Apple AirTag review: Precision Finding is a game changer

(CNN) —  

After months of speculation and anticipation, Apple’s AirTag trackers are finally here at a relatively affordable $29 for a single AirTag or $99 for a pack of four.

We spent a week with five AirTags during what turned out to be an extra-clumsy testing adventure. Overall, the tags’ integration within Apple’s Find My network delivers a wide coverage map, and their location accuracy is impressive. Combined with turn-by-turn directions to lost items, this makes them highly valuable for Apple users who misplace their belongings. Just be prepared to invest in an accessory or two since you can’t attach the AirTag to anything out of the box.

Let’s sum it up simply — if you’re in the Apple ecosystem and want an item tracker, the AirTag is a no-brainer.

If you’re in the Apple ecosystem and want a no-nonsense way to track just about anything, then the AirTag is for you. Read our full review and order starting today:

Posted by CNN Underscored on Friday, April 30, 2021

Who it’s for: If you’re in the Apple ecosystem and want a no-nonsense way to track just about anything, then the AirTag is for you. Android users need to look elsewhere, and a Tile tracker is the place to start.

What you need to know: From the initial setup, you’ll realize that Apple’s Airtag is ingrained into the Apple ecosystem and lives in the Find My app. You can easily play a sound, get directions to the tag, see its location on a map and even mark it as lost. Precision Finding — turn-by-turn direction on an iPhone 11 or newer — is the all-star experience that guides you to your lost items. Apple has a coverage map that is really unmatched.

How it compares: AirTag isn’t the first item tracker to hit the market, but for those in the Apple ecosystem it has several pros over the popular Tile tracker. It pairs seamlessly with the iPhone and is a lot easier to use. Precision Finding is unmatched by the Tile (or any other tracker on the market), and the coverage map in our testing is quicker to update. Apple’s Find My network is built up by nearly a billion devices, which is larger than Tiles (in the millions) and leads to a stronger coverage map for finding your things. You are stuck with one design that doesn’t have a key ring or a built-in adhesive, which means you will need to invest in accessories to get full functionality out of the device.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Here’s the most exciting thing about AirTags: If you have an iPhone with the U1 Chip inside (an iPhone 11 or newer), your phone will give you turn-by-turn directions to the AirTag on-screen. With VoiceOver, a built-in accessibility feature, Siri will read directions aloud to help you find it.

Apple calls this Precision Finding, which uses a boatload of technology to help you get your item back. It’s Bluetooth, U1, ARKit (Apple’s software foundation for augmented reality, or AR) along with your iPhone’s gyroscope and accelerometer all working in tandem. You’ll be presented with the distance away, in feet, and see an arrow on-screen pointing you in the right direction. It’s truly a game changer and pushes this item tracker far beyond Tile.

We frequently lose our keys, named “Jacob’s Keys,” within Find My. We hunted around for about 15 minutes in our bedroom but lost interest in walking in circles pretty quickly. So we fired up the Find My app and selected “Find” on “Jacob’s Keys.” The app then transformed itself into a GPS on a mission to find that item.

You’ll see a slightly see-through screen that tells you to move around a bit and then it will transform again to display the distance in the bottom left corner. As you begin to move around your space, your phone will present an arrow and instructions — directions like 8 feet to your right or 20 feet behind you. But as you get closer to the item, the app will give you more exact locations and track the distance away — and very accurately, in our experience. You can also play a ping on the AirTag with a tap and, in some cases, it may ask you to turn your flashlight on for more light.

It really feels like a personal GPS just for you to find your item. The secret ingredient here is the U1 Chip, which enables the ultra-wideband network. It gives the iPhone insight, spatially, as to where the AirTag is and powers Precision Finding. It’s kind of like a personal GPS — and no, not like the one that caused Michael Scott to drive into a lake, just one that helps you find items.

And we tested it many more times indoors, both in an apartment, a store (yes, we left our keys in public for testing!) and in a home. In the latter we tested it on multiple floors, and while it took longer to find an item, Precision Finding still came to the rescue. And as you get closer to the AirTag, the locations get really, really accurate. Same goes for outside — once you’re within 20 to 30 feet, you’ll get those turn-by-turns.

