Technology: Apple AirTags hands-on: These trackers are small and impressive

Apple's new AirTags are as simple as they should be

  Apple's new AirTags are as simple as they should be If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I. Lose. Everything. That character flaw, in tandem with a complete inability to see things smack in front of my face sometimes, means I’m perhaps the perfect person to try out Apple’s new AirTags. Good thing, then, that Apple sent along a few to test — along with a purple iPhone 12 running the new (and required) iOS 14.5 update. Let’s just clear one thing up now though: this is not a review! I’ve only had the AirTags for a day, which isn’t nearly enough time to properly live with these things. Still, that gave me ample opportunity to whiz through the setup process and test drive some of the AirTags’ most important features.

Apple is best known for its iPhones , Macs and, of course, Ted Lasso. But now it also makes a tiny tracker called an AirTag. You attach it to an object like your keys and you can keep track of where it is using Apple's Find My network.

a wooden table: Despite its tiny size, the Apple AirTag has Bluetooth, ultrawideband and NFC to help you keep track of your items. Apple/Screenshot by Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET Despite its tiny size, the Apple AirTag has Bluetooth, ultrawideband and NFC to help you keep track of your items. Apple/Screenshot by Patrick Holland/CNET

This kind of tracker isn't new. But the biggest selling point for the AirTag is Apple's Find My network which is made up of hundreds of millions of Apple devices. Last week, the Find My network was opened up to third parties that can use the network for items like bikes and headphones. This will only increase that number of devices on Find My and make it even more robust. And that's important because let's say you lost your keys and they had an AirTag attached. As soon as someone with another device on the Find My network, like an iPhone, crosses its path, the AirTag will communicate securely with the iPhone in the background to update the location of your lost keys.

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AirTags work with any iPhone or iPodTouch on iOS 14.5 or any iPad on iPadOS 14.5. A single AirTag costs $29 (£29, AU$45) and a four-pack is $99 (£99, AU$149). You can order an AirTag starting Friday April 23 and AirTags will be available on April 30.

An AirTag is a bit bigger than a Junior Mint

I can't emphasize enough how tiny an AirTag is. It weighs roughly the same as two quarters. It's bigger than a Junior Mint, a Milk Dud and a Mento, but not by much. One side is white the other is stainless steel. And it feels well-made. In fact, it's rated IP67 for dust and water resistance and can survive being submerged to a meter for 30 minutes.

a circuit board: The Apple AirTag is just a bit bigger than some popular candy. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET The Apple AirTag is just a bit bigger than some popular candy. Patrick Holland/CNET

Behind the stainless steel back is a replaceable CR2032 battery which Apple claims will last a year. Each AirTag comes with one already installed. When it starts to get low, your iPhone gets a notification. And CR2032 batteries are common. I like that Apple decided to make the battery replaceable and easy to access.

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ESR's silicone AirTag keychains are a less expensive option than the Apple x Hermes collection. © ESR

ESR's silicone AirTag keychains are a less expensive option than the Apple x Hermes collection.

Getting an AirTag setup with your iPhone

Setting up your AirTag is easy. You just pull the battery tab, bring it close to your iPhone, and tap the Connect button. I had to update my iPhone to iOS 14.5, sign into my iCloud account and verify the lock code on my iPhone. But even with the extra steps it was a straightforward process.

From there, you're prompted to name it. For example, I named my AirTag "keys" because I attached it to my keys. I know, original.

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Locate an AirTag by playing a chime

Once the AirTag is tied to your Apple ID, you can use the Find My app and interact with it under the Items tab. To help you find your item, you can ping the AirTag attached to it and play a sound. The AirTag uses its surface as a sound actuator to produce sound hence the absence of any tiny speaker grills.

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  I tracked my kid with Apple's Airtags to test its privacy features I clipped a keychain with one of Apple's tiny new Bluetooth trackers, AirTags, onto my son's book bag and waved goodbye to him on the school bus. I watched on my iPhone's Find My app as the bus stopped at a light a few blocks down from our street. © James D. Morgan/Getty Images A key ring containing an AirTag attached to a book bag in Sydney, Australia. But then the tiny "key" icon on the app stopped moving. The item was "last detected" seven minutes ago at a busy intersection less than a mile away. Traffic, maybe? Five more minutes passed with no update.

Even if you don't have the Find My app open on your iPhone, you can say, for example, "Hey Siri , where are my keys?" The AirTag will chime in response.

The AirTag uses Precision Finding to guide you to it

But it gets better. If you have an iPhone 11 or 12 you can use Precision Finding to locate your AirTag. And that's because the AirTag, like the iPhone 11 and 12, has a U1 ultrawideband chip to determine the exact distance and directions to get you to it. A really cool interface pops up on your iPhone to guide you to the item and AirTag. It uses the iPhone's cameras, ARKit, accelerometer and gyroscope along with data from the AirTag to create a visual guide that along with haptics, and sound direct you to your lost item. Precision Finding works within Bluetooth range of the AirTag.

a cellphone lying on a table: Precision Finding can lead you turn-by-turn until you end up at your item and AirTag. Apple/Screenshot by Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET Precision Finding can lead you turn-by-turn until you end up at your item and AirTag. Apple/Screenshot by Patrick Holland/CNET

If someone finds a lost AirTag, they can interact with it using NFC

If your AirTag is far away, you can put it into Lost Mode which allows you to enter a phone number. If someone comes across the AirTag, they can tap it with an NFC phone (iOS or Android). This will take them to a website with information on how to contact you.

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AirTags don't store your location data

You're the only one who can see where your AirTag is. Any location data or history isn't stored on the AirTag itself. When the AirTag comes in contact with another Find My device, like an iPhone, location info is transferred encrypted and anonymously.

No one, not even Apple, knows the location of your AirTag or the identity of the Find My device used to find it. Any Bluetooth signals rotate frequently, so other people can't use them to track you.

AirTags can't track another person unwillingly

Unfortunately there are people who might want to take advantage of the anonymity and privacy that the AirTag provides to track another person without them knowing. Apple created a number of features to discourage unwanted tracking.

Your iPhone or iOS device can detect an AirTag that's not with its owner, and will notify you if it is traveling with you over time. You'll then be able to play a sound on the unknown AirTag to locate it and view information like its serial number and see instructions on how to disable it.

Any AirTag separated from its owner for a period of time will also play a sound to alert you when it is moved.

a hand holding a cup: The AirTag can be disabled by removing the CR2032 battery. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET The AirTag can be disabled by removing the CR2032 battery. Patrick Holland/CNET

Using AirTags on pets or kids

As soon as AirTags were announced, I saw friends online joking how they wanted to put one on their kid or dog or whatever. If you attach this to a pet, that pet needs to come within Bluetooth range of a device on the Find My network for its location to be updated.

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As far as kids, the AirTag is meant for items, for example like your child's backpack. The built-in features aimed at preventing tracking that I mentioned above, mean that an AirTag isn't the best option for keeping dibs on your child's location. You'd be better to use an Apple Watch with Family Setup.

AirTag accessories

AirTags are small and can be put into a bag pocket for example. Apple also sells a few accessories for the AirTag that you can use to attach it to a variety of items:

  • Loop (polyurethane) ($29, £29. AU$45)
  • Leather Loop ($39, £39, AU$59)
  • Leather Key Ring ($35, £35, AU$55)

I got to use an AirTag for about 8 hours, which isn't much. I look forward to trying it out for longer, and will be back with in-depth review when I've had more time with the AirTag.

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