What is an Apple AirTag? A simple tracker with state-of-the-art technology

On the outside, Apple’s new AirTag looks like a boring product we’ve all seen before. It is a disk-shaped activity tracking device that can be attached to objects such as keys to help you find them.

However, inside the story is much more interesting.

The AirTag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics to use a new wireless technology, ultra-wideband (BUA), which allows you to detect precise proximity between objects. By using the ultra-wide band, your iPhone can detect whether an AirTag is a centimeter or tens of meters away. It’s so accurate that your app even displays an arrow pointing which way the AirTag is.

That’s much better than other trackers that use Bluetooth technology, an older wireless technology that can only roughly estimate how close an object is. (We will explain how this all works later.)

Using the ultra-wide band to find objects is just a first example of what technology can accomplish. Due to its exact ability to transfer data quickly between devices, ultra-wideband could become the next wireless standard to succeed Bluetooth. It could allow the use of better wireless devices like headphones, keyboards, video game controllers, and so on.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer for Spark Microsystems, a Montreal-based firm that develops ultra-wideband technology, referring to trackers like the AirTag. “Send data very quickly.”

For almost a week, I tested Apple’s AirTag, which cost $ 29. I used the tracker to find keys, locate my dogs, and find out where a backpack was. I also did similar tests with Tile, a $ 25 tracker that uses Bluetooth technology and has been on the market for almost eight years.

Last week, Tile complained during an antitrust hearing that Apple had copied his product while smaller companies were left at a disadvantage. Based on my tests comparing the AirTag and Tile, the ultra-wideband was undeniably superior to Bluetooth technology in finding items. Additionally, the AirTag proved that ultra-wideband is the next-generation technology worth getting excited about.

This is what you need to know.

The ultra-wideband has been in development for more than 15 years, but it was incorporated into the chips of iPhones and other cell phones only two years ago.

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When using the ultra-wide band to find a tracker, it works in a similar way to sonar, which detects objects underwater. The user “ping” the tracker and the tracker “ping” the phone back. The time it takes for the “ping” to return is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.

However, when using Bluetooth technology to find a tracker, your phone sends a continuous signal looking for it. The further you move away from the tracker, the weaker the signal will be, and the closer you get to it, the stronger it will be. This technique is used to tell you approximately how far you are from the tracker.

So what do the two underlying wireless technologies mean in practice?

Tile works with both iPhones and Android phones that use Bluetooth technology to find objects. Open the Tile application, select an object and hit the “find” button. The app searches for the Tile and sends a signal to connect, after which it makes the tracker play a tune. If the signal connection is weak, it will tell you to move until the signal is stronger.

If your phone cannot find a Tile because it is out of range, you can put it in “lost mode”. The tracker will search for other Tile owners who have granted access to the Tile app for their location to help find other people’s lost items. If a Samaritan who owns a tile is near your tile, that person’s device will share their location with the tile network, which will show where the object was last seen on a map.

Apple’s AirTag works with both new and old iPhones. Newer devices (the iPhone 11 and 12) can take advantage of the precise location capabilities of the ultra-wideband. To find an object, open the Find app, select an object, and choose Find. From there, the application will establish a connection with the AirTag. The application combines the data collected with the phone’s camera, sensors and the ultra-wideband chip to direct you to the location of the tag, using an arrow to point to it. Older iPhones can track AirTags with Bluetooth, using a method similar to Tile.

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Similar to Tile, when an AirTag is lost and out of range of your phone, you can put it in lost mode and allow other Apple phones to find the AirTag to help you see where the object was last seen on a map. .

The advantages of the ultra-wideband can easily be seen with a few trials.

For an experiment, I asked my wife to hide several AirTags and Tiles around the house and time the time it took me to find them.

In one of the tests, he hid an AirTag attached to my motorcycle key somewhere in our bedroom. Apple’s Find app used an arrow to point me to the mattress, and I pressed a button for the tracker to make a sound. After searching through the sheets and looking under the bed, I found the AirTag tucked under the mattress. It took me about 90 seconds.

Next, I had to find a Tile attached to my house key. I opened the Tile app and hit the Search button. The app said the signal was weak and suggested that I walk around to find a stronger connection. When I went downstairs, I could hear the melody of the Tile and the app told me that the signal was getting stronger. I found the Tile hidden inside a trash can in the garage. It took me about a minute.

The most difficult was an AirTag hidden inside a book. Apple’s Find app pointed me to the correct bookshelf, but couldn’t tell me precisely which book the label was on. After taking four books off the shelf and turning the pages, I found the AirTag inside a cookbook. This gave my wife three minutes of entertainment.

On the other hand, to test how the trackers worked when they were too far from my cell phone, I attached a Tile and an AirTag to my two dogs’ collars and put the trackers in lost mode when my wife took them out for a walk. Nearby smartphones helped me locate both to show me where the dogs were in the neighborhood.

While the AirTag is an impressive demonstration of ultra-wideband technology, that doesn’t make it the best tracker for everyone.

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Due to the compatibility of the AirTag with Apple products, I would give an AirTag to an iPhone owner. But I would give a Tile to a person with an Android phone.

The AirTag is also far from perfect. I wish they were louder – they are very discreet compared to Tiles – so the sound reproduction was not very helpful in finding them. I also didn’t like that, for most purposes, the AirTag requires buying a separate accessory, such as a keychain, to hold the tracker.

Instead, the Tile has a hole in its corner to attach it to a key ring or the head of a clasp. (The $ 29 price of the AirTag is dwarfed by Apple’s $ 35 leather key fob.)

Still, the ultra-wide band gives AirTag a huge advantage, and even Tile believes it. CJ Prober, Tile’s chief executive, said last week that Apple had refused to give his company access to the iPhone’s ultra-wideband chip to make its own trackers that work with it.

“They have launched a product to compete and take advantage of that technology that allows it to do things that our product cannot do,” Prober said in an interview. “We really believe that the competition should be fair. Fair competition leads to better results for consumers ”.

Apple said in a statement that it had worked hard to protect the privacy of iPhone users’ location data, adding that it accepted the competition. This month, ad which would soon unveil a plan for other companies to take advantage of ultra-wideband technology within Apple devices.

I’m happy to expect those products to use this nifty wireless technology.

Due to its greater efficiency in data transmission, the ultra-wide band could greatly improve future wireless devices, Nabki said. As an example, he cited wireless headphones that connect instantly, consume very little battery and sound just as good as those that use cables.

That sounds a lot better than finding the keys to the house.

Brian X. Chen is a consumer technology columnist. Review products and write Tech Fix, a column on how to solve technology-related problems. Before joining the Times in 2011, he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. @bxchen


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