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AirTags vs. Tile and SmartTag: Apple's Bluetooth tracker isn't necessarily the best

Now that AirTags are a real thing, you've got multiple Bluetooth trackers to choose from. Here's what you should know and how to choose the best one for you.

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Apple's AirTags want to make sure you never lose your keys again -- or for them to be easier to find if you do.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Bluetooth tracking devices that help you find your keys, phone and other items have been around for years -- but now that Apple has entered the playing field, the competition for which tracker tag to choose is heating up. Apple's AirTags, unveiled at the tech giant's spring virtual product event, are a competitor to Tile tracker tags along with Samsung's SmartTag (which arrived in January). 

If you're in the market for some Bluetooth tracker tech, you've got a number of options. We'll break down the three gadgets everyone is talking about so you can decide which tag is best for helping you find your stuff. 

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Price: $29 each or $99 for a four-pack (here's where to buy AirTags)

Apple's AirTags are small circular devices that are just a tad bigger than a Milk Dud. You can attach an AirTag onto your keys, a bag or anything else using one of the many accessories like keychains, eyeglasses straps and fabric mounts sold separately by third-party manufacturers. The AirTag can be paired with Apple devices like your iPhone, and it works with the Find My app

Read more: Apple AirTags: Price, free engraving, Hermes accessories, privacy, more

After a simple setup process, you can see your item's last known location if you've attached an AirTag to it. If the item is within Bluetooth range, you can use the Find My app to signal the AirTag's tiny built-in speaker to play a sound. AirTags also have Siri support, so your iOS assistant can help you locate your lost things. Like many other Apple products, the tags won't work with Android devices -- but if someone with an Android device finds your lost tag, they can still hold it up to their phone with NFC and find details on how to contact you, as is the case for someone with an iPhone. 

One factor setting AirTags apart from the competition is a feature called Precision Finding, which works using Apple's U1 chip and its ultrawideband technology. Precision Finding uses a combination of Apple's ARKit software and the phone's camera, accelerometer and gyroscope to guide you to your AirTag using sound and haptic and visual feedback. With the Find My app, you'll get helpful notes like how many feet away your AirTag is, and in what direction. Precision Finding also has a voice-over option to help low-vision or blind users.

Tile

Price: $25 for a Tile Mate, $48 for a two-pack or $70 for a four-pack

Tile has been in the tracking device business for almost a decade, offering multiple types of tracker tags depending on what type of item you want to attach them to. You can choose between the basic Tile Mate (the most similar to an AirTag, but with a small hole for easier attaching to keys and such), Tile Slim (a thin option meant for credit cards and laptops), Tile Stickers and performance and combo packs, as well as exclusive and limited edition designs. Each product is available in different colors and pack options.

Tile has a dedicated app -- tapping Find will ring your Tile if it's nearby. It also works the other way around. If you double-press the Tile button on the tag itself, the Tile will make your phone ring. If you're out of range, the app will show the last place your Tile was located. If it's really lost, choose Notify When Found to get help from others using the Tile app anonymously (this is similar to Apple's Find My network feature).

The Mate can attach to most key rings, and offers a 200-foot Bluetooth range. In addition, the Mate uses a CR1632 replaceable battery and is water-resistant. The Tile Pro is the next level up and offers a bit more durability, 400-foot Bluetooth range, a louder ring and a replaceable battery. Tile's Sticker and Slim offer more variety for narrow spaces and actually adhering your tracker to an item. The Slim and Sticker are waterproof and also have a three-year built-in battery.

If you're looking for a variety of different tracking options and support for both iOS and Android, Tile trackers are probably your best choice. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Price: $30 each, $50 for a two-pack or $85 for a four-pack

Samsung debuted its SmartTag Bluetooth trackers in January alongside its new Galaxy S21 phones. Like AirTags, Samsung's product competes with Tile to help locate lost items like keys, your phone, pets and more. However, there's a big catch: You can only use SmartTags with Samsung Galaxy phones. 

SmartTags connect to SmartThings Find, Samsung's built-in hub for smart home devices. Unlike AirTags, Samsung launched with different versions of SmartTag -- SmartTag and SmartTag Plus. SmartTags use Bluetooth Low Energy as its connection standard, while SmartTag Plus uses ultrawideband. This is because all Samsung Galaxy phones support BLE, but not UWB, which you'll find on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra only. 

With the SmartThings Find app, tap the Find card and choose a device you've listed and want to locate. If you're close, the screen will show a gauge to help you better find your item. You can also make it play a sound. If it's really lost, other Samsung devices can anonymously help if they're near the tag and let you know where it is. All this happens in the background and is encrypted. 

If you've got a Samsung phone and like the idea of your tracker tags integrating with the SmartThings Find hub, these could be a solid option for you. 

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