Apple AirTag review: a humble tracker with next-gen tech

Apple AirTag review: a humble tracker with next-gen tech

Outside, Apple’s new AirTag looks like a ho-hum product we’ve all seen before. It’s a disc shaped tracking gadget that can be attached to things like house keys to help you find them.

But inside, the story becomes much more interesting.

The AirTag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics devices to support a new wireless technology, ultra-wideband, which allows you to detect precise proximity between objects. Thanks to ultra-broadband, your iPhone can detect whether an AirTag is an inch or tens of meters away from it. It’s so accurate that its app will even display an arrow pointing you in the direction of the AirTag.

It’s much better than other trackers that rely on Bluetooth, an older wireless technology that can only roughly guess how close an object is. (More on how this all works later.)

Using ultra-broadband to find lost items is just one of the first examples of what technology can do. Due to its extremely precise ability to quickly transfer data between devices, ultra-broadband could become the next wireless standard to succeed Bluetooth. It could lead to better wireless headphones, keyboards, video game controllers – you name it.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg”, Frédéric Nabki, technical director of Spark Microsystems, a Montreal-based company developing ultra-broadband technology, said trackers like AirTag. “It sends its data really, very quickly.”

I tested Apple’s $ 29 AirTag, which will release Friday, for about a week. I used the tracker to find house keys, locate my dogs, and track a backpack. I also ran similar tests with Tile, a $ 25 tracker that relies on Bluetooth and has been around for about eight years.

Last week, Tile complained in an antitrust hearing that Apple had copied its product while putting small businesses at a disadvantage. From my tests comparing AirTag and Tile, I found Ultra Wideband to be far superior to Bluetooth in finding items. In addition, AirTag has demonstrated that ultra broadband is a next generation technology that deserves to be excited.

Here’s what you need to know.

Ultrawideband has been in development for over 15 years, but it has only been incorporated into chips for iPhones and other smartphones in the past two years.

When you use Ultra Wideband to find a tracker, it works the same as sonar, which detects objects underwater. You ping the beacon, and the beacon returns a ping to your phone. The time it takes for the ping to return is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.

But when you use Bluetooth to find a tracker, your phone will emit a continuous signal looking for it. The further you move away from the tracker, the weaker the signal and the closer you get to it, the stronger it becomes. This technique is used to tell you roughly how far you are from the tracker.

So what do the two underlying wireless technologies mean in practice?

Tile works with iPhones and Android phones that use Bluetooth technology to find items. Open the Tile app, select an item and click the “Search” button. The app will search for the thumbnail and send a signal to connect, after which it will play a melody on the tracker. If the signal connection is weak, it will tell you to move around until the signal gets stronger.

If your phone cannot find a tile because it is out of range, you can put it in “lost mode”. The tracker will search for other Tile owners who have granted the Tile app access to their location to help find other people’s lost items. If a Tile-owning Samaritan is near your Tile, that person’s device will share their location with the Tile Network, which will show where the item was last spotted on a map.

Apple’s AirTag works with new and old iPhones. Newer devices (the iPhone 11 and 12 series) can take advantage of the precise location capabilities of ultra-broadband. To search for an item, open the Find My app, select an item, and press Search. From there, the app will establish a connection with the AirTag. The app combines the data collected with the phone’s camera, sensors and ultra-wideband chip to direct you to the label, using an arrow to point you there. Older iPhones can track AirTags with Bluetooth using a method similar to Tile’s.

Similar to Tile, when an AirTag is lost and out of range of your phone, you can put it in lost mode and allow other Apple phones to find the AirTag to help you see where the item has been spotted. for the last time on a map.

The benefits of ultra broadband can easily be seen in a few tests.

For an experiment, I asked my wife to hide multiple AirTags and tiles throughout our house and then time how long it took to find them.

During a test, she hid an AirTag attached to my motorcycle key somewhere in our room. Apple’s Find My app used an arrow to point me to the mattress, and I pressed a button to make the tag sound. After rummaging through the blankets and peering under the bed, I found the AirTag crammed under the mattress. It took about 90 seconds.

Then I had to find a tile attached to my house key. I opened the Tile app and hit the Search button. The app said the signal was weak and suggested that I walk around to find a stronger connection. On the way down, I could hear the melody of the Tile, and the app said the signal was getting stronger. I found the tile hidden in a trash can in a garage locker. It took about a minute.

The hardest part was an AirTag hidden in a book. Apple’s Find My app pointed to the correct shelf, but it couldn’t tell me exactly which book the label was in. After removing four books from the shelf and flipping through the pages, I found the AirTag in a cookbook. It provided my wife with three minutes of entertainment.

Separately, to test how the trackers worked when they were too far away from my phone, I attached a Tile and AirTag to my two dogs’ collars and put the tags in lost mode when my wife took them away. to walk. The nearby smartphones eventually helped me locate the two trackers to show me where the dogs were in the neighborhood.

While the AirTag is an impressive demonstration of ultra-wideband technology, that doesn’t make it the best tracker for everyone.

Due to the AirTag’s compatibility with Apple products, I would give an AirTag to an iPhone owner. But I would give a Tile to someone with an Android phone.

The AirTag is also far from perfect. I would have liked them to be louder – they’re very quiet compared to Tiles – so playing sound wasn’t very helpful in finding them. I also didn’t like that in most cases the AirTag requires the purchase of a separate accessory, like a key ring, to hold the tracker.

In contrast, the tile has a hole drilled in its corner to attach to a keychain or zipper head. (The AirTag’s $ 29 price tag is eclipsed by Apple’s $ 35 leather keychain.)

Still, ultra-broadband gives AirTag a major advantage – and even Tile thinks so. CJ Prober, chief executive of Tile, said last week that Apple refused to give his company access to the iPhone’s ultra-broadband chip to make its own trackers that work with it.

“They’ve launched a competing product and they’re taking advantage of that technology that allows it to do things our product can’t,” Mr. Prober said in an interview. “We really believe that the competition should be fair. Fair competition leads to better outcomes for consumers. “

Apple said in a statement that it has worked hard to protect the privacy of iPhone users’ location data, adding that it embraces the competition. This month he ad that he would soon publish a plan for other companies to take advantage of ultra-broadband technology in Apple devices.

I am happy to wait for these products using this neat wireless technology.

Because of its greater efficiency in transmitting data, ultra-broadband could make future wireless devices immensely better, Nabki said. As an example, he cited wireless headphones that connect instantly, use very little battery, and sound just as good as wired headphones.

It sounds a lot cooler than finding the keys to the house.

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