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AirTag review: They work great—maybe a little too great

Find My —

Apple made the most privacy-friendly tracker, but that’s not saying much.


  • Apple’s AirTag.


    Samuel Axon

  • The other side of Apple’s AirTag.


    Samuel Axon

  • AirTags also come in packs of four for $99.


    Samuel Axon

  • An AirTag with a loop accessory.


    Samuel Axon

  • An AirTag with a leather loop accessory.


    Samuel Axon

  • An AirTag with a leather keychain accessory.


    Samuel Axon

  • All three AirTag accessories we assessed this week.


    Samuel Axon

Apple’s AirTag is not a revolutionary new product. Rather, it’s a significant refinement of an idea that, up until now, has been fairly niche. It works very, very well, but it works so well it seems to undermine Apple’s attempts to focus its products on privacy and security.

We spent several days testing AirTags in different situations, and we found that they work stunningly well—at least in a dense urban environment with iPhones all around.

I can’t imagine recommending any of the preceding attempts at this concept over AirTags if you have an iPhone. (Sadly, Android users are quite literally left to their own devices—in more ways than usual, as you’ll see later in this review.)

AirTags are easy to use, well designed, and relatively affordable. If you’re in the market for something like this, they’re easy to recommend. But we’re a little more worried about what these AirTags mean for the people who don’t buy one. Stick around and we’ll explain.

Design

Apple AirTag product image

Apple AirTag

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Each AirTag can be described as a small, silver metal disc embedded inside a slightly larger white disc. All in all, it’s 1.26 inches in diameter and 0.31 inches thick. It weighs 0.39 ounces.

Apple does a great job with making most of its products feel expensive and premium; the tactile sensation suggests a quality product, thanks to the materials, weighting, and other factors. That’s definitely the case here. Competing products from Tile or Samsung feel cheaper by comparison.

Like others who have used AirTags, I noticed that the metal side of an AirTag is easy to scuff up in normal use—especially if you just toss it in a bag without attaching it to something. This doesn’t really matter to me, but it’ll bug some people, especially since the design is quite attractive. Expect scratches within weeks, if not days.

A single AirTag costs $29, while a four-pack costs $99. At purchase, you can add a custom engraving of either text or emoji to your AirTags. The emoji idea is clever, because there are many emoji options that might fit whatever personal item you’re tracking with the AirTag. There’s no additional cost for these engravings, but they might push the ship date back a bit.

While some trackers like this have holes or hooks on them that allow you to easily attach them to your belongings without additional equipment, AirTags don’t. In many cases, you’ll have to buy one of the accessories, like the key ring or loop holder.

This effectively adds to the cost, so it’s important to remember when considering this product. Sure, you can shove an AirTag into your purse and let it just bounce around in there, and that’ll work fine. But for many other use cases, you’ll have to shell out at least $13 for one of the cheaper Belkin holders or at least $29 for the options made by Apple itself.

On the other hand, we were pleased to learn that the AirTag uses a standard, relatively common battery (CR2032) and that the battery is user-replaceable. Apple says the battery will typically last up to a year. We obviously couldn’t test that within the scope of this review, but we have usually found Apple’s battery estimates for its products to be accurate in the past.

The AirTag is rated IP67 for splash, water, and dust resistance. That means that, if it falls in the water, it will still work as long as it doesn’t go much deeper than one meter and you get it out within 30 minutes.

Functionality

Sold through the iPhone section of Apple’s online store, AirTags are designed to work exclusively with Apple’s smartphones or tablets. So if you have an Android phone and no iPad, there’s no reason to even bother buying one of these things; the AirTag will be useless.

If you have one of the supported mobile devices, though, you can use Apple’s Find My app (or Siri) to locate your AirTag, whether the tag is in the room with you or you left it at your local coffee shop three hours ago.

How it works

The AirTag isn’t a GPS-enabled device. Rather, it communicates with devices in Apple’s Find My network with regular pings. So the more iPhones, iPads, or Macs are connected to the Internet near the AirTag, the faster it will be found and the more accurate its reported location will be.

This fits a pretty consistent theme with some of Apple’s products and services: they are definitely designed for people in or near major metropolitan areas. Like AppleCare and any number of other Apple offerings, AirTags become far less attractive in a rural or other low-density setting without as many Apple services or devices nearby.

But perhaps even more so than anything to do with the App Store or whatnot, this is where Apple has an advantage that Tile simply cannot match. In most major US city centers, you could just about throw a rock (or an AirTag) in any direction at random and have a good chance of it landing within two meters of an Apple product. That network of devices will ensure that your AirTag will be relatively quick to find.

We didn’t test an AirTag directly against Tile, but some other publications did, and as expected, they found that an AirTag generally took a lot less time to locate than a Tile device in a public place. There are simply more check-in points for the AirTag, which makes the process of finding it both faster and more accurate.

  • The Find My app shows your AirTag’s location on the map. (I named one for my wallet, which is one of the default name suggestions.)


    Samuel Axon

  • This is the menu in the Find My app for managing your AirTag.


    Samuel Axon

  • You can start playing a sound to find a nearby AirTag with one quick tap.


    Samuel Axon

  • Using the U1 chip in recent iPhones, you can follow an on-screen arrow to find your AirTag nearby.


    Samuel Axon

  • This is what you see when the phone gets right up next to the AirTag.


    Samuel Axon

  • You can also initiate Lost Mode, and these are the explanations Apple lays out for that feature.


    Samuel Axon

  • You’ll have to enter your phone number to use this feature.


    Samuel Axon

Anyway, the Find My network is just the first part of the process. Once you get close enough, you can use the Find My app to make the AirTag play a noise to help you locate it. If you have one of the recent iPhones (iPhone 11 or later) with Apple’s new U1 ultra-wideband chip, you can use an ultra-precise on-screen locator to find the device once you’re in roughly the same room.

Finally, you can set the AirTag to “Lost Mode” if you know it’s missing and you need it to be found. You’ll volunteer your phone number, and other iOS users who find the AirTag can see that number and contact you. Further, you’ll receive a notification as soon as its location has been determined in the Find My network.

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