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Apple's new U1 chip hints at future Tile-like tracking system

A tracker never appeared at Apple's latest iPhone event, but the company is laying the groundwork.

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Among the many new improvements inside Apple's latest iPhones is a U1 chip that could set the stage for Apple's long-rumored tracker. 

Shara Tibken/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple.

Apple's long-rumored Tile tracker rival didn't materialize at the company's iPhone 11 event Tuesday, but the company is seemingly laying the groundwork for the new product inside its latest iPhones

Apple has added the new chip, called the U1, to its iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max phones. While it wasn't mentioned onstage, on both phones' respective product pages the company is quietly building it up, touting a capability for spatial awareness. The new chip takes advantage of ultrawideband technology, which Apple says will allow increased precision when locating other U1-equipped Apple devices by offering "GPS at the scale of your living room."

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Beyond tracking, the technology will also give AirDrop a boost. Thanks to this chip and iOS 13, owners of phones in the iPhone 11 line will be able to AirDrop files just by pointing one iPhone at the other. This new feature will be available in iOS 13.1, which arrives Sept. 30. 

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Apple's new U1 chip will improve AirDrop in iOS 13.1. 

Screenshot by Eli Blumenthal/CNET

The new technology was expected to be at the center of that rumored new tracking system that would allow you to purchase small trackers that could be attached to items like keys or a backpack that you could then locate through Apple's Find My iOS app. That system was never announced. 

Apple did, however, tease that it has big plans for the U1 chip, vaguely writing on its 11 Pro page that the new chip is "like adding another sense to [the] iPhone" and is "going to lead to amazing new capabilities."