Although I have several Android products (and Amazon Fire alternatives), this is a household that lives in an Apple ecosystem. That’s important to note because the Apple AirTags require you to be part of that. They can and will only work if you have an Apple ID, and have a device such as an iPhone or iPad to track the AirTag device. If you don’t have this then you’re already on to a loser I’m afraid, and you’ll have to look at devices by other manufacturers.
One of the best known other manufacturer is Tile. They’ve been around a few years and I’ve had four such devices by them for about two years. Two Tile Mates, and two Tile Slims. These are devices that you put on a keyring, or in your wallet/purse, and should you lose or misplace them you can track them down using an app on your phone. The app works with iOS and Android, and works quite well. They operate on Bluetooth so their effectiveness is limited by the range of that technology, so great for finding you wallet before you rush out of the door but not so good if you drop your keys on Snowdon.
Apple’s AirTag operated using the same base technology so should, at least in theory, also be as good/limited as the Tile products. Except the AirTag isn’t limited by that because it also uses Apple’s brilliant Find My network. This is the App that allows all Apple devices to be tracked by their owners by being detected using the all of the other millions of Apple devices around the world. If someone comes within range of your lost device then its location is pinged back to your phone. The person walking past doesn’t know its there, unless you actively send your contact details out, but you will still receive the location. It’s really quite an incredible piece of technology, and I was looking forward to seeing it in operation here. I’ve found an iPhone before using the technology, and likewise my wife and I use it to locate each other when one of us is out walking the dog for example.
Which brings me to my reason for buying the AirTag. I already have the Tiles so I don’t need to replace them. What I wanted to see was whether the AirTag could be used to track my dog. Apple have distanced themselves from selling AirTag as a means of tracking a pet or child, most likely for legal reasons, but that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t use it for that very reason. Our dog, a lunatic border collie called Storm, has a Tractive GPS tracker. It’s an enormous thing, eats batteries and gives off a lot of very odd locations and false alarms. My review of that product is available on Amazon to read my comprehensive thoughts on that so I won’t dwell here, but I wondered if the AirTag could do a better job.
For a controlled experiment I asked my wife to go and hide the AirTag, Tile Mate and Tractive GPS in the garden and then I went out with my iPhone and the respective apps to see if I could find them. Of the three, only the Tractive was found without fault. It wasn’t perfect, as the sound it emitted was high-pitched but not very loud, but it was loud enough that I could hear it from where the app had directed me to. The Tile Mate, however, didn’t work at first (the battery had died and it hadn’t told me). After replacing the battery we tried again…and still nothing. I wandered around the garden and it would say “Your Tile is nearby, hold on while we connect…” and nothing would happen. Then, something clicked into place, and it found it. I was standing virtually on it at the time, but it detected it. I then walked away to see how long it remained in range and it was about 50ft, and the multi-tone sound was still clear even on a windy day.
Then I tried the AirTag. Like the Tile, nothing happened. But unlike the Tile, it didn’t suddenly kick in. I wandered around the garden and nothing came up. It just said “Connected, signal is weak, try moving around”, My wife even pointed out exactly where the AirTag was and I stood over it, and still nothing. I rebooted the app and still nothing. While talking, still standing over the AirTag, it suddenly appeared on my screen. As you can see on the video, I was 3ft away from it when it appeared. I walked away to see how long it would keep the signal and it faded at 39 feet. The alert sound it omits is a multi-tone, like the Tile, however it is much quieter. I struggled to hear it at the 39 feet limit.
The results showed to me a few things. The Tile worked further away than the AirTag did when using purely Bluetooth, and it was also much louder and therefore easier to pinpoint from a further distance. The benefit of the AirTag, the use of the Find My network, is only a benefit when there are other Apple device users within range of the AirTag. Now, this is more likely to occur in built up areas, but not so likely in rural areas. It doesn’t mean that someone won’t walk past your keys on Ben Nevis with an iPhone, and any chance is still a better chance than those same keys with a Tile Mate, but you need to be clear that it won’t guarantee them being found. Also, when it comes to items lost outside then GPS is clearly still the most effective method. Just don’t expect it to find your keys under the sofa in your house. GPS doesn’t like having a roof over its head.
So, the performance of the AirTag wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Even in the house it would still tell me that the signal was weak occasionally. When it did lock on, the tracking on the app was much better than the competitors, but it wasn’t reliable enough in getting that lock. And then there’s the physical form of the AirTag. It’s about the diameter of a £2 coin, but it’s a great deal deeper in profile. I don’t recall seeing many press shots in profile, all side shots seem to be with it in a keyring. It’s not a shape that you could put in your wallet. A purse or handbag is fine, but not a wallet. And, if you want to put it onto a keyring…well you’ve got to buy the keyring. It doesn’t have a hole to clip a keyring to, so you have to buy a special one. You can buy a cheap one off of Amazon, or pay Apple more money than the cost of the device for their own brand one. Really Apple, I love you to bits but you’re taking the mickey a little with that one!
In summary, I’ve been left a little disappointed. I’d hoped for more. I’m sure that in the right conditions when the Find My network is able to stretch its legs and show what an incredible facility it is then yes, it’ll be a winner. But in my test, it just didn’t do what I expected of it. I write a lot of reviews, a great number of them have been about one of the many Apple devices that my wife and I own. A pair of iPhone 11 Pros, iPad Air Gen 3 & 4 and Apple Pencils, Apple Watches, AirPod Pros and Apple TVs. Each and every one of them I’ve confidently expressed my admiration for and felt that, for me at least, they were the best brand for that type of product. The AirTag, however, is the first time I’ve actually stopped and said, “you know what, Apple isn’t the best.”