After two years of rumour, speculation, and hype, Apple's AirTag has finally arrived; and my early impressions and experience suggest that it might have been worth the wait if you are blind or low vision - most particularly so for those who use an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12.
For those unfamiliar, AirTag is Apple's new Bluetooth tracker announced at its recent “Spring Loaded” event. It's a button-shaped device intended to be attached to items that you might commonly misplace like keys; wallets; jackets; and backpacks, enabling their location to be tracked in the Find My app. Additionally, an AirTag can be set as lost, and any iPhone user who passes close to it will be alerted to its presence, and can optionally be sent a contact number and message that will help them reunite the lost AirTag with its owner. To further increase the likelihood of people being reunited with lost AirTags, anybody who doesn't have an iPhone but does have an NFC-capable phone is also able to identify a lost AirTag if they find it.
So far, AirTags might be sounding rather dull. One of those things you buy, hoping that you will never actually have to use.
But, before you tune out, let me introduce you to another of the AirTag's features, Precision Finding. This is where things get a little more interesting. Perhaps even quite exciting, for Precision Finding combines augmented reality, sound, and haptic feedback to guide users of iPhones with a U1 chip to the precise location of an AirTag.
Are you with me here in thinking of how Precision Finding could offer significant added value to somebody who is blind or has low vision?
Are you thinking of those occasions when you misplace something, and one or more of independence; pride; stubbornness; or nobody else being close by results in you spending minutes or more trying to locate your lost item?
Are you thinking of those times when you resort to asking a family member; housemate; friend; work colleague; or nearby stranger to be your eyes and find something for you?
Are you thinking about how great it might be to instead simply grab your iPhone, and play a quick game of hot or cold - also known as Precision Finding in this case - to be guided towards the exact location of that misplaced item?
These thoughts and the relatively low price of US$29 for a single pack AirTag were enough to pique my interest and have me hit the pre-order button as soon as it became available.
What follows are my early impressions and experience with an AirTag. Read on to discover how despite the operational range of Precision Finding not being as far as I had anticipated and there being a couple other disappointments, AirTags are still likely to be a useful addition to the toolbox of gadgets and apps that help to empower me.
The AirTag is button-shaped with a glossy white front and a silver back. It measures approximately 32mm in diameter and 8mm in height, and weighs in at 11 grams.
This has the AirTag larger than I would personally have desired, which is presumably due to Apples decision to fit it with a replaceable CR2032 battery. So, the trade-off for the AirTag's size is a battery that you can cheaply and easily replace. According to Apple, that battery should last for about a year in typical use. When its charge does become low, you will receive a notification. To swap out the battery, you press and twist on the AirTag's back panel.
Its size is certainly something to consider if you are thinking of getting an AirTag to keep track of smaller items like AirPods or an Apple TV remote, as it will significantly change the size and feel in your hand of the item. Personally, having now held an AirTag, I can't imagine using one with either of these examples if there were to be a silicon or leather add-on case available that allowed you to do so.
However, AirTags are a great shape and size for a key ring fob. Or, perhaps more likely to be the permanent home of this AirTag for me, the perfect size for attaching to the cord of a white cane.
The AirTag has a built-in speaker to play a sound to help find it or alert you to its presence. It also features an IP67 water and dust resistance rating, which means it can withstand immersion in water up to one metre for 30 minutes in laboratory conditions. This means that it should stand up well to rain or accidental spills.
One additional thing that you need to be aware of, is that the AirTag doesn't come with any way of attaching it to an item - there's no hole punched in its body for attaching it to a key ring or lanyard, and not even some adhesive tabs in the box. Consequently, if you want to attach your AirTag to something, you will need to reach for a roll of double-sided adhesive tape or dive in to the rapidly expanding world of AirTag accessories.
Currently, Apple offers a small selection of its own branded AirTag accessories in a range of colours, which include a leather key ring (US$35), a leather loop (US$39), and a standard AirTag loop made of polyurethane for US$29. With these accessories costing at least as much as a single AirTag, you will likely be pleased to find that Amazon and eBay already have 3rd-party AirTag accessories for a wide range of use cases, and with most at much lower prices than Apple's offerings.
