Bluetooth trackers that attach to easily lost objects are nothing new. They’ve been around for at least eight years now. But technologies change and mature: Bluetooth is fine but Ultra WideBand (UWB) radios can deliver more precise location information. And it’s that UWB, plus the vast reach of Apple’s Find My network that makes AirTags a great option for iPhone owners.
I say that with confidence because ever since my AirTags arrived last week, they’ve passed every test I could muster for tracking lost objects.
Expect to pay $29 per AirTag unless you buy a 4-pack for $99 as I did. That price isn’t really out of line compared to other options, although you can expect to pay extra for an accessory to attach AirTags to an object. I came up with a cheap DIY solution to that additional expense though: Using dental floss that I knotted and placed inside my AirTag, my mailbox key is firmly attached and minty fresh.
There isn’t much to the outside of an AirTag, which is slightly larger than the size of a quarter. There’s a rounded button-like top cover and a stainless steel backplate that unscrews for battery replacement.
Inside are both the Bluetooth and UWB radios, as well as the battery, which is a standard CR2032 size. Apple says it should last about a year. The tag is water and dust resistant due to the design and materials used. There’s a surprisingly loud speaker in the tag as well, so you can remotely have the AirTag call out to you.
Setup is the standard “drop-dead simple” method typically used for most Apple and all HomeKit devices. Once you place a new AirTag near an iPhone, a pop-up message appears on your handset. I simply had to name my AirTag and that was it. After that, the location of the tag appears in the Find My iOS app, just as my other Apple devices do.
Find My is basically Apple’s crowdsourced network for all of its devices, including iPhones, iPads, AirPods, and even Mac computers. The app is pre-installed on every supported Apple device and all of them feed into Find My. That’s a huge advantage over competing connected trackers although Apple recently opened up Find My certification to third-party devices.
Obviously, the number of iPhones in your vicinity will vary due to many factors. And in my neck of the woods, I actually see more Android phones than iPhones. So my wife and I went to a local park where I had her “lose” our mailbox key with my AirTag attached to it. We both turned our phones off when she did this and I didn’t see where she placed the “lost” item.
We walked at least a quarter-mile away in the park, which wasn’t very crowded, and turned our phones back on.
To be honest, I was nervous that with so few people, the odds of an iPhone user walking past my mailbox key were slim. But, in under 10 minutes, someone did and my phone’s Find My app told me roughly where my lost item was.
As we headed back towards the AirTag my iPhone display became a guidance system when I got within about 30 feet of the tag.
That’s roughly the point where the UWB radio starts providing very precise location and distance data. When I got within a few feet of the AirTag, my iPhone provided increased haptic feedback to guide me.
And guide me it did: All the way to the ground under the bench where the AirTag and mailbox key was hiding.
To further illustrate the benefit of UWB, I also had my wife place the AirTag under our couch. Granted, I knew she was going to put it there, but I wanted to test the specific scenario of when a lost object is above or below something.
I used Find My to direct me to the couch, which of course, isn’t that impressive. But, as I was nearest to the AirTag, my phone said I was still 3 feet away from it.
I held the phone higher and that distance became 4 feet. Slowly moving to the ground, the distance diminished until I saw the AirTag.
With UWB tracking, you’re not just getting X and Y coordinates on a map, for example. You’re getting vertical, or Z coordinates, as well.
If you don’t have an iPhone, there’s really no reason to consider AirTags, nor any competing devices that use Apple’s Find My network. You’ll want to check out options from Samsung, Tile, and others in this space.
iPhone users though? I can definitely recommend AirTags for the two key reasons mentioned prior: The massive reach of the Find My network and the added precision tracking of the UWB radio.
Note that you need an iPhone 11 or better to gain the UWB benefits. Older iPhones can still use AirTags but they’ll be limited to the standard Bluetooth tracking method.
Well, at least until you upgrade to a new iPhone that is: Apple will surely be including UWB in its handsets going forward to support AirTags and other services and devices.
Thanks very much for your AirTag evaluation.
Since we use Android phones, I will be looking forward to your report and comparison when Tile comes out with their latest model too.
I considered getting AirTags anyway since we have a Mac and an iPad, but as you say they really are not as useful unless one is carrying an iPhone.
Brian Renaud says
A major annoyance I had with Tile (and the Android app) was the lack of notification when the Tile battery died. No notification that the battery was low. No notification that “hey, we haven’t seen this device recently” – like, say, in the last month or two.
Any sense of whether AirTag (and the iphone app) might provide some useful indications for low/dead battery?
JD Roberts says
I don’t know how useful it is, but you do get an iPhone notification when the battery gets low on the AirTag.