Apple AirTags: What You Need to Know

Apple’s new Bluetooth based tracker’s deceptively simple design hides impressive utility

An Apple AirTag. (Credit: Lance Ulanoff)

How odd, an Apple device without a single moving part, button, display, or touch-sensitive part. Apple’s new AirTag item tracker is a tab that is, aside from a startling ability to produce sounds without a speaker grill, essentially inert.

It’s not dead though. Inside is a little circuitry, Bluetooth, ultra-wideband (UWB), sensors, and a watch battery all working together to look after your stuff. Actually, it’s more accurate to say AirTag keeps a watchful eye on momma iPhone, bleating like a lost lamb if the device (and its owner) strays too far, for too long.

Apples AirTags ($29.00 for one and $99.00 for a four-pack) are designed to attach, with optional Loops (that can cost an additional $12-to-$40), to any of your precious objects, especially those you have a habit of leaving behind:

  • Wallets
  • Bikes
  • Umbrellas
  • A camera
  • Luggage
  • Jackets
  • Keys

I rarely lose any of this stuff but when I do, it’s in spectacular fashion.
Once, for instance, I left a bag full of expensive technology on a train. While I don’t think Apple’s AirTag could’ve prevented me from leaving it behind — the train pulled away so quickly, I would not have heard the alert until it was at least a town away — I do think an AirTag could’ve helped me track it down twice as fast.

AirTag is both a traditional and non-traditional Bluetooth tracker. It’s well equipped to help you keep track of stuff within Bluetooth range (roughly 130 ft.), but with UWB, it adds a sort of bloodhound-like Precision Finding capability. This is how it sniffs out, down to the inch, the location of your lost keys.

Like your iPhone and AirPods, AirTags leverage the network of iCloud-connected devices already in one billion (or more) hands. A lost AirTag can ping a nearby Apple device and then the iCloud network delivers the location information to you. AirTags cannily help you find whatever they’re attached to almost anywhere in the world and do so without giving away your private information or current location. This is because there’s zero location data stored on AirTags and the location information on your iPhone and any sent through the iCloud network is fully encrypted. No one, not even Apple, gets to see location information. No one, that is, except you.

Getting to the point where an AirTag can do the tracking for you is Apple easy, meaning that setting up Apple’s new tracking devices is as simple as adding a pair of AirPods.

Hello Tab

Apple’s 11-gram AirTags look on one side like a white chocolate confection. Flip one over and you see the iconic Apple loco etched on a stainless-steel shell. Underneath that shell is the CR2032 battery (it’s replaceable and available at most hardware stores and your local CVS).

Apple AirTags have no moving parts, just circuitry and a CR2032 battery inside. (Credit: Lance Ulanoff)

The lack of moving parts and seams probably made it easy to achieve an IP67 rating, which means the AirTag can sit in a meter of water for 30 minutes. I dropped mine in a cup of H2O with no ill effects.

They have no power button, touch sensitivity, or screen. You power an AirTag up by pulling a plastic tab until the small piece of plastic separating the battery from the AirTag’s circuitry is removed. If the AirTag is near your phone, the phone will instantly recognize it and guide you through a quick setup process. Your major choices are choosing the object the AirTag will be tracking and figuring out how to attach it to the object.

AirTags are small and thin enough to go almost anywhere. (Credit: Lance Ulanoff)

AirTags are small enough to fit in any bag or backpack. They’re a bit thick for a wallet (it’s doable, but you won’t enjoy sitting on a wallet with an AirTag inside). The optional Loop accessories can help take out some of the guesswork. Apple supplied me with a few and I had fun attaching AirTags to my backpack and my keys. Just remember that Loops can cost as much — or more — than an Apple AirTag.

The AirTag setup is this simple. The phone recognizes the AirTag (left). You name it (center) and then register it (right).

The Find My connection

Instead of building a separate AirTag app, Apple incorporated the controls into its Find My app. This makes sense since it’s already how we find our lost people, iPhones, and AirPods.

In iOS 14.5, Find My now has an “Items” menu item. That’s where your AirTag items will appear. They show as a little key, backpack, umbrella, and other geolocated item avatars on the map.

The FindMy Items screen (left) shows you where your AirTagged items are. On the right is the Lost Mode interface. (Credit: Lance Ulanoff)

Underneath is a list that tells you if your items are with you or elsewhere and below that are the basic AirTag controls. When I had my son hide one of my AirTags, I used Play Sound to start locating it.

Apple managed to find a way to generate a rather loud, ear-piecing sound from AirTag, without building in a single hole or traditional speaker into the accessory. The sound let me know the device was close, but to discern its precise location, I used “Find.” This turns on AirTag’s ultra-wideband-based Precision Finding feature.

Using large, on-screen graphics, sounds, and haptic vibrations that intensified as I got closer, Find My expertly guided me to the exact location of the hidden AirTag. I was impressed.

The steps of Find My helping me find my backpack.

Far from home

Thanks to the pandemic, I no longer leave my neighborhood (often not even my home), and don’t, at the moment, have much use for a device that can help me find keys or a wallet I left miles behind. Still, I know we’ll soon get back to leaving our Bluetooth vicinity (Thanks, vaccines!) and AirTag’s multi-pronged approach to reuniting you with lost stuff will soon be put to the test.

First, there’s the iCloud network that can help tell you the location of a lost AirTag item without revealing any personal information about you.

Apple AirTag Loops like these are sold separately. The one on the right is a (Product) RED loop, which means a portion of the proceeds go to help raise awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS.

The second item-finding strategy is even more interesting. For each item and AirTag, you can — when something is truly lost and not just under a couch cushion— activate Lost Mode. It lets you add a phone number to the accessory that someone else who finds your lost stuff can access by holding their iPhone close to the AirTag (it uses NFC).

Lost AirTags can, if separated from their owners for long enough, play a sound. If another iPhone owner inadvertently grabbed your AirTag, it can offer instructions on how to remove the battery and disable the AirTag.

AirTag’s lack of more interactive features is part of its appeal. These plastic and metal tags really only need to do two jobs well: keeping track of your stuff and helping you find it when it’s lost. Even so, assessing how well AirTags do these things is probably a long-term project.

AirTags slide right into the loops. (Credit: Lance Ulanoff)

I think Apple slightly overshot the sweet spot on pricing ($19.99 would’ve been perfect), but this being Apple, I don’t think that extra $10 will stop anyone from buying them.

I don’t relish losing my wallet or keys, but I do now have some confidence that, when I return to the world and accidentally leave them on a plane, in a hotel room, or on the F-train, an AirTag will help me find them.

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Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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