AirTag Review: You Can’t Miss It If You Have An iPhone

AirTag Review: You Can’t Miss It If You Have An iPhone

Here it is the most anticipated and predictable of Apple accessories in recent years. We already knew almost everything about AirTag, even though it was officially presented in mid-April; it has been talked about for so long that it gives us the impression that it has existed for years. Yet once this small plastic and steel disc enters our life, the Apple’s ability to amaze is still confirmed, establishing a parameter around which everything else is measured.

What is AirTag

All those who have seen Tile or Filo at work immediately understand that Airtag is nothing new. Like its main competitors, the new Apple accessory is a smart tag, a small device that is applied to an object that will allow us to find it using the connection that we will have established via Bluetooth to an iPhone. Using an application (which for AirTag, as we will see is “Where is”) we will be able to locate it. But only those who conclude their examination here could deduce that AirTag is really nothing new. Just handle it for two minutes and try it for half a day to understand that we are facing a perfect Apple-style product that looks and works like no one else does.

How AirTag Is Made

AirTag immediately appears, as mentioned, as something born in Cupertino. It is a metal and plastic disc, as small as a coat button (three centimeters in diameter) and light (11 grams). The design winks at that of the original iPod which was in plastic and polished steel; like its ancestor, the steel back is inexorably destined to get scratched after a very short time. In our case, two with a bunch of keys in the pocket were enough for some anti-aesthetic lines … It is no surprise that the always proactive Chinese, have immediately launched a wide range of protective films.

The Airtag has seen in profile; flawless build quality

The metal part is slightly rounded, a shape that complicates the practical use of AirTag; had it been perfectly flat it would have made it easier to apply, perhaps with a double-sided tape, the tracker to the objects you intend to find. This is not just a limitation also because, another “very Apple” choice, there is no slot or ring to bind AirTag to an object. Under these conditions, the only solution is to put the AirTag in a pocket or buy one of the accessories that allow it to become a key ring or a tag.

Airtag is slightly larger than a two-euro coin. The comparison of Airtag in thickness with the same coin. On the other hand, the CR2032 battery is not a choice in line with Apple’s philosophy, but more than welcome; lasts one year, is user-replaceable, and is very cheap ( up to 60 cents each if you buy in quantity ). To access it, just press and turn the metal part counterclockwise.

The battery inside Airtag; the battery cover is very solid and well built

The AirTag does not have a proper internal speaker; when we decide to make it sound we actually cause the vibration of a membrane behind the plastic part, a detail to be taken into consideration because (as we say below) if by chance the smart tag is put in a tight pocket or is crushed by some which limit the movement of the shell, the sound will be muffled.

The Customization

Apple allows the customization of AirTag through the classic laser engraving. The option, unlike what happens with other Apple products, here has not only an aesthetic purpose but also a practical one. Those who have more than one AirTag will thus be able to distinguish one from the other at first glance without having to read the serial number. As with iPad, iPhone, AirPods Max, and so on, you can add letters (maximum four), numbers, and Emoji. Customization can only be done by purchasing AirTags directly from Apple.

Laser engraving not only allows you to customize an Airtag but also to distinguish it

How AirTag Works

If you know the AirPods you have a good idea of ​​both how an AirTag is activated and how it works. But even if you’ve lived in a cave for the last few years, putting an AirTag into service is intuitive. Once extracted from its packaging, removed the adhesive tab that makes it inert and brought it close to an iPhone (or an iPad, here we will always talk about iPhone for convenience), it will recognize the phone and ask us to pair it with it and therefore with our Apple ID. Estimated setup time one minute.

Airtag in connection

We used the new purple iPhone (interesting color, as we will say elsewhere), and immediately we saw our AirTag appear in the classic AirPods style “pop up”. We will be asked to give it a name (a predetermined one such as wallet, keys, jacket, suitcase, backpack, or one of your choice) and at that point, our smart tag will appear in the new special “Objects” panel of Where is, presented next to the classic ” Devices “.

The connection processor of an Airtag in three screens

Find An Object

If we happen to lose the object to which we connected AirTag, all we have to do is use the Where is the application, the real AirTag dashboard. Here we have access to three possibilities: make it ring, be guided to where we lost it, rely on the worldwide network of iPhones. 

