Apple AirTags review: the good, the bad, and the tiny4
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And when I say “compete”, I mean kind of obliterate since the AirTags have two things going for them — an enormous network of Apple devices that helps them stay connected to the Find My network, and a tiny form factor, which allows them to fit in almost anything (included a ton of 3rd party accessories, which are no doubt coming our way).
You will notice that I did not mention Samsung’s SmartTags in that opening statement, and that’s because AirTags and SmartTags — by themselves — are not really in a competition. Since an AirTag will only pair with an iPhone and a SmartTag will only pair with a Galaxy phone, you are basically locked into buying one or the other, depending on which phone you own. And if you own any other brand smartphone — Tile is still the tag for you.
But let’s break it down:
- Apple AirTag design, size, weight
- Apple AirTag — how to replace battery
- Apple AirTag — how it works
- Can I pair AirTags to iPad?
- Apple AirTag vs Tile vs Samsung Galaxy SmartTag
- Should you buy an Apple AirTag
Apple AirTag design
A single AirTag is relatively tiny — it’s a circle with a 1.26” diameter and a thickness of 0.31”. It’s small enough to put in a tiny pocket or compartment of your backpack, but a bit too thick to comfortably hold in the coins pocket of your wallet.
It’s extremely glossy and some people are bothered by how easy it is to smudge up or scratch. I can confirm that I managed to scratch the white plastic extremely quickly — on a laminate floor, while experimenting with hiding it around. But my guess is, once you fit it on the thing you want to track with it, you will quickly forget about its looks.
Unfortunately, the AirTag does not have a hole on its body, so you can’t put it on a keychain by itself — unlike the Samsung Galaxy SmartTag. The AirTag has been designed to be fitted in a separate accessory — be it a simple keychain or a loop knot. Apple already sells a few official accessories as well as a couple of Belkin-made ones, which are relatively cheap. We’ve also already seen other companies working on things like dog collars that have an AirTag slot in them.
- Nomad launches pet collar for AirTag
- Best Apple AirTag accessories
How to replace AirTag battery
The Apple AirTag is powered by a single 2032 pill-shaped battery. These are extremely easy to buy from any electronics store, or can even be found in your local grocery store. As per Apple’s official information, you will need to replace it roughly once per year. And, if you don’t know how much battery you have left, opening the specific AirTag in the Find My app will show you how much juice it has.
The way you go about replacing the battery is — you push in the metal part of the AirTag and rotate it counter-clockwise. Once it is unlocked, it will pop up thanks to a spring-like metal plate that’s pushing it outwards. Afterward, you just pop the new battery in, place the metal plate back on, and rotate it clockwise until it clicks in place.
How do Apple AirTags work
The Apple AirTag does not have a GPS in it or anything of the sort. It does its job by utilizing Bluetooth LE connection, the Apple U1 chip, and an NFC chip.
So, Bluetooth LE is used to connect the SmartTag to iPhones and other Apple devices. If you happen to lose your AirTag, it will continuously ping any Apple devices that are in its area, letting them “know” where it is. This signal is then sent to the Apple Find My network and you are able to view where your AirTag was last “seen”.
This information is encrypted and is happening entirely in the backend. Nobody will know that their iPhone is being used to help you find your lost keys. This is what makes the Find My network so powerful — Apple devices are super-popular and their users don’t even need to know about the technology or activate anything. You can rest assured that your lost item will be found sooner rather than later.
Don't want to be part of the network?
As a sidenote, this technology is not new — the Find My network has been operational since September of 2019 and it works for iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and Apple Watches. The point is, even if you lose your iPhone and it has no connection to the Internet, it can still send a Bluetooth signal to local Apple devices to help you locate it.
Once you are within range of your lost item, the Apple U1 chip kicks in — it uses ultra-wideband technology to help you pinpoint the location of the tag with precision. This is why it can lead you to it with instructions like “turn left, turn right”.
If you lose an AirTag, you can activate “Lost Mode”. At this point, anyone with an iPhone or an Android phone with an NFC chip can tap the AirTag and instantly get a personalized message (if you set one) and instructions on how to contact you.
Once connect an AirTag to your iCloud account, it is “forever yours” — its unique serial number is tied to your account until you manually release it. Much like how iDevices work. So, even if someone finds it and lifts it, they can’t really use it.
