Location, location, location. That’s a buzzword in the techsphere these days with Apple launching its Bluetooth trackers in April and Tile due to join the Amazon Sidewalk network mid-June. Thanks to these tiny adhesive-backed trackers, we can keep track of items we don’t want to lose. Who knew we misplaced so many things?
The object I’m most concerned about losing is my phone, but you need the phone to locate the AirTag via the Find My app, so if I lose my phone, it can’t find itself if I leave it at a store.
But that didn’t stop me from getting a couple. I’m a sucker for an Apple product that sells for under three figures, even if I don’t know what I’ll do with it. The $29 investment in the tracker left room in the budget for accessorizing, too. I got a sharp-looking brown leather housing to fit over the tiny tag that’s the size of a coupla stacked quarters, and I stuck it on a key ring. And because I could get two tags and the handsome leather case for under $100, I did.
Keys are one of the suggested use cases for the AirTag that Apple offers up, in case you can’t decide where to plant one. The other things Apple thinks you’ll lose include handbags and headphones, backpacks, jackets, luggage, wallets and umbrellas. I like my bumbershoot, but I wouldn’t spend $29 to track a $16 item. Where would you put one on an umbrella, anyway?
You can give your precious object a custom name, which will pop up on your phone when you go into the Find My app. Cute little icons for things like keys and cars show up in Maps, which gives you directions to the item if you need them. That could come in handy for the collar of a St. Bernard who likes to explore the neighborhood, but Apple says tags aren’t meant to find Fido. That hasn’t stopped a pack of dog collar companies from selling them on Amazon.
I’m guessing Apple doesn’t want responsibility for Fido, who might wander beyond the FindMy range, and the owner would then only see the last known location of the pup rather than the true location.
AirTags locate nearby lost items using Precision Finding, enabled by the U1 chip in the iPhone 11 and 12 that uses ultrawideband for location down to the foot when the devices are in Bluetooth range of each other.
Apple says Precision Finding “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.” It was kinda fun when the tactile pulses in my phone sped up as I got warmer to my keys in the other room, which the app told me were 13 feet away. That was as the crow flies in my apartment; they were more like 20 feet away since I can’t walk through walls.
If you’re beyond Precision Finding range, the crowdsourced Find My network takes over. “Millions” of Bluetooth-enabled Apple devices “detect missing devices or items nearby, and report their approximate location back to the owner,” Apple says. The company promises the entire process is “end-to-end encrypted and anonymous, so no one else, not even Apple or the third-party manufacturer, can view a device’s location or information.”
Even Good Samaritan Android users can play lost and found via the NFC chip in their phones. They place their phone near an AirTag, and once scanned, an alert pops up directing them to a link if the tag has been logged as lost. They get instructions on how to contact the tag’s owner and return the item to them. That sounds like a lot of work, but random acts of kindness do happen.
The other item I wanted to monitor, our car, wasn’t on the list of Apple’s suggested items to track. Maybe Apple figures most people’s cars live in their garages and are pretty easy to find, though enough trips up and down the rows of a Target parking lot after forgetting where you parked would be a valid reason to have a tracker in it.
I live in New York City and have to move the car a couple of times a week for alternate-side-of-the-street parking. And a couple of times a month I forget where the car is parked. It’s embarrassing to walk up and down the streets of Greenwich Village hunting for a car, so the tracker can lead me back to the spot of the last parallel parking challenge before I have to do it all over again.
Of course, I didn’t need to pay $29 for a tracking disk to show me the car on an app: I already had that capability in Maps, which drops a parked car pin when I leave the vehicle. Still, I discreetly placed an AirTag in the car anyway as a low-cost Lo-Jack alternative. Apple doesn’t encourage that, either, but I figure it can’t hurt. If my tracker hasn’t communicated with my phone in three days, it will start to beep, so I can see why it’s not the best stolen car tracker, but as someone on an Apple discussion board said, “you still have time to find your car before it tells the thief he’s being stalked by a foreign airtag.”
Speaking of stalking, Apple took into account nefarious uses of the tiny devices and gives them the power to “discourage unwanted tracking.” If someone tries to plant an AirTag on me to find out where I live, my iPhone will suss out the alien Bluetooth signal and alert me that an unknown AirTag is there.
Reddit is full of questions about AirTags, like what if you’re at work and run to Starbucks for coffee but leave your keys on your desk? Do your co-workers’ iPhones start beeping because an unknown AirTag is nearby? There’s little incentive to steal an AirTag since one device can’t be paired with more than one phone, but that brought questions about family sharing. What happens if your wife takes your luggage on a trip, and there’s an AirTag attached to your iPhone ID?
Other points of confusion: how AirTags affect a phone’s battery life and whether phones that don’t have the latest iOS update can get AirTag alerts. What happens if someone attaches an AirTag to another person’s Android phone? Will they get stalking alerts like an iPhone does?
A lot goes on in the AirTag world that we don’t actually see. There’s no display on the device itself and you can’t power it on or off. Apple says battery life is over a year, but already some users are complaining they’ve had to replace theirs. Me? I’m still trying to find a really good use case for one. If it could only find the car and park it, too.