Find An Object With Bluetooth

If you decide to make it sound, the technology and the result, integration with Where is aside, are the same that apply the competitors, such as Tile, but it also works in the Apple world when we look for AirPods through an iPhone or through an Apple Watch and iPhone that we don’t know where it went. The two devices are connected via Bluetooth and the lost one, in our case, AirTag rings and tells us where it is. There are no other indications than the chirping produced by the accessory to guide us but it is a good way to find something in the home.

Let’s try to play Airtag

If anything, we could argue about the sound level of AirTag which is indeed acute, but adequate only in the free field: according to the measurement we made (using an Apple Watch) at a couple of meters the volume settles at 60 decibels. If by chance the AirTag ends up under something, like a pillow or a blanket, maybe in another room, even in a pocket of a pair of trousers hanging on a hanger, it becomes less easy to hear. If it were even modestly squashed, the sound will be even lower, the plastic shell will not amplify the sound.

The panel for tracking Airtag

Find An Object With UWB And Precise Location

If you have an iPhone that is not an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 12, using Bluetooth and following the sound is the only way to find an AirTag at home. If you have an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 12, AirTag has another ace up its sleeve that the rest of the smart tags do not have: the UWB chip thanks to which the Precise Location function is activated (Precision Finding in English). We have already talked about the technology based on the UWB chip many times: in summary, it allows two devices equipped with it to identify each other with precision. The AirTag UWB signals its position to the iPhone which, using the camera and the sensor, will guide us precisely towards the object we have lost. The need to have the camera depends on the fact that Precise Position uses a gyroscope and accelerometer but also ARKit, Apple’s augmented reality platform.

The navigator that guides us to the Airtag using UWB

As we move we are directed with the help of arrows to the position where what we have lost is. At the same time, we will also have tactile feedback with vibrations that signal us how close we are to what we are looking for. The operation is practically perfect and finding an AirTag becomes almost a game. The only limit is the range of action of UWB which is a few meters, five or six and it is also a pity that there is no possibility to understand if what we are looking for is above or below us. For example, if we have a wardrobe in front of us, we will have to guess if it is in a drawer, in the middle shelf above it.

Here’s how to search for an Airtag using UWB

Find a Lost Item Lying Around With Your iPhone

Losing an AirTag around having the iPhone it was connected to with us is the most favorable scenario. In this case, it will tell us where the phone “saw” the device for the last time. Assuming that this thing happened in the open field where the GPS signal is good or in an area that is not too intricate (a multi-story structure for example), it will be quite easy to go to the place and find the object. The function is obviously linked to the permanence of the object in a specific place;  a moved tag complicates things a lot; in this case, we will still have to resort to the iPhone network as we explain below.

Find a Lost Item Thanks To The IPhone Network

But what if we lost the AirTag without our iPhone next to it or if we wanted to locate an object that has been moved? Here comes the network of iPhone owners. If any of the billion iPhones in circulation come close to our object, we’ll see where it is. This happens in a completely anonymous and safe way; there is no need for the person with an iPhone in their pocket to take any action and not even know it. Automatically and silently the Apple network will report the location of our lost object.

The presence of an iPhone or rather, several iPhones in the area where we have lost an AirTag is however fundamental. The more iPhones circulating in the area, the more chance we will have of finding the object. This means that losing an AirTag in a forest, while trekking, on an isolated beach, is a scenario that must be worrying. Another caveat: an AirTag is identified but moving (like on a train or bus) makes it much more difficult to understand where it is, regardless of the number of iPhones that locate it. In this case also due to the delay with which the position of the object is sent, although it should go you will have its direction, not the place.

Scenario: Lost Keys Who Knows Where

Given these premises, we have made some experiments to verify the efficiency of the system starting with the scenario “lost keys who knows where “. To simulate the situation we have lost the keys without having an iPhone with us (otherwise it would have been our iPhone to say where it had “seen” the keys for the last time) given the AirTag in custody to a friendly bartender waiting for some iPhone to intercept him. Not knowing, on paper, where the keys had ended up we would have had to wait for them to appear on the map. After half an hour without results to shorten the time we sent another friend “iPhone equipped” on a mission to the bar to have a coffee. About ten minutes from the moment our friend entered and left the venue (in compliance with the anti-Covid regulations), the AirTag appeared.