Apple AirTags anti-stalking feature
It’s worth noting that the Apple AirTags are not really anti-theft devices. Apple preferred to make sure nobody would use them for malicious purposes instead. You know, since an AirTag is so tiny, it’s really easy to slip it into somebody’s belongings to track them.
In our tests, an "unkown" AirTag started making its presence known in about 5 and a half hours. Now, in my case, I had an iPhone on me, so I received a notification with a detailed report — when the AirTag was first spotted as well as the full path it took with me.
However, if I didn't have an iPhone on me, the AirTag will take a full 3 days to notify me of its presence. How does it do that? Well, if you move it, it starts producing a chirping noise. Here's how a lost AirTag sounds:
If you find an unknown AirTag on your person, you can tap it with an NFC phone (Android or iPhone) and you will get instructions on how to contact the owner and how to disable the tag.
This is what you get when you scan an AirTag with an Android phone:
Can I pair AirTags to iPad or MacBook?
You can pair your AirTag to your iPhone or iPad. Once it is paired, the device gets registered to your iCloud account, which means your can look for it with any of your iPhones or iPads.
Take note: you can not register an AirTag through your MacBook, iMac, or any Mac computer. You can not look for an AirTag with the Mac version of the Find My app. Nor with the web version over at iCloud.com/find. In other words, if you want to use an AirTag, you need to have either an iPhone or iPad, period!
These three are pretty similar in how they work. They each leverage their own network, which pretty much decides how useful they will be and which one you go for.
Tile is at the biggest disadvantage here. See, the Apple AirTag leverages the Find My network, which is silently present on any and every Apple device out there in the world. The Samsung Galaxy SmartTag uses the Galaxy device network, which is also persistent on all new Galaxy phones. As for Tile — yes, there is a Tile network, but the users need to actively download the Tile app and give it permissions to actually be helpful to you. So, the network is limited to the number of Tile users in your area.
To Tile’s credit, it has spent years growing its brand and it offers a wide range of shapes and sizes for its tags. But its network is still dwarfed by Apple’s and Samsung’s.
Also, it’s worth noting that Tile does not have a tracker with ultra-wideband yet (but one is said to be coming in 2021).
The kind-of-good-news is that Apple has announced that it will open the Find My API for 3rd party developers, so if Tile is willing to pay a license to Apple (similar to MFi accessories, I would assume), it can make Tiles that work like AirTags. Although, Tile isn't very happy with Apple right now.
As far as Apple vs Samsung — the Apple AirTag’s feature set is comparable to the Galaxy SmartTag+ — the non-plus SmartTag does not have ultra-wideband, the plus does. Surprisingly, the AirTag is cheaper than a SmartTag+ — the former costs $29, the latter is $39. So, an AirTag with an accessory to hold costs kind of sort of about the same as a Galaxy SmartTag+.
But price is kind of a moot point here — if you have an iPhone, you can’t use a SmartTag+; if you have a Galaxy phone, you can’t use an AirTag and that’s that. Which is why, at the start of this review, I said that the AirTags and SmartTags are not in direct competition. They are parts of two bigger ecosystems that are competing with one another.
In terms of "Who did the better job?", I have to give it to Apple. The AirTag is smaller and looks less clunky. It also has IP68 water- and dust-resistance. The Galaxy SmartTag has no ingress protection. But hey, at least it has a big button on it that lets you either ping your phone or control any of your Samsung SmartHome devices.
Should you buy Apple AirTags?
If you have a few bucks to burn and you are deep in the Apple ecosystem — why not? A single AirTag costs $29, a pack of four costs $99. I've personally lost my car keys on a recent road trip and even though I managed to find them rolling on the dirt road, I distinctly remember going into panic mode and thinking "I should've put a tag on them!". I was lucky, I breathed a sigh of relief. I am putting tags on them!
AirTags will not help you against theft — even if the thief is unaware of the AirTag's presence, it will sound off in 5:30 hours. This is due to the anti-stalking feature, discussed above. So, worst case scenario, you have 5 hours to find your lost item. For wallets or bags lifted from public transport, this can be enough. For a bicycle that gets stolen during the night — not ideal.