airtags keychain

What’s an AirTag? Apple’s new trackers, explained

Apple’s AirTag is not a revolutionary new product. Rather, it’s a significant refinement of an idea that, up until now, has been fairly niche. It works very, very well, but it works so well it seems to undermine Apple’s attempts to focus its products on privacy and security.

We spent several days testing AirTags in different situations, and we found that they work stunningly well—at least in a dense urban environment with iPhones all around.

I can’t imagine recommending any of the preceding attempts at this concept over AirTags if you have an iPhone. (Sadly, Android users are quite literally left to their own devices—in more ways than usual, as you’ll see later in this review.)

AirTags are easy to use, well designed, and relatively affordable. If you’re in the market for something like this, they’re easy to recommend. But we’re a little more worried about what these AirTags mean for the people who don’t buy one. Stick around and we’ll explain.

Each AirTag can be described as a small, silver metal disc embedded inside a slightly larger white disc. All in all, it’s 1.26 inches in diameter (31.9mm) and 0.31 inches thick (8mm). It weighs 0.39 ounces (11g).

Apple does a great job with making most of its products feel expensive and premium; the tactile sensation suggests a quality product, thanks to the materials, weighting, and other factors. That’s definitely the case here. Competing products from Tile or Samsung feel cheaper by comparison.

Like others who have used AirTags, I noticed that the metal side of an AirTag is easy to scuff up in normal use—especially if you just toss it in a bag without attaching it to something. This doesn’t really matter to me, but it’ll bug some people, especially since the design is quite attractive. Expect scratches within weeks, if not days.

A single AirTag costs $29, while a four-pack costs $99. At purchase, you can add a custom engraving of either text or emoji to your AirTags. The emoji idea is clever, because there are many emoji options that might fit whatever personal item you’re tracking with the AirTag. There’s no additional cost for these engravings, but they might push the ship date back a bit.

While some trackers like this have holes or hooks on them that allow you to easily attach them to your belongings without additional equipment, AirTags don’t. In many cases, you’ll have to buy one of the accessories, like the key ring or loop holder.

This effectively adds to the cost, so it’s important to remember when considering this product. Sure, you can shove an AirTag into your purse and let it just bounce around in there, and that’ll work fine. But for many other use cases, you’ll have to shell out at least $13 for one of the cheaper Belkin holders or at least $29 for the options made by Apple itself.

On the other hand, we were pleased to learn that the AirTag uses a standard, relatively common battery (CR2032) and that the battery is user-replaceable. Apple says the battery will typically last up to a year. We obviously couldn’t test that within the scope of this review, but we have usually found Apple’s battery estimates for its products to be accurate in the past.

The AirTag is rated IP67 for splash, water, and dust resistance. That means that, if it falls in the water, it will still work as long as it doesn’t go much deeper than one meter and you get it out within 30 minutes.

Functionality

Sold through the iPhone section of Apple’s online store, AirTags are designed to work exclusively with Apple’s smartphones or tablets. So if you have an Android phone and no iPad, there’s no reason to even bother buying one of these things; the AirTag will be useless.

If you have one of the supported mobile devices, though, you can use Apple’s Find My app (or Siri) to locate your AirTag, whether the tag is in the room with you or you left it at your local coffee shop three hours ago.

How it works

The AirTag isn’t a GPS-enabled device. Rather, it communicates with devices in Apple’s Find My network with regular pings. So the more iPhones, iPads, or Macs are connected to the Internet near the AirTag, the faster it will be found and the more accurate its reported location will be.

This fits a pretty consistent theme with some of Apple’s products and services: they are definitely designed for people in or near major metropolitan areas. Like AppleCare and any number of other Apple offerings, AirTags become far less attractive in a rural or other low-density setting without as many Apple services or devices nearby.

But perhaps even more so than anything to do with the App Store or whatnot, this is where Apple has an advantage that Tile simply cannot match. In most major US city centers, you could just about throw a rock (or an AirTag) in any direction at random and have a good chance of it landing within two meters of an Apple product. That network of devices will ensure that your AirTag will be relatively quick to find.

We didn’t test an AirTag directly against Tile, but some other publications did, and as expected, they found that an AirTag generally took a lot less time to locate than a Tile device in a public place. There are simply more check-in points for the AirTag, which makes the process of finding it both faster and more accurate.

Anyway, the Find My network is just the first part of the process. Once you get close enough, you can use the Find My app to make the AirTag play a noise to help you locate it. If you have one of the recent iPhones (iPhone 11 or later) with Apple’s new U1 ultra-wideband chip, you can use an ultra-precise on-screen locator to find the device once you’re in roughly the same room.

Finally, you can set the AirTag to “Lost Mode” if you know it’s missing and you need it to be found. You’ll volunteer your phone number, and other iOS users who find the AirTag can see that number and contact you. Further, you’ll receive a notification as soon as its location has been determined in the Find My network.

Trying one out

When I tested the AirTag, I tried leaving it out in a nearby crowded park in Chicago and then finding it, and I tried burying it in my sofa and seeing how long I needed to find it. In both cases, I was able to zero-in on it shortly after I started looking for it.

