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AirTags review: Apple’s new iPhone-powered tracker passes every test – apart from one

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·5 min read
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DogTag: One use of Apple’s natty new trackers that is not recommended (David Phelan/The Independent)
DogTag: One use of Apple’s natty new trackers that is not recommended (David Phelan/The Independent)

The newest Apple product has just landed. It’s a tiny, cute tracker device that works in a remarkable way. It’s called AirTag and it is designed to stop you from losing your keys, spectacles, backpack luggage, basically whatever you attach it to.

I’ve been using a handful or AirTags since just after Apple revealed them, and they have passed very test I set them (apart from one).

The design is certainly eye-catching: it’s circular, a little over an inch in diameter and is shiny and white, like a large Softmint, though don’t get carried away, it’s not edible. It’s lightweight, just 11 grams.

The underside is gleaming stainless steel with the Apple logo at the centre. It is completely sealed, which helps with its water resistance. There is a speaker inside, but no speaker hole, instead using what Apple calls an innovative surface actuation design.

The speaker is used so the AirTag can make an audible signal to help you find it.

It uses several technologies: Bluetooth, NFC and UWB, that’s Ultra-Wideband, using Apple’s proprietary U1 chip, also found in some iPhones.

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How it works is very clever. If you’ve put the AirTag on your keyring, say, and you just can’t find where in the house you’ve put them, you turn to the Find My app found on the iPhone or iPad. You need to be running the latest software, iOS 14.5 or iPadOS 14.5 respectively.

Launch Find My and choose the Items tab, which is new to the latest software versions. Choose your keys from the list and it will show it on a map. Tap a button to make it play a sound, which is a pleasant and easily audible peeping sound, like a haughty bird showing off.

Tap the Find button and the display will show how far away the AirTag is. If you are using an iPhone, say, with the U1 chip, that is iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max or iPhone 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max, the screen will show arrows and words like “16 ft to your right” as you home in on the little critter.

That’s all very well, but supposing the AirTag is in your backpack and you left that, well, you don’t know where? After all, Bluetooth has a range of metres, not miles.

The clever bit is how the Find My network uses. It leans on the network of iPhones, iPad and other Apple devices there are in the world (that’s well over a billion, by the way).

When you put the AirTag into Lost Mode, it starts pinging its location silently to every passing iPhone, iPad and so on. When the nearby device receives its plaintive signal, it passes on the details to you via iCloud. So, providing there’s an Apple device nearby, you’ll be able to find your lost item in the Find My app.

I tested this with several different items and it worked perfectly.

But there’s more. If someone who has an Android phone instead of an iPhone finds your AirTag, they can tap it against their phone and it will reveal how the user can contact the owner. They need to have an NFC-capable phone for this.

Apple is all about privacy, so it’s taken into account that an AirTag could be used to stalk someone by dropping it into their bag unbeknownst, for instance. If that were to happen, your iPhone would note that an AirTag that wasn’t yours was travelling with you. You can then locate the tracker by playing a sound on it and view more information like a serial number, and instructions on how to disable it.

If you don’t have an iPhone, an unwelcome tracker will still reveal itself eventually: after three days it will start playing a sound.

Set-up is also simple. When you activate the battery for the first time, it will appear on your iPhone screen and you can connect to it. And that’s it. You also get the option to add one of lots of standard labels (Keys, Jacket, Headphones, Wallet, Umbrella and more) or add a custom label.

Apple doesn’t recommend the AirTag should be used to track your pet, however. After all, if your dog, say, is nearby enough for Bluetooth to work direct to your phone, it’s probably near enough to see. And if it’s not and it’s away chasing squirrels, then there may not be another iPhone nearby anyway.

Certainly, this was the only way the AirTag let me down. Attaching it to my dog did work but I never managed to get far enough away from her to test it properly. Probably for the best.

Note that there’s no way to attach the AirTag to anything, no slot or hook. But there are plenty of luggage or key ring attachments, from Apple and other companies.

AirTag is a great little gadget that adds considerable convenience in a very clever way, leveraging the huge number of Apple devices there are. It’s also very affordable: £29 or £99 for a four-pack. They only come in white but you can opt to engrave it with letters, emoji or both, at no extra cost.

Buy now £99, Apple.com

Related: To find the best iPhone offers around, try our comparison page on the best iPhone deals.

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