On the outside, Apple’s new AirTag looks like a ho-hum product that we have all seen before. It’s a disc-shaped tracking gadget that can be attached to items like house keys to help you find them. But inside, the story gets far more interesting.
The airbag, which Apple introduced last week, is one of the first consumer electronics to support a new wireless technology, ultrawideband, which lets you detect precise proximity between objects. Your iPhone can sense whether an AirTag is an inch or dozens of feet away from it using ultrawideband. It’s so accurate that its app will even show an arrow pointing you in the direction of the airbag.
That’s far better than other trackers that rely on Bluetooth, an older wireless technology that can only roughly guess an item’s proximity. (More on how this all works later.)
Using ultrawideband to find lost items is just one early example of what the technology can do. Because of its pinpoint-precise ability to transfer data quickly between devices, ultrawideband could become the next wireless standard that succeeds Bluetooth. It could lead to better wireless earphones, keyboards, video game controllers — you name it.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Frederic Nabki, chief technology officer of Spark Microsystems, a Montreal firm that is developing ultrawideband technology, said of trackers like the airbag. “It sends its data really, really fast.”
I tested Apple’s $29 AirTag, released on Friday, for about a week. I used the tracker to find house keys, locate my dogs and track a backpack. I also ran similar tests with Tile, a $25 tracker that relies on Bluetooth and that has been around for about eight years.
Last week, Tile complained that Apple had copied its product while putting smaller companies at a disadvantage in an antitrust hearing. From my tests comparing AirTag and Tile, I found that ultrawideband was far superior to Bluetooth for finding items. What’s more, the AirTag demonstrated that ultrawideband is next-generation tech that is worth getting excited about. Here’s what you need to know.
How ultrawideband and Bluetooth work
Ultrawideband has been in development for more than 15 years, but it was built into chips for iPhones and other smartphones only in the last two years.
Using ultrawideband to find a tracker works similarly to sonar, which detects objects underwater. You send a ping to the tag, and the title bounces a ping back to your phone. The time it takes for the ping to come back is used to calculate the distance between the two objects.
But when you use Bluetooth to find a tracker, your phone pushes out a continuous signal in search of it. The farther you move away from the tracker, the weaker the movement gets, and the closer you move toward it, the stronger it becomes. This technique is used to tell you roughly how far away you are from the tracker.
Tile vs. AirTag
So what do the two underlying wireless technologies mean in practice? Tile works with both iPhones and Android phones using Bluetooth technology to find items. Open the Tile app, select a thing, and hit the “find” button. The app will look for the Tile and send a signal to connect, after which it makes the tracker play a melody. If the signal connection is weak, it will tell you to move around until the signal gets stronger.
If your phone can’t find a Tile because it is outside its range, you can put it in “lost mode.” The tracker will search for other Tile owners who have granted the Tile app access to their location to help find other people’s lost items. If a Tile-owning Samaritan is near your Tile, that person’s device will share its location with the Tile network, which will show where the thing was last spotted on a map.
Apple’s AirTag works with iPhones, both new and old. More recent devices (the iPhone 11 and 12 series) can utilize ultrawideband’s special locator abilities. You open the Find My app, select an item, and tap Find to find a thing. From there, the app will form a connection with the airbag. The app combines data gathered with the phone’s camera, sensors, and ultrawideband chip to direct you to the tag, using an arrow to point you to it. Older iPhones can track AirTags with Bluetooth using a method similar to Tiles.