Test shows AirTags are better and safer than Tile and GPS trackers

Just a day after Apple touted its enhanced privacy precautions for AirTags – following criminal incidents involving the tracking devices – an article in The New York Times Friday showed their superiority over Tile and GPS trackers.

A journalist followed her husband using all three types of devices. She found that AirTags were not only better at tracking him in an urban area, but also better at informing him of the tracking.

An infamous tracking experience: AirTag, Tile and GPS tracker

Time Reporter Kashmir Hill decided to compare AirTag, Tile and a GPS tracker from LandSeaAir. She planted three AirTags, three Tiles and a GPS tracker on her husband with his consent “to see how accurately they revealed his movements and which ones he discovered”.

Her experience started quickly when she convinced her husband to take their daughter to the hospital. She had tested positive for COVID-19. Hill described the action:

Thirty minutes after my husband and youngest left for the hospital, I opened an app linked to the most accurate tracker in my arsenal, the $30 LandAirSea device. It costs extra to activate, as it needs a cellular plan to relay where global positioning satellites have placed it. I chose the cheapest plan, $19.95 per month, to get location updates every three minutes; the most expensive plan, for updates every three seconds, was $49.95.

The app has an “InstaFence” feature that can alert me when the car is moving, and a “Playback” option to show where the car has been, so I can see the exact route on windy roads which my husband had taken. I saw he parked at 4:55pm so wasn’t surprised when I got a text from him 12 minutes later that they were in the waiting area.

Hill found that the LandSeaAir GPS tracker could display real-time location status, while the AirTag ($29) and Tile ($34.99) “didn’t perform as well in real-time in the area. sparsely populated where we live”. She noted that the AirTag took an hour to track the car to the hospital parking lot. And the Tile device never even showed the car coming out of their garage.

That seems about right, given that Tile and AirTag rely on other devices in their networks to get location data, while the LandSeaAir device uses dedicated GPS and cellular connections. If there are few devices nearby, non-GPS devices will not work very well.

In the Big Apple: AirTag tracked well and the alerts worked (mostly)

But when her husband and daughter went to New York, the AirTag shone. As Apple puts it, device location sharing depends on “hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and Mac devices around the world.”

“This meant that the effectiveness of the AirTag skyrocketed the day my husband visited New York, as he was surrounded by people wearing iPhones,” Hill wrote. “When it arrived in Manhattan, the AirTag became my most powerful tracker, surpassing GPS.”

At the same time, the AirTags privacy feature worked as it should, for the most part.

“Within two hours of having all the trackers in our car, my husband, who has an iPhone, received an AirTag alert after running an errand,” Hill noted.

Better privacy despite detection bugs

But that was not the end of the story:

The problem was that he couldn’t find it. The alert said he could make the AirTag hear a sound, but when he tried to do so, his phone wouldn’t connect to the device. This happened several times and he started to get frustrated. “Is it in my shoe? he asked me at one point, taking off his blue Nike and looking at her. “You have to tell me. I don’t want to destroy my shoe looking for it.

The one time his iPhone connected to the AirTag in the car, so he could play the noise, it was so hard to tell where it was coming from that he gave up looking for it after five minutes.

Despite these issues, Hill’s husband gave AirTags some credit.

“Despite all the bad press AirTags got, and as flaky as the detection mechanisms were, at least I was constantly getting notifications that they were tracking me,” he said. “The privacy hazards of other trackers were much worse.”

Conversely, the Tile tracker offered no indication of its presence:

The Tile tracker wasn’t as knowledgeable. Its system is similar to Apple’s, but far fewer people have the Tile app on their phones than their own Apple devices. Forty million tiles have been sold, the company said last year.

Another key difference between Tile and AirTag is that if an iPhone detects an unknown AirTag continuously moving with it, the iPhone owner receives a notification, along with a map indicating where tracking began. (Android owners, meanwhile, must download a special app to scan for AirTags. Tile said it plans to release a similar app for people worried about unwanted tracking.)

In the end, Hill decided to return the LandSeaAir device and keep an AirTag in the car, although her husband didn’t like the idea.

The story in the Time is an interesting read. The bottom line? A standard GPS tracker is sneakier than an AirTag or Tile. And Apple’s AirTag security precautions trump those of other trackers.

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