October 20, 2021
Asia Consumer Tech Innovation Technology

Apple AirTag Review: Works Well, Maybe Too Well

After months of rumors, Apple finally launched its lost item-tracker last month. Named the AirTag, the small plastic disc works so well they’re not just going to threaten the entire business of Tile (the Silicon Valley company known for its eponymous trackers), but perhaps personal privacy as well. Apple is, however, hard at work to prevent the latter, and I feel like it’ll figure it out. After all, it is Apple.

Design

The AirTag is slightly larger (1.26-inch in diameter) and heavier (11g) than a coin and about the thickness (8mm) of two stacked coins. The white side is plastic, and the other side is aluminum. The aluminum part can be twisted off to reveal a removable CR2032 battery inside. Apple says the battery will power the AirTag for one year. These batteries are small and cheap enough that replacing them should be no issue for most.

They’re small and light enough to be placed inside the coin pouch of most wallets, or the small key pocket in a pair of jeans. The idea of the AirTag is that it can be attached to items like keys or luggage or laptop bags, so that if those items are misplaced or stolen, we can track their whereabouts. But Apple being Apple, the AirTag in its naked form cannot attach to anything naturally. There are no holes (like Tile or Samsung trackers, for example) for an easy loop around key rings; there’s no clip to wrap around a suitcase zipper. Unless you’re willing to do something tacky like just tape or glue the AirTag onto an item, you’re going to need to buy an accessory like a loop or strap, which Apple will happily sell you ranging from $30 to $440 (it’s a Hermes branded leather luggage strap with a slot for the AirTag). The good news is, Apple products are so popular, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of other brands making far cheaper accessories within a month.

How does it work?

Setting up the AirTag is dead simple: as soon as you activate the tracker, if you have an iPhone nearby, you’ll be prompted to pair the two. Once you connect that specific AirTag to your iPhone, it is bonded to your Apple ID. From there, you’ll be able to see the whereabouts of the AirTag directly in the “Find My” app of not just your iPhone, but your iPad and Mac computer, too, if you own those items.

If the item is misplaced but within your proximity (like, say, you dropped your AirTag-attached keys behind the sofa), you can have the Find My app send a bluetooth alert to the tracker to make an audible beep.

If you can’t hear the beep for whatever reason (maybe you’re in a noisy environment) and you own an iPhone 11 or 12, you can use “Precision Finding,” which uses the U1 chip inside the recent iPhones to build a much stronger connection than just Bluetooth, which then allows the phone to “guide” you to the lost AirTag. This guiding process is really clever and well done: an arrow pops up on the iPhone screen, and as you walk in that direction, the arrow will rotate not just left or right, but even up or down to provide a visual guide to the exact location of the AirTag. So if the item is under the sofa, the arrow will point downwards as you approach the sofa; if the item is above you on top of a closet, the arrow will point upwards. As you get closer, the phone vibrations will even grow more intense. Unfortunately, you need to be within 30 feet or so for Precision Finding to work, if it’s not working, then you know the item is further than that.

If the AirTag-attached item is lost in another location not within your proximity (maybe you left it at your friend’s house or at the local coffee shop), or if it’s been stolen by someone who’s already left the premises, the third way to track the lost AirTag is to use the Find My Network. This is essentially a crowd-sourced network consisting of Apple products who have opted into the network (Apple says there are over a billion devices opted in already). When that lost AirTag is within the proximity of another opted-in Apple device, that AirTag will ping its location to that device, allowing you to see its latest location. Let’s say someone has stolen your bag containing an AirTag. Even if he’s halfway across town, another stranger’s iPhone could help you locate the thieve.

This is where the AirTag has a leg up on all the competition. The basic tracking stuff for lost items within your home is easy to recreate with a competing product like Tile or Samsung’s SmartTags. But neither Tile nor Samsung will ever have an item as ubiquitous as an iPhone to help build a tracking network like Apple’s Find My Network. Heck, no other company has such a product, period.

Where the AirTag could create problems

But here’s where things get scary: because the Find My Network is so vast and work so well—think about how many iPhones you encounter in a day—it makes the AirTag a potential stalking device. For example, someone could in theory slip an AirTag into my bag without me knowing, and track my whereabouts throughout the day.

Apple has already created some safeguards to prevent malicious use of the AirTag. For example, if there’s a loose AirTag (meaning one that’s away from its owner but moving out in the wild) in my proximity for long periods of time, my iPhone will ping an alert telling me there’s a foreign AirTag following me. But this alert requires the latest version (14.5) of iOS to work. I’ve upgraded to iOS 14.5, but there are others out there who have not. Plus, there’s also a chance I don’t see the notification (maybe I am at the movie theater and haven’t checked my phone; or maybe my phone is out of battery).

There’s also the fact that the alert can only be sent to iPhones. For Android users the only alert they will get is the beep that will emit from a loose AirTag in the wild—good luck hearing that in a bar or in busy city streets.

There are a lot of complicated factors at play here, so Apple can’t just do the obvious and make the alerts stronger and more frequent. Apple can’t risk someone getting a dozen false alerts in an hour just because they’re at a coffee shop with several foreign AirTags.

But until Apple figures out the exact balance and science of how and when to send alerts, right now AirTags can unfortunately be used to stalk. This is not just an Apple-only problem, of course—other trackers can also be used maliciously, it’s just Apple’s trackers work better because its iPhones are so globally beloved.

I am confident Apple will figure it out; they didn’t become the world’s biggest and most influential company by not solving problems.

The price is cheap enough for most iPhone users

Apple’s AirTag sells for $29 per piece, or in a four-pack for $99. These prices can be considered low for an Apple product, and people who are already entrenched in Apple’s entire ecosystem will have no problem picking them up. I can see AirTags being as ubiquitous as AirPods and iPhones in a year or two. Apple just needs to figure out how to solve the unwanted tracking issue before then.