— Gadgets

Apple AirTag Review: Next-Generation Tech in a Humble Tracker

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

But inside, the story gets far more interesting.

The AirTag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics to support a new wireless technology, ultrawideband, which lets you detect precise proximity between objects. Using ultrawideband, your iPhone can sense whether an AirTag is an inch or dozens of feet away from it. It’s so accurate that its app will even show an arrow pointing you toward the AirTag.

That’s far better than other trackers that rely on Bluetooth, an older wireless technology that can only roughly guess an item’s proximity. (More on how this all works later.)

Using an ultrawideband to find lost items is just one early example of what the technology can do. Because of its pinpoint-precise ability to transfer data quickly between devices, ultrawideband could become the next wireless standard that succeeds Bluetooth. It could lead to better wireless earphones, keyboards, video game controllers — you name it.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer of Spark Microsystems, a Montreal firm developing ultrawideband technology, said of trackers like the AirTag. “It sends its data fast.”

I tested Apple’s $29 AirTag, released on 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.

Apple AirTag

Last week, Tile complained that Apple had copied its product, putting smaller companies at a disadvantage in an antitrust hearing. My tests comparing AirTag and Tile found that Ultrawideband was far superior to Bluetooth for finding items. What’s more, the AirTag demonstrated that ultrawideband is next-generation tech that is worth getting excited about.

Here’s what you need to know.

How ultrawideband and Bluetooth work

Ultrawideband has been developing for over 15 years, but it was built into chips for iPhones and other smartphones only in the last two years. Using an ultrawideband to find a tracker works similarly to sonar, which detects objects underwater. You ping the tag, and the title bounces back 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 pushes out a continuous signal in search of it. The farther you move away from the tracker, the weaker the movement gets; the closer you move toward it, the stronger it becomes. This technique tells you roughly how far away you are from the tracker.

Tile vs. AirTag

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

Tile uses Bluetooth technology to find items with both iPhones and Android phones. Open the Tile app, select a thing, and hit the “find” button. The app will look for the Tile and send a signal to connect, making the tracker play a melody. If the signal connection is weak, it will tell you to move around until the movement strengthens. If your phone can’t find a Tile because it is outside its 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 its location with the Tile network, showing where it was last spotted on a map.

Apple’s AirTag works with iPhones, both new and old. More recent devices (the iPhone 11 and 12 series) can utilize Ultrawideband’s special locator abilities. You open the Find My app, select an item, and tap Find to find a thing. From there, the app will form a connection with the AirTag. The app combines data gathered with the phone’s camera, sensors, and ultrawideband chip to direct you to the tag, using an arrow to point you to it. Older iPhones can track AirTags with Bluetooth using a method similar to Tiles.

Like Tile, when an AirTag is lost and outside the 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 was last spotted on a map.

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at mehlogy.com I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

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