While testing AirTags, we also had the chance to take a flight. By placing an AirTag in our Away Carry-On, we were able to track it from when we dropped it off to it traveling through the airport. Thankfully it made it on the plane, and even while in Airplane Mode on an iPhone 12, we could see the location updating. Pretty neat and an easy way to upgrade an existing suitcase to a smart one.

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Like AirPods or the Apple Watch, AirTag is designed as an iPhone accessory, and setup is done in under a minute. Just hold your AirTag next to your iPhone and it will automatically prompt the setup window. You’ll name the tag and it will sync with your Apple ID. And, well, that’s really it.

The AirTags all live within the Find My app, and if you decide to change how you’ll be using one of them, you can easily rename it in a jiffy. Apple has several presets (think keys, backpack or luggage), and you can type your own in.

The AirTag is pretty unassuming — it’s a small disc with a white plastic side and a stainless steel side that features an Apple logo. You’ll find a few markings (like Bluetooth, U1, “designed by Apple” and “assembled in China”), but it’s pretty minimalist. It’s smaller than a PopSocket, bigger than a checker and very pocketable.

The biggest thing we noticed after a week with five AirTags would be that the stainless steel can scuff easily — both on the shiny stainless and on the Apple logo, which is engraved on the back. It’s reminiscent of an engraving on an iPod. Wiping it with a cleaner like iCloth or a microfiber can save some of them, but these abrasions can go deeper than the surface and leave a scuff. These only impact looks and no functionality is lost.

On the front, you can choose an engraving of an emoji or four characters at no extra cost. If you’re getting the four-pack for a family, it’s an excellent route to ensure you don’t mix up AirTags. Emojis are a pretty fun way to personalize them as well.

Housed inside all of this is a solid amount of technology. There’s an accelerometer sensor along with a U1 Chip and Bluetooth. Connectivity is rounded out with NFC (near-field communication) and it serves an important purpose. For instance: What if someone finds your missing item and wants to return it? Well, they can tap the AirTag with any NFC-capable device that takes you to a webpage.

And yes, that includes an Android device like a Galaxy S21. From there they can contact the owner of the tag — but this only happens if you’ve marked the AirTag as lost within the Find My app. You’ll have the option to share a name and phone number for the person who finds the AirTag as well. Of course, once you’ve found the AirTag you can disable lost mode and reenable the standard functionality.

And since the AirTag might end up in some sticky spots, it’s rated IP67 for resistance against dust and water. That rating means it can handle being submerged in a meter of water for 30 minutes. We used it in the rain and gave it a small dunking in some water, neither of which caused any issues.

Apple is promising a year of endurance from the battery. It’s easy to pop off the back, with pressure, once its time to replace it. Unlike other Apple products, this is a user-replaceable battery. It’s a standard CR2032 battery — likely one that you can grab from your local convenience store or pharmacy. You can also monitor the battery life of the AirTag (or AirTags) in the Find My app on your iPhone.

Here’s our biggest question mark around the design, though — it’s really a small disc with no hole for a key ring or built-in adhesive. You’ll need an accessory to attach an AirTag to your keys, a backpack or luggage. It’s also a bit thick to fit into a wallet. And if you don’t want to buy accesories, you can slot it into a pocket (one that we hope can be closed) in a backpack, luggage or a jacket. There’s no real free solution for getting it on a pair of keys or attaching it to a bag, though.

Jacob Krol/CNN

AirTag is easy enough to bring with you, but you’ll need an accessory to attach it to something. Sure, you can toss it into a pocket, but you’ll want to make sure it will stay there. Unlike some newer Tile trackers, there isn’t a built-in adhesive or even a spot for a key ring. Apple, though, is offering several accessories.

All of these house the AirTag quite nicely, and we especially like the loops, as you can determine the length, making it easy to wrap on a backpack strap or piece of luggage. We’d bet that the classic polyurethane loop will be just fine for most people — and it’s cheaper. You’ll pop the AirTag in and clasp it close, then just find a surface to loop it around. We tested this out on a backpack and a carry-on. The leather is a bit more high-end, but it provides the same functionality.

