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Apple AirTags in the test: Like hitting a pot with the iPhone

2021-05-04T22:09:29.456Z

Apple's newest gadget is unusually inexpensive and helps find lost or stolen things. We went looking for AirTags - which brought back memories of a breeze.



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AirTag in a keyring: Apple sells a wide variety of accessories

Photo: Matthias Kremp / DER SPIEGEL

Sometime in the 1980s, key rings that responded to a whistle were a big deal.

If you misplaced your keys, you only had to whistle once and the key fob answered with a beep.

Depending on how dull the sound was, you knew whether the keys had slipped between the sofa cushions or under the kitchen counter.

But that was earlier.

Nowadays there are much better, more accurate, and most importantly, much wider ways of finding lost keys and other things.

Apple's idea for this is so-called AirTags.

With a price of 35 euros each, they are the latest and cheapest gadget in the iPhone manufacturer's range.

The functionality is simple for the user.

You first connect the sparkling buttons, which look a bit like large Mentos candies, to your Apple account.

Then you put them or tie them to important things such as keys, suitcases and backpacks and in future you can locate their position via iPhone, iPad and Mac - anywhere in the world, not just within whistle range.

One seeks, all help

In principle, the system works in a similar way to that of the tile trackers, which have been around for years, and is based on the principle of crowdsourcing: Every device on which Apple's "Where is?" App is installed acts anonymously in the background as Location and connection point for other devices on which this app runs - now also for the AirTags.

According to Apple, almost a billion iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs are currently part of this “where is?” Network.

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The AirTag activation runs semi-automatically

Photo: Matthias Kremp / DER SPIEGEL

Without the users noticing, these devices use Bluetooth to locate the approximate position of other devices within their Bluetooth range and report them to the network if necessary. For example, you can use the “Devices” tab in the “Where is?” App to see where you left your iPhone. If you mark a device as lost in the app, you will be notified as soon as it is found by the "Where is?" Network.

Up to now, however, this position information has been relatively rough for most devices because precise location is not possible with Bluetooth.

But with the U1 chip, which Apple is installing in the iPhones of the 11 and 12 series, the Apple Watch Series 6, the HomePod mini and now also in the AirTags, things are different.

The new chip uses what is known as ultra-broadband radio (UWB, Ultra Wideband), which enables a transmitter to be localized to within a few centimeters.

Ready to use quickly

The installation of a new AirTag can be done in one to two minutes. All you have to do is peel off a protective strip that blocks the battery during transport and place the AirTag next to an iPhone running at least iOS 14.5. A few seconds later, an image of the AirTag appears on the screen, whereupon you can connect it to the iPhone at the push of a button, name it and link it to your Apple account.

If you are now looking for an AirTag, its approximate position is displayed on a map in the "Where is?" App and you can have it play a sound. From a distance of around five meters, an arrow on Series 11 and 12 iPhones also shows the direction from which the signal is coming. From here on, the search for an AirTag is reminiscent of hitting the pot: the closer you get to the AirTag, the stronger the mobile phone vibrates. If you are on the right track, the screen turns green and the remaining distance is displayed in ever smaller steps.

In the test, it worked well everywhere and all the time.

And not just with AirTags.

In addition to these, there are now the first gadgets from other manufacturers that can be integrated into Apple's "Where is?" Network.

Such as the S3 pedelec from the Dutch manufacturer VanMoof, which also contains the technology.

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I could have found this bike with AirTags technology if I had lost it

Photo: Matthias Kremp / DER SPIEGEL

From the outside, the electrically assisted bicycle, which is already full of technology and controlled by app, cannot be seen from the outside.

But once you have linked it to the "Where is?" App, its position is displayed next to that of key rings, rucksacks and wheeled suitcases.

No hole, but lots of accessories

Compared to other finding gadgets, such as the tile trackers and Samsung's Galaxy SmartTags, the AirTags don't have a hole through which you can pull a cord or a key ring.

The way they come out of the box, Apple's find buttons can only be put in somewhere, for example in a wallet or a backpack bag.

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Subtle difference: tile trackers usually have a hole through which a key ring, for example, can be pushed.

It won't be long before manufacturers start sewing small AirTag bags into their luggage, like the Tile bag shown here.

