Apple AirTag Review

The Apple AirTag was released in April 2021, and is marketed at finding items such as keys and backpacks. Although not specifically designed for tracking pets (likely due to liability issues), I have been using it as a pet tracker for the past few months.

Prior to the Apple AirTag, I was using the Tile Mate as a tracker. The two function similarly, but the AirTag has more advanced functions, which is why I decided to switch over. The Tile works with all smartphontes, while the AirTag only works with iPhones. If you have a Samsung phone, they have their own SmartTag as well. All these bluetooth trackers have similar functions – a short range of about 100m, with a corresponding app on the phone.

You can also engrave an emoji or up to 4 characters on the back of AirTag, if you purchase directly from the website. Teddy’s AirTag has the Tiger emoji.

Apple AirTag

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Brief Overview

Pros:

  • Low Cost (compared to GPS trackers)
  • Long battery life (around 1 year)
  • Small & light device size
  • Large network of iPhones – for long range tracking
  • Precision Finding (iPhone 11 and newer) – for short range tracking
  • Works without cell service – for short range tracking
  • Can be used with custom AirTag holders

Cons:

  • Need to buy a separate holder
  • Precision Finding is finicky
  • Does not work well without cell service – for long range finding
  • Low range (compared to GPS trackers)
  • More expensive than other bluetooth tracker options
  • Only works with iPhones
  • Can’t sync the AirTag to someone else’s phone temporarily – in case you wanted to have a pet sitter connect temporarily, you will need to reset and resync it completely.

Short Range Tracking

Apple has not officially posted the range of the AirTag, but as it uses bluetooth technology, the range is likely around 100m. For everyday use, this is a good range for finding the cat within the house, or the nearby vicinity, for example if the cat is hiding in a bush nearby. There are two ways to locate the cat: playing a sound from the AirTag (similar to the Tile), or using the Find My app to direct you to the AirTag device using instructions on your phone.

I found that playing a sound on the AirTag is not the best function, because it startles the cat, and also when we are outside, the sound is too quiet to hear if I am more than a few steps away. This sound function was also available on the Tile, and I didn’t find it the most useful. Even within the same house, it would be difficult hearing it.

With Precision Finding on the Find My app (only available on iPhones 11+), the app shows the distance you are, as well as a big arrow pointing to the direction of the AirTag. This makes it much easier to find the cat, as you can follow instructions on the phone instead of trying to listen for the sound. However, when testing this feature outdoors (in both cases, with and without cell service), I found that the app would display a message of “Connected. Signal is Weak. Try moving to a different location.” or “Item is moving and precise location cannot be determined.” With both messages, the distance is still displayed on the screen, but the giant arrow is not shown. So you could still locate your cat by moving in different directions and seeing if the distances increases or decreases, but it makes it a little more difficult.

Precision Finding in action – with cell service

Long Range Tracking

The AirTag has the ability to send a location to your phone even outside the bluetooth range, if someone else using an iPhone is within the range of the AirTag. This means that if the AirTag is within range of any iPhone, you will be able to see the location on the Find My app. The location shown is on a map, and not very precise, but when you get there, you can use the Precision Finding to locate the cat. The main advantage of this feature is the massive network of iPhones. Anyone with an iPhone is passively connected to the Find My network, and can help each other locate their items (how futuristic is this). There is a way to turn off your phone’s connection with the Find My network if you don’t want to contribute, but all locational data is encrypted so there is no risk of people knowing where you are.

I didn’t test this function so I can’t speak to how well it works. It also requires cell service so would not work well if trying to track a lost cat on a hiking trip.

Find My app – Map

AirTag Holders

One of the annoyances, or advantages, depending on how you see this, is the need for a holder, which can be from $5-$20. Having to buy accessories for your accessory… so typical for Apple. The AirTag itself is just a round piece of metal and cannot be attached to a collar or keychain without purchasing a separate holder. On the flip side, this means that you can get custom holders to suit your needs. I personally have two styles – one is the keychain style (Belkin holder), and the second is a clip style (from this etsy shop). I prefer the clip style as it doesn’t dangle. I found that when I used the AirTag with the keychain style holder on the harness, the weight would pull the harness to one side. I didn’t have this problem with the clip style. I also want to get a collar style (such as this on etsy), so Teddy can wear the AirTag without the harness. Putting the AirTag on the collar instead of the harness is also a good idea in case they slip out of the harness. For me, I don’t put a collar on Teddy, and his name tag and AirTag are both on the harness – just a personal preference.

Left: etsy clip on holder | center: Belkin keychain holder | right: engraved AirTag

Conclusion

The AirTag is a low cost, low range tracker. I have added the AirTag to Teddy’s harness permanently, along with his name tag. It doesn’t bother him, and gives me extra ease of mind in case he slips the leash. The AirTag is not the best for out of service hiking trips as it will only work within the short range. The short range is good for situations such as hiding in a nearby bush, but not good for if the cat is spooked and runs away at top speed – they could quickly clear the 100m range in a few seconds. In that case though, you should still be able to locate the cat with the vast iPhone Find My network. The Precision Finding is a little finicky, but will eventually lead you there (just like Apple Maps). I did not want to spend the money for a GPS tracker, which often have subscription fees on top of the device cost, so the AirTag is a good alternative for me.

Teddy’s harness with name tag and AirTag

3 thoughts on “Apple AirTag Review

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