April 28 update below. This post was first published on Monday, April 26.
Apple’s all-new product category, AirTag, is with us in a matter of days. It’s a small, cute wireless tracker that’s been designed to help you find, well, any of your stuff. It’s small enough to pop into the smallest pocket in your backpack, attach (with the right optional extra) to your keys, luggage and more.
Most importantly: it only works with iOS 14.5, please note, so you need to have updated your Apple device before you can use it. Along with the purple iPhone 12, it’s the first piece of Apple hardware that only works with iOS 14.5 and above.
Update. More details about AirTag—the first Apple device that only works with the just-released iOS 14.5— have emerged in the days running up to the AirTag going on sale this Friday.
First, tracking pets: Apple has said that it doesn’t regard AirTag as suitable for tracking a pet, for instance. The reason for this is that while it would work well to locate your furry companion while it remains within Bluetooth range—though you’d probably be able to see them if they were that near—it wouldn’t work so well if Fido or Tibbles was further away.
Of course, in Lost Mode, the AirTag would be pinging nearby Apple devices just as it would on your keys, spectacles, suitcase or backpack, for instance. But if your dog, say, is partial to chasing after squirrels, say, then it might well be some way away from the nearest passing iPhone, say.
However, even Apple would accept that if your dog is a sociable sort and tends when it runs off to go and find the nearest human, then everything changes.
Second: while confirming that the CR2032 battery lasts a year, it’s also been established that at the end of that year or more, the iPhone will notify you that the battery is getting low. This is handy as it means you don’t need to remember exactly when the battery was installed.
Third: the design is completely free from holes. Though there’s a speaker inside which first sounds when you set the AirTag up for the first time, an innovative surface actuation design means that the curved white shell on one side works as a sound-producing element without a single speaker hole. Why is this important? Well, it means that there’s nothing to get blocked or obstructed but additionally, it contributes to the IP67 water-reisstance.
Fourth: the sound that the new AirTag makes when you are seeking it is different from other sounds you might associate with the app, for instance when the Apple Watch is looking for your iPhone. It’s like a delicate but slightly piercing birdsong that keeps going until you’ve found the AirTag.
Fifth: if an AirTag has been secretly dropped into your bag, your iPhone and other devices will be told. Can’t find it, it’ll make a sound after three days anyway. That’s all below but what’s new information is that this system can be tuned by Apple over the air, so if down the line it thinks one day is when an AirTag should start singing like a canary, it can adjust this. The fact that it doesn’t send your iPhone a notification straight away is because you could be in a hallway where somebody else’s AirTag happens to be sitting, so the iPhone waits and works out if it’s still with you when you’re on the move, for instance.
Sixth: finally, it’s meant to help you find your stuff when you lose it, so it’s not an anti-theft device as such. For instance, if a thief grabs your backpack and later sees a notification that tells them there’s an AirTag in the bag, they can turn it off. You can’t turn it back on again, though. That’s because AirTag is designed to thwart unwanted tracking.
Here’s everything else about how it works, and everything you need to know.
Tiny and light Each AirTag is round, measuring 1.26 inches (31.9mm) in diameter and weighing 0.39 ounces, 11g. Flat on one side, glossy white and domed on the other, like a tempting peppermint.
Bluetooth, U1, NFC These are the technologies built in to each AirTag. They are powered by a CR2032 battery which, Apple says, lasts a year and is user-replaceable.
How does it work? Well, Bluetooth is only a short-range signal, so it’s only used when the AirTag is nearby. But the clever thing is, it only needs to be near to any Apple device, not yours. So, if you’ve put the AirTag into Lost Mode, it pings out a silent signal and when, say, someone with an iPhone walks past, it’ll communicate with it. The iPhone owner won’t know this. In the background, the phone quietly passes on the message that your AirTag has been spotted. This message, sent to iCloud shows up in your account and lets you know the most recent location. It’s clever: nobody else knows any details about you or your property.
How about stalkers? Apple’s thought of that. If someone slipped their AirTag into your bag to keep tabs on you, your iPhone will spot there’s a newcomer travelling with you and will send you an alert. If after three days you still can’t find the interloper, it will sound a signal to help you find it. By the way, Apple could adjust that three-day setting, it’s not built into the AirTag. If you find it, you can use the Find My app to disable it.
Will that happen when I’m sitting next to a friend with an AirTag? It won’t. It’s only if the AirTag has been separated from its owner.
Is it invisible to Android phones? Almost, but not quite. If you are an Android owner and you come across an AirTag, you can tap it on your phone and it’ll send a message by NFC explaining who it belongs to and how to contact them.
What do I need? It’s compatible with any iPhone, iPad and iPod touch running iOS 14.5 or iPad 14.5. If you have an iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max or iPhone 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max, you additionally get Precision Finding which uses the U1 chip in those iPhones with the one in the AirTag. This helps you find your AirTag with sound, visual feedback and haptics.
When and how much? They’re on sale now, available from this Friday, April 30. An AirTag costs $29, while a four-pack will set you back $99. You can have them engraved with initials or emoji.