We do not know if it was that iPhone or another to report the position but if nothing else it was correct: on the street in front of the club. Even if the identification of the iPhones through the network as mentioned did not seem quick to us (with the risk that our keys had been reported by Where’s in a place where they had already been removed) the experiment was successful.

Scenario: Keys Lost In a Specific Place

The second simulated scenario was “lost keys knowing more or less where”. The idea was to try to understand if you can find the AirTag knowing that you have lost the object in a known area (even having an iPhone with us) but large and indoors, for example during a visit to a shopping center. At that point, we will know why we remember it or why our iPhone tells us that the object is there somewhere but we will have to hope that they end up in the range of Bluetooth or UWB and we know that this range is modest. We did the proof by giving our iPhone and our AirTag to the usual friend who slipped into a shop where, thanks to the salesman, the AirTag was hidden.

When he returned we saw the last recorded position, inside the mall but with a large approximation. In front of us, we had at least six or seven shops where we might have lost our keys. In order not to look like a stalker, we preferred to be told which shop was. Then once inside we struggled a lot to find the smart tracker (under a pile of T-shirts) because it did not connect to either UWB or Bluetooth. Certainly, the test is extreme; probably if we had lost the AirTag it would have been less difficult to understand from some store to start, but finding it would still not have been as easy as drinking a glass of water.

We have lost our Airtag. We are told that we have found it and we go in search of it

Scenario: Theft

We then simulated a theft,  delivering the AirTag with keys attached to the usual colleague who went home for lunch, passing through a central street of the city: almost two km on foot. Let’s specify: this is not the function for which AirTag was built, which is not born to follow something that moves, but we were curious how it would work. The position of our smart tag was not given to us constantly but only on a couple of occasions when it was intercepted by some iPhone passing by and when this happened, as in the “lost keys who knows where” scenario, significant delay happened. When the position was reported to us, the “thief” had in fact left it for several minutes. Once AirTag ended up in our friend’s house, our keys vanished and so it would have been with a wallet. In practical terms, forget about using AirTag as an anti-theft device, maybe a bicycle: even if the thief does not know that an Airtag travels with him and does not know how to disable it, it is inefficient to follow someone on the move.

Scenario: Find Lost Fido

For the same reason that Airtag does not function as an anti-theft device, it is not suitable for tracking where a pet has gone. Firstly, the animal must end up within range of an iPhone to be identified, secondly, given the slowness with which the Dov’è network responds, it is almost certain that when you have found “Fido” it will no longer be there. While he was going you will have had a rough idea of ​​the direction in which he moved away. Airtag, we repeat, is not a GPS and does not work as such. For the same reason and the fact that there are anti-stalker functions that advise against it, Airtag is also inefficient to understand where your little child is when you send him to school alone. To always be next to a child, says Apple itself, an Apple Watch with the Family Setup function works much better.

Lost Mode

With Airtag there is a fourth way to track down an AirTag: reporting it as a lost item. It is activated from within the Where is application and thanks to it we can receive a message when an AirTag has been found (therefore it has entered the range of an iPhone). The test worked but discounting the temporal “lag” that we have reported above. The notification arrived but only half an hour after we brought an AirTag close to an iPhone. The risk, as we mentioned above, is that the notification arrives when the lost object is no longer in the place where it was identified.

We can report AirTag as lost and then assign a phone number to track us down

Tap Via NFC

Some doubts also arise about the maneuver necessary to identify the device with NFC. For understandable privacy reasons, it is not enough to approach an AirTag to see the page appear that could help us find who has lost it. You have to “plug” the smart tag to get to the page you see reproduced below. But if this second operation is (would be) intuitive, the tap is much less so, at least for those who have never seen an AirTag and especially for those without an iPhone.

