The irony wasn't, um, lost on me: Soon after I removed an Apple AirTag tracker from its package and placed it down somewhere, I momentarily forgot where I put the very accessory designed to help folks find keys, handbags or other misplaced items. These round, $29 ($99 for a four pack), Junior Mint-sized, dust and water-resistant trackers, are Apple’s long-awaited answer to the Tile Bluetooth devices and rival Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTags trackers. Only it was temporarily missing, no fault of Apple’s since I hadn’t set it up yet.
Fortunately, once the fog in my brain cleared up and I remembered where I’d put it, setting up an AirTag was fast and a cinch. And in the limited time I’ve had to try several of them out, I can report the trackers worked as promised.
You will need an iPhone or iPod Touch running iOS 14.5, and because the update is coming soon but not yet available, Apple lent me a new purple colored iPhone 12 that had the software preinstalled. You merely pull off a battery tab—a brief sound is emitted—and then you bring the AirTag close to the iPhone and tap Connect on the phone display.
You’re prompted to name your AirTag from a default list--Backpack, Keys, Umbrella, etc. Or you can choose your own name. (When you purchase an AirTag, you can further personalize it by having it engraved for free by Apple with up to four initials or an emoji.) You then register the AirTag with your Apple ID, place it in a bag or purse, or attach it to the other items you'd be lost without. And that’s pretty much it.
Apple’s own AirTag accessories include $35 leather key rings, $39 leather loops, and $29 polyurethane loops, all in various colors. If you're willing to splurge, luxury handcrafted leather AirTag bag charms, key rings and luggage tags designed by Hermès range from $299 to $449. It all adds up fast if you need multiple AirTag trackers.
AirTag becomes a key part of Apple’s Find My ecosystem with nearly a billion wayward devices, and it relies on a combination of Bluetooth for proximity finding, Apple’s U1 chip for Ultra-Wideband and what’s known as Precision Finding (of which I’ll have more to say in a moment), and NFC.
You can track down an item through the Find My app or by summoning Siri. Bark out “Hey Siri, where are my keys?" and you'll hear a chime that tells you that Siri (leveraging the AirTag) is on the case.
If the lost item is close by—maybe your keys slipped under a couch cushion—you can exploit the aforementioned Precision Finding feature. Using the U1 chip and data from your phone’s camera, accelerometer, ARkit, and gyroscope, you will get visual and audio feedback that directs you to the item. The AirTag will emit sound. You’ll see the distance from the lost object on the phone screen and be prompted to move straight, right, or left as you get near or further to the item. And yes, sometimes you're directed to move behind you. Occasionally even when I was I thought reasonably close to the item, the message on the screen was that the signal was weak and I should try moving to a different location. But I almost always found my way quickly and the experience is pretty impressive.
It is worth noting that Precision Tracking also works with the accessibility VoiceOver feature on an iPhone.
If the missing item is miles away, you can try to search for it through the Find My app, just as you might attempt to find a lost iPhone through the app, with its whereabouts plotted on a map. Location accuracy isn't always perfect, of course. When I left AirTags attached to my keys and a backpack in my house and then used Find My from a remote location, the app accurately indicated that my keys were indeed at my home address. But the bag was curiously shown as being at a next door neighbor's house.
According to Apple, AirTag can help you find other things too. A device inside the Find My network can relay the location of your lost AirTag to iCloud and does so anonymously by exploiting end-to-end encryption. You will be able to see the location of your item, but no one else can, Apple says, including the folks inside Apple.
Among other privacy and security features, the Bluetooth signal identifiers transmitted by AirTag rotate frequently to thwart unwanted location tracking. And Apple says iOS devices can also detect an AirTag that isn’t with its owner and notify the user if an unknown AirTag is seen to be traveling with the wrong person from place to place over time. Note here that AirTags are meant to track items not people or pets so don't get any ideas about slipping one in somebody's purse.
Through the Find My app, you can place an item in Lost Mode, adding a phone number or other instructions so that the (hopefully) Good Samaritan who finds it can return it. That person can access the item's serial number and Lost Mode information left by the owner by tapping and holding an NFC-enabled phone to the AirTag. A prompt will appear on the phone which takes them to a webpage with the information. I successfully tested this out with an iPhone and a Google Pixel.
Inside the AirTag is a standard (CR2032) coin-shaped battery sold in drug stores that Apple says will last more than a year. User-replaceable yes, but I did have to fuss a bit to remove the battery cover. At least I felt secure that the battery wouldn’t fall out on its own—and get lost with everything else out there that's missing.
Photos are from Apple and Ed Baig