One of the best things about using an iPhone is that if you’re committed to Apple’s ecosystem, you get superior cohesive connectivity across a wide range of devices and gadgets that other phone brands simply have not been able to match (although Samsung, Huawei, and Xiaomi are trying to get there).
Apple’s latest addition to the ecosystem, AirTags (or AirTag, as Apple officially calls them), should prove popular — even if they don’t work as well for me here in Hong Kong as they do for people living in California.
Apple AirTags: What are they exactly?
An AirTag is a slightly larger-than-a-coin-sized disc that beams its location to Apple’s “Find My” network, which can be accessed via iPhones, iPads, or Macs. Those with iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, because they have the special U1 chip, can locate an AirTag (or multiple AirTags) with pinpoint precision if the AirTag and iPhone are not too far away.
This means users can attach an AirTag to things like their keys, wallet, or other frequently misplaced items, and know their iPhone 11 or 12 can locate it with relative ease. This type of tracker isn’t new, with Tile being probably the best known (and most widely used) in the west. Here in Hong Kong and I suspect in many other parts of Asia, Tile is a non-entity, so the AirTags could be the first such tracker for most people.
AirTags are mostly made of plastic, with an aluminum disc that can be twisted off to reveal a CR2032 battery inside that Apple says can power the tracker for a whole year. They’re slightly thicker than a coin (8mm thick), but weigh only 11g.
Because it’s Apple, the AirTags out of the box cannot attach or stick to anything on their own (unlike Tile trackers, which have a hole built-in for easy looping to key chains). Apple instead sells first-party leather keyrings and leather loops that are of course slightly overpriced at $35.
Apple AirTags: Set up and Pairing
Like other Apple accessories, the AirTags are dead simple to set up — out of the box, there is a plastic film that blocks the battery from connecting to the AirTag. As soon as you pull the film out, the battery connects and the AirTag turns on, after which, simply place the AirTag near your iPhone and a menu will pop up requesting pairing, which itself takes 30 seconds or so.
Precision Finding and General Tracking
After that, any time you jump into the “Find My” app on your iPhone (or other Apple devices), you’ll be able to see the location of the tracker. As mentioned, iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 will be able to offer a precise location (which Apple names “Precision Finding”), and will direct you to the tracker via an on-screen arrow that moves along with the direction you point the phone.
It works very well, with the iPhone’s haptic engine rumbling stronger and stronger the closer you get to the AirTag. The tech behind this is quite ingenious, as the iPhone 11/12 will use just about everything at its disposal (cameras, ARKit software, accelerometer, and gyroscope) to help “guide” you to the AirTag.
Precision Finding only works if you’re within roughly 30 feet from the AirTag. If you’re further away, or if you’re using an older iPhone, then you can still see its location on a map, but it’s a typical map view, showing you the address, and not much else.
This is useful if you’ve misplaced the item with the AirTag at someone’s house or a coffee shop, or if someone stole your item and took it to another location. If the item with the AirTag is in a friendly location, I can simply go there and pick it up. If it’s been stolen or lost in a public place, Apple’s Find My app allows me to report the tag lost, after which it will start beaming random iPhones nearby to alert people that there is a lost AirTag in their proximity. It’s a very cool concept that is made possible only because the iPhone is such a mainstream, ubiquitous item. No other tracker can offer this, in my opinion.
This same random pinging of other iPhones will also be used as a precaution against malicious use of the AirTags (such as purposely placing an AirTag into someone’s belongings to track that person’s whereabouts later). For example, if I place the AirTag into my girlfriend’s purse in the hopes of tracking her, eventually the AirTag, because it’s out in the wild and away from my iPhone, will alert her iPhone that there is an AirTag near her. However, this anti-stalking feature will only work if she’s using an iPhone. To work around that, Apple designed the AirTags to also play a beep if it’s been away from its host iPhone for too long.
Since this is an Apple product and they’re all about privacy, Apple says the AirTags will not store your location data — even Apple itself will not know the location of any AirTag.
The AirTags fall short of competitor Tile in several areas. The first is the aforementioned fact that the AirTags by itself cannot easily be attached to things (unless you’re willing to tape or glue it). AirTags are also a bit thicker than Tile, so they’re potentially harder to fit into wallets (my wallet’s coin pouch can store the AirTags fine; but I acknowledge my wallet is thicker than others).
Also, the AirTags work only one way — it can only be tracked by an Apple device. It cannot in return track a misplaced iPhone. Tile can track both ways.
The anti-stalking feature also makes them unsuitable for use cases where your phone stays away more than it stays in range. For example, I can’t attach this to my bicycle, as often, the bicycle is going to stay parked and away from me for hours on end, sometimes even days. The anti-stalking feature will cause the tracker to beep, and potentially annoy the people around it even when the use case is wholly genuine.
Finally, for my particular living situation, the AirTags can’t always do its job. I live in a co-living high-rise building in which I have access to multiple floors: there’s a common area, terrace, gym area, reading lounge, and my own private room, all on separate floors. If I’ve misplaced my keys with an AirTag key ring on one floor (say, the gym) and I’m on another floor, my iPhone will not be able to use Precision Finding (because the phone is too far away). If I use general tracking, it’ll tell me the AirTag is in my current building — and that’s it. I still won’t know which floor it’s on. There is no workaround for this.
I concede my living situation is unique: most readers, especially American ones, likely live in a standalone house, and even people living in apartment units likely won’t have access to multiple floors, so I suppose my problem is niche. But people who work in offices in which they jump between multiple floors often could have the same problem.
Apple AirTags Impressions: Quirks aside, another great addition to Apple’s ecosystem
Personally, for my lifestyle in Hong Kong, I don’t have much use for an AirTag (I live in a small space, I rarely lose things, and AirTags don’t work as well in high-rise buildings). But I know these will be well received in the west, particularly in the US, where many people live in huge sprawling houses and are much more immersed into Apple’s ecosystem.
But even if I can’t take full advantage of the AirTags the way my family in California can, AirTags are still cheap enough ($29 for one or $99 for a four-pack) that I don’t mind picking up a few just to place in my backpack.
Much like how the AirPods quickly became ubiquitous across the US, I can see the same happening for AirTags. Everything Apple touches turns to gold, and I’d be surprised if these aren’t a hit.