What is an Apple AirTag? A simple tracker with cutting edge technology

What is an Apple AirTag?  A simple tracker with cutting edge technology

Outside, Apple’s new AirTag It seems like a boring product that we have all seen before. It is a disk shaped activity tracker that can be attached to objects such as keys to help you find them.

However, the inside of the story is much more interesting.

The AirTag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics products to use a new wireless technology, ultra wideband (BUA or its acronym in English, UWB), which can detect the precise proximity between objects. Using the ultra-wide band, your iPhone can detect whether an AirTag is a centimeter or tens of meters away. It’s so accurate that your app even displays an arrow indicating the direction of the AirTag.

It’s much better than other trackers that use Bluetooth, an older wireless technology that can’t roughly estimate the distance to an object. (We’ll explain how it all works later.)

Using ultra-wideband to find objects is just a first example of what technology can accomplish. Because of its exact ability to quickly transfer data between devices, ultra-broadband could become the next wireless standard to succeed Bluetooth. This could allow the use of better wireless devices such as headphones, keyboards, video game controllers, etc.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Frédéric Nabki, CTO for Spark Microsystems, a Montreal firm that is developing ultra-broadband technology, making reference to trackers like AirTag. “Send data very quickly.”

For almost a week, I tested Apple’s AirTag, which costs $ 29. I used the tracker to find keys, locate my dogs, and find out where a backpack was. I also did similar tests with Tile, a $ 25 tracker that uses Bluetooth technology and has been on the market for almost eight years.

Last week, Tile complained in an antitrust hearing that Apple had copied its product when small businesses were at a disadvantage. Based on my tests comparing the AirTag and Tile, Ultra Wideband was undeniably superior to Bluetooth in finding items. Plus, AirTag has proven that ultra broadband is the next generation technology worth getting excited about.

This is what you need to know.

The ultra-wide band carries over 15 years in development, but it was integrated into chips in iPhones and other cellphones only two years ago.

When you use the ultra-wideband to find a tracker, it works the same as sonar, which detects objects underwater. The user “ping” the tracker and the tracker “ping” the phone back. The time required for the return of the “ping” is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.

However, when you use Bluetooth technology to find a tracker, your phone sends out a continuous signal searching for it. The further you move away from the tracker, the weaker the signal will be and the closer you get to it, the stronger it will be. This technique is used to tell you approximately how far away 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 application, select an object and click the “Find” button. The app searches for the Tile and sends a signal to connect, after which it plays a song on the tracker. If the signal connection is weak, it will tell you to move until the signal is 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 access to the Tile app for their location in order to find other people’s lost items. If a Samaritan who owns a tile is near your tile, that person’s device will share its location with the tile array, which will show where the object was last seen on a map.

Apple’s AirTag works with both new and old iPhones. Newer devices (iPhone 11 and 12) can take advantage of the precise location capabilities of ultra broadband. To find an object, open the Find app, select an object, and choose Find. 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 location of the tag, using an arrow to point it. Older iPhones can track AirTags with Bluetooth, using a method similar to Tile.

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 object has been seen. for the last time on a map.

The benefits of ultra-broadband can easily be seen with a few tries.

For an experiment, I asked my wife to hide several AirTags and Tiles around the house and the time it took to find them.

In one of the tests, he hid an AirTag attached to my motorcycle key somewhere in our bedroom. Apple’s Find app used an arrow to point me to the mattress, and I pressed a button to make the tracker sound. After rummaging through the sheets and looking under the bed, I found the AirTag hidden under the mattress. It took me 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 I walk around to find a stronger connection. When I got off I could hear the melody of the Tile and the app told me the signal was getting stronger. I found the tile hidden in a trash can in the garage. It took me about a minute.

The hardest part was an AirTag hidden in a book. Apple’s Find app pointed me to the correct shelf, but couldn’t tell me exactly which book the label was on. After taking four books off the shelf and turning the pages, I found the AirTag in a cookbook. It gave my wife three minutes of entertainment.

On the other hand, to test how the trackers worked when they were too far from my cell phone, I attached a Tile and AirTag to my two dogs’ collars and put the trackers in lost mode when my wife took them out. to walk around. . Smartphones nearby helped me locate the two 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 are very inconspicuous compared to the tiles – so the sound reproduction was not very helpful in finding them. I also didn’t like this, in most cases the AirTag requires the purchase of a separate accessory, such as a key ring, to hold the tracker.

Instead, the tile has a hole in its corner to attach it to a keychain or the head of a clasp. (The AirTag’s $ 29 price tag is eclipsed by Apple’s $ 35 leather keychain.)

Still, the ultra-wideband gives AirTag a huge advantage, and even Tile believes it. 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 launched a product to compete and take advantage of this technology that allows it to do things our product cannot do,” Prober said in an interview. “We really believe that competition should be fair. Fair competition leads to better results for consumers ”.

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

I’m happy to expect these products to use this nifty wireless technology.

Because of its greater efficiency in data transmission, ultra-wideband could greatly improve future wireless devices, Nabki said. As an example, he cited wireless headphones that connect instantly, consume very little battery, and sound just as good as those that use cables.

Seems a lot better than finding the keys to the house.

Brian X. Chen is a columnist on consumer technology. Review products and write Technical correction, a column on how to solve technology problems. Prior to joining The Times in 2011, he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. @bxchen

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