Apple finally launched AirTags, its Bluetooth tracker to help users keep a tab of everything precious to them. The Cupertino tech giant has tapped into a new market, currently dominated by Tile and earlier Chipolo One.
Here is everything you need to know about Bluetooth trackers.
Is AirTag a new concept?
The answer is no.
So who introduced this idea of finding lost items with the help of a coin-sized device?
The earliest versions of these trackers had two parts. The tracker and a key, which when pressed will activate a sound from the tracker so that you could find it. Around 2013, with Bluetooth becoming common and affordable, companies like Tile and TrackR (now known as Adero) offered better solutions powered by their native apps.
Most trackers use BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) to connect to smartphones. The trackers themselves can be attached to any item you are likely to lose or forget from keys and handbags to bikes and even pets. So, whenever you misplace an item with a tracker on it, you can find it by tapping on the Find button located in the app. The trackers play a loud tune so that you can hear the sound and find the missing item easily.
The good thing about these trackers is they work both ways. So, if you have keys (attached to Bluetooth tracker) in your hand, and can’t find your phone, then you just need to tap on the tracking device to get the location. This feature was first made available by TrackR in 2015.
However, the disadvantage of using a Bluetooth tracker is it offers data in a limited range. So, for example, you will be able to find the lost item in your home, but if you have visited more than two places, then locating the same is a bit tough.
So, the solution to this was crowd-sourcing. Users did get an option in the app to notify them when the item is found, and this is where the community network comes into play. So, whenever the lost item comes into proximity of another Bluetooth tracker user, the location data is given back to you and then you can go and find your missing item. However, this required companies to have a big network to get location data from other user’s connected devices. This didn’t work in favour of TrackR. So they came up with a slightly different concept, which focuses less on discovering lost items.
Enter rechargeable “Smart Tags” (Bluetooth trackers) and Bluetooth-equipped “Taglets.” You can attach the Smart Tags to a bag, and the tiny Taglets can be attached to individual items like wallets, laptops, or keys. The Smart Tag helps keep a tab on the items you wanted and needed inside a bag. All you need to do is tap on the Smart Tag and you will get to know whether all your belongings are inside the bag. The device yields either a green or red light to alert you and you also get a notification on phone. Additionally, the company’s app keeps track of all Smart Tags and Taglets, and it can also send proactive reminders. The good thing about the Smart Tags is they are rechargeable.
The services offered by Tile were very popular and the company managed to establish itself in many markets like the US because of the advantage of having a big community network over the competitors.
But, Apple has something better to offer to users.
What does the AirTag offer?
Apple has introduced AirTag, which seems to be a much better version of what Tile offers. Apple has successfully developed its ecosystem over the years to offer users a seamless experience and its new AirTag is deeply integrated into it.
AirTags basically produces audible beeps when a user device is in its Bluetooth range. The concept is similar to the existing Tile products. They also come with Siri support and claimed battery life of 12 months. The battery can also be replaced after a year of usage, just like Tile.
The best part about the AirTag is it comes with Apple’s U1 chip and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology, which will help offer a more precise location, than the BLE-equipped trackers from Tile. Apple is calling this Precision Finding feature. UWB is similar to BLE, but operates at very high frequencies and offers more spatial and directional data. The wireless technology can track a UWB-device’s movements in real-time as it uses larger channel bandwidth (500MHz) with low power pulses to offer a secure and accurate location.
The tech is available on iPhone 11 and newer versions, and select Android smartphones. It uses these phones’ camera, ARKit, accelerometer and gyroscope to guide you to AirTag using a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback. You get the location details on Apple’s Find My app.
Now, the more interesting part is Apple uses its global Find My network to find the location of the tag if it is out of Bluetooth range. This one is similar to how Tile’s trackers work, but the chances of finding a tag might be more with AirTag as Apple has a bigger network. So, whenever the lost AirTag comes in a range of another iPhone user with the Find My app, you will be notified.
Apple says “the Find My network is approaching a billion Apple devices and can detect Bluetooth signals from a lost AirTag and relay the location back to its owner, all in the background, anonymously and privately. Users can also place AirTag into Lost Mode and be notified when it is in range or has been located by the vast Find My network.” The Precision Finding feature can also direct users who are blind or low-vision to AirTag with directions like “AirTag is 9 feet away on your left.”
However, the feature leverages the U1 Ultra Wideband sensor, which is not available on older iPhones, so not all the users will be able to enjoy the benefits of AirTag.
The race to offer the best Bluetooth tracker has begun
Currently, Tile is also a good option for many as its Bluetooth trackers support both Android and iOS platforms and are more affordable. Tile is also rumoured to be working on new Bluetooth trackers with the same technology sometime later this year, as per a report by TechCrunch. But, the way of finding the lost items would be the same, and with the latest UWB technology, users will be able to locate items in a much easier way.
Samsung is already ahead of the competition. The South Korean giant introduced its SmartTag+ Bluetooth tracker in February this year and it features the advanced UWB chip to track users’ belongings with greater accuracy. SmartTag+ uses the AR Finder technology to guide you to its location in real-time, just like AirTag. It can be attached to any item such as keychains, wallets or backpacks. However, in order to use Samsung’s tracker, you need the company’s SmartThings Find service, which is available only on Galaxy phones. The devices should also have support for UWB tech, which is available on Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 2 smartphones.
So here again Tile has an upper hand in offering support for all types of devices.
Interestingly, Samsung’s tracker can also be used to turn on or off a light. There is also a feature that lets you ring off the tracker when you get close to the estimated location.
Samsung says “SmartTag+ can also leverage SmartThings Find’s powerful detection capabilities, allowing you to locate tagged items on a map, even if it’s misplaced somewhere very far from where you are. That’s because the tags use BLE connectivity and the power of the Galaxy device network.”
So, companies are launching new products that offer convenience while also delivering what the product is meant for. The race to offer the best Bluetooth tracker has begun and it will be interesting to see how these brands will add more unique features to woo customers and gain more market share.