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Apple AirTags: 3 ways they're better than Tile trackers, 3 ways they're worse

I was really excited about Apple's new product -- until I learned about these shortcomings.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read

Without a case, you can't really attach an AirTag to anything.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Apple's AirTags are here or will be soon -- preorders start today -- and by all accounts they're a great way to help you find lost stuff: keys, backpacks, purses and so on. The idea isn't new. Tile trackers have been around for years, offering very similar functionality. But Apple's take on the product looks promising.

Well, mostly. There are three areas where I think AirTags are likely better than Tiles and three where Apple really missed the boat. (That said, I haven't tried AirTags myself, only Tiles. So some of this is speculative.)

Watch this: We compare Apple AirTags against Tile trackers

Better than Tile: Size

AirTags are pretty tiny, not much bigger than a Junior Mint, according to CNET's Patrick Holland. They're similar to Tile Stickers (which are a bit thicker), but definitely smaller than the Tile Mate and Tile Pro. When you're talking about something that's headed for your key chain, smaller is definitely better. (That said, the case that's needed to actually put an AirTag there sort of makes this a wash -- but I still have to give them points for being so diminutive.) 

Read more: Apple AirTags hands-on: These $29 trackers are small and impressive

Better than Tile: Smarts

Pairing an AirTag to your iPhone is incredibly easy; the process is similar to that of pairing AirPods. In this case you just bring the AirTag close and then tap Connect on your phone. Meanwhile, there's NFC support for both iPhones and Android phones; someone who finds an AirTag needs to simply tap it with the device to reveal a how-to-contact-you web page.

There's also a U1 ultrawideband chip onboard, which helps you determine the exact direction of and distance to your AirTag. As Holland explained: "It uses the iPhone's cameras, its ARKit software, its accelerometer and gyroscope, along with data from the AirTag to create a visual guide that, with haptics and sound, direct you to your lost item. Precision Finding works within Bluetooth range of the AirTag."

That's far more advanced than what Tile currently has to offer.

Read more: Apple AirTags rely on UWB. Here's how ultrawideband will make your life easier

Better than Tile: Community

This is the potential gamechanger. If you report an AirTag as lost, Apple's newly expanded Find My app affords help from potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners. Tile has long offered similar crowdsourced location assistance, but that user community is a fraction of Apple's.

Worse than Tile: One-way communication

Here's the single biggest AirTag letdown: It's half the tracker a Tile is. The latter has a button on it; double-press it and your phone rings loudly, even if the ringer is turned off. That solves the considerable problem of "Where did I put my phone down this time?" The AirTag works only in one direction, phone-to-tracker. Tile supports tracker-to-phone as well, a feature I consider invaluable.

Note to Apple: This needs to be first on the to-do list for AirTag 2.

Worse than Tile: iPhone only

Sorry, Android users. Although you can use your NFC-equipped phone to help reunite an AirTag with its owner (see above), you can't use one for your own tracking purposes.  

Worse than Tile: Key chain-unfriendly

It almost feels like a slap in the face that, out of the box, the AirTag can't actually attach to anything. If you want to add it to your key chain or just about anything else, you'll have to buy a case. And Apple's accessories start at $29, literally doubling the price of the device. (Thankfully, there are third-party AirTag case alternatives starting at around $13, and if you hit up eBay, you can find some for half that.)

Read more: The first Apple AirTag accessories are here, and the prices range from $13 to $449 (really)

The Tile Mate and Tile Pro each have a hole in the corner, so they can slide right onto a key ring. A strategically placed zip-tie would affix them to just about anything else.

OK, those are my thoughts on Tiles versus AirTags. Now let's hear yours!

Watch this: Apple AirTags made a good small impression

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