Apple AirTag full review
Apple's Bluetooth object tracker, the AirTag, was a long time coming: clues on the packaging indicate it was in development back in 2019. But now that the weather is improving and lockdown is coming to an end, the time is ripe for tech fans to rush outside and lose their valuables.
The AirTag's sell is simple: you attach it to something you care about, and then you'll be able to track that object's location in the Find My app, just as you would track your iPhones and AirPods.
In our in-depth AirTag review we test out the device's capabilities and help you decide if it's the right tracker for you. If you're interested in the other options out there, check out our guide to the best Bluetooth trackers.
Design: Sleek and portable
The AirTag is roughly the size and shape of a button - but one of those chunky big buttons on some women's coats. It's circular, with a diameter of 31.9mm, a thickness of 8mm and a weight of just 11g. It is extremely portable, as you would hope.
It's hard to be too critical of such a wee object, but I will say that it could be flatter. For this article I replaced an array of Tile trackers with a set of AirTags, and one of Tile's advantages is that its trackers come in a variety of shapes and sizes; the Slim is so flat that it fits happily in a wallet. I did put an AirTag in my wallet, but couldn't easily close it until I took out a few more cards to make room.
In general the AirTag suffers a little from offering only one size, since for some uses a larger model would be fine and would benefit from a larger battery and/or louder ringer, and for others a slimmer model would be beneficial. I would be very surprised if Apple doesn't expand the line with AirTags mini and AirTags Pro, to take a wild guess, in the next year or two.
Visually the AirTag is absolutely classic Apple, which is to say minimalist and elegant. The top surface is seamless white; the undercarriage is polished chrome with the Apple logo picked out in brushed metal and a few sentences of small type around the rim. I don't want to go overboard when discussing an object which is supposed to be functional, but it looks pretty terrific, especially when compared to the utilitarian plastic of many rival trackers.
What is less stereotypically Apple, in the sense that it speaks to a willingness to give up control and be less crushingly chic, is the option to get the device engraved with a customised message. This appears on - and kind of defaces the snow-white unblemished perfection of - that smooth top surface.
You get up to four characters, which includes a limited selection of symbols and emoji (roughly a dozen of the most common, plus line versions of the Animoji). The innuendo-laden aubergine and peach are conspicuously absent, and you can't do any of the rude words which the four-character limit naturally prompts, and it appears in mono rather than colour, but still: this is a genuine moment of unbending from Apple, and one to be applauded.
One of the problems of going for a premium rather than utilitarian look is that it shows up the scuffs. My AirTags started showing a few mild scratches within a week or so of regular use; don't expect them to remain pristine for long.
Dropping your AirTags on the floor is likely to speed up the de-pristining process, but you don't need to worry too much about dropping them in water. They are certified as IP67, which as you'll see from our colleagues' explanation of the IP ratings means they are dust-tight and able to cope with liquid immersion up to a depth of 1m for up to 30 minutes.
One last potentially problematic aspect of the design: the AirTag does not have a hole. (Some trackers have holes and some don't. The Chipolo ONE Spot has a hole, as do the mid-size Tiles, but the Tile Sticker and Tile Slim do not.) Arguably this is an example of Apple allowing form to take priority over function, as holes look messy but are useful for attaching to key rings in particular; the lack of a hole, cynics will point out, also encourages you to buy an accessory, pushing up the price. Or drill a hole yourself, which is apparently possible but which I would not recommend.
A user-replaceable battery!
The AirTag contains a single CR2032 'button-cell' battery, which Apple says should last you "more than a year" before needing to be replaced. Extremely uncharacteristically for an Apple product, you can replace it yourself, and do so very easily, both because that's a relatively common rather than a proprietary battery type (well done, Apple!), and because the battery compartment opens with little fuss and usually little effort.
All you need to do is press in on the back of the AirTag, and twist. Because it's smooth, you may have a little difficulty creating enough friction, but you'll get it open soon enough. Some of my samples opened instantly with almost no effort at all; one took perhaps 10 seconds of fiddling and then yielded.
In fact - and it's bizarre to be typing this, after years of Apple products going to great lengths to prevent users from getting inside - there is a concern that opening the battery compartment of the AirTag may be too easy, because a child can do this and then potentially swallow the battery, which is extremely dangerous.
One Australian retailer has pulled the AirTag from sale because of this fear, and it remains to be seen if further action will be taken, or if Apple will be moved to make changes to future products (the company insists the AirTag complies with relevant regulations) or even issue a recall.
Sensitivities are particularly high in Australia because of a spate of recent tragedies where children swallowed button-cell batteries (none involving the AirTag, I should emphasise), and my sense is that the danger is low. But it's worth bearing in mind that very young children should not be allowed to play with this product.
Setup: Easy as pie
As you would expect from an Apple product, setting up the AirTag is a breeze. Remove the cellophane tab which keeps the battery disconnected and you'll hear a little ringtone; then tap it against your iPhone and follow the onscreen instructions. You can select from a range of common usages - handbag, wallet, keys and so on - or set a custom name and assign a custom symbol. It's very quick and easy: I set up five of these things during testing and never got sick of the process.