Photo: Matthias Kremp / DER SPIEGEL

In order to be able to hang them on a bunch of keys or a trolley case, however, you have to buy a matching tag.

Apple offers such tags made of plastic for 35 euros and made of leather with a key ring for 45 euros.

Some third-party vendors have introduced similar mounts.

You can get a simple key ring from Belkin for 14 euros and a luggage tag made of Barénia leather from Hermès for a proud 450 euros.

While the AirTags themselves are not more expensive than the products of the competition, you will often not be able to avoid buying suitable accessories - even if only to be able to hang your keys on them.

The offer is already quite extensive.

After all, if the AirTags run out of power after around a year, you can replace the CR2032 button battery yourself in just a few simple steps.

In addition, you only have to spend a few cents or a maximum of a few euros for the new energy storage device.

Protection against foreign tags

According to Apple, you don't have to be afraid of being followed by others because of an AirTag that you carry with you.

The position data of the devices are transmitted in encrypted form.

Devices that, as part of the “Where is?” Network, help to locate AirTags are anonymized.

The situation that someone could smuggle an AirTag into someone else's clothing or luggage, for example, was also considered. If the app detects that you are carrying the AirTag of another user who is not nearby, it sounds the "Where is?" Alarm and lets the strange AirTag play a tone. So you can find it - and get instructions on how to deactivate it.

In a way, this works even if you are not an Apple user.

Because AirTags that are separated from their owner for a longer period of time automatically start playing a tone at regular intervals in order to draw attention to themselves.

If you then hold it up to a smartphone, information on how to contact the owner can be displayed, provided that he has marked the AirTag as "lost".

If there was no such mark, only the serial number and instructions for deactivating the gadget are shown.

Conclusion

Apple's simplest and cheapest gadget is simple to use and makes it easy to locate lost or stolen items very precisely.

This is exactly the big advantage over the otherwise equally well-functioning trackers from Tile.

Whether or not it really makes sense to forego such a simple detail as a key fob hole for a flawless design is a matter of debate.

The repair experts from iFixit have already tried out whether such a hole can not be drilled in AirTags afterwards.

Your result: Yes, it works if you remove the battery beforehand.

However, one should not expect that the AirTag will still be protected against water and dust after this procedure or that Apple's warranty services will be retained.

Background: Product tests in the Netzwelt department

Which products are reported on in the Netzwelt section? Expand

We decide for ourselves which products we report in the Internet world and which we test or not. We do not receive any money or other consideration from the manufacturer for any of the test reports.

For various reasons it can happen that we do not report on products even though we have corresponding test products.

Where do the test products come from? Expand

We usually get test devices and review copies of games from the manufacturer free of charge for a certain period of time, sometimes even before the official release.

In this way, our test reports can appear in good time or close to the publication of the product.



We only test pre-release versions or devices from pre-series production in special cases.

We usually wait until we can get test devices or game versions that are identical to the retail versions.

In some cases, we also buy products ourselves at our own expense if they are already available in stores or online.

Are the Netzwelt editors allowed to keep the products?

As a rule, test devices are sent back to the manufacturer after the end of the test.

The exception are review copies of games and so-called permanent loans: For example, we have game consoles and smartphones in the editorial office that we are allowed to use for a longer period of time.

For example, we can report on software updates, new accessories and new games or make long-term judgments.

Can companies invite the Netzwelt editors to travel?

DER SPIEGEL always bears the costs for travel to events, regardless of whether they take place in Germany or abroad. This also applies if, for example, a company takes over travel planning due to short-term appointments.



Events to which we travel at our own expense include the Ifa, CES, E3 and Gamescom trade fairs as well as events from companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft or Nintendo.

At conferences like the Chaos Communication Congress or the re: publica, like other press representatives, we usually get free press tickets because we report on the conference and are not traditional participants.

What about the Amazon ads in some articles?

Since December 2016, Amazon ads containing so-called partner links can be found in some Netzwelt articles. If a user visits Amazon via such a link and buys online there, DER SPIEGEL receives a share of the sales in the form of a commission. The ads appear in articles regardless of whether a product test is positive or negative.

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2021-05-04

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