Privacy and Security
AirTag comes with a comprehensive suite of privacy and security features built in, including protection against tracking without your knowledge. Find My will notify you if an unknown AirTag is seen moving with you over time. An AirTag that isn't with the person who registered it for an extended period of time will also play a sound when moved so you can find it, even if you don’t use an iOS device.
AirTags are linked to an Apple ID, meaning that no one else can track your AirTags. Additionally, location data and location history are not stored on the AirTag, and devices that relay the location of a lost AirTag stay anonymous and location data is encrypted. You will see where your lost AirTag is in the Find My app if its location is detected by someone else's device, but you won't be told that person's identity. Apple also does not see where AirTags are located because of the end-to-end encryption used.
Finally, AirTags have unique Bluetooth identifiers that rotate frequently, which ensures that you're never tracked from place to place.
If you have experience of setting up AirPods or a HomePod mini, you will likely be pleased to learn that setting up an AirTag is very similar and just as quick and straightforward.
The first step is to remove the small plastic tab that you will find protruding from the side of a new AirTag. When you do this, the AirTag will play a short audible tone.
Next up is to bring the AirTag close to an unlocked iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. A dialog box should then appear on the device, prompting you to give the AirTag a name.
There's one minor accessibility issue here, with VoiceOver saying that each of the names suggested for the AirTag is “1 of 11” in the name picker. It's not a major issue, and hopefully is one that Apple will quickly correct. (Note that you aren't required to use one of the provided names, as the final option in the picker is to use a custom name of your own choosing.)
Finally you will be presented with a message alerting you to the fact that the AirTag is now associated with your Apple ID. This is an extra step to the setup of AirPods or an HomePod mini, and is presumably intended to be a warning that you are identifiable if you use the AirTag illegally or maliciously.
After exiting this message, your AirTag should be ready to be tracked from the Items tab that's new to the Find My app in iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, and macOS 11.3.. On this tab you are also able to tell an AirTag to play a sound, mark an AirTag as lost, access Precision Finding, rename an AirTag, use the Add Item button as an alternative method of accessing the setup process, and remove an AirTag from your account..
Tracking and Finding an AirTag
Finding lost AirTags relies on the Find My network, which is essentially every Apple device in the world that has Find My turned on and a network connection. According to Apple, this could be more than a billion devices. Consequently, unless you lose your AirTag in a particularly remote location, there should be a strong likelihood that one of those billion will pass close by some time soon.
Inside of the Find My app, the locations of your AirTags are shown on the Items tab. The location is presented like it is for people and devices elsewhere in the app, so there are currently no notable accessibility issues here for VoiceOver users.
In Lost Mode, an AirTag will automatically send out a notification when it's detected by someone in the Find My network, and you can optionally add your contact number along with a message so that they can get in touch with you.
So far so good, but also so far not so interesting or ground breaking.
Let's then move on to Precision Finding, where things do indeed get a little more interesting. Dare I say even a little cool?
Precision Finding uses the built-in U1 chip of the AirTag and supported iPhones - along with ARKit, the accelerometer, and the gyroscope on the iPhone - to direct you towards the exact location of the AirTag using graphics, haptic feedback, and sound.
Apple hasn't publicly shared the operational range of Precision Finding, but the maximum range of Bluetooth is around 100 metres, so an AirTag should potentially be trackable to that distance in perfect conditions. However, in my testing around our two storey house Precision Finding has failed to come remotely close to hitting this range.
If I'm on the same floor as the AirTag, I have consistently found that things become rather hit and miss at anything more than 30-35 feet. If on a different floor, this typically drops to 20-25 feet.
These distances might be due to the number of internal walls in my house, and the fact that most are block construction, so your own experience will likely vary.
Rather disappointingly, I haven't noticed any significant improvement in the operational range of Precision Finding when both my iPhone and AirTag are outside and have a clear line of sight between them.
