Let’s start with an easy claim: the Apple AirTags are the most technologically-advanced trackers on the market (if you’re an iPhone user).
This is hardly surprising. Apple seldom enters a market unless it thinks it can improve it, and that’s exactly what it’s done with the AirTags.
The biggest benefits AirTags offer over its rival is access to the vast Find My network and the powerful ultra-wideband (UWB) U1 chip.
Neither technology is new, of course, but now that they’re available in a coin-sized device that costs just NZ$55 and they represent a compelling opportunity never to lose your keys, or bag, or dog, or kids, ever again.
Setting up AirTags (<30 seconds)
This is thanks, in part, to the U1 chip inside that lets you pair the device by bringing it close to your iPhone.
Anyone who’s recently paired AirPods with their iPhone will be familiar with the process. You place the unregistered AirTags next to your iPhone to begin, and the AirTags will be automatically detected.
The only labour you to perform is naming your AirTags and choosing an emoji icon to represent them in your Find My app. That’s it.
They’re a good looking product. But they’re not perfect.
Let’s start with the negatives. There’s no keyring hole. Which, I’m guessing, will be the most compelling use-case for most people. If you want to put an AirTag on your keyring, you’re forced to buy another accessory. And it’s here where the design flaw is at its most crazy, as the cheapest Apple-manufactured accessory that lets you attach your AirTag to your keys costs NZ$55 (the same as the actual AirTag).
Fortunately, third-party accessories are already available at much more reasonable price points. The awfully named “Belkin Secure Holder with Key Ring for AirTag” is much cheaper, costing NZ$19.95, and can be bought through the Apple Store website.
Once you get over the missing keyring hole and expensive accessories, the design is solid. But again, not perfect. They’re IP67 rated (which means they’re water-, and dust-resistant up to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes) and are finished with a chrome and plastic shell that’s nice-looking, but again, not perfect – as its also a recipe for collecting scratches and scuffs.
Admittedly, it’s not a big deal to me. My keys live in my pocket or in the key bowl in the hall or are lost – so the primary thing I want to use AirTags for doesn’t have an aesthetic requirement. But I’m sure there are lots of people, especially Apple customers, who will be driven crazy by how magnetic the AirTags are to scuffs.
Finding lost things
There are two different stages of lost. There’s locally lost (in your house, for example), and there’s properly lost (which could be anywhere on earth).
Apple has given the AirTags a comprehensive and idiot-proof set of tools for helping you locate your lost tags, regardless of which stage of lost they are.
At home (short range)
The easiest way to find your lost AirTags is by making the play a sound, which you can do in a couple of seconds via the Find My app on your iPhone and pressing Play Sound.
The AirTags deliver an impressively loud and cuttingly-pitched beep that’s dissimilar to a smoke alarm. I measured the beep at 93dB at its crescendo, similar to the volume of a hairdryer (according to the web’s decibel charts).
In short, they’re loud enough to help you approximately locate them in your house.
That is nothing new; Tile does the same thing. The step-forward the AirTags take is with its U1 chip. Apple uses the ultra-wideband technology in the AirTags and iPhone 11 & 12 to combine input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope to visually guide you to your lost AirTags in a mode it calls “Precision Finding”.
When you’re inside U1 range, which I found to be about <5 meters indoors, the Find My app will display clear on-screen instructions in the form of an arrow or literally text that says “1.5m behind you”. Once you’re within 1m of your AirTags, your iPhone will turn green and continue to guide you to up to 10cm.
Properly lost (long rage)
When your AirTags aren’t in the immediate vicinity, Apple’s Find My network (of close to a billion supported devices) takes over. This means your AirTags can “privately and anonymously” upload recent location data via a passing iPhone device, and only you will be able to access this data. Neither the passing iPhone nor even Apple will have access to this information thanks to end-to-end encryption.
Likewise, if someone finds a lost AirTag, they can tap it using their iPhone, or any NFC-capable Android device, and be taken to a website that will display a contact phone number for the owner (if they have provided one).
I tested the speed of the Find My network by giving my partner one of my AirTags while she went out to run an errand. I then asked her to text me her location as I simultaneously used the Find My app to track the location of my AirTags.
It worked perfectly. The Find My app informed me that AirTag was last seen four minutes ago, in the exact building she was texting me from.
Had my AirTags (and car keys) not been with my partner, I could have jumped in my car to drive to the last known location and proceed to search the building until either my ears heard the 93-decibel tone, or my phone was within U1 range of the AirTags.
Or I could do nothing and rely on the kindness of strangers, and compose a note and contact number via the Find My app, then hope they do the right thing and bring the AirTag close to their iPhone to let me know it’s been found.
If you have an uneasy feeling about how easily the AirTags can be used to dishonesty track people’s movement, you’re not alone.
The launch of AirTags has started a debate about the morals behind tracking devices and whether Apple has done enough to notify people that an AirTag might be unwittingly tracking their movements.
Do I think Apple has done enough here? Yes. But I think it could still more.
Here’s why (forgive all the “ifs”):
If you’re an Apple customer, you’re sort of protected against the possibility of someone tracking you via an AirTag, and the Find My network.
If an AirTag is separated from its owner’s iPhone range – but is still in the range of, or moving around with, another iPhone – the AirTag will play a noise (thus alerting you of its existence) once you get home, or at the end of the day if you don’t go home.
If you’re not an iPhone user, and therefore your phone isn’t capable of communicating with AirTags via the U1 chip, a noise will only be played three days after it was separated from its owner. This, I feel, is too long.
The rest is all pretty good, though.
If an Apple or Android user does discover an AirTag in the jacket, or luggage or whatever, and they decide they want to deactivate it, they can. Easily. They need to bring it to their device (Andoird will work with NFC), and they will show how to take the battery out and stop it from working.
These privacy issues are not unique to AirTags. Tile faces the same privacy questions – as should any device with GPS and cellular connectivity. However, the affordability and broad reach of Apple’s Find My network has (rightly) got people talking.
I asked Apple representatives whether it would look at the time frame for notifying non-iOS users that an AirTag is nearby, and they confirmed it was a feature that would be closely monitoring.
I was pleasantly surprised by the price of the AirTags. NZ$55 is a price that lots of people will happily pay (to never lose their keys again). The four-pack for NZ$189 also represent good value.
Being Apple, they are more expensive than the competition. Tile has an entry-level item tracker currently available for NZ$24.99 – but it isn’t as sophisticated as the AirTags. And Tile’s equivalent to the Find My network is much smaller, and therefore, less useful.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the AirTags. For NZ$55, users can reap the location-tracking benefits both the ultra-wideband U1 chip and the vast global reach of the Find My network creates.
All inside a coin-sized device with a battery that lasts over a year and costs less than a cup of coffee replace.