Outwardly, Apple’s new AirTag looks like a hot product that we’ve all seen before. It’s a disk-shaped tracking gadget that can be attached to items like house keys to help you find them.
But inside, the story gets a lot more interesting.
The AirTag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics to support a new wireless technology called Ultrawideband, which allows you to see close proximity between objects. With Ultrawideband, your iPhone can detect whether an AirTag is an inch or several tens of meters away from it. It’s so accurate that its app even shows an arrow pointing you toward the AirTag.
That’s far better than other trackers based on Bluetooth, an older wireless technology that can only roughly guess the proximity of an object. (Later more.)
Using ultrawideband to find lost items is just an early example of what the technology can do. Because of its precise ability to transfer data quickly between devices, Ultrawideband could become the next wireless standard to successfully complete Bluetooth. It could lead to better wireless headphones, keyboards, and video game controllers – what you call it.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer of Spark Microsystems, a Montreal-based company that develops ultra-wideband technology, of trackers like the AirTag. “It sends its data very, very quickly.”
I tested Apple’s $ 29 AirTag, which will be released on Friday, for about a week. I used the tracker to find house keys, find my dogs, and track down a backpack. I also ran similar tests on Tile, a $ 25 tracker based on Bluetooth that has been around for about eight years.
Last week, Tile complained in an antitrust hearing that Apple copied its product and penalized smaller businesses. In my tests comparing the AirTag and Tile, I found that Ultrawideband was far superior to Bluetooth when looking for items. In addition, the AirTag showed that ultra-wideband is a next-generation technology to be excited about.
Here’s what you need to know.
How Ultrawideband and Bluetooth work
Ultrawideband has been in development for more than 15 years but has only been incorporated into chips for iPhones and other smartphones in the last two years.
When you use Ultrawideband to find a tracker, it works much like sonar, which detects objects underwater. You ping the tag, and the tag pinged your phone back. The time it takes for the ping to return is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.
However, when you use bluetooth to find a tracker, your phone sends a continuous signal to look for it. The further you get away from the tracker, the weaker the signal becomes and the closer you get to it, the stronger it becomes. This technique is used to say roughly how far you are from the tracker.
Tile against AirTag
What do the two underlying wireless technologies mean in practice?
Tile works with both iPhones and Android phones using bluetooth technology to find objects. Open the tile app, select an item, and click the “Search” button. The app searches for the tile and sends a signal to connect. Then the tracker plays a melody. If the signal connection is weak, you will be asked to move around until the signal gets stronger.
If your phone can’t find a tile because it’s out of range, you can put it in “lost mode”. The tracker searches for other tile owners who have given the tile app access to their location in order to find other people’s lost items. If a Samaritan who owns tiles is near your tile, the device shares that person’s location with the tile network, which shows where the item was last discovered on a map.
Apple’s AirTag works with new and old iPhones. Newer devices (iPhone 11 and 12) can use the precise location functions of ultrawideband. To find an item, open the Find My Item app, select an item, and tap Search. From there, the app connects to the AirTag. The app combines the data gathered with the phone’s camera, sensors and ultra-wideband chip to guide you to the day and points to it with an arrow. Older iPhones can track AirTags using Bluetooth in a similar way to Tile.
Similar to Tile, if an AirTag is lost and out of range of your phone, you can put it in Lost mode and allow other Apple phones to find the AirTag so you can see where it was last was discovered on a map.
The advantages of Ultrawideband could easily be recognized in a few tests.
For an experiment, I asked my wife to hide several AirTags and tiles in our house and then determine how long it took me to find them.
In one test, she hid an AirTag somewhere in our bedroom that was attached to my motorcycle key. Apple’s Find My app had an arrow pointing at the mattress and I pressed a button to make the tag play a tone. After rummaging through the covers and looking under the bed, I found the AirTag crammed under the mattress. It took about 90 seconds.
Next, I had to find a tile that was attached to my house key. I opened the tile app and hit the search button. The app said the signal was weak and suggested I walk around to find a stronger connection. When I went down I could hear the melody of the tile and the app said the signal was getting stronger. I found the tile hidden in a garbage can in a garage cupboard. It took about a minute.
The hardest part was an AirTag hidden in a book. Apple’s Find My app pointed to the correct shelf, but couldn’t tell me exactly which book the label was slid into. After taking four books off the shelf and flipping through the pages, I found the AirTag in a cookbook. This gave my wife three minutes of entertainment.
To test how the trackers work when they are too far from my phone, I put a tile and an AirTag on both of my dogs’ collars, and put the tags in lost mode when my wife was taking them for a walk. Nearby smartphones eventually helped me find both trackers to show me where the dogs were in the neighborhood.
While the AirTag is a formidable demonstration of ultra-wideband technology, it isn’t the best tracker for everyone.
Because of the compatibility of the AirTag with Apple products, I would give an AirTag to an iPhone owner. But I would give a tile to a person with an Android phone.
The AirTag is far from perfect either. I wish they were louder – they’re very quiet compared to tiles – so playing sound wasn’t very helpful in finding them. I also didn’t love that the AirTag, for most purposes, requires purchasing a separate accessory like a key ring to hold the tracker in place.
In contrast, the tile has a hole punched in its corner to attach to a key ring or zipper head. (The $ 29 AirTag price is dwarfed by Apple’s $ 35 leather keyring.)
Nevertheless, Ultrawideband AirTag offers a great advantage – and even Tile is convinced of it. Tile CEO CJ Prober said last week that Apple refused to give its company access to the iPhone’s ultra-wideband chip in order to develop its own trackers that work with it.
“You have brought a competing product to market and you are using this technology that makes it possible to do things that our product cannot,” Prober said in an interview. “We really think the competition should be fair. Fair competition leads to better results for consumers. “
Apple said in a statement that it had worked hard to protect the privacy of iPhone users’ location data, adding that it was an advocate of competition. Earlier this month it was announced that it would soon release a plan for other companies to take advantage of ultra wideband technology in Apple devices.
I look forward to waiting for these products that use this nice wireless technology.
Ultrawideband could improve future wireless devices immensely because of its higher data transfer efficiency, Nabki said. As an example, he cited wireless headphones that plug in immediately, use very little battery and sound as good as wired headphones.
That sounds a lot cooler than finding house keys.