I don’t consider myself a forgetful person. I always remember my PKW (phone, keys, wallet) when I leave the house, have never accidentally left my bag on the subway, and unlike many (most?) other Apple TV owners I can’t recall ever embarking on a Siri Remote treasure hunt around my house. I’m not exactly the target audience for Apple’s AirTag – a cute, white puck you can attach to almost anything that can be tracked with your iPhone when misplaced. I also couldn’t avoid the allure of a fancy, shiny, yet surprisingly inexpensive Apple widget that I can show off on my keychain, and so an AirTag engraved with my initials arrived at my house last week.
From a design perspective there’s almost nothing to the AirTag. It’s a smooth white pebble with a stainless steel battery cover on the back adorned with an Apple logo. That’s it. Some have bemoaned the lack of a hole on the device itself for threading through a key ring or chain, but this is an Apple product after all and a hole would be unseemly. Placed inside Apple’s leather key ring (sold separately for $45 CAD, more than the $39 CAD AirTag it holds) it’s an elegant addition to any bag or set of keys. There are cheaper options for AirTag holders, but I like the premium leather look and wanted something to match my Bellroy key cover.
For a device meant to dangle from your keys or bounce around attached to your backpack, the AirTag’s biggest design flaw is its lack of durability. Early reviewers pointed out how easily the AirTag can be scratched and I’ve experienced this myself. Sliding my AirTag into the leather key ring, it brushed ever so lightly against the stainless steel button clasp inside leaving a permanent scratch on the otherwise pristine white surface. The stainless steel rear is vulnerable to scratches and scuffs too – as original iPod nano owners will remember – and I’ve already ordered a plastic protective film to cover mine. I wish Apple had achieved a better balance of design and durability for the AirTag, or maybe I care too much about protecting something that doesn’t need to remain factory fresh.
The pairing process couldn’t be simpler and mirror that of AirPods: hold the AirTag next to your iPhone and the pairing screen will pop-up from the bottom. A few taps, give it a name and… that’s it. Attach it to the item you want to track and you’re good to go. You track AirTags from a new Items tab within the Find My app, which remains one of Apple’s most baffling naming decisions in need of a change.
There are two ways you can locate a lost AirTag. First is what Apple calls Precision Finding which is intended for locating items lost nearby – within your home or apartment – and it works really well. Precision Finding uses the ultra wideband chip in the iPhone and AirTag to guide you to your lost item with a compass-like interface on your phone screen. An arrow spins around to point you in the right direction and Find My displays the approximate distance to your lost AirTag. My favourite feature of Precision Finding is that it can tell if your AirTag is on another floor of your house. I left my keys on the main floor and fired up precision finding upstairs and my iPhone alerted me that my AirTag might be directly below or above me on another floor. A small thing that makes a lot of difference and I’m glad but not surprised that Apple thought of this. You can also tap a button in Find My to start playing a sound from the AirTag’s built-in speaker which is surprisingly loud and helps with tracking down lost items that are out of sight, stuffed in a couch cushion or lost at the back of a closet.
Precision Finding lives up to its name and it’s easy to see this as the primary use-case for AirTags. Remember that ultra wideband debuted in September 2019 in the iPhone 11 family but it never really did anything. It’s likely AirTags were meant to debut alongside the iPhone 11 with precision finding as the showcase for ultra wideband.
Second is Apple’s Find My network, a feature that turns every iPhone in the world into a beacon lost AirTags can use to ping home. The AirTag doesn’t have WiFi or cellular data built-in, so if you lose one out in the world it broadcasts a Bluetooth signal that can be picked up by any nearby or passing iPhone. That iPhone sends your AirTag’s coordinates to iCloud allowing you to view its location on a map in the Find My app. In typical Apple fashion the entire process is anonymous and encrypted, similar to the COVID-19 Exposure Notification feature they developed with Google, so the nearby phone that sees your AirTag can’t tell who owns it and you never see any information about the person whose phone detected your AirTag.
This is a difficult feature to test if you’re trying to “lose” an AirTag on purpose. I ended up asking my Dad to take my AirTag to work with him and within a few minutes I could see it was at the coffee shop where Dad stops every morning. The test was successful so I promptly stopped stalking him as promised. I’m sure my AirTag was mostly talking to my Dad’s iPhone along the way, but it successfully relayed its location to iCloud while separated from me, its owner, so the Find My network did its job and would work the same way with a stranger’s iPhone. Thanks to the millions of iPhones in pockets around the world, the Find My network is truly one of those features that “only Apple” can do at this level of integration, and it works. Apple is also allowing third-party accessory makers to create Find My compatible devices, and of course the privacy conscious can opt-out of the Find My network if they so choose.
While we’re on the topic of stalking, AirTags include some thoughtful privacy features to prevent their misuse. If your iPhone detects an unknown AirTag moving with you, you’ll get a notification alerting you of its presence and after a period of time the AirTag will start playing a sound on its own in case you haven’t found it. This only works if an AirTag is separated from its owner and it’s in motion, so if you’re on a bus near someone else who has an AirTag on their backpack you won’t be notified. While these features are great and some would argue don’t go far enough, I wonder if they don’t make it more likely your lost items will be stolen. Say you accidentally leave your backpack on the bus with an AirTag inside. After a while of being separated from you, will that AirTag alert everyone on the bus with an iPhone that there’s an AirTag nearby? Will it eventually start playing a chime on its own, letting everyone know there’s a lost bag somewhere waiting to be stolen?
Apple would probably advise to put your AirTag in Lost Mode when you realize your item is missing, which will show a notification on your iPhone as soon as your AirTag is detected somewhere. Lost Mode also lets you to enter a custom message that can be viewed by someone who finds your AirTag and uses NFC to scan it with their phone (since the NFC tag opens a web link, AirTags can be scanned by Android phones too – a nice touch) so you could provide contact information or instructions for returning the lost item. But this feature relies on people a) knowing what an AirTag is and that it can be scanned with NFC, and b) being kind enough to return your lost item. I have my doubts about both those things. Perhaps that’s cynical of me, but I lived in Toronto for ten years which is enough to make anyone cynical about the goodwill of strangers. Without an AirTag at least your backpack or other item would remain silent and possibly well hidden giving you a chance to retrieve it. These anti-tracking features also limit the potential use case for AirTags in my view: I initially planned to hide one in my car in case it ever gets stolen, but if the AirTag would start beeping by itself allowing the thieves to find it and toss it out the window, then what’s the point? Not to mention the AirTag’s battery can be easily removed without any tools, rendering it useless.
As Apple’s first foray into the item tracker market, I’d say the AirTag succeeds at what it sets out to do. It’s tough to render a final verdict on a device you hope you never truly have to use, but at $39 CAD each the Find My integration and ease-of-use makes the AirTag the best item tracker option for the iPhone faithful.
Score: I give Apple’s AirTag three bananas and a bunch of grapes. That’s a decent score!