I was starting to get really worried that I wouldn’t find my friend.
For this first look at AirTags, I sent Vjeran Pavic off into an unfamiliar city with a single Apple AirTag and no phone, no smartwatch, or any other mode of communication. The challenge was to see if Apple’s Find My system for locating AirTags would be able to lead me to him.
Apple AirTags weren’t designed for an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. They can help you locate anything they’re attached to; most of the time you’ll be listening for their little chirps as you hunt down the keys you inexplicably left sitting on top of the fridge instead of on the hook where they belong. For that purpose they work incredibly well, right on down to a little arrow on the iPhone’s screen pointing in the direction and little haptic taps as encouragement that you’re getting warmer.
But this exercise was a very good stress test for the new $29 iPhone accessory ($99 for a four pack), because it meant that the only chance I had of tracking Vjeran down is if one of the near-billion Find My-enabled devices on the planet happened to pick up the AirTag’s Bluetooth signal and send it back to me.
After a half-hour of walking around, I finally found him. He was standing on a street corner with no foot traffic whatsoever, which meant that the intermittent signals I got detailing his location came from a couple of iPhones in cars that were driving by.
AirTags have been rumored for years but never seemed to materialize. They’re really here now and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re worth the wait, I do think Apple has put together a thoughtfully designed system that goes a long way toward ensuring privacy and safety while still making it easier for you to locate your stuff.
AirTags are a very Apple-y Apple product, and that ends up being great but also just a little annoying (and, for third-party companies like Tile, troubling).
The basics of AirTags are simple enough to understand: each one is a tiny little puck with a Bluetooth Low Energy radio and a U1 ultra-wideband (UWB) chip. You pair it with your iPhone just like you do with AirPods, holding it nearby and then tapping through a short setup process. After that, they’re available in a new “Items” tab in the Find My app.
From the app, you can set the AirTags to chirp, mark them as lost (which enables some different features), or just tap the button that lets you locate them in space. If you have an iPhone with UWB, it can locate the AirTag in physical space and point a little arrow at it when you get within four feet or so. It all works very well and is very satisfying.
From a design perspective, an AirTag is classic Apple. It’s a white and shiny silver little button, and you can have custom emoji or letters printed on the plastic. They are as cute as the buttons they resemble.
However, you’ll soon find the plastic is scuffed and the chrome on the back is scratched. Sincerely, do not expect these to stay looking pristine for long — not since the weird early days of the iPod nano has an Apple product gotten scuffed this easily.
Here’s the scuffs and scratches on an AirTag after a few hours of handling. I don’t think we did anything excessive here either. I mean it’s not a huge deal that this happens but it’s still pretty weird! pic.twitter.com/kkD2A6OhCn
— Dieter Bohn (@backlon) April 22, 2021
One clever touch is that the plastic body itself serves as the speaker. It’s what vibrates to make the chirping noise. It gets plenty loud, though my old ears had a bit of a difficult time using just that sound to locate one. Also, if for whatever reason the AirTag is squeezed or compressed, that will dampen how loud it can get.
There’s also no hole on them for a lanyard loop. If you want to actually attach one to anything instead of dropping it in a pocket, you’ll need to buy an accessory. That, increasingly, also feels like a classic Apple move.
The one un-Apple part of the design is that the battery is actually user-replaceable. A little twist of the bottom reveals a standard CR2032 cell, which Apple claims should be good for a year of battery life.
The real trick — and the hidden complexity — arises when you are tracking an AirTag out in the world, when something is truly lost. Like everything in Apple’s Find My network, the AirTag’s location is end-to-end encrypted so only you can see its location. But any iOS device can send that location to you.
If somebody comes upon a lost AirTag, they can tap it via NFC to see information about it, including its serial number (which could be important if you think it’s being used to track you). If the owner has put it in “Lost Mode,” they have the option to have that information page show their phone number and a brief message so you can contact them. This NFC feature works equally well with iPhones and Android devices.
That means all it takes to locate an AirTag is for any iPhone with Bluetooth on to see it — even if that iPhone is whizzing by in a car. Apple is leveraging its huge network of devices as a competitive advantage here — along with the competitive advantage of directly offering this functionality as a system-level feature. Tile has asked Congress to look into that.
A Bluetooth device broadcasting anything is a potential privacy risk, so Apple is cycling each AirTag’s Bluetooth identifier “frequently.” More than that, though, Apple has also done some work to develop a system that also considers personal safety.
If the Find My network notices that an AirTag has been separated from its owner for a while and seems to be in the same place you are, it will alert you. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll see a notification that says “AirTag Found Moving With You.”
Apple says that there are options to disable these “Safety Alerts” if you are “borrowing” something. But the real purpose is clear: to protect you from somebody using an AirTag to surreptitiously track you.
When you see the alert, you can tap the notification to get a screen that will allow you to make the AirTag start beeping. The alert will also instruct you on how to disable the AirTag by removing the battery.
Finally, Apple says, “If you feel your safety is at risk, contact your local law enforcement who can work with Apple. You might need to provide the AirTag or its serial number.” Apple won’t be able to provide your location, but it could provide governments with information related to the person who registered the AirTag as theirs in the first place.
If you’re an Android user, well, virtually none of this is going to work for you. However, the AirTag does have at least one potential trick. If it’s been separated from its owner and then detects that it’s suddenly on the move, it will start beeping.
All in all, I think it’s a thoughtfully designed system, but it’s also definitely one that leverages Apple’s strengths.
Really, the AirTag is the Most Apple Product I’ve seen in a while. It’s just a little more expensive than the competition. It’s beautifully designed, but its hardware still somehow fails to actually take the practical realities of our dirty, messy world into account. It’s very privacy-focused. It really only works with Apple devices. It offers features that no third-party device can really match thanks to Apple’s tight integration (or tight grip on its APIs, depending on your point of view). And since there’s no Android version of Find My, it’s another piece of the Apple ecosystem that’s going to keep you from switching.
An AirTag is a very Apple-y thing for Apple users who already live in Apple’s ecosystem. They work great — and will be great at keeping you in Apple’s world.