This will be something to consider for those who are thinking of getting an AirTag to track their guide dog when exercising it off the leash. Also of note for this use case, is that I typically receive a message in the Find My app if the AirTag is moving, telling me that it is moving and that Precision Finding cannot therefore work.
The volume of the AirTag speaker is surprisingly loud considering its size. If I've triggered sound I typically hear the AirTag chirping away to itself quite some time ahead of it coming within the range of Precision Finding. In all my test the sound was enough on its own for me to be able to locate the AirTag.
Once Precision Finding locates the AirTag, VoiceOver announces whether the AirTag is ahead of you; behind you; to your left; or to your right, along with its distance from you. When you get to within 3-4 foot of the AirTag the distance in feet will be replaced by “nearby”, and then “Here” when you are within a foot or so. Your iPhone will also provide haptic feedback, which increases in intensity as you get closer to the AirTag. My experience so far has been that this process is extremely accurate.
I have found that constantly moving my iPhone gets better results from Precision Finding. If I hold the iPhone still as I move, Precision Finding's announcements become less frequent or even stop completely.
One thing that Precision Finding can't do, is tell you if the AirTag is on the same floor as you, so there is no “it's upstairs” or “it's downstairs.” Consequently, if you don't know yourself which floor the AirTag is on and Precision Finding is telling you that the AirTag is very close but you still can't physically locate it, pointing your iPhone towards either the ceiling or floor to see if Precision Finding says that this has brought the AirTag closer should confirm if it is indeed on the floor above or below.
In addition to the Find My app, you can use Siri to find an AirTag. Simply say something like “Hey Siri, where are my keys,” and the AirTag attached to your keys will play a sound and you will be asked if you wish to open the Find My app.
As well as operational range, there are a few other areas where Precision Finding disappoints. For instance, my own experience is that it can often take up to 30 seconds for Precision Finding to “calibrate” the initial location of an AirTag. The Find My app also often reports that there is a weak connection when using Precision Finding, even on occasions when my iPhone 12 and the AirTag are only a few feet apart.
One final area where Precision Finding could be improved for VoiceOver users, is that the spoken directions to an AirTag aren't currently as accurate as those provided by the augmented reality view that's visually displayed on the iPhone. This AR view is essentially a compass, with its pointer able to swing through all 360 degrees of a compass. This allows for far more accurate relative positioning than is offered by the ‘ahead, behind, left, and right given by VoiceOver. Even the addition of announcements like “slight left” or “slight right” would be an enhancement, although I would personally prefer ‘clock face’ directions such as “4 o'clock.”
My recent track record of predicting the likely impact and value of new technologies isn't great. Last October I was excited by the prospect of the LiDAR Scanner on the then new iPhone 12 Pro. Six months on, and for me it has given a taste of the potential value to the blind of LiDAR itself, but LiDAR on my iPhone has currently brought little of meaningful value for my use case and circumstances.
This leaves me reluctant to make any bold predictions concerning the AirTag and just how groundbreaking it will prove to be for myself and fellow blind or low vision users.
However, it's still incredibly difficult to imagine AirTags not becoming a ‘must have’ for anybody who is blind or low vision, has items they want to be able to easily and independently locate if misplaced, and who use an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12.
AirTags are simple to set up, tracking and finding one is easy and very accurate, and the privacy and security of everything involved appears to be extremely well thought through by Apple. They should also offer at least some utility for most people, and this is likely to only increase once the world comes out the other side of the current pandemic.
That's not to say that AirTag, and Precision Finding in particular, are perfect. I would definitely like for Precision Finding to have a greater operational range than what I've experienced. I also hope that Apple will make the directions given to VoiceOver users as accurate and complete as those of the augmented reality view.
For those who don't have a device that supports Precision Finding, AirTag will likely be slightly less attractive. However, they should still offer utility to most use cases and personal circumstances. The Play Sound feature of airTag might on its own make them a tempting buy, and at only US$29 for a single AirTag, AirTag is likely to be something that at the very least is worth checking out.
I would love to hear your own thoughts and experiences of AirTags, and am particularly keen to hear all the meaningful and imaginative uses that you have found for AirTag. Let me and others know by posting a comment below.