Bear in mind that you'll need an iPhone or iPad running iOS 14.5 or iPadOS 14.5 or later. Apple devices running older software can act as beacons to help AirTag owners find their trackers, but can't be used to set one up themselves.
And if you want to use the short-range Precision Finding feature, which I'll discuss in a moment, you'll need a device with a U1 chip. That currently means an 11-series or 12-series iPhone.
Finding your AirTag
You can't set up a separation alert, where you're given a notification as soon as you move a specified distance away from the tracker. To be fair, not many trackers support this seemingly obvious and undoubtedly useful feature - the Samsung SmartTag does not, while Tile restricts it to Premium subscribers - but it's still a shame that Apple left it off the AirTag's features list. Perhaps it will be added later in a software update.
But let's say you've attached an AirTag to your wallet, then promptly lost it. How do you go about finding the thing?
The AirTag hasn't got GPS; it doesn't actually know where it is. Rather, it sends out little Bluetooth distress signals to nearby devices, like a tourist asking for directions.
The ingenious thing here, and Apple's killer selling point, is that those distress signals can be picked up by any devices on the company's Find My network. iPhones, iPads, even Macs can all pick up the signal and report the location to Apple's servers (without the user being involved at any point - it all happens behind the scenes with encrypted, anonymised data). There could be as many as a billion potential helpers out there, far more than the number of people with the Tile app, for example.
Thanks to this crowd-sourced data, there's a good chance when you open the Items tab of your Find My app that you'll be shown an accurate and recent location for your AirTag. From here you can tap to ask for directions, and Apple Maps will lead you to the general vicinity of your tracker.
At this point you switch to closer-range methods. If you've got one of those U1 iPhones, you can use Precision Finding, which gives you the distance in feet, and a dynamic arrow telling you exactly where to go. If not, you can make the AirTag do its little ringtone, which should reveal its resting place.
But how well does that work in practice? It's better than the alternatives, but still mixed. I outline detailed testing in the next section, but for those who don't want to wade through it, here's the summary:
The AirTag offers best-in-class long-distance tracking, thanks to the assistance of the huge Find My network; I was able to track the device's approximate location far more accurately than a Tile Mate. But close-range tracking, particularly tracking within a house, is less impressive, and I suspect you'll find yourself relying on the beeper more than Precision Finding, even if your phone supports it.
I tried tracking the AirTag in two contexts: at home, and on the street. There were marked differences in performance.
Indoor tracking with Precision Finding
I live in a three-storey house, which gave me the opportunity for a comparatively demanding domestic test. I buried the AirTag under the sofa cushions on the top floor and tried to locate it from a starting point on the ground floor.
When you're at reasonably close range like this, compatible iPhones will offer the Precision Finding option. You'll know this is available because the Directions button on the relevant item in the Find My app will instead read Find. I tapped this button.
Unfortunately, wherever I went on the ground floor, the Find My app claimed to be Connected, but said the signal was weak and advised me to move to a different location. I went up to the middle floor, but kept getting the same message.
I was almost at the top of the stairs leading to the top room, a distance of around 13 feet from the target, when Precision Finding properly kicked in. At first it told me the distance, which in a "you're getting hotter" sort of way was enough to help me close the gap still further. And it soon added a (mostly) helpful arrow indicating the direction.
I say mostly, because the arrow was occasionally wayward, pointing back the way I'd come for a while. On the whole, though, if you're patient and willing to move around a little, it'll get you within a couple of feet of the target, at which point the coup de grâce can be delivered by turning on the AirTag's ringer. This just about made itself heard despite the muffling effect of those sofa cushions; if not actively buried like this, the ringtone is loud enough to be heard from several rooms away and may be a better option than Precision Finding.
Note that there doesn't seem to be any understanding, and certainly isn't any explanation, of elevation. When I have persuaded Precision Finding to work from a different floor (usually on the way back down - possibly it's remembering the location), it has still offered two-dimensional directions. It's 18 feet behind you, it would say, without mentioning that it's actually 18 feet above my head.
Just to be sure, I tried the test both with and without a spare iPhone (running iOS 14.4.2) nearby, to act as a Bluetooth beacon. This made no difference to performance at this range - which makes sense, because we're using Precision Finding, where the AirTag communicates directly with the tracking iPhone rather than depending on assistance from other devices.
I was a little disheartened by this performance, but for fairness I must stress that an old Tile Mate I used for comparison did no better, and in fact was probably slightly worse overall.
Tile's app doesn't offer any equivalent of Precision Finding: you're always doing that hotter/colder routine. It claimed to have a strong and sometimes even very strong signal on the ground floor, which was a little confusing, but it was still possible to get some guidance by watching the signal-strength rings expand very slightly as I moved in the right direction. This wasn't easy, but it was more helpful than the information I had received from Precision Finding.
Despite this marginally better performance at medium range it was still more difficult to find the Tile Mate overall, because of the lack of precise directions once I got to the approximate location. But you can always rely on the ringtone, of course.
