Review: Apple AirTag

They have been rumored for about a couple of years now, and it got to the point where they were as mythical as a unicorn. But the Apple AirTag has finally been released. This is Apple’s Bluetooth LE and Ultra Wide Band tracking device that fully integrates with the Apple ecosystem.

The AirTag is composed of white plastic with a stainless steel top. You can get the plastic part engraved with initials or an emoji. The stainless steel part is a fingerprint magnet and scratches insanely easily. It that bothers you, DBrand will be able to help you with that with a selection of skins to cover the stainless steel section of the AirTag. It weighs as much as a couple of Canadian quarters. The AirTag is IP67 water resistant which means it has been tested to work for up to 30 minutes while under 15cm to 1m of water.

For size comparison purposes, here’s an AirTag next to a Canadian $2 coin (a.k.a. a “toonie”):

In terms of thickness, it’s about slightly more than two “loonies” in thickness.

Now the AirTag can’t be attached to anything by itself. You need some sort of holder to attach it to anything. Which to be honest is a bit of a #Fail as Tile and other don’t need accessories to be attached to anything. Apple can of course help you with that with a suite of accessories. I chose the cheapest one that was available:

This is the Belkin Secure Holder with Key Ring for AirTag. It is two pieces of plastic which comes with either a keychain or a strap. It is easy to assemble and holds the AirTag securely. And at $16 CDN, it’s by far the cheapest option for AirTag users. But Apple has more expensive options all the way up to the Hermes stuff which is insanely expensive.

Now setting the up is insanely easy. Unwrap the AirTag and pull this wrapping out of the battery compartment. A sound should play which means the AirTag is live. At that point you bring it next to your iPhone. This is the next thing that should happen:

You should see this prompt. Simply click Connect and follow the prompts. It will walk you through naming the AirTag and tying it to your Apple ID. The process takes about a minute and is insanely easy. It will then show up in the Find My app under the Items tab.

Once I did that, I was able to do some initial testing. The first thing that I did test how loud it is. Using my Apple Watch Series 6 I got a measurement of 80dB. For comparison purposes I used a Tile Pro and it got 85dB. So it is loud, but not as loud as the Tile. Having said that, the sound that the AirTag generates is high pitched and the frequency of the sound will modulate which will get your attention.

The next thing that I did test is how easy it is to find items. To make it interesting, I enlisted the help of my wife and her iPhone XR. The plan was that we would put AirTags on our house keys and leave them in our car. Then take a walk for a few kilometers, put the AirTags into Lost Mode which will enlist the help of Apple device users to find them. Then we will try to find them. So we parked the car, left the keys in the car, walked about 2.5 kilometers away, and then activated Lost Mode. Now once we activated Lost Mode, it required you to enter a phone number and it locks the AirTag to stop people from pairing it to their Apple ID. After activating Lost Mode, it took three minutes for me to see this prompt on my Apple Watch:

My wife got this a minute later on her iPhone:

This illustrates the AirTag’s greatest strength which is the number of iPhones that are out there who are passively looking for AirTag and other iOS and macOS devices. There are 1 billion or more Apple devices made up of iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and the like out there which can help you to find your lost devices. And the fact that it took four minutes or less to find the AirTags was impressive.

If you click on this notification, it will show you the general location of the item and you can navigate to it using Apple Maps. Once you get close, you can use your phone to find the exact location. I did a screen recording of my experience on my iPhone 12 Pro using the Precision Finding feature and you can see it below in real time:

Now I had to be close to the car for it to be able to connect to it and find it. Roughly 7M or 23 feet away to be specific. Then it was able to lead me right to it. And the fact that the closer that I got to it, the more haptic feedback the phone produced was a great help. But it was less cool for my wife as she could only get as far getting into the general area. But because she doesn’t have a U1 Ultra Wide Band chip in her iPhone XR, she had to play a game of “Marco Polo” using the play a sound feature to find it. Thus if you really want to leverage the full abilities of the AirTag, you really need an iPhone 11 or 12. I should also note that if someone else finds an item with an AirTag on it, it has an NFC tag that can be used by an Android or iOS device to get information to return it to that owner. On top of that, there is also a function within the Find My app that allows the easy identification of a found AirTag. A cool party trick is that you can use Siri to find your keys for you. Ask her to find your keys for example and she will play a sound on the AirTag in question. And if you have multiple items with the word “keys” in them, she will clarify which one you want her to find.