The tap on Airtag must be done in this way

Even when AirTag was very popular and not a UFO (given the novelty) as it is today and it is assumed that everyone knows that an AirTag identifies with a phone with an NFC chip (including Android phones), there will remain the need to know how to do it. In fact, it is not enough to approach, place or swipe any part of the phone on the tag, it is necessary to touch the white plastic part with the top edge of the phone. You probably don’t need a YouTube tutorial to do all this, but if you don’t know it, it’s hard to imagine.

When we had an iPhone (whoever has an Android phone is in the above condition) knowing that what we have found is an Airtag, things are simpler. Apple, in fact, partially comes to the aid with the section “Identify the object found”, one of the panels of Where is. Here we explain that you have to “place the top of the iPhone until a notification appears”. However, animation on how to do it is not shown but only a not very useful magnifying glass; a pity because instead there is a more than explanatory animation when you find an AirTag that is not ours that could also be reproduced here.

Here is the information we can get from Airtag when we identify it with NFC

The Message That You Don’t Change

A different matter concerns the message that the AirTag once “tapped” transmits to those who found it: it is in Italian and cannot be modified by the user. What would happen, we wondered, if we lost the AirTag in a foreign country? The good soul who wanted to contact us would find a message in an incomprehensible language. Not to mention that someone may want to enter their email or a different phrase such as “a reward for those who find me”. For this, we have tried in every way without being able to change the sentence. First, we tried to write after entering the phone number; then (even if it would be bizarre but for the notification, it works like this) thinking that the operation was possible only after having lost the device, we separated the iPhone from the tag but also, in this case, nothing … We changed the language on the phone and then tried via iCloud. Still nothing.

In the end, we thought that the “finder” could receive the message in the language of iOS and based on the country where he is, but we were wrong: the web page where you land by touching the notification is yes in the language of the phone but the message is still in Italian. At this point, we do not know if it is possible inexperience of ours, an operation complicated by some tortuous option, a function imposed by the strict privacy control provided by Apple, a bug, something still to be implemented, or an error. interface design. Probably those who use the Airtag in the United States have not seen this problem as English is a lingua franca but for us Italians, until there is the possibility to change the message, we are faced with a clear functional limit. 

The lost message cannot be changed …

Privacy With Airtag

On Airtag’s privacy, we should write a whole other article. Apple has a real (justified) obsession with this aspect of the functioning of its devices connected to the life of those who own them and it is also noticeable with AirTag if only for the emphasis it has put in underlining the effort put into this area. AirTag certainly excels in protecting the owner of the Smart Tag as far as that of others is concerned, we can instead make some notes

The Privacy Of Those Who Use The AirTag

Those who mark an item with an Airtag need not worry about their privacy. The device is connected to the iCloud network which in itself is highly secure and respectful of sensitive data. Nobody, not even Apple, knows where an Airtag is and nobody can intercept it; the Bluetooth frequencies are also rotated cyclically to prevent devices from being intercepted. When an AirTag is found by the Where’s network we will not know which iPhone it was captured by and whoever hooked it will not notice anything. Only in the event that we have activated the lost mode, will there be some element to contact us, in particular, we will be able to provide our telephone number and the above message. You will also see the serial which by itself does not mean anything; only Apple will be able to reach us through this issue. From this point of view, there is very little to dispute with Apple.

The Privacy Of Others

Some more doubts derive from the choices made, probably due to Apple’s need to walk in balance on a thin thread: to ensure that the AirTag does not become an accessory that generates annoyance if not danger for others, making it useful in any case. The first pernicious temptation to clip one’s wings was using Airtag to follow someone; even if, as we said above, the smart tag is not a GPS, it can certainly be used to understand where an object has been: a bar, a private house, a city.

To prevent this, I use an Airtag that is separated from the iPhone it is paired with and appears on another iPhone with a message that there is an  “Airtag detected near you”. This should reduce the risk of someone sticking a smart tag in their pocket or bag to see where we go. When this happens we will be able to make the device ring and if necessary disable it. If it is attached to something they have lent us we can turn off the notification pending return the item to its owner.

Apple says the alert occurs “after a certain period of time”. In our case, we had the message about 7/8 hours after we put the Airtag in our pocket connected to an account that was not ours. From the notification, we learned the time of the first identification, about 15 minutes after the actual separation from the owner, and the journey he had made with us. At that point, we would have known how to read the tag, see its serial number, deactivate it and eventually contact Apple or the Police.

