After months of rumors, Apple finally made its AirTags product official on Tuesday. During its Spring Event, the company showed off the coin-shaped tracking device that people can use to locate lost items such as keys, wallets, and even in Stacey’s case, their Kindle devices. While there are similarities to the old Tile Bluetooth tags from a few years ago, this is no ordinary Bluetooth tracker. And for that reason, I suspect Apple AirTags will be a huge hit.
Let’s start with the unassuming tracker itself. Orders begin this Friday with one AirTag priced at $29 and four packs costing $99. Those prices are a smidge high, but this is Apple we’re talking about. And the SmartTag Samsung released in January has a similar price: It’s $29.99 for one with no current option to bundle more at a discount.
Also like Samsung’s competing product, if your phone notices that someone slipped an AirTag into your bag or pocket to track you, it will recognize the offending tag and alert you. Both products have a small speaker allowing you to “ping” the tag from a handset to make a noise for easier finding.
Unlike the Samsung SmartTag, however, which only has a Bluetooth radio, Apple supplemented its tag with NFC and support for the company’s U1 ultra-wideband chip found in the iPhone 11 and 12 handsets. Samsung this month announced its SmartTag+ with an ultra-wideband chip and augmented reality to help you find lost items. It has a price of $39.99 but it lacks an NFC chip and was expected to launch on April 16. That date has come and gone with no availability as of yet.
Both tags rely on Bluetooth to connect their respective company’s network of device tracking. Apple’s is called Find My while Samsung has its own Galaxy Find service. The idea is that the tag on a lost item will connect to Apple’s or Samsung’s networks through other users of those networks. That makes sense since Bluetooth radios are a staple in nearly every smartphone at this point. When a phone “sees” a nearby tracking tag, it can report the location to the network through the handset’s WiFi or cellular radio.
With the additional NFC and U1 radios inside Apple AirTags, however, Apple’s tags have a markedly better user experience to reunite you and your AirTagged item.
With a U1-equipped Apple device, you not only get the general location of your AirTag through the Bluetooth radio, but you also get what Apple calls “Precise Location”.
That’s a marketing term, so Apple’s actual description of the functionality is more useful.
The company says the approach “fuses input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope, and then will guide them to AirTag using a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.”
The U1 brings distance and location into the mix, so if your AirTag is under the sofa, it can theoretically point you downward in the right direction. I’ll be sure to test that when I get my AirTag.
Even better in my opinion is the included NFC tag.
With NFC, any iPhone user who finds an AirTag can simply tap the tag with their phone, and they “will be taken to a website that will display a contact phone number for the owner, if they have provided one,” according to Apple.
At that point, you just might get a call or message with the good news: Someone found your item so you can work out details to meet them and retrieve it.
Of course, that opens up a potential privacy issue of sorts.
Those who don’t want their phone number shared with a good Samaritan who found your AirTag don’t have to supply that phone number.
Regardless, the lost item will relay information to the AirTag owner privately and anonymously over the Find My network in either case.
About that network for a second. It’s huge. Like really huge. Any iOS or macOS owner who enables Find My on their device contributes to it. And this is where the Bluetooth tracking networks of yesteryear can’t compete: The Find My app is pre-installed on all Apple devices. Samsung does the same for its Galaxy Find network.
That’s vastly different as to how Bluetooth trackers such as Tile built their location networks, for example, which only expanded that network through people who bought a Tile tag and installed the Tile app. Only other owners of the same Bluetooth tracking tag and had the supporting mobile app on their phone actually contributed to the network.
Older Bluetooth tracking devices and apps did do one thing right though: By using industry standards, they enabled anyone to use their device location networks or build supporting devices. In typical Apple fashion, and with Samsung following the same path, instead of trackers and their respective networks being built openly on standards, we’re seeing the dreaded silo approach here. The only ray of sunshine I see in this regard is Apple opening up its Find My network to certified devices, which broadens the opportunity for device makers.
That said, with hundreds of millions of Apple devices in the wild, each of them being a Bluetooth edge sensor to the Find My network, few companies can compete when it comes to coverage.
Between the additional radios and the breadth of that network coverage, I can easily see Apple AirTags selling like hotcakes. And I’ll be ordering at least one on Friday, if not more, depending on if my family wants them, so I can cut my per-AirTag price to $25 each.
As much as I’m impressed so far with what Apple is delivering here, I am deeply disappointed in one particular aspect.
AirTags alone can only be inserted into something. You can’t hook them on to anything without buying some attachment accessories. Such as this newly announced accessory from Belkin, which costs $12.95. Meanwhile, official Apple accessory pricing starts at $29 and goes up from there. Like way up if you want the $495 leather Hermes AirTag luggage accessory.
Regardless, I still stand by my prediction that AirTags will be flying off the store shelves faster than a 5G signal.