Some other notes. The AirTag appears to have upgradable firmware. Let me show you:

If you pull up the AirTag in the Find My app and tap on the battery icon, you will see the serial number and the firmware version. Thus to me, it implies that the firmware will be updated from time to time, likely in a similar way that AirPods are updated. Which is that they do it in the background via Bluetooth. But I couldn’t find anything confirming that so this is just a guess on my part.

Another thing that I will note is that the battery is user replaceable:

The AirTag uses a very common CR2032 battery which is easy and cheap to source everywhere. Taking the AirTag apart is similar to opening a pill bottle with a child proof cap.

Finally, to stop some low life scumbag from using an AirTag to track you, Apple has a number of features to stop that from happening. Specifically:

  1. If you have an iPhone and an AirTag that doesn’t belong to you is detected on your person moving with you and separated from its owner, you will get an alert on your iPhone. You can then find the AirTag, get the serial number off of it (which law enforcement with the right warrant can use to get info on the owner seeing as AirTags have to paired to an Apple ID), and allow you to disable it by walking you through removing the battery.
  2. The AirTag will play a sound after “a period of time” in the same scenario whether you have an iPhone or not.

While this is a unique feature as Tile and Samsung in the case of their SmartTracker device have nothing like this, it to me seems that Apple largely focused this feature around the Apple ecosystem. I think that they really need to do more in terms of evolving this into something that ensures your safety regardless of what device you happen to carry.

I should also mention that Apple did get the privacy features that Apple did get right. Each AirTag sends out a unique encrypted Bluetooth identifier. Other Apple devices can detect it and relay the location of the AirTag directly to an owner’s Apple ID account. This entire process is end-to-end encrypted so that no one but the owner of the AirTag ever has access to the AirTag’s current or past location. Or to put it another way, the person who passively relays the lost AirTag’s location to you never actually knows it happened and even if they did, they can’t get to the location data. And in typical Apple fashion, Apple doesn’t have access to that data either. Furthermore the Bluetooth identifiers that AirTags emit are not only randomized but are rotated many times a day and are never reused. In short, this will protect you from scenarios like this one, or this one that were related to being tracked via WiFi which forced Apple to do something to protect their users. That’s a complete non-issue with the AirTag.

Gripes? Beyond the things that I have pointed out earlier, I do have three other things to mention:

  • There aren’t alternate form factors available for specific use cases. For example, Tile has a credit card sized tracker called the Tile Slim which makes it easy to slip into a wallet. Slipping an AirTag into a wallet will make it bulge. I would like to see Apple make an AirTag in a slimmer form factor with the same feature set.
  • The second thing to mention is that the experience is inconsistent or non-existent depending on the Apple device. By that I mean that if you use the web version of the Find My app, you can’t see your AirTags at all. Also if you have an Apple Watch, there’s no Find My app at all that allows you to see your AirTags. On top of that the Apple Watch Series 6 has a U1 Ultra Wide Band chip in it which would be perfect for helping you to find things from your Apple Watch. But that functionality is simply not present. Hopefully it will be. Someday.
  • Finally, there’s no way for my wife and I to see each others AirTags despite the fact that we’re set up on Apple Family Sharing. That’s strange as thanks to Family Sharing, we can see each others iPhones, MacBooks, and Apple Watches. So why not AirTags? That simply doesn’t make sense. Especially since Tile allows you to share your Tile devices with others.

AirTags come in a one pack at a cost of $39 CDN each or $129 CDN for a four pack. Assuming you have an iPhone 11 or 12 which fully leverage the features of the AirTag, this is the best tracking device that’s available despite the flaws that it have which I assume will be ironed out over time.

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