the AirTag to play a sound. That could be useful if you’re in a noisy environment or just need more direction than the sound alone can provide.
But, since it relies on UWB, Precision Tracking is only available in the iPhone 11 and onward. Samsung’s slightly pricier SmartTag Plus also has a very similar feature.
If you’re going to buy a tracking device, you want to be sure that it’s only being used as intended. To that end, your iPhone can notify you if an AirTag that doesn’t belong to you is traveling with you. If this happens, you’ll also be able to prompt the AirTag to play a sound so that you can locate and disable it.
An AirTag will play a sound when moved if it’s been separated from its owner for a long period of time, even on Android.
This is a rare instance of a tech giant being proactive about preventing new technology from being used in harmful ways. All too often, these types of safety measures only come as a reaction.
Otherwise, no location data is stored in AirTags, and location data is end-to-end encrypted. Devices in the Find My network also remain anonymous, and Apple regularly switches out the Bluetooth signals being used so that they can’t be tracked over long periods of time.
Should you buy it?
Yes, but only if you’re an iPhone owner.
With a simple setup process, help from Apple’s massive iPhone network, and an attractive design that looks good on your keychain, AirTags are a great choice for any iPhone user who constantly misplaces their keys or other items. Unfortunately, you have to pay extra to attach them to most things.
What are your alternatives?
Tile’s trackers come in multiple sizes and work across both iPhone and Android. Some models also come with adhesive on the back so that they can be easily mounted, unlike Apple’s and Samsung’s trackers.
However, they lack the ability to use the world’s most popular smartphones to find out-of-range devices and precise UWB-based tracking. The app also heavily encourages you to sign up for Tile’s Premium subscription service.
Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag Plus is essentially the company’s AirTags equivalent. Galaxy phones can use augmented reality and UWB to point you in the direction of your tag, and Galaxy devices that have opted in can also relay your tags location data so that you can find out-of-range items. You can also use the button on Samsung’s tag to control smart home devices on Samsung’s SmartThings platform.
The bottom line
Apple’s AirTag succeeds where it matters most for a device like this: ease-of-use, robust tracking capabilities, and privacy. However, it lacks some features found on competitors, like the ability to attach to keys without purchasing an additional accessory.
It’s also another sign that accessories are becoming an increasingly important part of the smartphone experience, and Apple’s tight integration with the iPhone will continue to be a huge advantage. And that makes it even harder for iPhone owners to make the switch to Android.
Pros: Precision Finding pinpoints exact location, top-notch privacy features, more elegant design than other trackers
Cons: Must purchase accessories to attach to keys, can’t adjust volume