This is how the path of the Airtag, not ours is represented

However, the time elapsed between the start of the stalking and the alert is relatively long. Any stalker would have had plenty of time to know where we have been and to gather plenty of information about our stops. To excuse Apple it must be said that it is not easy to put in place the balance between making the Airtag useful by protecting its use in the correct terms and at the same time preventing it from being used for incorrect purposes.

However, it is indisputable that if it is true that the privacy barriers for those who have an iPhone are all in all functional, those for those who do not have an iPhone are much less solid. Who does not have an Apple smartphone, as we explain here, has no message; to protect himself he must wait for the Airtag to manifest itself with a sound. However, this happens only after three days, more than enough for an attacker to gather information in abundance on the movements of his victim.

The same problem that an Android owner has, however, will also have it for those who have an iPhone without iOS 14.5 installed; without the latest version, the “An Airtag detected with you” warning does not work.

Conclusions

As often happens, Apple does not invent but improves (but perhaps it would be better to say: sublimates) products and services invented by others. It happened in the early days with the Mac, then with the iPod, and more recently with the iPhone. Now it does the same thing with Airtag which takes its cue from what competitors like Tile or Filo have done and takes it to a much higher level. As happened with other products, the smart tracker with the Apple not only has an impeccable build and engineering quality but by exploiting the iPhone ecosystem, the Where’s network, and some technologies such as UWB it has created a device without competitors that can compete on an equal footing. Airtag is super easy to use and unmatched (sound volume aside) as a lost object tracker in the house.

What We Liked

Among the things we liked the most about Airtag we can talk, as well as the build quality, the ease of activation, and that of finding an object that is in a delimited space. UWB technology is perfect and unique from this point of view. The system used to find objects that have been lost outside the house is very interesting and equally unmatched; thanks to the iOS devices in circulation there are much more chances that an Airtag can be identified than there are that another competing device like a Tile can be.

What we Didn’t Like

But AirTag is not without its flaws which is normal when you consider that it is a newly released product. The main one according to our experience is in the delay with which the Dov’è network responds to the request for the position; even once a smart tracker is identified by an iPhone, in our experience, it takes too long before we know where what we have lost is. We know that Airtag is not born to follow things in real-time and that there are probably some limitations imposed ad hoc in order not to overload Apple’s servers, but waiting half an hour to find out where what we have lost is is too much and runs the risk of nullifying the chances of finding it again. Then there are limits to the interface for the lost message that we were unable to change, the tap to identify Airtag via NFC, for many an unthinkable operation and various roughnesses to be filed in the protection of privacy.  The first is that an Airtag in charge of the following someone can do it undisturbed for days if that person doesn’t have an iPhone and for hours even if they do.

Who Needs It And Who Doesn’t Need It

So should you buy it or not? Given that if you do not have an iPhone it is useless, if you have an iPhone, especially an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 12 and you are among those who lose something especially at home there is nothing better than an Airtag. It has an honest price, it is very easy to activate, it is perfectly integrated into the iPhone system; via Bluetooth and UWB it is very precise and also offers discrete possibilities, against the very poor ones of the competition, to find something that you have lost even away from home. The important thing will be not to expect the impossible from it, such as having it act as an anti-theft device or GPS to find a lost object who knows where.

Pro

  • Very easy to activate
  • Precise in-home research
  • Best possible to search for lost items outside the home
  • Economical price

Versus

  • A little slow in handling reports
  • Unable to change the lost message
  • An accessory is required for use
  • The sound produced could be louder

Four-pack of Airtag

Price And Where To Buy

An Airtag costs 35 euros. A pack of 4 costs 119 euros. They can be purchased both on Amazon and on the Apple Store; the Apple store also offers free laser engraving. At the time of writing, they have quite long shipping times. The one-pack on Amazon is shipping in one or two months (but may arrive sooner) at the Apple Store without engraving are estimated to arrive in mid-May. The four-pack on Amazon always ships in one or two months; on the Apple Store without engraving arrives in mid-June.

Apple’s Airtag keychain with the new iPhone in purple in the background

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