Outdoor tracking with Directions
For the next test I went up to town to recreate an environment with plenty of other devices around. I left the AirTag and my Tile Mate with an obliging shopkeeper, and tried to locate them from the other end of the street, around 200 yards away.
Find My located the AirTag easily, although at this distance it offered Directions rather than Find. It wasn't just remembering the location: the details kept updating as it got newer information from nearby devices.
When I tapped Directions in the Find My app, I was bumped to Apple Maps and guided quickly and reliably to the correct spot.
But even when I was close enough that I expected to be able to use Precision Finding, the iPhone didn't switch back from Maps to Find My, or offer Find as an alternative. And when I manually switched back to Find My and tapped on Find, it was even less capable than during the at-home test: I didn't get an arrow or any kind of clear signal until the shop owner literally put the bag in my hands.
So there remains room for improvement, but the AirTag did a lot better than the Tile. The Tile app offered a location from 5-6 minutes ago, which was before I dropped it off and therefore at the wrong location - perhaps 80-100 yards away from the correct spot. This was presumably the result of no people with the Tile app on their phones walking past the drop.
Of course, you may not be able to track down your item yourself. It may not currently be close enough to other devices to put the word out, or it may be in a place you cannot easily reach. If this happens the best option may be to mark it as lost.
Lost Mode kicks in a few additional features, which can be customised to your preferences. You can choose to be notified when someone finds it, and to deliver a message to the finder - the app suggests that you put your phone number, and a request to be called. They will need an electronic device to read the lost message, but anything with NFC is compatible. Android owners are allowed to help in this regard.
Rest assured that the AirTag will be locked, so disreputable finders won't be able to pair it with their devices and score themselves a free tracker.
Privacy & security
I've already mentioned that the Find My network tracking is based on data that is end-to-end encrypted and anonymised, so you don't need to worry about random passers-by being notified of your location, nor of other AirTag owners being told that your device is communicating with their tracker.
But there are other privacy and safety issues to consider.
One possible use for an AirTag would be to track other people: it would be as simple as slipping the device into their pocket or bag, then following their location in Find My. Apple has thought of this, and built in anti-stalking measures, but as Ars Technica has explored in depth, they may not go far enough.
Firstly, if an iPhone notices that an AirTag is travelling with it, and the AirTag's owner is not, it will pop up an alert (AirTag Detected Near You) after a couple of hours, or when it knows the iPhone owner has arrived home. But aside from that fairly long delay, this is something that is limited to iPhones, and iPhones with iOS 14.5 or later at that: Android owners and Apple owners with older versions of iOS - in other words, the vast majority of smartphone owners - won't get the warning. That feels borderline irresponsible.
Second, if an AirTag has been separated from its owner for a longer period of time, it will start to intermittently chirrup to advertise its presence - thus helping the owner to find it, if their intentions are good, and giving a warning to possible victims of stalking, if they are not. But this doesn't kick in until three days have passed, more than long enough for the victim's home address to have been discovered, or for serious harm to have been inflicted.
When John Gruber looked into the matter, Apple said this setting could be changed on the server side, and perhaps the company will tighten things up at some point; of course, it has to weigh the privacy benefits of reducing this time against the danger that an immediately noisy AirTag could also alert thieves and help them find and remove the tracker. But right now, three days is far too long to offer any defence against stalking.
As Ars Technica acknowledges, the AirTag's anti-stalking measures go further than those of other trackers. But if the company wants to keep promoting its pro-privacy stance, Apple should be looking at ways to tighten up these features.
An AirTag will set you back £29/$29, or £99/$99 for a set of four. Engraving is included in the price, but you may need to budget for an accessory or two to attach the tags to your valuables.
Those prices are competitive, perhaps surprisingly so, but still a bit more expensive than some rival options. The Tile Mate I've mentioned several times in this article has an RRP of £19.99/$24.99.
The AirTag is imperfect, but it's better than the rest.
I don't think Precision Finding adds much, with testing suggesting it has a reliable range that's so short - particularly when walls are part of the equation - that you'd be better served by simply activating the ringtone. It also doesn't tell you if the tracker is above or below you, which feels like a key bit of information when you're searching a house.
But the AirTag's longer-range tracking is excellent - the best on the market right now, simply because Apple's network of finders is so much bigger than anyone else's. Find My was able to easily and accurately locate an AirTag in a town, and while it would struggle to do so well if you dropped your tracker in the middle of nowhere, other Bluetooth-based trackers would struggle even more.
The AirTag's design is excellent, even if Apple would do well to develop some variants for those who want a slimmer body or louder ringer, and I love the engraving option. And I remain impressed by Apple's efforts to tackle potential use of the device for stalking, even if those efforts don't yet go far enough; fitting in with the theme, Apple is doing better than the rest.
This may be one of those product lines, like the Apple Watch and Apple Pencil, where version 2 fixes the imperfections and takes things to the next level. But for now, this is the best Bluetooth tracker out there, provided you've got a recent iPhone.
Apple AirTag: Specs
- U1 chip with Ultra Wideband Technology
- Replaceable CR2032 battery
- IP67 rating
- Built-in speaker