The AirTag worked just as intended, and I didn’t notice any problems other than the fact that it took just a few minutes for its position in the park to be isolated.

Setup was breezy, too; it works just like AirPods. You move the AirTag close to your iPhone, and it will be detected within a few seconds. You then follow just a couple of quick on-screen steps, and it’s good to go.

All told, an AirTag keychain is easy to use and quite reliable—much more than other products like it, in my experience. But many potential users of this product are more worried about privacy than anything: after all, if you have a tracking device on your person or your possessions, it had better be absolutely secure. So let’s talk about that.

Privacy and safety

Apple says that the entire process is anonymous and end-to-end encrypted, from the AirTag itself to the devices that discover and report its location. Apple further assures users that only they can see any information about their AirTag. None of the data is stored on the AirTag itself, and the Find My network’s Bluetooth signals rotate frequently.

For those reasons and others, I don’t think most users need to be worried about someone using their own AirTag to track them. But there’s another problem that very well could be an important consideration for many people: the potential for someone else to use their AirTag to track and stalk you.

Apple anticipated this concern, and to the company’s credit, it has done far more than any competitor that sells these kinds of trackers to counteract it. But I’ll spoil the conclusion right now: I still don’t think Apple has done enough.

If someone places an AirTag on your person or in your possessions, your first line of defense may be a notification to your iPhone that a foreign AirTag is present. Apple designed the iPhone-AirTag connection to do this under two conditions: after the AirTag has stuck with you for a certain “continuous” amount of time that Apple deems sufficient to be considered abnormal, or if you arrive at the location that either your iPhone’s machine learning smarts have identified as home or that you have manually recorded as home.

This is all good, but I don’t think this defense activates quickly enough—it needs to be a bit more aggressive. The length of time doesn’t seem to be consistent, but it seems to be in the ballpark of a couple of hours.

But there’s a much more critical problem: this feature is only available to people with devices running iOS 14.5. That leaves users who haven’t updated their iPhones on their own, but—more critically given that most people update their iPhones fairly promptly—it leaves anyone with an Android phone (that is, the significant majority of people) without this line of protection.

This is a frustrating situation that, to the (unrealistically) cynical could appear like Apple is deliberately providing safety features that keep iPhone owners safe but leave Android users to the dogs. I don’t believe this was Apple’s conscious objective—it surely had more to do with the practicality of how to make a system that uses Android work—but it’s not a terrific look, and it’s one of those cases where Apple’s decision not to be platform-neutral or open-standard friendly looks sinister if you’re inclined to see the ink blot that way, even if that wasn’t the intent on Apple’s part.

If you don’t have an iPhone running iOS 14.5, you’ll have to turn to the next line of defense: the AirTag will start making a noise when it has been separated from its owner’s other devices for a while. Unfortunately, that timeframe is three days—meaning someone who is stalking you has plenty of time to invade your privacy, harm you, or anything else. I just can’t believe Apple thought that was the right amount of time, and I don’t understand what the thought process was there. But it needs to be much, much shorter.

Folks at Apple have apparently said this is a server-side setting that can be changed as needed, and I’m hoping that’s going to happen.

A rare privacy misstep from Apple

The original vision for the AirTag that leaked in the months (well, years, really) leading up to this announcement was in myriad ways more futuristic and interesting than what we see here. That was because Apple promised to provide experiences not just faster and more accurate than what we’ve seen before, but transformationally different, thanks to augmented reality. None of that is here yet, making the AirTag a less interesting product for it—but it might come later.

That said, AirTags work fantastically well—better, probably, than you even expected. In urban areas, there are so many Find My-connected devices around, AirTags really are like magic. You can consistently find your lost items quickly, easily, and (it seems) securely, whether you dropped them miles away or lost them in your own couch cushions.

I have no complaints about the user experience or functionality of AirTags for those who buy them to use them for their intended purpose. They are much better than most preceding competitors, thanks primarily to Apple’s huge install base. Your mileage may vary significantly, though, if you’re not in a city or region stuffed to the gills with Apple customers whose devices can recognize your lost items. (And forget about it if you lose your AirTag while hiking in the wilderness.)
But I have deep concerns about how AirTags could be used outside their intended purpose. They can be used maliciously to track people, particularly people who do not have iPhones that can detect them quickly.

I’m in a weird position for a reviewer: if you’re looking for a product like this for its intended use case and you live in Apple’s ecosystem, I recommend the AirTag. But I’m also anxious that such a product exists in its current form. Older trackers were one thing—they could take hours to zero-in on someone, and accuracy was often rough. With Apple’s Find My network? As some song lyrics go: No one man should have all that power.

I think Apple, in all likelihood, will take these issues seriously in the future, given that so much of the company’s future marketing and product strategy hinges on privacy, health, and safety. I’m eager to see what changes Apple makes at the network level to address these concerns, because they do need to be addressed.

So yes, the AirTag works great. It just might work a little too great right now.

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