The Leather Key Ring is, you guessed it, great for a set of keys. It is pretty large, though, with a sizable silver key ring that has a bigger diameter than the AirTag itself. You can always pop that off and just attach the leather portion to a ring that’s already on your keys. While we haven’t tried it yet, Belkin is selling a keychain that’s a bit smaller for just $12.95. Nomad Goods has a few key rings made of the brand’s classic leather. The brand even make a glasses strip that we know will be super handy for some users. You can see our full roundup of AirTags accessories here.

Apple is even offering a Hermes edition of the AirTag. It’s pricey at $449, though it includes one AirTag along with a very nice leather buckle from Hermes. That AirTag has a custom design that uses the classic Hermes font as well.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The other standout feature of AirTag is the integration within the Find My network. Yes, the same one Apple users may be accustomed to for tracking lost laptops, phones, tablets, earbuds and smartwatches. It is a network made up of nearly a billion Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or the Mac) that can pick up on the Bluetooth signals cast from the AirTag. As your AirTags are on the move, other devices will pick up on the signals — this way the location is frequently updating within the Find My app. That’s a big advantage over other trackers, which can’t be as accurate and don’t have as many devices helping to keep that location known…or hide capabilities behind a premium membership (we’re looking at you, Tile).

In true Apple fashion, using the AirTag is a private experience. The data of your AirTag is anonymous and end-to-end encrypted, which means the location of your AirTag can’t be seen by others. Apple can’t even view the location. And while AirTag does pulse out Bluetooth signals to other Find My network devices for the purpose of locating, those signals are secure and are frequently swapped to ensure the same one is being cast in repetition.

The privacy features and the Find My network are impressive, but in daily use AirTag is pretty similar to other item trackers. You’ll see its location represented as a dot on the map. If it says it’s in your apartment, you’ll likely know that and can have a sound play on your AirTag. It’s a series of chirping sounds, and it does a good job echoing in an enclosed space. After a few tries, we were able to find our AirTag, thanks to this chime.

It’s nothing unheard of in the realm of item trackers. Tile’s range of trackers and the Galaxy Smart Tag both show location on a map with the ability for you to play a sound on them. Both of these trackers also allow you to click in to have your phone ring. That’s something the AirTag can’t do, although you can ping an iPhone from your Apple Watch.

And since Apple’s tracker is built into the ecosystem, you don’t even need to open the Find My app on your phone. You can ask Siri on a HomePod or another device, “Where’s my keys?” for it to start playing sounds from the respective AirTags. You can even ask Siri from the lock or home screen of your iPhone. It’s just a seamless integration.

So let’s break down a real-world example that happened during our testing — we won’t say if it was done intentionally, though. Say you’re walking through a park and have an AirTag on your jacket. You stop for a bit at a bench, take the jacket off and get up without remembering to grab it. Without the AirTag, you might be out of luck. But with it, simply fire up the Find My app on your iPhone and you’ll see its location on your screen, can ping it so it plays a chirping sound and even get directions to it.

After a week of testing Apple’s item tracker, it’s clear that it’s not the most groundbreaking tech product ever released, although the U1 Chip is seriously impressive. But the AirTag is super functional and practical. If you have an iPhone and are in the Apple ecosystem, they make a whole lot of sense. We’re all getting ready to go back out into the world, maybe even planning some trips, and this is a super-simple way to keep track of things.

Precision Finding is quite literally a game changer for finding items, and it will let you spend less time hunting something down. You will need an iPhone with the U1 Chip to take advantage of it, though. That’s an iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, 12 Mini, 12, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max. The privacy of the Find My network is stellar in comparison to other trackers, and end-to-end encryption provides peace of mind. The Find My network is strong and covers a lot of territory as well.

We’re really happy with AirTag and think the item packs a big punch with value. At $29 for a single or $99 for a four-pack, you really can’t go wrong here. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, the AirTag is the tracker for you. We’d say the same for Android users or anyone looking for a tracker, but you need an iPhone for setup. A Tile Sticker or a classic Mate makes the most sense for those on Android. It’s a similar experience to an AirTag minus the Precision Finding ability and seamless integration.

You can order a single AirTag for $29 or a pack of four for $99 now. They’ll start shipping on April 30.

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