On the outside, Apple’s new AirTag looks like a ho-hum product we’ve seen before. It’s a disc tracking utility that can be attached to items like house keys to help you find them.
But inside, the story becomes much more interesting.
AirTag, introduced by Apple last week, is one of the first consumer electronics devices to support the new wireless technology, ultra-wide bandwidth, allowing you to detect precise distances between objects. Using your ultrawideband, your iPhone can detect your AirTag card an inch or tens of meters away. It’s so accurate that its application will even display an arrow pointing you in the direction of the AirTag.
That’s much better than other Bluetooth-based trackers, an older wireless technology that can only approximate the location of an item. (Find out more about how all of this works later.)
Using ultra-wide bandwidth to find lost items is just an early example of what this technology can do. Due to its ability to quickly transfer data between devices, ultrawideband could become the next wireless standard to succeed Bluetooth. It could lead to better wireless headphones, keyboards, video game controllers – you name it.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer at Spark Microsystems, a Montreal-based company that is developing ultra-broadband technology, said: “This is the tip of the iceberg, talking about tracking devices like the AirTag. “It sends its data really, really quickly.”
I tested Apple’s $ 29 AirTag, which will be released on Friday, for about a week. I used tracking to find house keys, locate my dogs, and track a backpack. I also ran similar tests with Tile, a $ 25 Bluetooth-based tracking tool that has been around for about eight years.
Last week, Tile complained in an antitrust hearing that Apple was copying its products while putting smaller companies at a disadvantage. From my tests comparing AirTag and Tile, I found that ultrawideband is far superior to Bluetooth in finding items. Furthermore, AirTag has proven that ultra-broadband is a next-generation technology that is well worth the excitement.
Here’s what you need to know.
How Ultrawideband and Bluetooth work
Ultrawideband has been in development for more than 15 years, but it has been integrated into chips for iPhones and other smartphones only in the last two years.
When you use the ultrawideband to find trackers, it works similarly to sonar, detecting underwater objects. You send a ping to the card and the card returns a ping to your device. The amount of time it takes for the ping to return is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.
But when you use Bluetooth to find a tracker, your phone emits a constant signal to search for it. The farther you move from the tracker, the weaker the signal and the closer you move towards the tracker, the stronger the signal becomes. This technique is used to tell you how far away you are from the tracker.
Tile vs. AirTag
So what do the two basic wireless technologies mean in practice?
Tile works with both iPhones and Android phones that use Bluetooth technology to find items. Open Tile application, select an item and press “find” button. The application will find the Tile and send a signal to connect, then it will cause the tracker to play a tune. If the signal connection is weak, it will ask you to move around until the signal is stronger.
If your phone cannot find the Tile because it is out of its range, you can put it in “lost mode”. The tracker looks for other Tile owners who have granted the Tile application access to their location to help find someone else’s lost item. If a Samaritan owns a Tile near your Tile, his or her device will share its location with the Tile network, which will show where the item was last spotted on the map.
Apple’s AirTag works with iPhones both new and old. Newer devices (iPhone 11 and 12 series) can take advantage of the ultrawideband’s precise positioning. To find an item, open the Find My app, select an item and tap Find. From there, the application will create a connection with AirTag. The app combines the collected data with your phone’s camera, sensors and superband chip to direct you to the card, using arrows to point you to the card. Older iPhones can track AirTags using Bluetooth using a method similar to Tile.
Similar to Tile, when the AirTag is lost and out of range of your phone, you can put it in lost mode and let other Apple phones find the AirTag to help you know the detected location. last time on the map.
The benefits of ultra-broadband can be seen in a few tests.
For one test, I asked my wife to hide some AirTags and Tiles tags in our house and then how long did it take me to find them.
During one of the checks, she hid an AirTag attached to my motorcycle key somewhere in our bedroom. Apple’s Find My app used an arrow to point me towards the mattress and I pressed a button for the card to make a sound. After rummaging through the covers and looking under the bed, I saw the AirTag crammed under the mattress. It takes about 90 seconds.
Next, I have to find a Tile attached to my house key. I opened the Tile app and hit the Find button. The app said the signal was weak and suggested I walk around looking for a stronger connection. As I move downstairs, I can hear the Tile’s tone and the application indicates the signal is getting stronger. I found Tile hidden inside a barrel in the garage. It takes about a minute.
The most difficult is an AirTag hidden inside a book. Apple’s Find My app was pointing towards the right price, but it couldn’t tell me exactly which book the card was inserted into. After taking four books off the shelf and flipping through the pages, I found the AirTag tag inside a cookbook. This provided my wife with three minutes of entertainment.
Separately, to check how the trackers work when they are too far away from my phone, I attached a Tile and an AirTag to the collars of both my dogs and put the tag in mode. lost when my wife took them for a walk. Nearby smartphones eventually helped me locate both trackers to show me the locations of dogs in the neighborhood.
The bottom line
While the AirTag is an impressive demonstration of ultra-wideband technology, that doesn’t make it the best tracker for everyone.
Due to AirTag’s compatibility with Apple products, I will donate an AirTag to iPhone owners. But I will give a Tile to someone who has an Android phone.
AirTag isn’t perfect either. I wish they were louder – they were very quiet compared to Tiles – so playing the sound wasn’t very helpful for finding them. I also dislike that for most purposes, AirTag requires the purchase of a separate accessory, like a key ring, to hold the tracking device.
In contrast, Tile has a perforated hole in its corner for attaching to keychains or zipper top. (AirTag’s $ 29 price tag is obscured by Apple’s $ 35 leather key ring.)
However, the ultrawideband gives AirTag a big advantage – and even Tile thinks so. CJ Prober, Tile’s chief executive officer, said last week that Apple refused to grant its company access to the iPhone’s super-band chip to create trackers that operate with it.
“They have a competitive product launch and they are leveraging that technology to allow it to do things our product cannot,” Mr. 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 has been working hard to protect the privacy of iPhone users’ location data, adding that it accepts competition. This month, it announced that it will soon roll out a plan for other companies to take advantage of the ultra-broadband technology inside Apple devices.
I am delighted to be waiting for products using this neat wireless technology.
Because of the higher efficiency of data transmission, ultra-wide bandwidth could make future wireless devices much better, Nabki said. For example, he cites wireless earphones that connect instantly, use very little battery, and sound as good as wired headphones.
That sounds so much better than finding house keys.